- Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents
This compact volume is part of University of Pennsylvania Press's "Personal Takes: An occasional series of short books in which noted critics write about the persistent hold particular writers, artists, or cultural phenomena have had on their imaginations." Showalter adopts Richard C. Caram's term "Professorromane" to classify academic novels as a "subgenre of contemporary literature" and claims that her "preoccupations, particularly with feminism as well as [her] occupation" (2) and learning "not to underestimate the activity of the quiet corridors and quadrangles of the academic world" (124) were the novels' primary attraction. Her adaptation of British comedy Fawlty Towers'title—a motif continued in chapter titles—suggests a quality of playfulness in her "personal take," although Showalter maintains her fascination with academic novels is their "seriousness, even sadness"(2). A lively thirteen-page introduction posits the question: "Why is the academic novel my favorite literary genre?" She answers, "Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted and destroyed" (2) and, even more revealingly, "Perhaps it's the ultimate narcissism for an English professor to write literary criticism about novels by English professors about English professors, but my favorite academic novels are about English departments nevertheless" (3).
Notwithstanding the appeal of Showalter's personal anecdotes and witty, self-effacing revelations, the work seems disconcertingly inconsistent. Works published during 1950-1970 are unevenly critiqued; sometimes the books she has read at length dwarf others, making it appear that some were included simply to define publication dates. In Chapter Two, "The Sixties: Tribal Towers", she explains that novels are "always a belated form of social commentary" and thus an inaccurate reflection of prevailing political and social turbulence, then states "Women particularly figure as angry and excluded" (34). Female department chairs are "virtually unrepresented in academic fiction, except as murder victims" and the "rare female professor is ambivalent about power and in denial about ambition" (35). However, to her credit, and to even the score, Showalter claims that male divisional chairs are "bitchy" [End Page 205] and "piqued by their own marginality"—particularly when the setting is a fictive Princeton (36). Often her indignation is contradictory, as in her critique of John W. Aldridge's The Party at Cranton (1960) which she describes as "one of the most caustic, vituperative, and antifeminist novels of the decade" (35). This may be true; however, she reviews the works chronologically and acknowledges the "belated nature" of their social commentary (33-34). Should we expect authors to predict an enlightened future rather than depict the status quo?
Later decades are clustered under generalizations like "But the '80's were also the decade of feminist literary criticism and theory . . . the moment when women appear in the academic novel as serious contenders for tenure, status . . . the glittering prizes" (68). Showalter then examines Carolyn Heilbrun's Death in a Tenured Position (1981) and—so much for the female protagonist—proceeds to bash the professor/sleuth: "I usually find Kate Fansler an obnoxious and intolerable heroine—pompous, stilted, and humorless. I detest the way she throws pretentious quotations into every conversation"(69). "The Eighties: Feminist Towers" and "The Nineties: Tenured Towers" have more substance; perhaps the proliferation of academic novels provided better material for Showalter's personal take, but they're still given short shrift. We must wonder why she didn't select fewer specific texts that more lucidly exemplify the "persistent hold" on her imagination.
Occasionally, Showalter's professional bias intrudes, but it is ameliorated by personal anecdotes and disclosures that amuse and surprise. For instance, she admits Domna Rejnev, the literature department's youngest member in Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952), was her "role model not only for being a teacher, but also for being a student" (28). Her long-term Princeton tenureship justifies her assessment of novels like Carlos Baker's A Friend in Power (1958), which portrays a "thinly disguised and much romanticized picture of Princeton. . . where...