From the Booking Desk:
I have long been a fan of the academic mystery, so when Cynthia Kuhn’s Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series was announced, I knew that it was going on my To-Be-Read pile. (And since then, of course, BOLO Books has posted reviews of both The Semester of Our Discontent and The Art of Vanishing. I have also previously run an interview with Cynthia Kuhn here on the blog when the first book was released.
Today, I am thrilled to welcome Cynthia here to discuss how the academic novel reflects real campus life…and well, life in general.
For Whom The School Bell Tolls
by Cynthia Kuhn
The academic mystery—along with the campus novel—might be considered something of a forerunner to Academic Twitter, which is made up of academics in a variety of disciplines who tweet about topics great and small, in often humorous and pointed ways. Regular aim is taken at common experiences like grading, department meetings, research projects, and so on. In addition to enjoying the recognition of foibles and quirks of the profession, academics everywhere can take comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in dealing with some of the challenges.
Academic mysteries perform a similar maneuver, exploring the structures and dynamics of campus life—and although the stories do not unfold at the lightning-bolt pace of Twitter, there is plenty of thought-provoking material as well as humor to be discovered. While not all academic mysteries are satirical, those that do it well are very addictive. Consider Robert Grudin’s remarkable (both in format and in mystery construction) Book: A Novel, which describes the projects of professor as follows:
Alois Stoat, the Foucauldian, had broken ground on an equally ambitious History of Wounds (whose first sentence, posted on his office door to the great approval of his colleagues, ran, “A wound is an intrusion into the posited Self”); while the irrepressible Emerson Baismacou was conducting a nonstop seminar on his recently published Oracle, Orifice and his soon-to-appear The Text as Undergarment. . . . while Sandy Eule was rough-drafting a polemic which asserted that books were not written by people, or, if they were, they were not books. (234-235)
Part of Grudin’s more serious point seems to be to suggest that the incomprehensible and publishable are no longer quite so far apart from each other (“books were not written by people” = ?), but also it’s just plain funny.
And it’s not only academic mysteries that offer such satirical snapshots—the campus novel accomplishes the same thing. In my favorite paragraph of Michael Malone’s Foolscap: Or, the Stages of Love, an argument over the identity of the Foolscap author is summarized thusly:
A few of the Baconians (so called because they believed Sir Francis Bacon had written all of Shakespeare’s plays) thought Bacon had written Foolscap as well. Several who were sure the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare were equally sure he was also the Raleigh who’d written Foolscap. The post-Baconians (convinced that Hamlet was Edward de Vere’s autobiography) attempted to demonstrate that Raleigh in Foolscap was none other than that same melancholy Dane de Vere. The Marloweans (who believed that young Christopher Marlowe had not gotten killed in a knife fight after all, but had gone into hiding and written all of Shakespeare’s plays instead of any more of his own) were unanimous in not believing that Marlowe had written Foolscap. The text lacked that je ne sais quoi that was Marlowe (and Marlowe pretending to be Shakespeare). And as for the Raleigheans (who believed that Sir Walter Raleigh had written all of Shakespeare’s plays), they broke into terrible factions over whether or not to claim Foolscap (either for Raleigh as Raleigh, or Raleigh as Shakespeare, or neither); heated remarks were made in haste, not repented at leisure, and finally the society’s annual banquet had to be postponed until a time when enough members were willing to sit down next to each other to make it possible to serve the meal in one building. (346)
How comical! And yet…how familiar! There is a ring of truth to the depiction—how often do we see people cling to their beliefs to the detriment of genuine communication? Or refuse to sit next to someone with whom they don’t see eye to eye? Or make pronouncements and simply ignore the other possibilities?
Academics especially might be prompted by such representations to ponder the work to which we have devoted our lives. How should we be responding to the machinery of the profession or the effects of the system? (Oh yes, we probably will think about it far longer than might be good for us. Because: training.)
But while they may seem specific in focus or setting, academic novels of course reflect the wider world. We all face power hierarchies, difficulties, and obstacles; we all have goals and dreams we wish to accomplish nonetheless. And these stories, like so many others, ultimately speak to the complexity and the importance of continuing to make our way forward in the face of adversity, whether we are on campus or off.
Grudin, Robert. Book: A Novel. Penguin, 1993.
Malone, Michael. Foolscap, Or, the Stages of Love. Sourcebooks, 2010.
Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent and The Art of Vanishing. She teaches in Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.