Essay

Reality beyond imagining

IN THE COURSE of the 35 years in which I taught in universities, a number of people had suggested that I write a campus novel: a novel about the university in the abstract and about the University of Sydney in particular. Ted Wheelwright, the economist and thorn in the side of Sydney's reactionaries, was particularly pressing. But even in those heady days I retained some instinct for self-preservation. It had not always seemed a terribly good idea while still working in the system. Once I could see early retirement beckoning, however, what was there to stop me? Very little.

I had earlier tried writing a novel set in England in the 1970s. But I couldn't get the narrative plot to gel. It was set in the time of student protests and security services' infiltration, but though I attended some of the sit-ins, I didn't know enough about the covert side of the university to create a convincing narrative. I salvaged the character studies and cut it down to a 12,000-word novella, which I called, nonetheless, "Campus Novel"[i]. Professor Edmonds is based on Terence Spenser, who was Professor of English and director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham where I had taught. Colleagues used to say, surreptitiously and dismissively, that he was mentioned in a novel by Olivia Manning. When I came to read The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65), I found that he was not just mentioned, but was one of the three main characters, Clarence. So much for the love and respect of your colleagues. I had not read the novel at the time I came to write about him, but knowing it had been written gave me a sense of participating in that parallel universe of fictional existence.

I am not sure that there is any clear-cut set of conventions for the novel of university life.[ii] There are some engaging university mystery novels, from Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935) through to Donna Tartt'sThe Secret History (1992). Willa Cather's early masterpiece, The Professor's House (1925) has some insightful things to say about the American campus and Bernard Malamud's A New Life (1961) offers a uniquely bleak portrayal. In Britain, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954) is a splendid and justly famous fons et origo, though much of its humour owed more to the tradition of country-house comedy, epitomised in the work of P.G. Wodehouse, than to the dynamics of the university: even the egregious Professor Welch was essentially based on Amis's father-in-law, not on a representative, or even eccentric, academic. Amis captured some of the class-war aspects of English society; the work of his successors became increasingly ideological and political. Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man (1975) and David Lodge's Small World (1984) achieved considerable exposure when dramatised for television. Whatever their intentions in writing their novels, Lodge and Bradbury found themselves conscripted to the emergent project of undermining public support for the university in the Thatcher years. "If that's the way they carry on there, the universities don't deserve any money," my mother remarked to me. The discrediting of the university, and in particular the humanities, softened up the public for the degradation of the British university system. Australia obediently followed suit.

In writing a campus novel, one is necessarily aware of such influential predecessors. I never met Amis, though at the Faber launch of a festschrift for Philip Larkin I saw him across the room, ferociously red-faced, a leg encased in plaster from falling down the stairs of the Garrick Club. I was too intimidated to approach him. I taught with David Lodge at the University of Birmingham in the late 1960s and continued to keep in touch with him over the years; he generously supplied a blurb for Academia Nuts.[iii] I also came to know Malcolm Bradbury, who had taught at Birmingham before moving to the University of East Anglia. Their works had established a certain campus novel ambience, but that apart, I wasn't aware of consciously drawing on them. It was more a case of having to define your own different vision. Most of these writers were too uniquely themselves to serve as a model. I was probably more influenced by P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, who did not deal specifically with the university, but whose comic mastery had also been an inspiration to Amis, Lodge and Bradbury.

Another colleague at Birmingham was Elsie Duncan-Jones, one of Leavis's earliest pupils, author of the first critical monograph on Gerard Manley Hopkins and a distinguished authority on Andrew Marvell. It was she who once said to me, rather sharply: "Dear Michael, I do wish you would write your campus farce, rather than living it all the time." In the end I did. And, of course, farce was one of the ways of dealing with the university. Either farce or a murder story. Despite all the provocations and irritations of academic life, I felt uneasy about murder. So farce it had to be. For a while, anyway.

 

CAMOUS FARCE, AS Elsie Duncan-Jones characterised it, had established itself as one way of writing about universities: bold, broad comedy, extreme situations, the comedy of excess and exaggeration. So when I came to write Academia Nuts, it had its generic farcical note. But plot was a problem – plot and narrative. University life had lots of little plots but no grand narrative that I could discern. Well, I told myself, having endlessly been told it by others, the days of the grand narratives are over. I didn't believe it, but it was a useful idea to hold on to in the current circumstances. Maybe rather than a narrative novel I could write something more episodic. It would be truer to my experience of university life. Lots of minor skirmishes. Guerilla warfare episodes – or terrorist and insurgent incidents as the politicians and media seem to call them now – rather than long drawn-out campaigns.

One of the things I shared with Professor Dame Leonie Kramer, my colleague at the University of Sydney, was an enjoyment of English television comedies. I wondered if they might offer a structural archetype I could access. In the past, writers had drawn on the Bible and Homeric epics to underpin their fictions. And now I was considering Are You Being Served? as a model. A department store certainly had the same sort of feel to it as the contemporary university, both moribund and mercantile. And the seedy, sex-preoccupied tradition of English theatrical comedy, from pantomime and music hall to the Carry On movies, was not unsuitable for a treatment of the groves of academe. Inevitably, my novel touches on this politically incorrect sex comedy and double entendre that have been a no less generic feature of campus novels.

But the model I found most useful for my purposes was the English television series by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Here the comedy was classically designed to instruct with delight, radically demystifying the manipulations of the political establishment. This was didactic comedy, comedy that told the truth about revered institutions. It was an extraordinarily subversive and educative show, and I acknowledge its influence gratefully. Who after watching it could ever again believe that a commission of inquiry was designed to do other than provide a whitewash? Who could ever expect ministers and prime ministers to do other than lie? Who could ever again believe principles and policies took anything but second place to political survival? When I came to write Academia Nuts, I consciously attempted to inform the humour with a similar didactic purpose. I chose representative episodes and situations that would reveal the reality of university life, and reveal them through comedy.

There were a lot of anecdotes to draw on, not just from the universities where I had taught, but from those I had visited. And these anecdotes told from campus to campus had a generic consistency. I began to see certain archetypal patterns here, and it was on this aspect that I decided to focus. I wanted the book to be true to the realities of university life but not to focus on recognisable individuals. I did not want to be defamatory, for obvious reasons. Or if I was perhaps tempted, I realised that it wasn't a good idea. So I decided to focus on archetypal incidents and create fully fictional characters. The characters might incorporate tics or mannerisms or values observed in various individuals, and myself, over the years, but they were not conceived as portraits from life, such as I had sometimes drawn in other fiction.

But I wanted the basic events to have the resonance of truth. The novelist Don'o Kim, who was one of those who encouraged me in the project, suggested I should make the book representative of society at large. The events of university life, that is, should be a way of representing a larger politics. I wasn't sure that the genre of academic novel, or the subject, was strong enough for that. I didn't want to make the book too portentous or pretentious. Nonetheless, some of that possibility of representing the larger society lingers there. If not representing society in microcosm, the project was certainly concerned to relate to society. Campuses and their fiction can seem like an enclosed and isolated Arcadian enclave. But I tried to make a point of showing connections with other worlds. My character Pawley, for instance, an unreconstructed relic of the 1970s, insists on a radical conspiracy interpretation of history and the present and brings into focus political issues of control and surveillance. A couple of writers, Sam Samson and Francesca Templar, make an appearance from my study of the literary world, Wildest Dreams (1998). There is a bank robber and a con man and a working girl and an American friend. And magic and otherworldly realms relating to my research for Raising Spirits, Making Gold and Swapping Wives: The True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly (1999) came in at the novel's end, to suggest that there are other realities. Life, thank heavens, is not just an endless campus novel.

And necessarily, as it charts the destruction of the universities, it has its serious note. John Lucas and Carole Ferrier both told me how painful they found it. Brian Kiernan remarked sadly that the Southerly reviewer of the novel seemed to find our wretched last years the subject of mirth.[iv] The Times Higher Education Supplement columnist Laurie Taylor expressed his doubts that campus novels could any longer be comic:[v]"A witty campus novel? In 2004? It seemed as likely as a holiday romance set amid the tropical delights of Guantanamo Bay. Where in the technological, bureaucratic confines of the modern university was there room for the happy academic indulgences and airy pretensions and self-conscious posturings that were once juicy fodder for Bradbury and Lodge and Amis?" But in the end he laughed. "It is politically incorrect. Appallingly so. But it is also very funny. So funny that I had to stop reading it in bed in case my roars of laughter were disturbing the neighbours: so funny that it deserves to be the final great campus novel. It is unlikely to be challenged. For what Wilding's aged unreconstructed dons are playing with such absurd brio is unmistakably the last waltz."

I forget which president of the United States it was who particularly upset novelists. I think it was Nixon but it could have been any of them. The enormity of his behaviour, his lies and deceptions and plots and fabrications were so extreme that novelists began to complain that his behaviour far exceeded anything that the fictional imagination could ever put into a novel. No one would believe in a character like that. Readers would reject the book in disbelief. Reality, as it was so called, had superseded fiction. It was putting novelists out of business. I began to feel much the same way about the universities. No one expressed horror or shock or amazement at what I wrote. No one seemed upset.[vi] Reality was already beginning to outstrip my wildest imaginings. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, continually exceeded the most extreme situations I could come up with.

I had already completed the novel when it was reported that the vice-chancellor of one of the bigger Australian universities had resigned because of allegations of plagiarism. This was far more extraordinary than anything I had invented. Would anyone have believed such an incident? They would have said it was excessive, absurd, unrealistic. But I incorporated it into the second edition.

I must say I found the story hard to believe myself. I have few illusions about management, as university administrators now like to call themselves. I taught for a while on a campus where the president or vice-chancellor or CEO was under investigation for allegedly receiving kickbacks on plumbing contracts. The campus novelists there were vastly amused and we shared many a joke about it. But plagiarism? I suppose what amazed me was that senior management ever claimed to have written or published anything, plagiarised or not. One of my characters delivers a tirade about such people:

What sort of academic would become a dean, a pro-vice-chancellor, a vice-chancellor? Only one who was no longer concerned to teach, only one who was no longer concerned to research. The people who occupy these administrative roles are self-selected failures from the academy they presume to control. They are people whose teaching skills were so derisory that they avoided teaching by getting teaching relief for administrative duties, whose ability to write or research was so inadequate that they avoided research by hiring research assistants to do their research and write their publications for them ... (201-2)

It is a tirade and I felt it sounded excessive. It was meant to sound excessive. Indeed, I felt the situation had become excessive. Academia Nuts has characters getting their research assistants to write their work for them. It has academics, or one academic, considering hiring a ghost writer to write a book, as J.F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover are said to have done. But plagiarism – I never thought of inventing that. Reality had gone beyond the imagination. And yet it was not the first time.

Writing about Academia Nuts, Don Graham recalled: "Well, at a university in Texas where I was teaching in the late 1960s, the university president was discovered to have plagiarised his dissertation and was, after much sturm und drang, dismissed and the degree stripped from him. At the time he held a post as undersecretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, when this episode played out, he was the only "intellectual" left in the Johnson administration. Vowing to clear his name, the ex-university president instead entered into real estate, selling properties in rural Texas, and became a multi-millionaire. Such is life." [vii]

 

MUCH OF ACADEMIA Nuts consists of dialogue. Academics sit around in the common room or the faculty club and talk. In a sense, I suppose, I wanted to create some sort of surprise, some gentle shock effect. The comedy was to lie in the discrepancy between the expected and the actual. Instead of discussing abstruse scholarly issues, the minutiae of textual scholarship, the nature of truth, and so on, the academics inAcademia Nuts mainly discuss, and indeed embody, the degeneration of the university. Instead of collegiality they demonstrate a deep dislike and suspicion of their fellow academics. This, after all, is the tradition of the campus novel. These are the expectations of the genre.

Not any more. Or at least, not at the University of Sydney, where I taught for so many years. The staff club – the university club as it was officially known – was closed down by senior management in the year Academia Nuts appeared. No longer is there a site for conversations. No longer is there a focus for dialogue and discussion. No longer is there a staff club. The characters in Academia Nuts eventually ceased going to their faculty club because their colleagues upset their digestion, the barman seemed like an informer and they suspected the place was bugged. These were consciously extreme imaginings. But I never imagined the utter extremity of a university administration actually closing down its staff club.

I should have known, though. I had taught in the US and been amazed to find academics there were not in the habit of having lunch together in the club or morning tea in the common room. There were no staff clubs, no common rooms. It was the model of control. There was nowhere for people to sit around and compare notes, to contrast different practices in different departments, to exchange information, to discuss change, to foment resistance, to tell jokes. Removing any focus for academics to meet is a basic way of keeping the staff separate and alienated, a basic way of preventing any cooperation, collegiality or rebellion. I knew things were bad but I failed to imagine how bad. The novelist outstripped by contemporary reality again. Inevitably I came to speculate whether there is any future for the campus novel. As the universities crumble by the minute, will there be anything left to write about? As they become unimaginable, who will ever write about them anymore? When Academia Nuts appeared, I wrote about this perception of the way reality in the universities was outstripping the wildest fictional imaginings for the NSW Writers' Centre newsletter.[viii]

And then the complimentary copies of Academia Nuts I was mailing around the world through the departmental mail at university were impounded. I discovered them a month later when I was asked what research grant were they to be billed to. I had assumed as an emeritus professor I had mail rights – or if not rights, at least privileges. Clearly not. Perhaps someone had thought such things sounded like male rights, and in the gender-redressed balance of the new politically correct university, they had been summarily abolished. Not happening to be in receipt of a grant, I drove the copies across to my publisher, Pat Woolley, and asked her if she would mail these as well as the review copies. She agreed to, on certain conditions. The first edition was nearly sold out and she wanted to make some alterations before she reprinted: she proposed changing the order of the opening episodes and she demanded a new chapter for a new ending. She suggested I should write one about the mail impounding. There had already been a change of cover after Pat had decided she didn't like the appearance of the advance copies; she issued a press release stating that they had too much cholesterol in them, which got us some valuable publicity. [ix]

Publishers' suggestions for revisions are always a bit worrying to a writer, but variant editions are a splendid thing for collectors and for attracting scholarly attention. They are the very stuff of scholarly discourse and they ensure a place in the bibliographies. Academic careers have been built on noting revisions and discrepancies. I agreed to write about the impounding, and turned the thoughts about plagiarism and closing the staff club into dialogue form and included them too. Who was I to refuse a second edition?[x] 

 

[i] "Campus Novel", Active:Reactive, 1 (1987) 32-45; reprinted in Under Saturn (Black Swan, 1988).COULDN'T CONFIRM THIS, BOB

[ii] Recent studies of the genre include Colin Symes, "Revolting campuses", Teaching in Higher Education, Vol 9, No 4, October 2004 and Aida Edemariam, "Who's Afraid of the Campus Novel?" The Guardian, London, October 2, 2004.

[iii] Academia Nuts (Wild & Woolley, 2002); second edition (Wild & Woolley, 2004).

[iv] Richard Crabtree, Southerly, June 2003, 199-201.

[v] Times Higher Education Supplement, February 13, 2004.

[vi] The Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney, Elspeth Probyn, made up for this in her column in the Higher Education section of The Australian, "Two takes on the naked campus", October 16, 2002, 36. FAIRFAX DATABASE SAYS APRIL 16, 2003, SAME PAGE NO.

[vii] JAS Review of Books, November 2003.

[viii] "Universities Unfair to Novelists", Newswrite, October 2002. Observing best environmental-friendly practice, I have recycled the material into this essay.

[ix] "Few virgins in academe", in Sauce with Kate McClymont, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 19-20, 2002, 48. The second edition's inclusion of the mail impounding got us some publicity too: "Writer's reality stranger than tale", by Luke Slattery, The Weekend Australian, April 12-13, 2003,12.

[x] This essay is based in part on the keynote conclusion to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference "'My Life as a Joke': Australian Comic Writing and the Language of Laughter," National Library of Australia, 3-4 February, 2005.

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