Why you should be reading Cow Country

Published in 2014, Cow Country attracted almost no attention. Its “author,” Adrian Jones Pearson, is a pseudonym for a person who apparently has little use for American literary culture and its emphasis on authors’ biographies rather than the quality of their work. Its publisher, “Cow Eye Press,” is unknown and in fact is named for the fictional community college featured in the novel. There was a brief spasm of interest when someone called Art Winslow suggested (rather wildly) in the pages of Harper’s [https://harpers.org/blog/2015/09/the-fiction-atop-the-fiction/] that Adrian Jones Pearson might really be Thomas Pynchon. This was quickly rejected, along with the possibility that Art Winslow might be Thomas Pynchon, or Adrian Jones Pearson, or both.

Cow Country is set at a community college in the American southwest. That is one distinction from most books in this genre; academic novels are very rarely set on community college campuses. Moreover, the main character and first-person narrator is neither a professor nor a student. Instead Charlie is a Special Projects Coordinator, a mid-life quasi-failure with a master’s degree in Educational Administration. He is recruited to revise and resubmit the college’s failed reaccreditation self-study, to unite the factions in a grotesquely divided campus, and to reinstate the college Christmas party, cancelled the previous year because of these same divisions.

Unlike any other college novel I know, Cow Country treats the administration with no more derision than the faculty. Charlie is the kind of factotum whom professors love to dislike, but here he is represented as doing his best in a fairly honorable way. The college president, Dr. Felch, is old-fashioned but not stupid.

The novel is filled with amusing oddities. Part of Charlie’s interview required him to recite his educational philosophy in blank verse. The new-faculty orientation, in which he participates, involves castrating a calf. The most common way of expressing hostility to faculty members is to leave a bloated calf scrotum in their mailbox on a Friday afternoon.

The campus divisions are stark, mostly between old-timers and newcomers. The old-timers are committed to eating a lot of beef, pickup trucks, smoking. The newcomers like arugula and tantric yoga. The carnivores refuse to attend a party if any vegetables are to be served, the vegetarians if there will be any meat.

In this long novel there are many good scenes, including extended classroom observations, despite the difficulty many writers have in making teaching interesting in fiction. There is a creative writing workshop in which a student declares, “we should limit the spoken pronouncements of our characters to the guttural utterances and monosyllabic interjections of precocious third-graders.” Another student’s story includes the observation that “the sweat on Alison’s eye brow was dry and salty, like the tear of a very sad policeman.” To balance it there is a class in bovine reproduction.

Some of “Pearson’s” touches are casual oddities, like the fluctuation in the number of stars on the American flag, or Long River, the Native American professor of public speaking who never speaks, or the regular quotations from Anyman’s Guide to Love and the Community College, which declares that the opposite of love is efficiency.

If American authors may be divided between those who work by taking things out and those who put things in, “Pearson” is in the latter class. But what he puts in is so frequently acute, unexpected, and funny, that it is hard to object.

I would guess that, like other Cow Eye publications if any, Cow Country is unavailable at all major bookstores. But it is available on Amazon, and I recommend it to any devotees of campus fiction.

Reviewed by Professor Merritt Moseley

CfP: “The American Campus Novel in the 21st Century” Seminar/ACLA Chicago, March 19-22, 2020; deadline for abstracts September 23rd

Call for Papers

The American Campus Novel in the 21st Century

Seminar organized within the framework of the

annual ACLA conference.

Please apply via acla.org (portal opens September 1st) before September 23.

Information about the seminar: https://www.acla.org/american-campus-novel-21st-century

The campus novel, an Anglo-American genre, having as its protagonists alternately students, teaching staff, and full professors, acts as a barometer measuring the state of the nation and education. While critically commenting on campus life, often spotlighting subversive behaviors and contesting the status quo, the campus novel portrays the individual’s struggle for personal advancement and definition of one’s own identity and values. It serves as a battleground for concepts and ideologies pervasive in the times it depicts. Many established American and British authors, and a few international writers living and working in the US, explored the potential of this subgenre, especially its satirical penchant and “pejorative poetics” (Kenneth Womack), in order to comment on contemporaneous issues.

This seminar aims to explore the various interactions between academe and the real world primarily in contemporary American campus fiction in connection with modern day discourses and trends, but it can also tackle non-fiction and film/TV series. Proposals may concern campus fiction, academic life writing, and film about academia, and the following areas and topics:

  • Indigenous studies
  • Postcolonial studies
  • Race studies
  • Queer and feminist theory & gender studies
  • Ecocriticism and environmental studies
  • Posthumanism and animal studies
  • Trauma, illness, and disability studies
  • Critical university studies
  • Refugees, migrations, and immigration
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Digital media and technology
  • Religion
  • Media and journalism
  • Politics and activism

Please direct all queries to marta.lysik@uwr.edu.pl.

Marta J. Lysik

Assistant Professor

Department of Literary and Documentary Genres

Institute of Journalism and Social Communication

The University of Wroclaw

Fulbright Visiting Scholar 2019-2020

Department of English

Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Carnegie Mellon University

Reviewers Wanted

Have you recently read a newly published campus novel or seen a new movie tackling academe? Would you like to write a short, critical, and thoughtful review for this site? Become a Schoolsville reviewer and email me at: marta.lysik@uwr.edu.pl.

2 New Campus Novels

Mandy Berman, The Learning Curve (New York: Random House, 2019) is an interesting combination of the professor-focused academic novel and the student-focused campus novel. The main characters are four roommates at Buchanan College, a prestigious liberal arts college, and particularly two of them, Fiona and Liv. Fiona is troubled (her sister died unexpectedly at 13) and needy; Liv is beautiful, rich and self-assured. The third angle of the triangle is provided by Oliver Ash, a visiting professor with a bad reputation (fired from Columbia for sleeping with a 17-year-old student) and a wife back in Europe. The two young women compete to attract Oliver’s affections, though he mostly maintains the proper professional gravitas. The fourth important character is the wife, Simone, another professor, who is spending an academic year on a research project in Berlin, annoyed by Oliver’s absence (they have a small child) and frustrated by scholarly obstacles. The Learning Curve is much more informative on undergraduate life, the drinking and sexual activities of college students, than on the academic life, and its scenes set in Paris are more vivid than those in Pennsylvania. The sex plot is handled in an original way and Berman’s characters are lively enough, if occasionally irritating in their smug complacency.


Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug: Writer in Residence is a brilliant addition to the corpus of academic novels focusing on creative writing teachers. Necessary background: Ewen’s previous novel was called Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author. In it Francis decides to “study the ways of the literary event,” in preparation for his own career as a successful writer. Plug is an alcoholic gardener who turns up at public appearances by many Booker Prize winners, where he drinks all the wine he can get and makes bewildering conversation with the authors (telling Anne Enright he likes to sit backwards on the toilet to use the tank as a reading platform, for instance). That was 2014.

As the new book opens Francis is in even worse shape, living in an unheated garage, but he is a published author. On the strength of that fact he is appointed Writer in Residence at the University of Greenwich (a position that Paul Ewen holds in real life). Taking the “in residence” language seriously, he secretly moves himself into one of the historic buildings at the university, makes himself known, but sometimes unwelcome, at all the local pubs, and studiously avoids doing the work expected of an academic. Planning his next book, he settles on an academic novel set at the University of Greenwich, though his ideas include nuclear combat and flying beasts. Forced to teach a class, he hauls a smelly tire out of the Thames and drags it into class, insisting it is a metaphor. The students are not impressed:

Student: Wasn’t this lecture supposed to be about characterization?

FP: Was it? Oh. [Pause.] He look, when you bounce up and down on this tyre, it’s like a see-saw landing pad.

With his rotten breath, smelly clothes, ignorance of academic expectations and literary technique, and powerful thirst, Francis Plug is everything a writer in residence is not.

This novel is inventive and hilarious; it not only is an academic novel, but, as Francis thinks about writing an academic novel and speaks quite comprehensively about others in the genre, it is a kind of wacky survey of the genre.

Reviewed by Professor Merritt Moseley

CfP: SEMINAR ON ACADEMIC FICTION in Cracow, 15-16 Nov, 2019. Deadline for abstracts: October 1, 2019.



Institute of English Studies, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland

15-16 November 2019

The Institute of English Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and Professor Merritt Moseley invite abstracts for twenty-minute papers on academic fiction.

Papers addressing any aspect of the relationship between academic fiction and the real world, literary commentary on the crises of university education, the lives of academics, creative writers in academia, academia and race, class, or gender, or other relevant topics are welcomed. Relevant non-fiction and film may also be considered. There is no cost for participation.

Submit an abstract of around 150 words with a brief biographical statement to Merritt Moseley, via email at moseley@unca.edu.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is 1 October 2019. Notifications will follow on 10 October.

Time:          Friday-Saturday, 15-16 November 2019

Venue:         Institute of English Studies, al. Mickiewicza 9,

31-120 Kraków, Poland

Organizers: Professor Merritt Moseley moseley@unca.edu

Dr hab. Bożena Kucała bozena.kucala@uj.edu.pl


Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State

September 6, 2018 – Slate

The Agony of Bureaucracy

A conversation with Lydia Kiesling about The Golden State.


The job Daphne drives away from is at a university that looks a lot like UC–Berkeley. How does your novel compare to other campus novels?

Some of my literary sensibility was for better or worse formed by novels like Lucky Jim, with a comic protagonist we are meant to see as Everyman. I’m amazed at how long it took me to realize not only that Lucky Jim is a terrible Everyman but that there’s a lot of harm written into that book—the casualties of the book (poor Margaret Peel) are presented as funny. I still love the book and have a soft spot for that campus-novel sensibility that is arch and judgmental and barbarously unempathetic, but it’s basically irreconcilable with the way women are socialized, and with the demands of motherhood. My book is in some ways the result of taking a Lucky Jim type of sensibility but putting it on a woman with a baby. Suddenly, the book is completely different. There are stakes.”

Julie Schumacher’s “The Shakespeare Requirement”

August 20, 2018 – The New Republic

The New Campus Novel

Julie Schumacher’s “The Shakespeare Requirement” is a playful, sharp satire of the horrors of modern academia.


“The Shakespeare Requirement takes on a department in a terrible state. English at Payne is not so much an intellectual nest of idiot vipers, as in The History Man, but rather a collection of people with very little energy left to give, trying in their semi-competent way to keep their subject alive in a hostile culture. Fitger is perhaps the least competent among them—he can barely use email, for example—but the travails of the novel end up testing his worth as a human being, not as an administrator.”