The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic

Janice Rossen
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993
202 pp.

Carter Kaplan

The University in Modern Fiction by Janice Rossen is subtitled "When Power is Academic," but having read it I can't help but facetiously suggest that it should read: "When a Book About Power is Academic." However expertly Rossen might wield the academic third person, she fails to rise to the level of those critical traditions which have been addressing the issue of academic power since Aristophanes wrote The Clouds. Although her book provides entree to a great many novels, it fails to transcend its own academic nature and the currents of power through which it is itself controlled.

She purports to examine the power structure within academe, the dialectic between competitiveness and idealism, and the implications for the creative process when a novelist chooses to treat academe as a subject. It is one of her goals to "make sense of academics," particularly the British university in the twentieth century. To explore these issues she identifies and traces trends in academic fiction that she identifies with various groups' experiences with academe. These groups are women, matriculants from the lower classes, privileged undergraduates, dons, and the novelists themselves.

In one chapter she surveys the depiction of American academics in the British academic novel, contending that competitive American academics present a threat to the British academic power structure. The authors of these novels, many of them academics themselves, "mount a variety of defenses against their own increasing sense of marginalization" (9). In other words, she degrades this powerful form of humanist expression into a mechanism of scholarly competition. She doesn't acknowledge the possibility that trendy American "discourse," politically charged "isms," and the "corporate" vision of academe well deserve to be ridiculed as dangerous challenges to academic and intellectual freedom.

In her last chapter Rossen has the temerity to argue for the "unworkableness" of the presence of novelists in academe. Interestingly enough, her study happens to overlook several important novelists who have also enjoyed very successful academic careers. Their omission (exclusion?) from this study is more than remiss. It is suspicious.

Where is C.S. Lewis? His novel That Hideous Strength belongs among the most accurate and sharply penned indictments of the role played by cynicism, power-worship, and technocracy in the subversion of the idea of the Western University. The early chapters of the novel describe the work and attitudes of "progressives" within the university who, sensitive to political "realities", work to convert the university into a recruitment center for corporate utilitarian technocracy. As one of Lewis's progressivist characters explains, there is nothing truly progressive about the movement, the whole soul and source of it being the self-motivation of individuals to secure a position of importance in the power structure. And this same character denigrates those useful but nonetheless foolish progressives who sentimentalize crude nineteenth century fantasies of socialism. One would think that the exploration of such a character and such views would be of central importance to a book which explores power in modern academe.

Further exclusions: Where are Mary McCarthy, John Barth, Aldous Huxley, and Vladimir Nabokov? McCarthy, who wrote The Groves of Academe, is the pioneer female voice in the academic fiction genre. Barth's Giles Goat-Boy is the genre's great tour de force. Although the absence of Barth and McCarthy might be excused since the focus of Rossen's study is the British University, no such excuse is possible for the Nabokov lacuna. She briefly evokes a quaint and superficial scene from Pnin, but Nabokov is otherwise avoided. This is one of Rossen's great failures. Nabokov was a student at Cambridge, an experience he writes about in the novel Glory, and in his autobiography Speak, Memory--for many reasons the most important novelist autobiography ever written. Lolita and its Euro-professor Humbert are conspicuously absent. Where is the professor hero of Bend Sinister who is abandoned by timid colleagues to be preyed upon by a murderous modernist dictator? The omission of Pale Fire, with its universal academic cultural icons of Wordsmith University--Charles Kinbote and John Shade--is inexcusable. And finally Rossen's neglect of Aldous Huxley, particularly his Point Counterpoint, is as negligent as writing about the Enlightenment and leaving out Voltaire.

Rossen's critical shortcomings, I believe, aren't rooted in the market pressures or political undercurrents of academic publishing, but rather in the psychology and personality behind the type of scholarship she engages in. In Rossen's study (and indeed, the entire genre) I detect a need for abstraction, a need for control and reduction. The sensibility behind such books needs an explanation, a theory. In her introduction Rossen demonstrates a familiarity with a priori assumptions culminating in a theory which grows out of a dichotomy. Rossen's dichotomy places academic pursuit or scholarship at one side and academic politics at the other. Academic pursuit, she says, is characterized by the "search for complex, often abstract patterns." Academic politics is characterized by "simplicity, negotiation and compromise." Ergo, according to Rossenian theory, "these two sets of opposing fields cut across each other and create a force field which exerts a pull on academic fiction, because it is discerned and described by novelists" (5). Now, does such a theory explain the scene in Pale Fire when Kinbote is creeping about in the dark to peep in John Shade's window to see if the poet is writing about Kinbote's beloved Zembla? Of course not. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that here, with the character of Kinbote, Nabokov is explaining Rossen.

In her acknowledgments she refers to a quest she and her peers have all participated in. This is a quest to endure and overcome the "problematic relationships with academe" they have all "suffered through". One might assume such a quest entails delineating, analyzing, declaiming and rectifying those things that make a relationship with academe "problematic." There is no evidence of such a quest here. The quest Rossen refers to is the task of conforming intellectually to the modernist academy so she might eke out the material and psychological rewards of an academic career. In her study, accordingly, she is blind to the broader implications of her topic. She writes with a marked ignorance of the legacy of Aristophanes, Menippus, Lucian, Horace, Petronius, Rabelais, Cervantes, Burton, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Melville, Peacock, Carroll, and Huxley. In her condescending treatment of the satirical importance and intellectual merits of the imaginative thinkers who write about the university experience, she refuses to accept the fact that Western Civilization has a long and established tradition of a thorough, critical, and knowledgeable suspicion and dislike for the academy. She writes outside that tradition in a refereed, antihumanist wonderland of a priori assumptions, and thus collapses beneath that tradition.

Why does Rossen include a thesis in her book? Why is it necessary to characterize trends, to identify categories? If Rossen, like many of her peers, has experienced a problematic relationship with academe, why doesn't she address that problem directly? Why must she transform this issue into a thesis and combine it with what is really little more than an annotated bibliography of novels which have something to do with academe, something to do with power? She might be "tempted" to make art--i.e., undertake a humanistic analysis--but it is important to her for personal reasons to stick to her academic third person. I deliberately suggest these reasons are personal rather than professional. She is the author and editor of more than five books; her reputation is established. Does she continue to produce these studies to create in her the impression that writing academic books is something she has always wanted to do? Her present book is in part a half-conscious exploration of her very human, healthy and understandable revulsion at academe. In the sterile environment of the academic book she seeks to cynically objectify this revulsion by expressing it as a formalized literary genre: "academic fiction" or "novels about academe." If she can come to terms with this fiction, compartmentalize, classify, contain, and master the genre, then she can "master" her lingering doubts and questions. But to accept the genre for the particulars it contains, the pain and suffering it represents and moves against, she would challenge her relationship with her own hard-earned, programmed, accredited, and officially administered intellectual humiliation.

The power dynamics which play themselves out in academic fiction focus on this dilemma by describing the narrow, frightened, and wounded people who surrender themselves to the institutional apparatus. These are not the " Academy Incorporated" approved trade mark power dynamics and catch phrases Rossen talks about: marginalized neophytes, workers, undergraduates, women, "alienated" artists, etc. Rossen treats only the latest activist fashions. She speaks in victim brand names. Her focus provides yet another suggestion that academe is not an institution for testing truth, but rather a "market place" for ideas.

To effectively express her most significant knowledge both of modern fiction and the dynamics of power in the university, Rossen would have to write a novel. But this would challenge her professional reputation and her closely related self-concept. Instead, she can only make herself into one of the characters who populate such novels.

Contents | Home