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Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Personal Takes)

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Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Personal Takes)

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“I have been a character in academic fiction at least twice,” Elaine Showalter writes, “once a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump. I hope I am not too easily identified in either of these guises . . . although I can tell you that I preferred being cast as the luscious Concord grape to my role as the withered prune.”

In the days before there were handbooks, self-help guides, or advice columns for graduate students and junior faculty, there were academic novels teaching us how a proper professor should speak, behave, dress, think, write, love, and (more than occasionally) solve murders. If many of these books are wildly funny, others paint pictures of failure and pain, of lives wasted or destroyed. Like the suburbs, Elaine Showalter notes, the campus can be the site of pastoral and refuge. But even ivory towers can be structurally unsound, or at least built with glass ceilings. Though we love to read about them, all is not well in the faculty towers, and the situation has been worsening.

In Faculty Towers, Showalter takes a personal look at the ways novels about the academy have charted changes in the university and society since 1950. With her readings of C. P. Snow’s idealized world of Cambridge dons, the globe-trotting antics of David Lodge’s Morris Zapp, the sleuthing Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s best-selling mystery series, or the recent spate of bitter novels in which narratives of sexual harassment seem to serve as fables of power, anger, and desire, Showalter holds a mirror up to the world she has inhabited over the course of a distinguished and often controversial career.

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