Elaine Showalter opens her new book on the academic novel by noting the theory that the novel generally took off because people wanted to read about people like themselves. So it's not surprising that Showalter, an emeritus professor of English at Princeton University, would consider the academic novel her favorite literary genre.
In Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents,  published this spring by the University of Pennsylvania Press, she reviews the genre, which first appeared in significant form in the 50s and has thrived ever since. Showalter answered some questions from Inside Higher Ed about her new book and the state of academic fiction:
Q: You talk in the book about how academic novels helped you as a young scholar learn what it meant to be an academic. Which novels would you recommend to a new Ph.D. today?
A: I couldn't recommend any of the novels as a practical guide to academic life today -- they are not like police procedurals, or even ER, in their attention to detail, and will not teach you anything about the actual mechanics of applying for a job, going through the hiring process (from either side), planning a course, carrying out a research project, getting tenure, or coming to terms with the cycles of an academic career. But they provided a different angle on the experience. A novel often cited as a long-time favorite by my women friends in academia is Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman;  the cleverest and most recognizable recent academic satire is The Lecturer's Tale,  by James Hynes. I also think that Joanne Dobson's "Karen Pelletier" mysteries give an excellent sense of the academic life.
Q: What's it like when you or someone you know becomes a character in an academic novel?
A: When it's you, usually horror. When it's someone else, Schadenfreude. I've been relatively lucky, because the worst caricature of me ("a composite," the author said, when I actually confronted him/her, and that's what they all say) was in a very obscure novel. Faculty members are actually extremely sensitive about having their ideas caricatured, and can be very thin-skinned about mockery.
But I have read some academic novels that are truly cruel in picking up on the most sensitive and intimate aspects of their subjects' lives for satire. It may be a genre that writers use to settle scores. On the other hand, there are some academics in the humanities -- Andrew Ross, Eve Sedgwick -- who were briefly notorious for some MLA episode that got into the press, and are frequently referenced; but this kind of celebrity-notation is different from actually basing a character on someone.
Q: You note several novels -- Roth's The Human Stain, Coetzee's Disgrace , and Franzen's The Corrections -- in which harassment regulations are portrayed (negatively). Why do you think so many novelists focus on harassment codes, not the life of the mind?
A: Of course sex sells better than philosophy. And the notion of the professor seducing the student with comic or tragic consequences goes back to Abelard and Heloise. But there is also something about the sexual harassment plot, with its metaphors of recaptured youth and potency (Roth's Coleman Silk is actually on Viagra); intellectual and spiritual renewal; and even unrequited love that seems to appeal to many contemporary writers. Artists, not surprisingly, are on the side on spontaneity and free expression of desire, and the university comes in for a lot of criticism as a rigid and puritanical institution. But these versions of sexual harassment cases in the university are very very far from accurate; for one thing, the accused never hire lawyers. The real story about sexual harassment cases in the university is about the effects on the community, especially the department.
Q: I'm curious about your thoughts on some portrayals of administrators in literature -- the central character of Bellow's The Dean's December or the college president having an affair with the protagonist in Wonder Boys. Are administrators less real as characters, perhaps because administrators are less likely to be novelists?
A: An interesting point -- I can't think of any college presidents who are also novelists! But I think Hazard Adams was a dean, and Kenneth Galbraith and C.P. Snow certainly had some administrative experience. In general, the problems of the administrator seem more corporate, more connected to business and management, and thus unrelated to the central concerns of the faculty, although the search for a new president (extremely idealized) is the subject of Carlos Baker's A Friend in Power, and college presidents are central characters in Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe and Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution. A provost gets murdered in one of Joyce Carol Oates's novels, and deans are fairly thick on the ground and under it.
Larry Summers of Harvard is the first university president I know of who seems like a great subject for an academic novel -- someone whose corporate philosophy and brash style clashes with the treasured style and history of the institution, and directly offends segments of it. I'd enjoy reading a novel that began with the search for the new president, an elaborate, Pope-crowning sort of event (I've participated in some of these searches and they are fascinating from a sociological and literary point of view), and then brings in a president who rapidly becomes a news-maker, hatchet-man, and clumsy legislator of controversial ideas. Of course that character would also have to be a three-dimensional person.
Q: Shifting genres, a Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf shows the continuing appeal of that play. What impressions of academe do you think are passed on through Albee's work?
A: Novices and outsiders may get the impression from Albee that academics have each other over to dinner parties. Nothing could be further from the truth, and anyone looking for a social life like the one in Virginia Woolf will be sorely disappointed. With the disappearance of the faculty wife, academics have stopped entertaining, and a modern George and Martha would have to have their fights at the local restaurant.
Q: A film last year, We Don't Live Here Any More, portrayed the deteriorating relationships among two faculty friends and their wives. An undercurrent is that professors today struggle without much economic security. How much do you think economic insecurity defines the portrayal of academics today?
A: Contemporary academics, before tenure, are certainly insecure, but they are much better paid than they used to be, and indeed, the specter of the truly impecunious and marginally sordid academic family represented in novels of the '50s and '60s is obsolete. Neither academic insecurity nor economic need really propels stories like We Don't Live Here Anymore, but rather an outmoded notion of male entitlement and female domestic limitation.
Q: Which prominent academics would you like to see turn up in novels?
A: I would certainly like to read the memoirs of a few extraordinary people -- Elaine Pagels, the Princeton theologian, for example. I'm not sure novels about them would be as rewarding; some of us joke that it's now becoming a trend for the children of academics to write novels about them (see Emily Raboteau's The Professor's Daughter ) and we want to try to keep our offspring illiterate.
But there are many more generic themes which would make great subjects for the academic novel. I would like especially to read about two. The first is the story of male renewal in a long academic career, which involves shedding the first wife and family, and acquiring a new, young wife (often a graduate student) and new family. How does this strategy -- which is totally unavailable to women faculty -- work for intellectual and creative renewal? Sometimes the second wife turns into a replica of the first, discarded one, and I suspect the ideas recycle too. Other times it looks (from my perspective anyway) as if the strategy buys the man some time.
The other story would be that of the Token Woman in academe, the generic story of Carolyn Heilbrun's victim in Death of a Tenured Professor. It could be called I Am Janet Mandelbaum. But I doubt that it would appeal to Tom Wolfe.