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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

In Search of the Great Academic Novel

Over the past couple years, I’ve stumbled upon a small but, for me, enjoyable genre of fiction: the academic novel.  My sense of my job, and of academic life generally, is mainly a product of my personal experiences and a fair amount of nonfiction reading on the subject, be it in scattered books or articles in the Chronicle. But these resources don’t allow you to escape the present, to view it from the outside and see what it truly is, or what it might be.  The academic novel allows you that, and I’ve found it extraordinarily refreshing. 

It turns out that others are fond of this genre as well.  Here are a couple posts that collect some books—here and here.  For my money, however, one of the best books in this genre is Stoner by John Williams.

Stoner is an astounding novel about a William Stoner, an English professor at University of Missouri.  The first page of the book tells you much about Stoner: 

“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri at a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found at the rare book collection, bearing the inscription: ‘Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.’

“An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question.  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.” 

Stoner, as this first page intimates, was not a shining star of the academy.  The story chronicles his dedication to teaching and scholarship, but also his numerous professional and personal setbacks.  Stoner tends to leave readers with one of two reactions. Some readers feel sorry for Stoner.  They see how life and university politics chewed him up and think he lived a tragic and partially wasted life.  Other readers, including me, see a beautiful life.  We see not that Stoner stumbled and suffered over and over again; we see that Stoner's love of teaching and study sustained him through his hardships.  The book always makes me feel grateful for my job, and helps me to remember the central mission of my job as well.   

The book also says something useful about the idea of academic legacy.  The first page of this book, by telling us about a man held “in no particular esteem,” suggests that Stoner’s legacy is negligible.  And maybe it is.  But Stoner lived, in my opinion, such an admirable life that it seems odd to discredit his life simply because he did not leave a "legacy." I think there is a quasi-religious aspect to thoughts of legacy.  Just as it is hard for many to conceive of death without an afterlife, it's also hard to conceive of a life of work without a legacy.  But thinking about our legacy can distract us from what actually matters--which is teaching a room full of students on a rainy Tuesday morning in February, or spending the summer in the basement of a library trying to discover something about the world that no one has yet even imagined.  Whether I'm remembered for doing these things is, in my mind, a poor measure of whether I did them well.  I remember several teachers who taught me well, but I'm sure I've forgotten others.  Their contributions have not been lost because I do not remember them.  To be a great academic, in a sense, is to live for the rainy Tuesday mornings or quiet summers in the library.  This is the way Stoner lived and, legacy or not, I would be proud to live such a life.  

So, as you can tell, Stoner is special book to me.  But I'd love to read others.  If you know of other great academic novels, please share.  I'm always on the lookout for another.                    

Posted by Jack Preis on September 28, 2016 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


Jack! An Academic Question by Barbara Pym is one of my all time favorites. Many of Pym's perfect novels are about professors or academic communities. Ask Al!

Posted by: Dale Margolin Cecka | Sep 30, 2016 9:51:22 AM

Lots of great suggestions! Put me down, FWIW, as also really enjoying Lodge, "Moo," "Straight Man," Stegner, and Snow.

I wonder if "Submission" counts as a kind of academic novel? I think it might. Also, the third in C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" -- "That Hideous Strength" -- might.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 30, 2016 9:07:44 AM

I am going to take the liberty of posting again here to recommend The Widening Stain, by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, of course a pseudonym. It is a glorious joke (written as one), set in a thinly disguised Cornell University in wartime. The heroine/detective is an academic librarian there. Undeservedly forgotten!

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Sep 30, 2016 8:04:42 AM

Malamud's A New Life is his most autobiographical novel. Oh and I completely forgot to include my favorite novels of the year as part of the genre - the Napoli novels -- Elena Ferante's four magnificent beautiful books. Academia is very much part of the story and professors are some of the key characters, although the novels are about so much more.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Sep 30, 2016 1:44:53 AM

I strongly endorse both Lucky Jim (to my way of thinking, Amis' only good novel, but it is hilarious) and Malamud's A New Life, which I read repeatedly while teaching at Colgate and adjusting to small town life. Also fun is John L'Heureux, The Handmaid of Desire, which is essentially a take-off on the English department at Stanford, so there is a roman a clef aspect, but again, still a lot of fun.

Posted by: Jack Rakove | Sep 29, 2016 10:46:05 PM

Many thanks to all for these recommendations. While checking several of them out, I came across this interesting review of the genre:


Posted by: Jack Preis | Sep 29, 2016 9:50:47 PM

You might try Wittgenstein Jr., by Lars Iyer. Straight Man is my personal favorite.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 29, 2016 8:40:41 PM

Zadie Smith's On Beauty is fabulous -- almost anything she writes is but this is an academic setting on both sides of the Atlantic. Francine Prose's Blue Angel is a great read too -- a bit terrifying to see the professor-student power dynamic flip so decisively. Loved Straight Man and Moo. Just had my 17-year old read Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring, and he devoured it.

Posted by: Susan Bisom-Rapp | Sep 29, 2016 7:54:18 PM

Both Stoner and Straight Man are among my favorite novels ever. The closest book I've ever read to stoner in its feel and tone is A New Life by Bernard Malamud. Its not as perfect as Stoner but no book is like Stoner. And Richard Rousseau always makes me laugh, more than Lodge, so also his newer That Old Cape Magic is a fun read. I liked Dear Committee Member too. Always searching for more in the genre. Also: academic movies - there is an awesome Israeli film called Footnote, worth checking out.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Sep 29, 2016 3:37:23 PM

Any of David Lodge's books, especially Small World, Changing Places, and Nice World.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Sep 29, 2016 3:17:44 PM

I'll add my voice to those who have recommended "Straight Man."

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Sep 29, 2016 1:56:35 PM

A.S. Byatt's Possession is partly an academic novel. I second the mention of The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes. Much fun (as as his collection Publish and Perish). Of course there are different sub-genres. The academic satire is one. The academic turns into detective / adventurer is another one. Stoner might be its own sub-genre just because it is so intense, compact, and affecting.

Posted by: John Parry | Sep 29, 2016 1:53:14 PM

Nabokov's Pnin has always been a favorite of mine.

Posted by: Nadia Sawicki | Sep 29, 2016 1:18:46 PM

Then there is the subgenre of the academic murder mystery novel, of which there are many terrific examples. My vote for number one is Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night.

Posted by: Shaun Shaughnessy | Sep 29, 2016 11:40:23 AM

If you're going to include books like The Art of Fielding, which I liked very much, perhaps "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon (also a movie).

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 29, 2016 10:30:08 AM

Fabulous post; love many on the list and suggested in the comments. A favorite of mine is Last Days by Raymond Queneau (autobiographical). A philosopher-waiter observes and interacts with an array of academic characters including Parisian college students coming of intellectual age in the 1920s and a professor who confronts fears of his own fraudulence. It is decidedly French in style, but the themes nonetheless transcend.

Posted by: Caprice Roberts | Sep 29, 2016 9:13:06 AM

Great post, thanks. Just re-read Dear Committee Members, will have to check out the other suggestions.

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Sep 29, 2016 12:24:34 AM

Stoner is amazing. It would have been the gold standard if it had had an audience; perhaps it will gain that acclaim now, slowly. It combines the comedy and the foolish tragic horrors of the academy. I come out somewhere between feeling sorry for him and thinking he led a beautiful life. The book communicates and depicts how much he enjoyed the academic life, even as his status and life are stripped away from him.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Sep 28, 2016 4:22:00 PM

Dear Committee Members was wonderful, as was the The Art of Fielding. I picked up the art of fielding without thinking of the academic angle, but that turned out to be an appealing part nonetheless.

It looks like I'll have to check out Straight Man, but I have read Moo, which was great. I might add that Smiley captured well the distinctiveness of the midwestern agriculture university, such as Iowa State and similar schools.

Posted by: Jack Preis | Sep 28, 2016 3:16:00 PM

In my view, Jane Smiley's "Moo" remains the gold standard. (Along with "Straight Man.")

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Sep 28, 2016 2:48:16 PM

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes

Posted by: Carlton Larson | Sep 28, 2016 1:54:01 PM

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Posted by: Marcus Neff | Sep 28, 2016 1:23:44 PM

"dear committee members" (schumacher) is, as ms. mentor says at the link you posted, a gem. and another great read that has plenty to say about university life is "the art of fielding" (harbach).

Posted by: alex roberts | Sep 28, 2016 1:20:39 PM

Anonymous- I read Crossing to Safety years ago and had completely forgotten that it would qualify as an academic novel. Thanks for the reminder. I'm not sure whether it would I would call it great, but that's probably because I'm not sure what "great" actually means. I enjoyed it quite a bit (and the same goes for Angle of Repose.)

Ellen, I'd never heard for The Masters and after some quick googling, it looks like I'll have to add it to my list. I'll also check out the others in the series. Many thanks for the suggestion.

anon- I checked out The Rosie Project as well. It reminds me a bit David Lodge's "Campus Trilogy"- three books on campus life. Lodge has a great way of making fun of academics while still revealing his affection for them. I'd put Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis in this category as well. Many thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: Jack Preis | Sep 28, 2016 12:17:04 PM

The Rosie Project, which is on one of those lists, is a fun read. It's not a "great" book, but I'd recommend picking it up and reading the first few pages. If you like what you read there, you'll enjoy the book a lot.

Posted by: anon | Sep 28, 2016 11:05:18 AM

Great post--I love academic novels. Have you read The Masters, by C.P. Snow? Certainly a classic, as are many of the eleven novels in his Strangers and Brothers series, of which this is one. The Affair, another in the series, is also a classic. The Masters deals with the election of the Master of a college, and The Affair deals with scientific fraud, also in the college context.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Sep 28, 2016 10:47:29 AM

I read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner a few months ago. I wouldn't call it great, but it's worth checking out.

Posted by: Anonymous | Sep 28, 2016 10:28:11 AM

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