My Favorite Academic Satires

A few months ago, I was having a truly dismal day with the dissertation. I was in such a funk about it when Eric got home from work that he started suggesting nice things I might do for myself to make myself feel better, or at least take my mind off it for the evening. Nothing he was suggesting was really speaking to me until he said, “Maybe you would like to read one of your favorite books?” Bingo! I jumped out of bed and grabbed my favorite David Lodge novel: there is nothing like a good academic satire to heal those in the painful throes of a dissertation. Although the dissertation is, blessedly, behind me now, I have spent the last few months revisiting some of my all-time faves of this particular genre. I know the semester (or quarter) is starting up again soon, so I wanted to post about these glorious novels on the off-chance that someone out there needs a break from Derrida or Foucault or differential equations before things kick into high gear again. All of these books will make you giggle with glee, if not laugh out loud, and they are pretty witty besides. I begin at the only true place to begin: David Lodge. He is completely hilarious, and brilliant to boot, which is a very winning combination. He has written fairly prolifically over the past decades (oh, happy fact!), and I have read just about everything his pen has produced. My all-time favorite, though, is Nice Work, the third book in his Campus Trilogy. I love this novel because Lodge so masterfully places the anxieties of the ivory tower against the backdrop of the equal yet entirely other anxieties of the world of industry, but also because he creates such unintentionally hilarious and memorable characters. He offers a moment of perspective for those of us publishing or perishing, but not without making us laugh along the way (and if we are really just laughing at ourselves, all the better).

The first book in the trilogy is Changing Places, which was described to me, of all places, in a Russian conversation class. It takes place in the thinly disguised locales of Berkeley and Birmingham, England during the Free Speech Movement; the premise: two English professors exchange positions in a faculty swap, one off to sunny yet volatile California, the other off to rainy and damp Birmingham to face challenges of his own. (I have to say, it was an interesting thing to be reading in light of all that went on at my erstwhile campus this past fall.) Our hapless heroes are introduced, and it is so deliciously funny watching them wade through the hazards of their environs.

The second book in the trilogy, Small World, is also a fave of mine; it focuses on the jet-setting conference-going aspect of academia in its earlier days. I read this book in the Minneapolis airport, for the most part, snickering loudly and probably annoying my fellow passengers, but, ah, the perfect appropriateness of this setting! I don’t think I will spoil anything by saying that one of my favorite plot lines concerns a professor struggling to write his conference talk even up to the moment he approaches his podium: who among us hasn’t been there, or at least had nightmares about it? In addition to the incessant humor of these academic transients, Lodge provides a sharp send-up of structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, and any and all other criticisms filling the rarefied air of the 70s and 80s. It is really good fun.

I will just offer up one more Lodge recommendation before turning to other authors, and this one is another classic, Thinks . . . Once again, Lodge provides us with parallel worlds, as he does in all of his best work: this time he approaches the question of consciousness from the perspective of literature and of cognitive science. The experimental ways in which the characters representing both sides of this coin begin to approach each other and their respective disciplines makes for seriously thought-provoking material about consciousness, which is, per Nabokov, the greatest mystery of all. And of course, it wouldn’t be Lodge without some hilarity thrown in, mostly through the wonderful vehicle of characters’ assessment of their own self-awareness. So lovely.

This list would never be complete without the granddaddy of academic satire, Kingsley AmisLucky Jim. This novel predates the others, and is wonderfully wicked. I found myself laughing out loud on almost every other page at the unexpectedly misanthropic proclivities of the eponymous hero. While Lodge’s characters may sometimes hold a grudge, their revenge is taken mostly mentally; Jim lashes out at those who insult him by pulling faces at them, scribbling on their magazines, drinking all their Bourbon, and, even if accidentally so, burning holes through their bed sheets with his cigarettes. The precipice over which he teeters for the entirety of the novel leads into an event of almost absurdly comic climax, but I shan’t ruin it for you, dear readers. 🙂

And finally, I offer a more recent send-up of the ivory tower, Richard Russo‘s Straight Man, in which the eponymous character is just that. This novel concerns the difficulties of academia from the professorial and administrative side. The realities of the university’s funding problems, detailed artfully in this novel, cannot be far from any of our minds. Why not, then, live vicariously through an English professor who, donning a plastic pair of glasses with nose attached, grabs an unruly goose by the neck and promises, on live television, no less, that he will kill one duck per day from the campus pond until he gets a departmental budget? Laugh away, my friends; it’s the best medicine.

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