15 June, 2006Issue 5.2FictionLiterature

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Are the Towers Crumbling?

Andrew Hay

Elaine Showalter
Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents
Oxford University Press, 2005
176 pages
ISBN 019928332-X

In 1963, Robert Frost famously remarked that ‘college is a refuge from hasty judgment’, but as Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents reflects, the academic life is not quite what it used to be. The faculty towers of the present day are careerist places where, far from contemplation or refuge, academics must either publish or perish. Showalter traces the epochal shifts in fictional representations of the university, from the sequestered world of C. P. Snow’s dons in 1950s Cambridge—in ‘a society with its own rules and traditions, cut off from the outside world’—to the current thematic milieu of cut-throat tenure battles, sexual harassment tribunerals and departmental power struggles in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Faculty Towers is at once an examination of the fictional personages that inhabit the university and an aesthetic history of the campus novel and its diverse fictional forms alongside a real-world institutional history of the university and its social ties with the outside world. According to Showalter, ‘Over the past fifty years, the Professorroman has offered a full social history of the university, as well as a spiritual, political and psychological guide to the profession.’ Such inflated claims notwithstanding, Showalter ostensibly seems well-qualified to write such a book, having spent five decades in academia as a professor of literature and even longer as a reader of campus novels.

Enthusiasm for the genre ensures that Showlater has many texts at her disposal, and the chronological arrangement of the chapters in Faculty Towers allows her to clearly delineate the development of different kinds of academic fiction decade by decade to proffer the thesis that the campus fiction genre, even at its most ludic or surreal, is either a socially mimetic or psychologically reflective ‘microcosm.’ This in itself is nothing new: the novel as social reflection is discussed at length by Luk√°cs, Bakhtin, Franco Moretti and others. The real strength of Faculty Towers is the verve with which Showalter adumbrates a coherent line of changes in the social, professional and personal mores of those who inhabit the university, as well as how these individual characters function as a microcosm of a society that shifts from the patriarchal conformity of the 1950s in Snow’s The Masters, to the rebellion of the 1960s in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim; from the careerism of the 1970s, explored in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, to the jet-setting theory crowd of David Lodge’s Small World in the 1980s.

In recent years, academic matters take a depressing turn, with Showalter sensing a ‘bleaker’ tone in contemporary campus fiction. The 1990s disintegrate into dangerous sexual liaisons between students and teachers and unpleasant confrontations with personal inadequacy, as in the case of Coetzee’s David Lurie, Philip Roth’s Coleman Silk and Franzen’s Chip Lambert. It is, however, in the twenty-first century where Showalter is most homiletic. Indeed, what she has to say is far from jovial and is aptly expressed by her final chapter heading: ‘Into the Twenty-First Century: Tragic Towers.’

Given the temporal scope and stylistic diversity of the writers that Showalter collocates in Faculty Towers, the universities, students and professors are one-dimensional and the picture of academic life that emerges is far from happy. In fact, those privileged to attend university share a feeling of unhappiness. For example, when Showalter quotes Lev Raphael’s The Death of a Constant Lover, we ponder why hardly any academics are happy where they are, no matter how apt the students, how generous the salary or perks, how beautiful the setting, how light the teaching load, how lavish the research budget. I don’t know if it’s academia itself that attracts misfits and malcontents or if the overwhelming hypocrisy of that world would have turned even the von Trapp family sullen.

When Showalter turns to polemical conclusiveness, we learn that ‘what’s needed in academic fiction is a more historicized view, a viewpoint that accepts the decline in the ideals of the academy while acknowledging the inevitability of such transformations within institutions.’ For Showlater, ‘all utopias are boring in the end’ and ‘perhaps it is healthier and wiser not to harbour idyllic fantasies about English departments.’ After a prestigious and prodigious career, Showalter does not harbour romantic notions, which in itself is sad; more importantly, the above quotation underlines her book’s flaw: Faculty Towers is coloured with overt authorial attitudes. The bracingly solipsistic agenda of the introduction ‘What I Read and What I Read For’ suggests that ‘Elaine Showalter on the rights and wrongs of the English Department’ might make a more apposite title. Indeed, as the disclaimer at the beginning of Faculty Towers indicates ‘It’s a personal take, and my selection reflects my preoccupations, particularly with feminism, as well as my occupation. I was always hoping to find stories of women professors, but such stories did not being to appear until I no longer needed them, until I had tenure.’ Faculty Towers is on more than one occasion a history of Elaine Showalter and, to quote from the book’s blurb, her ‘distinguished and controversial career.’

The academic interests evinced by this career, ranging from women’s writing, the construction and representation of women in fiction and sexual politics informs Showalter’s analyses, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Faculty Towers certainly pays a great deal of attention to the representation of women in the academic novel, from Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe in 1951 – to the present day. Indeed, Showalter can relate to the figure of the embattled female academic. And since she so readily invokes her own life throughout Faculty Towers, at one point informing us of the contents of the dinner menu at Trinity College when she visited Cambridge in the 1960s, it seems entirely appropriate to delve a little deeper into her background.

Having started academia as a ‘faculty wife,’ an American term for junior women academics, Showalter progressed to the chair of the Princeton English Department and also served as president of the MLA. Her first book in 1977, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers from Bront√´ to Lessing, inaugurated gynocritics, a branch of literary criticism devoted to the study of women’s writing and women’s literary traditions. Yet, by exploring female writing under the aegis of burgeoning second wave feminism and its concerns with the experiences of women in society, Showalter collided with French feminist thought, where femininity was subject to less empirical/social analysis, and was instead framed within the history of western metaphysics and psychoanalytical thought associated with such theorists as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. This social/metaphysical impasse came to a head with the 1985 publication of Toril Moi’s seminal Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. Moiattacked Showalter’s gynocritics for being mired in essentialism, claiming that it reflected a timid and theoretically naive streak of Anglo-American feminists.

The conflicts didn’t end there. Next were the culture wars, instigated when the academic Camille Paglia vented oceans of pent up bile at professors she felt had failed in scholarly rigour but had succeeded in academia through a mixture of sycophantic posturing and simplistic gender politics, and Showalter figured high on Paglia’s list. Although Showalter didn’t exactly jump academic ship, her more recent work, such as Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, is marketed to a less specialised audience. In a recent interview in the Princeton Bulletin following her retirement from Princeton University, Showalter commented: ‘I’ve been spending a lot of time in London for many years and have a kind of second identity there as a journalist, which I hope to continue and expand. … I talk about culture, and medicine, and over the last several months I did an enormous amount of political journalism.’

Showalter has feet in two camps: the academic and the populist. We can surmise she enjoys this split position from the attention she pays in Faculty Towers to naming and speculating on the roman à clef status of the fictional texts which contain covert portraits of famous academics. Stanley Fish, for example, is widely believed to be the basis for David Lodge’s Morris Zapp. We are even treated to the details of Showalter’s own fictionalisation (although she withholds the titles of the works she has appeared in): ‘I have been a character in academic fiction at least twice, one a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, judgemental frump.’ This goes too far, though, when Showalter nonchalantly mentions that many of the more duplicitous female characters in academic fiction are named Elaine.

Ultimately, Faculty Towers is a very personal take and it is the overt personality of its author that gives the book humour and energy, but also the sense that it is caught up in the hyperbolic exaggeration of the world it purports to analyse. Showalter opines that:

When I started reading academic novels, I was a na√Øve student with very little hope of entering the world of the masters. … I think contemporary academic fiction is too tame, substituting satire for tragedy. Any associate professor or lecturer who is paying attention will have heard comedies and tragedies that make even a Coleman Silk seem ordinary. I find the simplification of academic psychology most glaring.

If Showalter hopes to be a public intellectual she will have to move beyond ‘academic psychology’ and her own professional (parochial) likes and dislikes. Faculty Towers is, in the end, less of an inquiry into the topic of the campus novel than a stylised example of a particular kind of quasi-academic, quasi-populist book that will still appeal to many readers. More likely, it will appeal to other professors who enjoy the genre because it flatters their vanity and allows them to indulge in fictional microcosms where the university is the centre of the world, and where academics are dynamic, bold adventurers. In the end, Faculty Towers merely reinforces this vanity at the expense of those moments when Showalter confronts what she describes in the book’s blurb as ‘pictures of failure and pain, of lives wasted and destroyed.’ An even-handed attentiveness to both the joys and pains of academic life would have proven more engaging than wallowing in its failures and frustrations, before quickly retreating back to the ivory tower where professors can bask in escapist self-identification.

Andrew Hay is a DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He works on issues of modernity in literary Modernism, and ideas of postmodern aesthetic/phenomenal experience.