BRAINIAC Q&A (13)
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Browbeating, Utopia

From late September 2002 through early 2006, HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn wrote THE EXAMINED LIFE, a weekly three-item column for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section; and from late 2006 though mid-2008, he wrote BRAINIAC, an Ideas section blog that was repurposed as a three-item weekly column in the paper. This series reprints a few Q&As from Glenn’s two Ideas columns. [Brainiac image via 4CP]

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March 27, 2005
SCHOLASTIC’S BOOK CLUB

From Kingsley Amis’s 1953 satire Lucky Jim to Philip Roth’s 2000 tragedy The Human Stain, over the past half-century the academic novel has offered us a jaundiced insider’s perspective on the modern humanities department. Many of the most entertaining examples of this genre have portrayed today’s professoriate as competitive, sex-obsessed spewers of jargon. Although she doesn’t entirely disagree, Elaine Showalter — feminist cultural critic and, at present, the LA Times’s Michael Jackson trial-watcher — defends the academic life in her new book, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Penn). I interviewed the Brookline-raised Showalter, who is retired from Princeton, in Harvard Square last week.

IDEAS: Academic fiction hasn’t been kind to women — one thinks of the sexless frumps of Lucky Jim, or the suicidal Harvard feminist in Carolyn Heilbrun’s Death in a Tenured Position. So why do you like it so much?

SHOWALTER: As a faculty wife and grad student in the ’60s, I devoured books like Lucky Jim, C.P. Snow’s The Masters, and Alison Lurie’s Love and Friendship because I wanted tips on fitting into university culture. I even tried to model myself upon Domna Rejnev, the ardent young literature professor in [Mary McCarthy’s 1952 novel] The Groves of Academe, though I’m about as far from her as I am from Queen Latifah… Of course it’s true that women in such novels have mostly fared badly. Still, these books are not only fun to read, they offer a social history of the university-including women professors’ struggle for respect, status, and power.

IDEAS: Since the late ’60s, fictional professors have grown more and more grotesque, and their departmental squabbles more petty. Why?

SHOWALTER: In the early ’70s, the job market for new Ph.D.’s in literature tanked — so untenured professors who write novels have become even more disillusioned. And since 1968 the academy has no longer been a sanctuary — the simplest questions of curriculum or faculty recruitment have been politicized… Also, by the 1990s English departments had lost confidence in their mission — yet another reason the genre of academic fiction has become so nihilistic.

IDEAS: You write that what appeals to you most about the genre is its seriousness, even sadness. How so?

SHOWALTER: There’s certainly a disparity between the utopian fantasy of university life — a group of people who transcend the quotidian and devote themselves to teaching and scholarship — and the all-too-human reality. But some of the finest academic fiction — The Masters, The Groves of Academe, David Lodge’s Nice Work, A.S. Byatt’s Possession — treats the disparity as tragicomedy, without condemning higher education or all professors.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

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Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.