Black turtlenecks, cigarettes, red wine, and Derrida
October 26, 2013 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm defending my dissertation next week and the process has wrung all enthusiasm for academia right out of me. The whole enterprise has come to seem like nothing but an anxiety-ridden grind. In my small amount of free time before the defense and during the break I'm allowing myself afterwards, I'd like to read some novels that will delude me into thinking that being an intellectual is kind of, well, hot. Examples and extended description below.

Some examples that inspired this question are:

The collected works of Roberto Bolano, especially his short story, Labyrinth (available online in its entirety. Read it, it's great!)

Lan Samantha Chang's novella set at a thinly veiled version of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost.

To a lesser extent:

Lydia Davis's gorgeous The End of the Story.

Chris Kraus's insane and wonderful I Love Dick.

Basically, I want stories about writers and intellectuals getting drunk, having sex, being obsessed with each other, and talking passionately about Ideas. But what I don't want is more than the slightest whiff of parody. The ego-puncturing irony of the typical campus novel is the opposite of what I'm looking for here. At the same time, I'm also trying to get away from the soul-crushingly mundane worries of, say, the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I don't require a university setting, but if the book is about writers as opposed to academics (which is fine) there has to be a community of them, not just one lonely sad guy obsessing about his unwritten novel. Ideally, there would also be some information about the gritty details of the writing life (interactions with publishers, book tours, etc.)

Basically, I want books that are smart, dark, serious, and vaguely French in their approach to the Intellectual Life. Memoirs are okay, if they're really, really good. Bonus points for a contemporary-ish setting, and double bonus points for women writers or compelling female characters.

More idea-sparkers, in addition to the ones listed above: Bars. professor-student affairs. Fetishized descriptions of bookshelves and coffee mugs and writing desks and leather journals.

Thanks in advance!
posted by pretentious illiterate to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
posted by milk white peacock at 8:16 AM on October 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can't quite tell whether Zadie Smith's On Beauty is exactly right or entirely wrong as a response to this question, but I'll put it out there for your consideration. What I most remember are some truly hilarious bits about a capella student groups, but it also is a little bit of a depressing description of academia, I'm afraid.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:23 AM on October 26, 2013

I came here to suggest The Secret History. Very much what you're looking for, I think.
posted by lunasol at 8:28 AM on October 26, 2013

Foucault's Pendulum by Eco, maybe?

I haven't read the novel it's adapted from, but Elegy is a movie that might somewhat fit the bill.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:42 AM on October 26, 2013

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers.
posted by rustcellar at 8:47 AM on October 26, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Quick check-in: The Secret History is one of my favorite books. Exactly the right tone, basically the right subject matter except that it's about undergrads, and I don't need to be any more nostalgic about my college years than I already am. Which, similarly, semi-disqualifies another obvious suggestion I forgot to mention, Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. The Marriage Plot does have a lot of scenes set in seminar, though, which I do enjoy.

On Beauty (as you may have guessed) is exactly the right subject matter with exactly the wrong tone. Zadie Smith thinks academics are ridiculous. I agree, but I'm trying to convince myself otherwise.

Also loved Foucalt's Pendulum and may return to it. Will definitely check out Elegy and the Goldbug Variations. Keep 'em coming!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:51 AM on October 26, 2013

Best answer: Nothing Serious by Justine Levy.
posted by sophieblue at 8:55 AM on October 26, 2013

These are long shots based on the flavour of your question:

• I think you may enjoy the ballsy style of Charles Baudelaire.
• The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is dark, raw and magical.
• Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre - because it is so evocative and potent (it does centre on an individual rather than a group).
posted by 0 answers at 9:00 AM on October 26, 2013

Best answer: Oh, and possibly Breakup: The End of a Love Story by Catherine Texier (it's a memoir).

(congratulations, btw!)
posted by sophieblue at 9:00 AM on October 26, 2013

Response by poster: sophieblue, I think you've nailed it, tone-wise. Both of those are exactly what I'm looking for.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:05 AM on October 26, 2013

If you don't mind trading black turtlenecks for khaki shorts (the entangled grad student/professor are anthropologists in the field), Mating by Norman Rush is totally about the erotics of intellectual play. The intellectual banter/flirtation between the characters, and the intellectual play in the writing itself, is totally capable of re-invigorating academic sexiness (that is, if you don't mind getting outside the cafes and city streets for the setting...). (Won National Book Award in 1992, but I think this novel is under-circulated!)
posted by third rail at 10:19 AM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well A.S. Byatt's Possession hits all your marks except maybe the parodic Mortimer Cropper. It's a fabulous story, laced with eroticism and the erotics of discussion and discovery. Roland's transformation in the end still rolls round my mind both as a satisfying end and as something I could wish for. Which it's time to read it again I guess.
posted by firstdrop at 10:55 AM on October 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is Moo by Jane Smiley too parodic or farcical for you? I love that book.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman may also fit the bill, but it's mostly about postdocs in a cancer research lab and scientific misconduct.
posted by k8lin at 12:15 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and The Swan Thieves are both about intellectuals/academics, and they take the characters' work seriously. I'm not sure if Kostova herself is an academic, but her father and husband were/are, and it feels to me like she got the feeling of doing academic work dead on. My only caveat is that she writes paranormal suspense, so it might be a little lowbrow for what you're looking for.

The Likeness by Tana French is about a group of grad students, and is a mystery in the same vein as The Secret History. It's a very good book and not at all a parody (more like a procedural + gothic trippy-ness + lit fic. Maybe a similar vibe to the show "Hannibal," except with philosophical questions instead of gore?), but I'm not sure it's as academia-focused as you're looking for.

Also, Villette by Charlotte Bronte is about a bluestocking, though she's a teacher rather than an academic per se. The odd kind of book that I didn't especially enjoy as I was reading, but which has been haunting and I've remembered very strongly since, so it might be good for drowning in as you recover from your defense.

If you're OK with a community of writers instead of academics, maybe A Moveable Feast?

And I second Possession.
posted by rue72 at 1:04 PM on October 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. I love her books; if you like Our Tragic Universe, which has a very intellectual love affair in it, you may also like The End of Mr. Y, which is somewhat more science fictiony but also very much a novel of ideas.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:53 PM on October 26, 2013

John L'Heureux, The Handmaid of Desire.
posted by jayder at 9:03 PM on October 26, 2013

Best answer: Maybe The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein, though it has a tinge of parody, but it also takes the intellect seriously.

Mary Karr's Lit?

Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty is very much about a community of writers (partially set at the Iowa Writer's Workshop).

Carolyn Heilbrun's When Men Were the Only Models We Had probably isn't the right tone, but it always makes me sort of wish I belonged to some sort of academic community still.
posted by newrambler at 12:05 PM on October 27, 2013

Response by poster: Lots of these suggestions look great, and quite a few of them are already favorites of mine. I marked as 'best answer' a few I hadn't yet read but that I'm looking forward to checking out. Thanks, everybody!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:49 PM on October 27, 2013

Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault.
posted by jayder at 9:39 AM on October 28, 2013

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