Feminist academic Elaine Showalter has just written a new book, ‘Faculty Towers,’ a study of one of my favorite subjects: the novel of academic life.
A report on this genre, “Faculty Towers” deals with such books as Kingsley Amis’ ‘Lucky Jim’ (1954), one of the funniest books ever written, about a medieval historian stuck in an obscure university.
Even so, it may be awhile before I get around to “Faculty Towers.” Somehow, a book by the doctrinaire founder of ‘gynocriticism’ (a fancy word for writing by female authors) is the sort of thing one might save until *next* summer.
But Joseph Epstein’s review of “Faculty Towers” is another story. The review is a hoot, mostly because Epstein paints a picture of an academia peopled by ‘ well ‘ faculty members very much like Ms. Showalter.
The title of Ms. Showalter’s book comes from John Clease’s ‘Fawlty Towers,’ indicating that the book is going to portray academic life as ‘full of nuttiness.’ But that isn’t really the way a humorless feminist is likely to see it:
‘The difficulty here is that Showalter believes that things are not all that nutty,’ explains Epstein. ‘Mirabile dictu: She finds them looking up. ‘The university,’ she writes, ‘is no longer a sanctuary or a refuge; it is fully caught up in the churning community and the changing society; but it is a fragile institution rather than a fortress.”
Showalter believes things looking up because universities are dominated by the ideology of people pretty much like herself. There’s plenty of nuttiness today,of course. But it comes from diversity, feminist theory and other things that Showalter doesn’t think even remotely funny. Indeed, according to Epstein, she finds the earlier satirical novels–the ones that poke fun at a pre-Showalterian academia–fine. But she’s less crazy about later satires–the ones about the Showalter era–finding them ‘much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in earlier decades.’
To which Epstein counters:
‘The crueler the blows are required, I should say, the better to capture the general atmosphere of goofiness, which has become pervasive. Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it–no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself–except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.
‘All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture–graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots–and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. In an academic thriller (a subdivision of the academic novel) cited by Showalter called Murder at the MLA [Modern Language Association’of which Showalter was once president], the head of the Wellesley English Department is found ‘dead as her prose.’ But almost all prose written in English departments these days is quite as dead as that English teacher.’
Do read the whole Epstein review’his prose is deadly, but never dead. You’ll love his hilarious send up of Ms. Showalter’s beloved MLA.