Fiction about the absurdities of academia?
February 11, 2016 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I seem to greatly enjoy fiction about the absurd, ridiculous, or obnoxious aspects of an academic or research environment. Examples that I really liked include PhD Comics (mostly the early years), Bellwether by Connie Willis, and especially Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. MetaFilter, can you recommend any similarly absurd books about stressed academics?

(While it's been years since I was in academia, I'm in a quasi-governmental position these days and have started publishing again -- though thankfully those papers aren't crucial to my career the way they are in a real academic environment. Also, I have several friends in various stages of early-professordom. So I'm not exactly looking for "coping" literature, but there are times these stories hit close enough to home to make me laugh even harder. If that makes sense.)
posted by fencerjimmy to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

So good.
posted by parki at 6:43 PM on February 11, 2016 [11 favorites]


Straight Man - Richard Russo. A gem.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 6:44 PM on February 11, 2016 [14 favorites]


Girl Genius?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:45 PM on February 11, 2016


Also worth checking out the "Campus Trilogy" by David Lodge - Changing Places: (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988).
posted by parki at 6:46 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


The Big U by Neal Stephenson
Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
White Noise by Don Dellilo
Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth
and some early parts of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
posted by kewb at 6:46 PM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff is much more in the absurd/fantasy realm, but it's really great. A lot of it takes place at Cornell.
posted by parki at 6:47 PM on February 11, 2016


Porterhouse Blue - more of a farce than anything else.

Jane Smiley's Moo is quite sweet.
posted by scruss at 6:48 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]




Not a book, but I highly recommend adding the Fieldwork Fail blog to your feed reader (or follow the hashtag if you do twitter).
posted by tavegyl at 6:51 PM on February 11, 2016


Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels (part of the Cornish Trilogy, which is excellent) probably fits the bill.
posted by prettypretty at 7:01 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


The "Dark Science" arc of Dresden Codak is about that kind of thing. It's up to chapter 58 but it isn't finished.

New chapters are supposed to come out every two weeks but he hasn't been keeping schedule. (When you see the art, you'll understand why.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:04 PM on February 11, 2016


I like the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - the books often use the wizard's university as an excuse for lots of academic/research humor.

If you haven't read any of the books, skip the first ones 'cos they're not very good. And none of them are entirely about the university, but a lot of books spend a lfair bit of time there. Off the top of my head, "Hogfather"? (That book was also made into a two-part TV show, if that's of interest)
posted by anonymisc at 7:05 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


David Lodge--Campus Trilogy.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:13 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Love in a Dead Language by Lee Siegel
posted by champignon at 7:15 PM on February 11, 2016


General Ludd is obscure and out of print, but the buffet-table-wine-fuelled antics of the academics is excruciatingly well-observed.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:22 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here to second Giles Goat Boy by John Barth.
posted by ejs at 7:36 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh! And various sections of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
posted by prettypretty at 7:44 PM on February 11, 2016




Moo x 2 and Lucky Jim x N
posted by sideofwry at 7:56 PM on February 11, 2016


Wow! Thank you, everyone, for all the recommendations so quickly. I haven't dug through all the titles yet, but those I have look excellent. Keep 'em coming!

For now: I am about to get on a plane and have downloaded Straight Man, by Richard Russo, to my Kindle. (Thanks walkinginsunshine!) When I'm back on solid ground I will explore more of these...
posted by fencerjimmy at 8:03 PM on February 11, 2016


Lucky Jim is the granddaddy of the genre; and yet transcends it -- it speaks to everyone who's been stuck in a BS job in a BS field, doing jargon-heavy, pompous yet trivial work with difficult people. And it is hilarious.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:19 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Check out Stanley Fish's stuff
posted by banishedimmortal at 8:34 PM on February 11, 2016


A short piece rather than a book, but "The 'Snake Fight' Portion of Your Thesis Defense" is incredibly great if you haven't read it yet.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:38 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon is an absolute gem. And Fay Weldon's The Shrapnel Academy is similarly delightful, though it deals with a military academy and not a mainstream university. Some of A. S. Byatt's books (specifically the Frederica Quartet) might also fit the bill.

And second Stephenson's The Big U, as well as the David Lodge books.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:45 PM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


In a similar line as PhD comics, I enjoy the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Shit Academics Say.
posted by Milau at 1:06 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Half academic pomposity, half Aegean tourism. Skios was very funny.
posted by Gotanda at 2:22 AM on February 12, 2016


Moo by Jane Smiley
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:15 AM on February 12, 2016


Not a book, but A Very Peculiar Practice! The series writer also novelised the TV version, and as I recall the novels are also good.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:38 AM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


A great classic of the genre is Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (although it may be funnier if you are a woman than if you are a man)
posted by hydropsyche at 3:53 AM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


You'll dig Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.
posted by Ted Maul at 4:20 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Masters by C.P. Snow comes to mind. It's about the selection of a new Master for a college at Oxford, and while absurdity is not the point, there's plenty of it.

Also like Pnin. Nabokov, after all.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:10 AM on February 12, 2016


Can I piggyback on this request? I'm curious about "absurdities of academia" books that are not written by white dudes. I see a couple on this list--can anyone think of others?
posted by duffell at 6:14 AM on February 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Lorrie Moore's novel A Gate at the Stairs, and some of her darkly funny short stories, are set in desperate academic environments.

Don Delillo's White Noise has an amazing satirical character: Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies. If you haven't read it, I can't recommend that book enough.
posted by jessca84 at 6:29 AM on February 12, 2016


It's been a while so I don't remember too many specific details, but I recall that I liked Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution.
posted by ferret branca at 6:48 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm curious about "absurdities of academia" books that are not written by white dudes. I see a couple on this list--can anyone think of others?

Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty — though it's more poignant and biting and less straight-up funny than a lot of other stuff on this list.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:59 AM on February 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


Like, it definitely has its hilarious moments, but it will also give you Feelings.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:00 AM on February 12, 2016


Can I piggyback on this request? I'm curious about "absurdities of academia" books that are not written by white dudes. I see a couple on this list--can anyone think of others?

Seconding Zadie Smith's On Beauty here, also adding Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

(I'm jealous that you get to read Straight Man for the first time OP! I'm having trouble suppressing laughs right now just thinking about it).
posted by veery at 7:01 AM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


William Gaddis' A Frolic of His Own features an absurd academic. It's also the answer when the question is: I'm looking for books about the absurdity of the law.
posted by notyou at 7:17 AM on February 12, 2016


I'm going to c+p a recommendation of mine from another thread:

"For those of you intimately familiar with the injustices of adjunct life, I have to recommend a decidedly peculiar mystery series that begins with A Skeleton in the Family. The conceit of the series is that the main character solves murders with her best friend a sentient skeleton.

But the actual plot is an exploration of the myriad indignities adjuncts experience, and how the main character is always one semester away from disaster (even with a supportive family), and how her human dignity is always a trifle to be played with by administrators, and how many people lose all respect for her when they realize she isn’t tenure track, etc. It’s like an ongoing series about the evils of the current University system, except there is also a sentient skeleton and occasional murders."
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:56 AM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


If you liked Bellwether and haven’t read Willis’s time travel books, I'd recommend 'em. The sections of those books that take place in Oxford poke a lot of fun at academia. (To Say Nothing of the Dog is especially funny.) I can think of a couple other good campus life sendups that drift into SF as well: Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table is great, and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 is odd & a bit darker.
posted by miles per flower at 10:24 AM on February 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


The Weight of the Evidence, Michael Innes. A vintage crime novel set in a modern (at the time) university. Lots of stuff about academic eccentricies, bordering on farce at times. Innes also wrote more serious or literary novels set in academia, such as his Staircase in Surrey quintet.

The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (published in America as Obsequies at Oxford. Another older mystery novel. Fairly absurd though the academic setting is less central than in The Weight of the Evidence.
posted by paduasoy at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2016


I have read this book and found it not bad.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:18 PM on February 12, 2016


I picked up and then inhaled Leigh Perry's three current books based on a rec on a thread (I think on the blue?) about adjunct professors, and loved them. There's one "How did you get a sabbatical that long?" calendar issue that made me blink, but otherwise, they're very good at academic oddities and the way they do things to people's priorities.

That thread described them as cozy supernaturals: the main character is an adjunct professor, her parents are tenured, her best friend is a walking, talking skeleton. First one is "A Skeleton In The Family"

Several of the Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels novels also are good for academic stuff: the ones that spring to mind are Seven Sinners, The Murders of Richard III as Peters both spring to mind, and as Michaels, Stitches in Time, and Houses of Stone, (and Summer of the Dragon is a hilarious meeting of archaeology and pseudoscience if that's your sort of thing.)
posted by modernhypatia at 2:00 PM on February 12, 2016


A Nest Of Singing Birds by Canadian writer Susan Charlotte Haley and set in a Canadian university.
posted by purplesludge at 5:19 PM on February 12, 2016


Here to second Giles Goat Boy by John Barth.

I'll third it, if you are up for a sizzling slab of surrealism piled on top of the absurdity. It's a wonky epic.

I haven't read all of Pratchett's Unseen books, but I have recently read 'Unseen Academicals', and I got a real kick out of it, it's a swell book.
posted by ovvl at 6:14 PM on February 12, 2016


Portuguese Irregular Verbs.
posted by nat at 6:17 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Came to say Portuguese Irregular Verbs, one of the funniest books I have ever read. It was a trilogy, but Alexander McCall Smith recently added a fourth book.
posted by thebazilist at 8:51 PM on February 12, 2016


This may be slightly peripheral to your request, but it's dang funny.

The Toast: My Female Students Don't Seem As Impressed With Me As They Used To
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 4:42 AM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I found it sweet and sad in addition to gently funny, but Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr. reveled in the absurdity of pretensions and consumerist higher learning and undergraduates in general.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 9:40 AM on February 13, 2016


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