Aging Lotharios?

I know I’m not the only one: I read several novels at a time. One is usually in the kitchen; the other by my bed, a third in the living room (or even the bathroom, though magazines are more appropriate there since I need a pen or post its when I read).

By some odd coincidence, all 5 of the novels I am reading now or have just finished are quite similar: the narrator or one of the key characters is a man in his late 50s or 60s who is going through some sort of post divorce/relationship,  fear of death and aging/health crisis.  Maybe it’s just the usual midlife crisis, but happening later? 

These are not traditional man-caught-with-his-pants-down (and it’s all revealed in e-mail)  sort of stories, either. These men are portrayed quite sympathetically: their wives range from the bitch who left, to the bitch who is at the top of her professional career to more sympathetically but equally unavailable wives (one with incipient alzheimers; the other just growing in a different direction). 

This trend (if I may call it that: four of the  novels are fairly recent) provides an  interesting alternative perspective to the Sandra Tsing Loh article in the Atlantic.   Though I wouldn’t say it’s a call for passion either a la Cristina Nehring’s Vindication of Love.  The men in these novels are quite sexual or sexually frustrated or just plain horny:  In two novels, women’s butts figure prominently in  the plots; in 2 others, the male characters fantasize but don’t act; and in the fifth, well, I haven’t read far enough yet to know, so don’t tell me.

Basically, this is an in progress blog posting: I haven’t finished two of the novels yet, so I’m not sure if this “trend” I’m noticing will hold up, and I’m not so sure how new a trend it is.  Philip Roth’s characters immediately come to mind. But these men, well, they are different. 

If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think:

  • Jim Harrison’s The English Major
  • Richard Russo’s Straight Man  AND Bridge of Sighs
  • Jim Lynch’s Border Songs
  • David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence

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Three Books: Academic Fiction

straightmanThe Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Ms. Mentor has asked readers to recommend new academic novel titles and Erin O’Connor responded.

NPR invites listeners to recommend three books on a single theme. 

I’ve decided to combine the two requests and beg you, dear readers, to submit OTHER titles to me since my towering pile of summer reading just needs to grow a bit more before it hits the ceiling. Below is my recent submission to NPR in response to their call for Three Titles:

I teach at a community college, a setting rarely seen in the academic fiction genre (at least until I write my own!), yet the usually humorous foibles of professors and students depicted in the typical college novel crosses institutional boundaries.

Each June, after (ok, sometimes even before) submitting final grades, I dig up my what I (and many others) consider to be The. Best. Academic. Novel. Ever. Richard Russo’s Straight Man.  It’s laugh out loud funny, and it never goes out of style: the chair of the English department (a required character in these novels) threatens to kill a duck a day if his budget is not approved (as he holds up a goose).

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is another favorite, more mystery than riotous, but dripping in those insider literary references that remind us literature professors how much we love our novels.

Finally, although I could cite many more than three, I must mention one of the first college novels I read: Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe.  McCarthy’s novel, while still being quite snarky, is an early attack on political correctness. It’s more focused, as is McCarthy’s style, on ideas and ethics rather than the amusing tale, like Russo’s novel, or the romance of literary mystery, as Byatt’s, but it was my first academic novel, the one that made me want so desperately to join the, albeit dysfunctional, club of the professoriate.

Why Does Literature Matter?

My Oprah’s Book Club talk last week (discussed here) led to a 3-page conclusion on why her 12-year old book club encourages readers to address the question, why does literature matter?  I quoted Morris Dickstein’s recent essay (also posted here).  I always bring this question up in my literature classes (from introductory to senior seminars) and it almost always leads to wonderful discussions that re-emerge throughout the term and reappear, more thoughtfully, on final exams.  While it’s obvious that this question is one of those enduring ones, during a time when the percentage of people who read literature is falling, we who still believe in its value need to spread the word. Thus ended my talk.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that same question (though they phrase it in as “What Ails Literary Studies?”) in a trio of articles related to the question of why literature matters (and the e-mail newsletter also links to a 10 year old article on the same question). From the Newsletter, here are the links—my comments on each are below:

What Ails Literary Studies

The Joy of the Hoi Polloi

By Rita Felski

The Must-Read Recede

By Steven G. Kellman

The Elite Conceit

By Bruce Fleming

The 10-year old article is described below:

FROM THE REVIEW ARCHIVES:

This week three scholars consider the imperiled state of literary studies. But bemoaning the field’s situation is a longstanding specialty of its own. In 1997, for instance, John M. Ellis lamented the discipline’s derangement in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Michael Bérubé wrote a roundabout, cheeky Chronicle rejoinder to the book, and to Frank Kermode’s defense of it in The Atlantic Monthly.

 

Felski’s article, “The Joy of the Hoi Polloi”, most closely responds to my Why Does Literature Matter question. She argues that instead of trying to defend literature’s usefulness, “what literary studies sorely needs…is a nonutilitarian understanding of use.”   What she calls the “idea of recognition” –when the reader recognizes herself in a character—is affective reading: we need to encourage such a personal response to the literature, to use, as I remember fondly using, that old thesis-template phrasing we used in high school: “in literature as in [my] life”.  Felski even echoes the same metaphor I used in my talk (though she doesn’t apply it to Oprah): that literature professors need to build a bridge between theory and what she calls “common sense”—basically, non-academic reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with so eloquently and succinctly discussed in this essay.

 

Kellman’s essay,  “The Must-Read Recede”, examines another  idea I discussed in my talk last week: how reading the canon has been “sold” as a way for those without a college degree to become “middle class”—from Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, to the Book of the Month Club to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books—all were appeals to the American need to continuous self improvement.  While he doesn’t mention Oprah’s Book Club (or the Book of the Month Club, actually) both aspire(d) to the same goal, just from a less lofty platform: Preaching the Gospel of Reading!

 

Fleming’s article, “The Elite Conceit”, beautifully dovetails with what I was trying to do in the Oprah talk—remind my colleagues why they went into literary studies to begin with and that when we deny students the opportunity to respond personally and passionately to the literary works, we are denying them the opportunity to fall in love, as we did. Fleming argues that literature professors are “killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies”: by focusing on theoretical approaches before personal connection to the literature, we’ve “made ourselves into a priestly caste.” Indirectly, he argues against survey classes in a singularly humorous line: “nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth.”  [I must admit to actually having a final exam question to that affect.] His argument is beautifully illustrated in a Richard Russo’s short story “The Horseman” (from The Atlantic Monthly’s August 2006 issue)—just read it since my summary would not do it justice.

 

Finally, Michael Bérubé’s  wonderfully caustic (and just laugh-out-loud funny, in a dark humor sort of way) Chronicle article, “Defending Literary Studies Has Become a Lost Cause” [link is only available to subscribers], responds to Kermode’s Atlantic Monthly review of  John M. Ellis’  book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities:  

 

“ I think it’s about time we admitted that things in the academy are much, much worse than either Ellis or Kermode surmises. Over 70 per cent of women’s studies courses, for example, require their students to drink menstrual blood and engage in ritual witchcraft (in that order).”

 

Ah, brings back such memories of Intro to Women Studies, circa 1981.

 

Ending on a more serious note, Bérubé urges the current generation of literary critics (1997—oooh, me), to “refresh our culture’s collective memory as to why literature and criticism should matter to human affairs.”   

 

Ah, Bartleby.