'Something for Nothing'

In new novel by Tufts University economist, a young professor learns there really is no free lunch.

November 4, 2011

Small World. Blue Angel. Wonder Boys. Straight Man. It makes intuitive sense that many academic novels focus on professors of English or other humanities disciplines – “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But the upshot of all those writers writing about writers is that there are a lot fewer writers writing about, say, scientists. Or mathematicians. Or economists.

To Michael W. Klein, this dearth looked like an opportunity.

Klein, who is William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School of Tufts University (but who is on leave to serve as chief economist in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of International Affairs), is a longtime fan of academic novels. “It’s a genre that I’ve always enjoyed, partly because it’s a world I’m involved in,” he told Inside Higher Ed.

So Klein – who says he “started out college as an English major,” with the goal of becoming a writer -- decided to pick up a pen and his old passion and write what he knows – and fill in a bit of the gap in academic fiction, as well.

The result is Something for Nothing (MIT Press), the semicomic tale of a year in the life of David Fox, a young economist who's just completed his doctorate. His job search has scared up only a one-year visiting assistant professor position at Kester College, a small private institution in the fictional town of Nowheresville – er, Knittersville -- New York.

As he settles into his first teaching job, Fox must tackle the trials and tribulations of the classroom, his own uninspiring research, and another year on the job market, along with an assortment of other pitfalls common to protagonists of the genre.(Awkward or openly hostile departmental politics? Check. Writer's block? Check. Attractive, flirtatious female student? Check.)

Less by-the-book are the events that make up the primary subplot. While Fox struggles to turn his dissertation -- on boring old environmental economics -- into a book, he finds himself the subject of unexpected attention and praise for an old graduate school paper on the numerous benefits of one abstinence-only sex education program. (Several of the book's plot points require some suspension of disbelief, but perhaps none more so than the idea that the author of such a paper would expect it to attract no public interest.)

The Center to Research Opportunities for a Spiritual Society (CROSS) offers to publish the paper in its journal, CROSS Currents, and even to pay for the privilege -- all very welcome news to a visiting assistant professor, at a less-than-prestigious college, desperate to land on the tenure track. Fox accepts, and finds himself something of a media darling just as it's time to hit the job interview circuit. At this critical juncture, Fox discovers that his paper's results may be in error, leaving him with an unpalatable and potentially career-imperiling choice to make.

Fox's predicament provides the material through which Klein explores his chosen themes: academic integrity and the forces that threaten it, from both in- and outside academe; and the pressure cooker that is an early academic career, with the accompanying difficulty of maintaining any kind of work-life balance. (If anything, faculty readers may complain that Fox, who has a regular exercise schedule and even something of a social life, represents an unattainable ideal.)

"The book is meant to ... convey an aspect of a profession that most people have no idea about," Klein said, "and yet that most college-educated people have come in contact with... . At any college there are at least four different colleges: students, faculty, staff, administrators ... each of them sort of thinks it's a completely different thing."

Clearly, Something for Nothing portrays not just the faculty experience or the young economics professor experience but also, to some extent, the Michael Klein experience. As noted in an interview with Tufts Now, Klein shares his protagonist's undergraduate and graduate educational background; he also happens to hail from a town called Gloversville, NY, and he started his teaching career at Clark University, which shares some rather specific history with Kester College. (For example, each was built with a large central hall designed  -- so it's rumored -- to be converted into a factory should the college fail.)

But Klein is quick to point out that many plot elements were not drawn from his own life. For starters, he assured Inside Higher Ed, Fox's over-the-line interactions with his beautiful undergraduate advisee, Jenny Lake, are "not at all [his] personal experience."

That said, "it's not at all hard to imagine why ... this does happen."

"You are in this odd position as a professor," he noted; "you have all these young impressionable people ... it can be a very heady thing." Still, "it's probably more common in novels than it is in real life."

As for Fox's other major ethical dilemma -- whether or not to keep taking credit for a widely-hailed paper whose results may be inaccurate -- that, too, is pure fiction, at least for Klein. But it reflects broader truths, he said. What happens to Fox is "kind of a funny, weird situation, and it's exaggerated," but it was inspired by the sorts of questions that come up regularly in academic life.

"The issues of intellectual integrity are always there -- the pressure to publish and maybe rush results a little bit because they're good ones ... the pressure of starting out a career and how you balance that with other demands."

Readers are likely to wonder, too, about the extent to which CROSS and its academic offshoot SAVE (the Salvation Academy for Value Economics) are based on real-life organizations. Klein maintains that his intent is not specifically to skewer conservative Christians; rather, he says, CROSS and SAVE are meant to parody "interest groups more broadly."

"Interest groups are called interest groups for a reason," he said. "They're not research groups."

Still, when it comes to CROSS, the book's satire is far from broad. In one scene, CROSS director Bill Crocker -- formerly a tobacco-industry lobbyist -- muses on the difficulty of finding sound economic research that supports Christian values: "It just seemed that the soil of the secular world was more inhospitable to the seeds of religious truth than he had expected.... [T]here seemed to be little out there that promoted a godly agenda when Crocker imposed a slightly higher bar for quality." 

Later, Crocker -- who is married -- assures his attractive young secretary that "abstinence is for kids."

Klein's jabs aren't reserved for the right wing, however; the novel contains some particularly biting descriptions of a radically liberal sociology professor who deems economists "apologist[s] for the capitalist system of oppression," and their work  "empty theory."

Indeed, Klein doesn't even spare himself from ridicule; on the contrary, he gets the jump on critics who might say there's a very good reason why more economics professors don't write novels. In one memorable scene, Fox and his friends pay a visit to a former economics professor at Kester who has abandoned his failing tenure bid to work in a bookstore.

"Hey, you want to see something funny?" the bookstore employee asks Fox. "There's this novel by an economist that just turned up. I was looking at it last night. The guy tries to be witty, but he should have stuck to his regressions."

"Maybe next time," Fox replies, and takes his leave.


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