"There's a certain kind of conversation you have from time to time at parties in New York about a new book.  The word "banal" sometimes rears its by-now banal head; you say "underedited," I say "derivative."  The conversation goes around and around various literary criticisms, and by the time it moves on one thing is clear: No one read the book; we just read the reviews. ....Anna Quindlen.

Commentary of the Day - December 28, 2011: Pinsker Reviews The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

Let me simply admit it: I'm a sucker for academic novels.  And I am hardly the only English professor who feels this way.  After all, most academic wordsmiths are frustrated novelists, attracted to fiction as the way to a delicious payback and a fast buck.  Which self-respecting lit professor hasn't thought -- either out loud or in private -- about knocking off a tale of the assorted troubles at his or her version of Eyesore U?  The formula seems simple enough: plant a sensitive young professor in a garden of academic vipers, add a fetching student here and a soused administrator there, and voilà, yet another novel about higher education on the ropes.

The rub, of course, is that most of the academic novels that find their way into print are lackluster affairs: cardboard characters meander along predictable plot lines and in the process, a few satiric blows are delivered against political correctness gone amuck.  At one point the target of choice was man-hating feminists, at another, it was  literature-hating literary theorists.  But taken together, the bulk of what passes as "academic fiction" is a far cry from examples of the Real Thing: Mary McCarthy's  The Group and Groves of Academe, Bernard Malamud's A New Life, or Jane Smiley's Moo.  Granted, my listing is hardly complete, I have omitted British classics such as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim along with  the wonderful romps of David Lodge (Changing Places and A Small World).  And, yes, there are great novelists who work in other countries and in other languages.  But my central point remains the same: academic novels worth their salt are novels first, and  "academic" later.

To most detractors of the academic novel, Chad Harbach's debut fiction.  The Art of Fielding, bears a double onus because it is also a "baseball novel," one that largely follows the fortunes of Henry Skrimshander, a Division III shortstop of uncommon --and exquisitely graceful -- ability.  Westish College, located on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, is a "character" in roughly the same way that the "heath" is a character in the novels of Thomas Hardy.  Harbach fills his novel with a wide range of rounded, absolutely riveting characters -- not only the only members of the Westish Harpooners but also the college’s president and his troubled adult daughter, workers in the school cafeteria, and last but not least, the campus itself.  Indeed, Harbach  describes Westish's buildings and walkways with a gritty specificity that reminds me of Philip Roth's Newark.

Harbach has large ambitions for his first novel.  As Henry movingly describes the game of baseball:

You loved it  because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless  affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude which sidesteps attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition.

Harbach is, of course, not only  describing his novel in particular but also  fiction-making in general.  The shape and ring of the sentence quoted above  marks nearly every page of Harbach's work, one  that is, by turns,  heart pounding and quietly reflective, altogether human and, yes, altogether wise.

Unlike the fictional Westish College, Brown University, is real.  You can Google your way to its ivy-covered campus located in Providence, Rhode Island.  And, in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, you can walk the campus walks and overhear the fashionable talk of Brown undergraduates during the l980s.

Much of the novel's  focus is on Madeline Hanna, a "heroine" who became an English major because (gulp!) she liked to read books.  Alas, this came at a time when "heavy water" theory held sway and it goes almost without saying that Brown University doesn't want to be left out.

As we make our way through "Semiotics 202," and learn, by reading large chunks of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, that deconstructive critics write far more -- and far less interestingly -- than authors who write novels.  Eugenides's title not only refers to ways  of reading novels about love-and-marriage by the likes of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James, but also to Madeline's senior thesis as well as her real-life "mating dance" with two very different Brown undergraduates, one bipolar, the other, passive-aggressive.

Eugenides's novel means to give traditional fiction an interesting twist, one that reaffirms, rather than "deconstructs," the relationship of fiction to the human condition and to truth.  Put another way, Eugenides, like Harbach, is a novelist who sees the academic world both steady and whole, and both novelists realize instinctively that a college campus is more than so much backdrop; in the right hands, it can serve as an important supporting character, one that puts the major players into bold relief.

First-rate academic novels are a sometime thing; by contrast, academic pulp fiction seems always to be with us.  That The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot should appear in the same year is at once unusual and deeply satisfying.

© 2011, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: Don't just read the reviews, read these books!

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© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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