Back when I still worked in academia, I would relieve the tension and absurdity of my life by curling up with a good academic novel, preferably a satire. During the short period of time I spent as a "visiting" and assistant professor, I read quite a few.
Let's face it, academics make easy pickings for satirists. They often pretend to be smarter, more judicious, and just plain better than the schlubs who must toil outside of the groves of academe, but rarely ever prove themselves worthy of such boasts. In reality, the ivory tower is a snakepit of petty resentments governed by an intricate hierarchy that runs more on sycophancy than talent. The profession welcomes and even celebrates men and women too eccentric and socially awkward to make it in any other walk of life, a motley crew of misfits that equals comedy gold. Here are five novels that helped me laugh at it all when it started to get to make me crazy.
1. James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale. Anyone who has suffered through the horrors of adjunct and "visiting" professorships MUST read this book. It concerns a lecturer at an elite university who is given magical powers which he uses to save his job and become master of his department before it all goes to his head. I've never read anything that so ably dissects the ugliness of departmental politics, the insanity of job searches, and the arrogance of tenured professors who never consider the grunt classroom laborers who make their caviar and 2/2 teaching load lifestyles possible. A friend recommended this to me after my first year as a "visitor," and this fun novel gave me the courage to endure another year of humiliation.
2. David Lodge, Small World. Lodge's book may soon become a relic, since it concerns a group of scholars who constantly keep running into each other at academic conferences. The jet-setting, ocean-hopping lifestyle depicted by Lodge is fast becoming a thing of the past. In any case, he manages to totally capture the power politics, cruddy scholarship, and yes, romance, always on display when intellectuals get together.
3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. For obvious reasons, almost every academic satire is set in an English department. Part of the reason I like Amis' 1950s novel so much is that it takes place in a history department. Better yet, the title character, Jim Dixon, feels the resentments of classism that commonly afflict scholars (like yours truly) who were not to the manner born in a world dominated by the children of the bourgeoisie. And even better still, it has perhaps the greatest literary description of a hangover that I've ever read.
4. Richard Russo, Straight Man. I love Russo's stuff in general, but this is by far his funniest book, and perhaps his best. It is set at a fictional school called "West Central Pennsylvania University," and accurately captures the lowered standards and laziness of the mediocre tenured faculty that reign at second-tier public universities in this country. (It's a world I know well and am glad to have escaped from.)
5. Don DeLillo, White Noise. This book isn't a straight academic satire per se, but it's damn good and wickedly funny. The main character is a scholarly opportunist of the worst sort in the field of "Hitler studies" who doesn't even know German. DeLillo makes the general phoniness of consumer culture and American life his primary target, but ivory tower has hardly been immune to these social sicknesses.