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Kidding on the Quad

Essay: The academic novel after Sokal

• January 14, 2017 4:50 am

It was just over twenty years ago that the physicist Alan Sokal pulled off his famous hoax—writing a mock paper on how the physical universe is just a social construct and sending it to Social Text, a hipster academic journal. Social Text, of course, published the absurd thing, which allowed Sokal to take to the pages of Lingua Franca to expose the absurdity of the attempt to roll quantum physics into poststructuralism and deconstruction.

The Chronicle of Higher Education took the anniversary of the hoax this month as an occasion to collect the remembrances of those involved. And George Will used his widely syndicated column to suggest that, in the twenty years since Sokal mocked prevailing intellectual trends, American academia had actually gotten worse, transforming itself into something entirely beyond hoaxing. Every semester brings news of intellectual claims and campus activities that are too extreme to be parodied. Even comic campus novels—Will mentions Randall Jarrell's 1954 Pictures From an Institution—have become impossible. When an institution has become its own caricature, what chance do art and irony have?

Both Will and the Chronicle of Higher Ed highlight a line from Bruce Robbins, the Columbia University professor who helped edit Social Text back in the 1990s. Asked whether he was still angry with Sokal, Robbins answered, "I mean, there were epistemological differences, but so what?"

In its way, that line proves amazingly comic and self-absorbed. The whole dispute was about epistemology—the philosophical discipline that studies what we know and how we can know it—so the fact that there were epistemological differences between Sokal and Robbins is true pretty much by definition. But Robbins's little coda of "So what?" is what gives us real absurdity—for "So what?" is itself an epistemological question, the center of the Sokal Hoax, and Robbins's insouciance makes the whole dispute swallow its own tail.

And yet, the real question for book readers is whether we're willing to buy George Will's extension. Is it true that, in the years since Sokal's "Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," academia has reached what we might call the Muggeridge Point: the institution becoming so self-parodic, it can no longer be parodied?

Proof that current college professors are "uneducable," Will suggests, can be found in the fact that academic novels are now necessarily failures—and he's at least right about the novels. The collapse of the campus farce over the past twenty years is a clear and peculiar fact of book publishing.

Will is wrong, though, if he thinks the 1990s were anything resembling a golden age for the parodic effect of academic novels. Right around the time of the Sokal Hoax, a pair of well-regarded novelists, Richard Russo and Jon Hassler, drifted from their usual topics to publish academic novels. And at the time (following an editorial suggestion of John Podhoretz), I used those two new books as an excuse to survey the genre and think a little about where campus farces had been and where they were going.

In the end, even writers as fine as Russo and Hassler mostly "reveal how utterly worn-out the academic novel has become," I wrote. "All its plots have grown stale, all its jokes have gone flat, and all its possible narrative devices have been exhausted."

In other words, Will is wrong, I think, to take the collapse of the campus farce as proof of the worsening of the academic situation over the past twenty years. The academic novel had already failed by 1996, and the attempt to parody university life was already proving more and more difficult.

Think of it this way: What pops into mind when the genre is named? From the 1950s, such books as Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, perhaps. From the 1960s, Bernard Malamud's A New Life and John Williams's Stoner. From the 1970s, David Lodge's Changing Places and Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. From the 1980s, David Lodge's sequel, Small World, and Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. From the 1990s, what, exactly, strikes us as a classic? From the 2000s? From the 2010s? Most readers would be hard pressed to name even a single book in the genre from 2000 on.

From Donna Tartt's 1992 The Secret History to Tom Wolfe's 2004 I Am Charlotte Simmons and on even to Rikki Ducornet's curious 2016 Brightfellow, the novel about students on campus has perhaps weathered the changes a little better than the novels about their professors. As has, to some degree, the mystery novel with a campus setting—a subgenre that runs from Dorothy Sayers's 1935 Gaudy Night to Randall Silvis's Two Days Gone, a sharp new mystery of a college-professor murderer.

But the academic novel in its pure, Lucky Jim form? No, not surviving well at all. I've read a handful of books in the dying genre over the past few years. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members and C.K. Houck's The University in 2014, for instance. Adrian Jones Pearson's Cow Country in 2015, and Nathan Hill's The Nix in 2016. I regretted the time spent on them, for the most part. Schumacher's epistolary Dear Committee Members, built of emails and memos, proved enjoyable. And Hill's sprawling The Nix, with its tale of a mother and her half-failed professor son in Chicago, was an attempt at a major novel—precisely to the extent it wasn't really about academia.

Why should we expect anything different? The genre was self-defeating on its own terms. The hundreds of college professors busily writing since the 1950s have emptied out that mine of academic waggery, as I noted back in 1996. And as they became more and more outrageous in their search for something new to say, they brought the entire academic project into disrepute—scholarship denounced by scholars as trivial, the life of the mind rejected by intellectuals as meaningless, the university faculty proclaimed by the faculty themselves to be hateful.

The Sokal Hoax might best be understood as a novelistic endeavor. It tried, in its way, to do what Randall Jarrell had done with Pictures From an Institution and David Lodge with Small World. But Sokal's effort did not succeed, in the same way that those comic novels did not succeed, for none of them halted the flow of academics toward the positions they parodied. As mockeries, they were wonderful. As arguments, not so much. They certainly failed, as one might say, to stand athwart history and yell, "Stop!"