Do you ever feel like this?

Fellow, sometime-and-in-some-fashion, academics or others dabbling in paper writing?

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. It wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485…’

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.

I never tire of this book – it’s one of my favorites – even as I pretty much dislike the main character and the object of his affection, the tepid and colorless Christine. What are your favorite campus, or academic, satires?

Update: David Foster and Jim Bennett, in the comments section, both voice the same thought I had on re-reading the above excerpt: an article on the economic impact of shipbuilding techniques sounds pretty darn interesting, actually. I think the scene says something about the main character, Dixon, and his lack of interest in the very topics he is meant to research and study. In short, his heart’s not in it. Either that or Kingsley Amis had zero interest in economics and the title struck him as the most vapid imaginable. Anyone know?

18 thoughts on “Do you ever feel like this?”

  1. I’m not an academic but I do like David Lodge’s “Nice Work,” which is about what happens when an exchange program of some kind requires a female academic to spend time with the male general manager of a foundry.

    “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485” is actually the sort of thing that I would probably enjoy reading, if it were at all decently written…

  2. I had the same reaction as David Foster about that title. That says something about this blog, doesn’t it?

  3. David Foster (I had originally written Lodge, oops!): a close favorite of mine to academic satire is the work-related satire (same thing, one a subset of the other). For this reason, I love both the British and American versions of The Office.

    Simon Kenton – that book ends up on every “best academic satire” list I’ve every seen. Must be that good!

    Lexington Green – it’s been years since I’ve read Brideshead Revisted, and, you know what? I can’t really remember it that well. Yikes!

    Sgt. Mom – fun fact, I graduated from Iowa State (grew up in the town as a faculty “brat”) and Jane Smiley, author of Moo U., was a faculty member at ISU. Hmm, I wonder what I would recognize, from memory, reading the book?

    Jim Bennett: I had the same thoughts!

  4. Kingsley Amis was, among other things, author of science fiction novels and short stories, as well as a lieterary critic of the sf genre.

    So I think it is safe to say that he was sufficiently interested in technology that the topic in question would have seemed quite fascinating to him. My guess is that he choose this example to characterize Dixon as somebody who is lacking intellectual curiosity.

  5. I hereby propose a ChicagoBoyz roundtable on the subject of the economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485. ;^)

    Speaking carefully, having just survived the nth layoff at my employer in the past few years, all the while remaining unsure about the usefulness and significance of my own work, I can assure you that something quite analogous to the Amis book could be written about many situations in early-21st-century corporate America. Academia is perhaps more blatantly useless, but as the saying goes, Dilbert isn’t a comic, it’s a documentary.

  6. “That says something about this blog, doesn’t it?”

    We are the kind of people who would walk into a used bookstore, see that book on the top shelf, get a ladder to reach it, flip through it, and look at the bibliography.

    There are not many of us out there.

    Thank God for the Internet. We might not have found each other without it.

  7. Best academic satire? Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin. A professor of English literature satirizes his tribe.

  8. Ha! Everyone, the homework assignment is to dig up such articles….Seriously, how funny would that be?

    (I actually went out and bought “Deaf Sentence” by David Lodge, which, oddly enough, has been blurbed by Oprah’s magazine: “A darkly witty novel of missed signals and mixed messages.” I also bought “The Appointment” by Herta Muller, and “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel. I spent wwwaaayyy too much money, but perhaps I can reduce my guilt by passing the books off to my brother – I do this a lot! – when I am done, and perhaps also reviewing one or the other for Chicago Boyz.)

  9. Well (he says, taking the plunge) 1450-1485 was a pretty interesting and momentous time in shipbuilding in Europe. It was the during the 15th century that Atlantic Europeans broke out of the confines of classical Europe and began voyaging regularly to the Canaries and (once again) Iceland, and the maritime resources of Iceland became available as food supply to Europe in the form of dried codfish. And of course it was exactly in this period that the Portuguese began seriously pushing down the coast of Africa. This went hand-in-hand with improvements in shipbuilding, particularly the three-masted caravel that could stand the rougher waters of the Atlantic and carry significant consumables and cargo. The wider resource base that these caravels gave access to increased the overall wealth of the European Atlantic states and started to shift the balance of power away from the Mediterranean states toward the Atlantic ones. Who in turn could afford more ambitious exploration projects. And of course the Portuguese successes upped the ante for the other states and gave them strategic reasons for wanting to explore.

    In particular, one mariner, brother of a Lisbon-based mapmaker who had very good access to state-of-the-art geographical knowledge, had taken advantage of this new capability and had voyaged as far north as Iceland and as far south as the Canaries; a breadth that no classical explorer had managed. This allowed him to intuit the wind patterns of the Atlantic and come up with a new approach.

    So you could say that the ultimate economic impact of new shipbuilding techniques was substantial indeed.

  10. I’m surprised no on has mentioned Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

    “The father of the modern campus novel, and the wittiest of them all. Extraordinary to think that ‘political correctness’ was so deliciously dissected 50 years ago.”-Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

  11. “Bitter Waters,” by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, is a vivid portrait of industrial life in Stalinist Russia. The central character Grigory Neposedov (a pseudonym), is the general manager of a sawmill, dedicated to keeping his factory operating effectively under very difficult conditions.

    My review here.

  12. One of the plot threads of Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” is a hilarious satire on liberal arts academia’s political correctness and contempt for science. In Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” one of the main characters is an academic who screws up his professional life by screwing a student. Also funny.

    Love Kingsley Amis. Thanks for a reminder to reread his oeuvre.

Comments are closed.