This nice little book takes good advantage of the remit of the "Personal Takes" series in which it appears: A fine critic and extraordinarily successful academic, now retired, writes, with clarity, wit, and grace, about the persistent hold that academic novels have had on her imagination since her adolescence. Elaine Showalter's many, brief, careful, and eager readings draw upon a strong sense of literary and social history as well as her own unique and varied experiences within the academy and her well established intellectual predilections: "It's a personal take, and my selection reflects my preoccupations, particularly with feminism, as well as my occupation" (13). Among other preoccupations in evidence are those with humor, idealism, careerism, and sexual harassment—which, while it troubles all of us, seems to trouble her in some unexpected, and even some unexamined, ways.
Showalter is best on the sadnesses, seasons, ceremonies, sex, tenure, and satire in academic novels, and very good on faculty wives, institutional fragility, and the various temptations and distortions of power that preoccupy the academy and propel its fiction. The book is full of well-worded insights, some on the genre in general: "The department is portrayed as an ethnographic entity, a tribe" (34). Some on specific decades: "The current bitterness of academic fiction may be exaggerated, but perhaps it is healthier and wiser not to harbor idyllic fantasies about English departments and their inhabitants" (124). And some, as we shall see, on single novels.
The book selects some half dozen "Professorromans" for each of six decades, providing brief critical commentary and literary analysis, crisp lists of dramatis personae, sharply selected quotations, and efficient plot summaries. The summarizing assessments of each decade are varied, accurate, and suggestive: "In the 1990s, as academic novels proliferated, most satirized this new cast of characters and their struggles for tenure, status, and political correctness; the tone of these books is much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in earlier decades"—but somehow this chapter, and this chapter alone, seems a little short and slight (88). The quick appraisals of each novel are uniformly good—insightful, succinct, and suggestive, as for A New Life: "The students plagiarize, the faculty fish, the parents object to Hemingway on the syllabus, the coach gets his athletes passing grades" (43); "Rather, Blue Angel is the self-portrait of a man coming undone through his own faults, products of a lifetime of self-indulgence and egocentric irresponsibility" (103). [End Page 757]
I wonder, however, about all those detailed plot summaries, well done though they are. They recount the plot twists and reveal the conclusions of almost every novel: Crawford's election in The Master and Silk's racial secret and death in The Human Stain, for example. What can be the "addressivity" (4) for these summaries and revelations? Who needs them? Those who have not read the novels, and do not intend to do so? Those who have read them long ago, or carelessly? Few, if any, critical conclusions are drawn from these details.
Every reader, on the other hand, will be glad to encounter or revisit the wicked, writerly gems collected on almost every page. Consider, for example: "a center of 'personalized' education, with courses tailored to the individual need, like their own foundation-garments" (27, The Groves of Academe); "Within the departmental family she sits in the chimney-corner, while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman's table—though, to judge by enrollment figures, many of them must spout toads and lizards" (74, Foreign Affairs); and the English department is "as hierarchical and class-bound as any medieval fiefdom: Full professors make all the important decisions, associate professors do all the work, assistant professors curtsy whenever the lords of the manor pass by" (96, The Raven and the Nightingale).
She also relies on insightful comments and revealing personal details drawn from biographies of, or interviews with many of the writers she discusses. She quotes to very good effect, for example, David Lodge's comments, anent Nice Work, on the differences between satire and romance...