Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.
Continue reading Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel
English departments have diversified. Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms. One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist. Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence. Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.
Continue reading The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English
When Ian McEwan talks about his writing, he sounds like an impressionist painter entranced by water lilies. He speaks of images and scenes, the feelings they elicit and how they prompt him to begin new books. That’s his power: He’s a writer who has strong ideas, doesn’t shy away from contrarianism and tackles modern political problems, but he isn’t an Ayn Rand packaging political philosophy as fiction. He’s a writer whose respect for and mastery of the written word allows him to play with ideas unpopular in academia without reaping the wrath of critics.
His latest novel, Solar, not only lampoons the state of the modern anti-global warming movement (the head of a climate institute goes to the North Pole, where his penis falls off). The book also mocks academia at every turn.
Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who has done nothing of note since winning the world’s most prestigious prize, is the anti-hero of Solar. (Spoiler alert.) He holds a post at an unnamed university in Geneva, but does no teaching. He doesn’t particularly care about global warming, or anything else that doesn’t yield immediate pleasure. He heads a center to reverse the damage being done to the planet, mostly because the work is undemanding and pays decently. A young man who works for him (who is also sleeping with his wife) comes up with a brilliant plan to utilize solar energy to replace fossil fuels. Beard steals the idea when the man dies accidentally and frames another one of his wife’s lovers for his murder. Suddenly Beard is the world’s hero.
Beard is asked to be the “titular head of a government scheme to promote physics in schools and universities” and grudgingly accepts. He sits with a committee, mostly physicists (all male) and one woman (a social anthropologist) whose work focuses on proving that genes are “socially constructed.”
Continue reading Ian McEwan’s Take on the Larry Summers Saga
What books do colleges and universities ask incoming freshmen to read over the summer? “Beach Books,” a study by the National Association of Scholars, has an answer: it turned up 180 books at 290 institutions and concluded that the book choices are unchallenging, heavily pitched to themes of alienation and oppression, and overwhelmingly reflect liberal themes and the sensibilities of the academic left.
The selections are mostly books published in the last decade and “generally pitched at an intellectual level well below what should be expected of college freshmen…. It is hard to find anything on the list that poses even a modest intellectual challenge to the average reader.” The chosen books tend to be “short, caffeinated and emotional” and seem grounded on the premises of Oprah’s Book Club.
Many colleges say the selections are intended to start conversations and engage new students in intellectual reflection. But assignments based on this goal seem to betray some unstated anxieties, among them that “students are so lacking in shared intellectual experience as to have little to talk about with one another—or little beyond television, music and sports.” The “present-ism” of the selections, the report concludes, reflects an underestimation of the students’ ability to discover connections between the past and the contemporary world. Colleges ought to push students toward making such connections rather than assume that students won’t get it.”
The report wonders whether the colleges are aware of the political slant and triviality of the books pushed on freshmen. It tentatively concludes: “Our guess is that they do not.” Sixty of the 290 colleges selected books in what the report calls the multiculturalism/immigration/racism category. Other totals are environmentalism/animal rights/food (36 colleges), the Islamic world (27), new age/spiritual philosophy (25) and holocaust/genocide/war/disaster (25). On the whole, the books offer a distinctly disaffected view of American society and Western civilization. On the left-right spectrum the reports says that 70% of the books lean liberal, 28% neutral and 2% conservative.