An Obscure Academic Novel Well Worth Reading by Professor Merritt Moseley

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I was reading Michael Wilding’s book Growing Wild, interested in him because of his excellent academic novel Academia Nuts (2004) and its followup, Superfluous Men (2009). In an interesting chapter called “Writing my Campus Novel,” Wilding recalled that he had been told his first attempt, a novella called “Campus Novel,” had “encouraged, if not incited, the pseudonymous Charles Cutting to write The Surleighwick Factor [sic], which also owes its origins to the University of Birmingham”—where Wilding used to teach.  

Though a connoisseur of academic novels, I had never come across any reference whatever to The Surleighwick Effect and I decided to investigate. An Internet search produced almost no mentions of it, other than as a used book for sale through various websites. I eventually tracked down two more notices: one was in a 2001 review of a book called Perspectives on Industrial Archaeology, published in the Times Higher Education Supplement. The reviewer, explaining why Industrial Archaeology has made so little impact, mentions that the “villain of the 1993 novel The Surleighwick Effect (which gets more autobiographical every time I read it) was the mocked professor of industrial archaeology at Surleighwick (which university he went on to help close down . . .).” 

And then there is a more substantial reference to the novel, once again from Michael Wilding, writing in the Sidney Review of Books:  

In 1993, a small press in London called Zoilus published a novel, The Surleighwick Effect by Charles H. Cutting. The author’s name was a pseudonym, concealing the identity of a distinguished scholar who had been outraged by two library scandals in Britain. In order to fill the hole in its finances, the John Rylands library in Manchester had begun selling off very rare books, some of them overseas. It was a betrayal of the library’s function and attracted some press notice. Then the University of Birmingham closed down its Shakespeare Institute library, shifted some of the books to a smaller, Institute building in Stratford-upon-Avon, and disposed of the rest. These events form the basis of The Surleighwick Effect

Wilding goes on to quote “Cutting’s” introduction of his university librarian, Dr Pratt, who “was a very modern librarian, so he was not interested in books . . . .“ 

Reading The Surleighwick Effect makes dramatically clear why the author felt the need to use a pseudonym. The book is scathing—about an imaginary university, it is true, but in a way that singes university professors and staff,  and particularly English departments, painfully. I’ll return to this.  

The stimulus for the novel, which Wilding identifies as reckless management of libraries, is not really its central subject; but what Hitchcock called the McGuffin is the mismanagement of valuable books. When the widow of a deceased professor offers the university his books, the three men who respond are disdainful; they are the Dean of Arts, Professor Toady (the Industrial Archeologist), Bodgering, a moribund Professor of English, and the librarian Pratt, already identified as an enemy of books (in favor of computer terminals). The widow offers a leather-bound volume entitled Exercitatio anatomica De Motu Cordis et sanguinis by Guglielmi Harvey Angli, Anna MDCXXVIII. The three men are unimpressed by their opportunity to acquire this valuable early scientific book, one of them noting that the Romans died out a good few centuries before printing was invented. Pointing out that Romanian words often end in “u”—one of them includes Malibu in the list—they sagely conclude that it is a Romanian novel, from 1885 (they cannot construe Roman numerals, either) by an author called Demotu Cordis, and of no interest. The librarian soon sells it for almost nothing to a used book shop. Even worse is the fate of a priceless first edition of Das Kapital once owned by Lenin: sent to be recycled into a cardboard yoghurt carton. No more is heard of the Marx book but Harvey’s volume has an afterlife; it is purchased at a used book shop by the university historian of science; soon afterwards, offers to buy it for a million pounds stir various university officials into a frantic effort to get it back. 

This episode crystallizes the picture “Cutting” presents of a university and its staff most of whom are lazy, ignorant, dishonest, malevolent, devious, and often drunk. The star of the department is Professor Bodgering, one of those uninterested in the Harvey book. He is a dying man, in a wheelchair and an oxygen mask; he lives 45 miles away from the university and comes in for a couple of hours one day a week. His scholarship consists of a booklet-sized monograph on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, published many years ago by his previous university. Moreover, he 

had scarcely read a book for thirty years, since his appointment as Assistant Lecturer at the University of Righton in 1952. For since his tenure was confirmed, he had gradually narrowed his teaching down to just five works of English Literature—Wuthering HeightsPride and PrejudiceTamburlaine, Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For the two first works, he relied on his memory of reading them as an undergraduate, and truth to tell, he knew them principally through the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights—(as a spotty adolescent he had fallen in love with the screen image of Merle Oberon as Cathy)—and the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. For Tamburlaine . . . he relied on a pirated videotape stolen from the ante-room of a Haitian prostitute in New York, whose favors he had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase for a thousand dollars. . . . Waiting for Godot he knew chiefly from a student production at the University of Righton. . . . The range of authors . . . had gained him the reputation, at the University of Righton, of being a man of phenomenal range. . . . he was not interested in books, and knew nothing about them. 

To this damning portrait one can add the details that Bodgering seldom changes his clothes, and smells bad, that he relies entirely on his “research assistant” for menial tasks, and that he is a persistent and lecherous abuser of young women.  

Cutting’s opening sentence announces has sardonic take on academia: “The death of any professor, particularly one who was also the head of a department, is invariably the occasion of great public sorrow and private joy.” Professor Houghton’s death not only launches the debacle of his collected books, but stirs the careerist maneuvers of the survivors. The Vice-Chancellor, another rogue whose main aims are getting himself an MBE and a private helicopter, muses on paper:  

  1. Professor Toady. Typical Arts faculty nonentity. Pliable and ineffective Dean . . . Pompous. Lazy. A time-server. ? Consider for next Pro-Vice-Chancellorship? 
  2. Professor Bodgering. Low profile invalid, little seen in the faculty. Bumbling, Inefficient. Unproductive. Essentially a deadbeat. Lecherous. ?Consider as next Dean of Arts? 

The depressing landscape of Surleighwick has two forms of relief. One is that all these horrible academics are male. Cutting presents the women in his book, though barred from positions of any real power, as smarter, nicer, in every way superior to the men. The two women in the English department, Mrs. Quick and Dr. Crumpet, are efficient, even in finding ways (through magic) of tormenting Toady and Bodgering. Librarian Pratt’s secretary, who knows Latin and understands the value of books, tries to remedy his incompetence, and a woman on the cleaning staff even tries to set the men straight on what De Motu Cordis means. Two female doctors in the university health service correctly diagnose Toady but are ignored. 

There is one male professor, Dr. Hanwell, a historian of science, who is what a university professor ought to be. He is also an outcast, not welcomed in any department and even prevented from giving lectures. The narrator sums him up: “Dr. Hanwell was one of the best read and most intellectually alert members of the University of Surleighwick. He was, as was only natural, also one of the least regarded.” He actually publishes scholarship, unlike the rest, and takes teaching seriously. He loves books—it is he who winds up with the Harvey volume—and delivers something like the theme of the novel: “That’s what university education is all about in the Arts, you know, isn’t it really—books? . . . After all, as Thomas Carlyle said in The Hero as Man of Letters, if I remember aright, ‘all that a university can do is to teach us to read. Once invent printing, you metamorphosed all Universities, or superseded them. The true University of these days is a collection of Books.’” 

The dénouement nicely rewards Hanwell, with a much better position at an American university where real scholarship and teaching are practiced and the love of a beautiful and intellectual student. Some of the worst offenders die; one toadying member of the English department appears at last under a bridge, homeless; and Toady, promoted to Vice-Chancellor, through laziness, inattention, and drunkenness, adds his vote to a motion to put Surleighwick University out of business. He ends up in a padded cell as a demented pervert; Mrs. Quick and Dr. Crumpet have a nice business casting spells in Wales, the female doctors and Dean Toady’s secretary find better jobs. 

The shortcomings of The Surleighwick Effect are two. The most serious is an almost sadistic relish in denigrating the worst offenders, The VC, Toady and Bodgering, and a rather heartless way of mocking Bodgering and the Vice-Chancellor (who walks with crutches) for their disabilities. The other is the execrable cover art, which illustrates a minor incident of Dr. Crumpet, naked, casting a spell on Professor Bodgering. 

But these are acceptable flaws in what is otherwise a bracing, angry yet very funny exposé of an institution destroyed by the anti-intellectualism, childishness, narcissism, and dishonesty of the men who have forgotten, if they ever knew it, the purpose of a university. 

CfP: MLA Session “Where are the Wonder Girls? Heroines and Persistence in Campus Novels”, Jan 7-10,2020. Deadline for abstracts: March 15, 2020.

“Where are the Wonder Girls? Heroines and Persistence in Campus Novels”

Call for Papers

Modern Language Association Convention

Toronto, Ontario

January 7-10, 2021

Enormous reading pleasure can be derived from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys but where are the wonder girls? Where are American (campus) novels about gallivanting women academics and writers based in academia, getting into trouble, having multiple lovers in different countries, shoplifting, dancing naked in the rain (the list is suggestive, not exhaustive)? Yet novels which are comic, feel-good, and sporting happy endings? There is a discernible tendency to cast as protagonists of campus novels and artist novels unhappy and unlucky women, tormented victims rather than fierce individuals with agency.

I’m seeking papers on representations of women academics and writers in contemporary US campus literature depicting women’s efforts to survive as artists. I’m interested in e.g. how an artist heroine navigates the nexus between and the lacunae of intellectuality, creativity, and sexuality, juggling different roles the society has burdened her with, while battling various obstacles, exterior and interior and, if she doesn’t have an inherited income and a house of her own, being torn between the need to create and the need to live, caught in a double-bind between art and life, succeeding and/or failing as a woman or as an artist. I’m primarily interested in portrayals of active women artists who are protagonists not mere characters.

Please submit a 250-word abstract and brief biography to marta.lysik@uwr.edu.pl by March 15, 2020.

https://mla.confex.com/mla/2021/webprogrampreliminary/Paper12953.html

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

February 25, 2020 – The New Yorker

“REAL LIFE” IS A NEW KIND OF CAMPUS NOVEL

 

“Condescension of this kind recurs throughout “Real Life,” a campus novel imagined from the vantage of a character who is usually shunted to the sidelines. Taylor’s début shadows Wallace, a gay black student from a small town in Alabama, through a series of personal and professional skirmishes that complicate the last weekend before his fourth year of graduate school. When the book opens, Wallace is pondering whether he ought to leave his university and the predominantly white, Midwestern town that houses it. The loss of his nematodes is the second death that is introduced in the opening pages. Taylor relegates the first to a numb aside: Wallace’s father has just died. His decision to skip the funeral scandalizes his breezy white friends—one of whom, a histrionic Swede, spent the summer before graduate school summiting a mountain to mourn the death of his grandfather. “It was your dad,” another friend reminds Wallace, as though he does not remember. Wallace seems to like these people—perhaps most of all Miller, a surly, mercurial scientist, and the quietest in their group—but none of them manages to comprehend the “curious shape of his grief, which does not bear the typical dimensions.” Wallace holds his friends at a remove, leaving unexplained the childhood trauma that has predisposed him to introversion and distanced him from his family in the first place.”

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.

CALL FOR PAPERS

SEMINAR ON ACADEMIC FICTION

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.

By 

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.

By JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE

“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.”