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The rise of the academic novel

By Jeffrey J. Williams


The academic novel is usually considered a quaint genre, depicting the insular world of academe and directed toward a coterie audience. But it has become a major genre in contemporary American fiction and glimpses an important dimension of American life.

In the past twenty years, many prominent American novelists have contributed their entries, including Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, T. C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Percival Everett, James Hynes, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, John L’Heureux, Sam Lipsyte, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien, Richard Powers, Francine Prose, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, and Neal Stephenson. The academic has become a common figure in American fiction, showing up in two of the most well-known novels of the past decade, Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The former stitches an academic novella into its first half about the wayward son, Chip Lambert, and the latter shows the glamorous side of professing: consulting for world governments, fighting the bad, and getting the girl.

Moreover, there are simply an overwhelming number of academic novels. Drawing data from the standard bibliography, there were 70 published between 1990 and 2000, and 238 from 1950 to 2000. That doesn’t include mysteries, of which there are about 500 in the same period. It also specifies novels that center on faculty or staff rather than students (the latter I would distinguish as “the campus novel,” since they usually turn on student life on campus).

This new American wave constitutes an important body of literature, superseding previous expectations. British novels — Lucky Jim, Small World — are sometimes taken as the archetype, but while the genre has continued in England, there were only around 200 British academic novels and mysteries from 1944-88.

This idea of quantifying and graphing the novel is an approach suggested by the critic Franco Moretti, who has charted the genres of the novel over the past two hundred years. Still, while I found a simple count telling, I have not turned in my humanistic license and think we have to go further than that and decipher what these novels mean. All novels are not created equal, and the numbers don’t tell you why the genre has flourished.

My thesis is that the academic novel stems from the rise of mass higher education in the United States. It follows the demographics; the fact that two thirds of Americans go to college provides an audience. College is no longer a cloister but as common as the shopping mall. (For good or ill, it seems England is trying to catch up to this American tendency.) Professors were rare in the U.S. in 1900 — only about 1 in 3,167 people was faculty. Medical doctors and lawyers were much more common — about 1 in 600. However, by 2000 professors came to constitute 1 of 243, so they were a familiar professional to most American people — especially to those who read literature, who in all likelihood went to college.

Also, the novels show academe not as removed but in the thick of public culture, embroiled in the culture wars and subject to the vicissitudes of adult, middle class life. The academic novel no longer depicts a pleasant enclave, but faculty are subject to pressures that any other professional experiences. In fact, one wing of the recent wave depicts those just hanging onto tenuous jobs in academe. It’s no longer close to a sinecure. In short, the academic novel portrays class in the USA, touching a chord with the reading public.

Jeffrey J. Williams is currently Professor of English and of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of “The Rise of the Academic Novel” in the latest issue of American Literary History, which is available to read for free online for a limited time. Williams regularly publishes criticism in venues such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Dissent magazine as well as academic journals. He is the co-editor of The Critical Pulse: Thirty-six Critics Give their Credos (Columbia UP, 2012) and one of the editors of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd ed. 2010).

Recent Americanist scholarship has generated some of the most forceful responses to questions about literary history and theory. Yet too many of the most provocative essays have been scattered among a wide variety of narrowly focused publications. Covering the study of US literature from its origins through the present, American Literary History provides a much-needed forum for the various, often competing voices of contemporary literary inquiry.

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