What I learned about academics from novels

Holidays are perfect time for some fun, non-PhD related reading. No need to go far from academia though. In our last post this year, Marta shares hers thoughts on novels featuring academics and researchers…

According to a recent poll the most desirable jobs in Britain are: author, librarian and academic. This might come as a surprise to those actually exercising the professions (the grass is always greener…). It also raises the question of what outsiders find so fascinating about these three professions.

The one obvious thing they have in common is that they all involve engaging with the written word. Citizens of the neo-liberal academia will probably burst out with bitter laughter at this point – between teaching, admin and various meetings one hardly finds time to write, let alone read! Where does this idealised vision of academic activity – the life of the mind, etc., etc. – come from anyway? Given the poll’s respondents fascination with books, the answer is quite obvious: it comes from novels!

Who knows what else those writers (lucky buggers!) are saying about us academics? I decided to do an ad hoc ‘literature review’ and this is what I found out…

1. Academics are socially awkward (if not sociopaths!)

Forget about the hyper-networked, student-friendly, social-media-savvy academic. In literature scientists are mainly introverted weirdos. Take for example Don – protagonist of Simsion’s ‘Rosie Project’ – who is able to deliver a lecture on autism without noticing he himself is on the spectrum. This results in his awkward behaviour and unusual vocabulary choices such as ‘correct’ and ‘affirmative’ as synonyms of ‘yes’. All of this might have something to do with his difficulties in finding a partner – an issue which Don labels ‘The Wife Problem’ and attempts to solve it scientifically.

Carkeet’s ‘Double negative’ is set in a crèche which doubles as a laboratory for linguistic research on toddlers, offering the reader a whole gallery of strange academics who spend most of their time napping on their desks, going around seducing teachers (see also point 2), and occasionally dispose of their academic colleagues in the least delicate of ways.

But researchers – including linguists for that matter – can also be involved in genuinely life-saving activities. Take Dr Voss from Littell’s ‘Kindly ones’ who vehemently (and successfully) argues against the Nazi extermination of a tribe known as ‘Mountain Jews’. No, morals have nothing to do with it, he just finds the idea of ‘Jewish race’ unscientific and thus unacceptable. In Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’, as the son of a geneticist is held hostage in order to stop the scientist’s experiment on Future Mouse©, the boy seriously doubts whether his father will halt the procedure to save his own offspring’s life. Conclusion: Scientists care about humanity. Not about humans.


Image credits: Parezart / CC0

2. Male professors are sex-crazed & females are hard-core feminists

A researcher in the field of French theory once confided in me that he dreads getting books for Christmas. Due to his interests, everyone thinks a French novel set in academia will hit the jackpot. Unfortunately – and very uncomfortably for the researcher in question – in almost every French novel he is given, the main character – a male professor – is in a relationship with a student. After reading the same story yet another time, my friend started wondering what exactly did those offering the presents want to get across? I comforted him that it was not at all about him. The womaniser-professor is just such a ubiquitous theme in French literature, that there’s no getting away from it. After all – if you will allow me to cite a recent French campus novel ‘Un homme effacé’ – “la relation pédagogique est une relation de nature érotique”. For a recent example of the creepy professor figure check out Houellebecq’s (in)famous ‘Submission’. But this leitmotiv is not limited to just French literature – think of J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ – the title of which refers to the protagonist’s abuse of a student.

But even if student-professor relationships remain decent and professional, research institutions seem cradles of lust. Gene of the ‘Rosie Project’ is on a mission to sleep with a woman of each and every nationality – a quest facilitated by the international academic environment of his campus and serving a supposed ‘scientific purpose’.

Similarly, dr. Cook, the main character of ‘Double negative’ seems to have two passions: research and… well, you know. He perceives reality through these two prisms, thus describing one of his colleagues: “excellent linguist and formidable sexual rival”.

Given this conduct of male academics, it is hardly surprising that female researchers have in turn developed strong feminist views. This is the case for Rosie, who will be entangled in Don’s ‘Wife project’, and Robyn, the protagonist of David Lodge’s classic “Nice work”, as well as Paula – the main object of dr. Cook’s (‘Double Negative’) interest. But this is no all – there are at least two detective series in which the sleuth is a feminist professor – Joanne Dobson’s Karen Peletier series (with great titles like ‘Death Without Tenure’) and Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson series (see ‘A Masculine Ending’).

3. Research: a bumpy path fraught with difficulties.

„It’s nice work. It’s meaningful. It’s rewarding” says Robyn about her own profession, having observed the daily toil of factory workers. And yet academic work, more often than not, is portrayed as an extremely challenging path – in terms of job security (‘Nice Work’, ‘Death Without Tenure’), managing social and class relations (‘Struggles of Albert Woods’ by William Cooper) and perhaps most worryingly – mental health.

The way in which conducting research affects one’s private life and overall mental stability seems to be an object of novelist’s fascination. In ‘The Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang deciphering the language of extra-terrestrials has serious consequences for how a linguist perceives the decisions in her own life. In another alien-centric work, Lem’s ‘Solaris’, conducting research leads a group of scientists to madness. Finally, one of the characters of ‘Euphoria’ is driven to mad rage after losing an object which would have changed his entire discipline (allowing him to finally publish that monograph) …

The discreet charm of academia

The image of an academic which emerges out of this quick and dirty lit review is not at all heartening – someone weird, obsessive, given to erotomania and fits of madness. In fact, it can make you wonder, why anyone familiar with campus literature would actually consider an academic career – maybe apart from being a tough feminist professor detective – that one does sound pretty cool.

And yet, in moments of academic exhaustion, I turn to literature for motivation and to remind me of what is so wondrous about academic life. For though research “is a big invisible knot to untangle” it also brings along moments of “briefest, purest euphoria” (‘Euphoria’).

Text credits: Marta Natalia Wróblewska (@martawrob).

The author is a PhD student at the Centre for Applied Linguistics. Her research focuses on the discursive construction of the notion of ‘research impact’ in academia.


References (aka reading list) 

  • Simsion Graeme (2013), The Rosie Project: A novel, Simon & Schuster
  • Carkeet David (1980), Double Negative, Doubleday Books
  • Littell Jonathan (2009), Kindly Ones, Harper
  • Smith Zadie (2001), White Teeth, Vintage
  • Postel Alexandre (2013), Un homme effacé, Gallimard
  • Houellebecq Michel (2015), Submission, William Heinemann
  • Coetzee J.M (2000), Disgrace, Penguin Books
  • King Lily (2014), Euphoria, Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Lodge David (1980), Nice Work, Penguin
  • Joanne Dobson (2010), Death without tenure, Poisoned Pen Press
  • Smith Joan (1989), A Masculine Ending, Fawcett
  • Cooper William (1966), Struggles of Albert Woods, Penguin
  • Chiang Ted (2010), The Story of Your Life and Others, Vintage
  • Lem Stanislaw, (1987) Solaris, Mariner Books



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