Academic Mary Sues

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2004

And while we’re on the subject … Erin O’Connor’s blog performs a useful service; a bit one-sided to be sure, but then we all have our particular bugbears to belabour. Still, could she _please_ cease and desist from calling her ham-handed academic “comedy-by-installment”: (apparently contributed by an anonymous reader), “Pictures from an Institution”? Poor old Randall Jarrell‘s corpse must be up to 1,500 rpms by now. Jarrell certainly had his conservative side, and a caustic turn of phrase when skewering academic pomposity, but he wrote like an angel. He could never, _never_ commit a sentence like:

bq. Erwin R. Sackville had made a career out of staying ahead of the field’s steep curve of philosophical abandonment.

to pick just one of many. It’s flabby, saggy, and doesn’t really mean anything. The reference to Jarrell’s novel doesn’t do O’Connor’s ersatz academic satire any favours; she’d be much better off abandoning it. Read the original instead; it’s a delight (an academic comedy of manners that is one of the saddest books I know).



William Sjostrom 03.03.04 at 12:06 am

You are right about Jarrell’s book: simultaneously very funny and very sad. Probably my favorite book.


Ayjay 03.03.04 at 12:52 am

Absolutely right on both counts. I like O’Connor’s site, but the “Pictures” are excruciating — the first episodes were a seemingly endless alternation of the trite and the fatuous, and I quickly gave up.

But Jarrell’s book is a true gem. Leaving aside the book’s deep melancholy, it remains an incisive treatment of the sociology of academic communities. Even though it was written more than half-a-century ago, there are ways in which it is less dated than David Lodge’s books (fun though those are).


Henry 03.03.04 at 1:47 am

Yeah, Jarrell is on a very different level than Lodge who with one exception ( _How Far Can You Go?_,his wrenching novel about the awkwardness of being a Catholic in 1960’s Britain) is a talented light novelist. Jarrell is something else entirely, and “Pictures” is an extraordinary book. I love his poetry too, and enjoy his poetry criticism (although I haven’t read most of the people whom he’s writing about well enough to appreciate his insights properly).


Chris Borthwick 03.03.04 at 3:08 am

RJ really deserves one of those whopping victorian complete works that actually were complete works (I have a two-volume swift in 6-point type in two columns that includes works, letters from and to, attributed works, and marginal annotations. Even an orwell-type complete published writings would be better than nothing) rather than the current situation where I have to keep buying selections in editions that overlap by about 80%. Lines like “Xxx hints – and when Xxx hints, pigs come running from miles around – that….” are right up there with Housman’s invective.
And that’s the only time anybody in this century will read the name of any of these forgettable poetasters like Xxx …immortality of a sort, I can remember the insult even if not the object.
Incidentally, can anyone out there confirm or deny that ?Harriet? the villainess is based on Mary McCarthy?


Helen 03.03.04 at 3:31 am

I thought O’Connor’s “Pictures . . .” were actually kinda funny. But then I’m starved for good campus fiction, having already read Lodge (bit reactionary for me) & Jarrell. Anyone have any other recommendations? Amis’ Lucky Jim is an oldie but goodie.


Henry 03.03.04 at 3:39 am

“Lucky Jim” is wonderful – “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.” One of the most perfect sentences in the English language. I’ve always much preferred grumpy, splenetic conservative Amis pere when he was on form to slightly-too-clever-for-his-own-good Amis fils. Other academic comedies … James Hynes’ “The Lecturer’s Tale” is quite droll, even if the skeleton from which the jokes hang is a little rickety. Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” is also very good, if bleak. I have a great fondness for an old comedy/horror by Fritz Leiber, “Conjure Wife” (available in a duo volume called “Dark Ladies”). I don’t know whether it’s reactionary or proto-feminist, and don’t really care either – it’s very sharp.


helen 03.03.04 at 4:31 am

Thanks Henry, I’ll try those.


msg 03.03.04 at 5:12 am

Hear hear, Henry, on Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures From An Institution”.
I read that at the perfect moment, when it’s gentleness and affection and unremitting wit were totally confirming.

Most of Robertson Davies’ work is academic in setting, or there’s usually an academy of some sort nearby, and he’s brilliant.

John Gardner set some of his books in a university milieu.

And for fun of the highest order:

“Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”
by Richard Fariña

is absolutely essential, a book everyone should be required to have read before being allowed to say anything about the 60’s, pro or con.


st 03.03.04 at 1:45 pm

Also worth a look are John Barth’s The Floating Opera/End of the Road, and Giles Goat-Boy (though the latter is definitely not strictly in the Jarrell/Kingsley Amis vein.)


st 03.03.04 at 1:46 pm

I realize, of course, that my use of two (two!) adverbs in that parenthetical may reduce my credibility in recommending good writing.


J. Ellenberg 03.03.04 at 4:09 pm

Helen, at the risk of breaking blog-comment protocol, let me say that I wrote an academic novel, The Grasshopper King, which, since we seem to like the same things, you might enjoy: have a look at the book’s web page.

Has anybody read Stoner, by John Williams? I hear great things about it but haven’t been able to find a copy.

Oh, and re Jarrell: fans should all immediately obtain Randall Jarrell and his Age, by Stephen Burt.


Ophelia Benson 03.03.04 at 5:22 pm

Yeah, Pictures From an Institution is bloody brilliant. You have to read it fairly slowly, in installments, at least I think so, because it’s so rich that you have to read and digest each sentence separately.

Didn’t we have a conversation about this book a few months ago? Some thread about favorite not-well-known-enough books? I think I said Pictures and someone said it’s well known, and I said yes but not well known enough. Which I stick to. But I’m happy to see all these fans.

It does have one major flaw, though, which is that the central character is perfect. And since he’s obviously Jarrell, that gets a bit…annoying, after awhile. He should have deprecated himself as well as everyone else.

(And I agree about the lame item on Erin O’Connor’s site – at least judging from the only bit I read, the first installment. Awful stuff. Labored pseudo-Waugh, sort of thing.)


Henry 03.03.04 at 5:41 pm

Ophelia, I’m happy to see all these fans too (spanning the political spectrum from Bill Sjostrom to you – good taste in literature knows no boundaries). I’m not so sure that the main character is perfect though; I think that his air of sad, amused detachment is an (intended) character flaw.

Jordan, I’ve been meaning to buy the Grasshopper King for a while – it does indeed sound like my kind of book – now I’ve an excuse to do it!


Ophelia Benson 03.03.04 at 8:48 pm

Henry, hmm, that’s an interesting thought. An intended character flaw. I’ve always taken Narrator to be very in love with himself. I’ll have to try it with the intended character flaw view in mind.


Matt Weiner 03.03.04 at 9:07 pm

I love Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels. The opening scene, in which a party for the opening of a library is forced to absorb some students & scruffy professors who are actually working there, is absolutely classic. The students’ behavior is familiar from the inside (they wind up by the drink, snarking on the faculty).
Many of Pym’s books impinge on academia–Pym herself worked for a long time as secretary (I think) to an anthropological society. I think of Esther Clovis as her stand-in. Her satire is IMO much gentler than Amis’s or Russo’s.


Matt Weiner 03.03.04 at 9:09 pm

(And: Who is Academic Mary, and why is she suing?)


Henry 03.03.04 at 11:17 pm

For ye complete definition of a Mary Sue, see “here”:


Matt Weiner 03.04.04 at 1:17 am

t’link was broken, but this seems to get it. Do you know the etymology?

I will now blog-pimp: I am composing a reply which should go 19

Ophelia Benson 03.04.04 at 1:49 am

Speaking of Russo, I meant to say – I really hated Straight Man. That was the most unconvincing ‘English professor’ I’ve ever read. The guy was barely literate, and never thought, he just reacted and emoted. Plus he wasn’t funny. Or interesting.


Miriam 03.04.04 at 2:22 am

I’ve got to agree with Ophelia about Straight Man–given how much there is to satirize in English departments, this novel seemed to miss the mark an awful lot.

Reginald Hill (an ex-lecturer) managed to work some academic satire into Death’s Jest-Book; there’s more in his early novel An Advancement of Learning.

You still can’t go wrong with Francis Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica. Also, speaking non-fiction-wise, Mark Pattison’s Memoirs of an Oxford Don is still a scorcher. For unintentional satire, try the last chapter or so of Sir Kenneth Dover’s Marginal Comment (i.e., the chapter in which he explains how he goes about trying to rid his department of a disturbed colleague).


Helen 03.04.04 at 3:02 am

So many wonderful suggestions for further reading. I’m obviously not the only one here with a secret penchant for campus fiction. And to think I was resigned to simply rereading Lodge again. . .

Jordan, thanks for the reference to your book. I’ll have to get my hands on copy. So much of the campus fiction I’ve read is set in the 50s & 60s; it’ll be refreshing to read something contemporary.

Oh, & although it’s not comedy, Byatt’s Virgin in the Garden has some sharp observations about Cambridge culture.


John Quiggin 03.04.04 at 4:05 am

More in the David Lodge vein, I enjoyed Jane Smiley’s Moo.


Mr Ripley 03.04.04 at 6:19 am

There was an article in Lingua Franca five or six years ago about how the Academic Novel nowadays was so mild and defanged, and how Smiley and Russo and Chabon didn’t live up to Jarrell or even Mary McCarthy’s awful Cold War story. The Francans were right: if real universities were run as rationally and successfully as the one in Moo, with profs as sane and adminstrators as benignant as Smiley’s, it’d be a utopian improvement over what we got now. But the article didn’t mention Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man, which is hardly mild, or even DeLillo’s White Noise, IIRC.


Matt's Mom 03.04.04 at 10:06 pm

Oh dear. The language in the swatch quoted from Erin O’Connor (career, steep curve) strangely and unhappily reminds me that Randall Jarrell died when he was hit by a car as he walked along a road–possibly a suicide.

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