FROM KINGSLEY AMIS'S 1953 satire ''Lucky Jim'' to Philip Roth's 2000 tragedy ''The Human Stain,'' over the past half-century the academic novel has offered us a jaundiced insider's perspective on the modern humanities department. Many of the most entertaining examples of this genre have portrayed today's professoriate as competitive, sex-obsessed spewers of jargon. Although she doesn't entirely disagree, Elaine Showalter-feminist cultural critic and, at present, the LA Times's Michael Jackson trial-watcher-defends the academic life in her new book, ''Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents'' (Penn). I interviewed the Brookline-raised Showalter, who is retired from Princeton, in Harvard Square last week.
IDEAS: Academic fiction hasn't been kind to women-one thinks of the sexless frumps of ''Lucky Jim,'' or the suicidal Harvard feminist in Carolyn Heilbrun's ''Death in a Tenured Position.'' So why do you like it so much?
SHOWALTER: As a faculty wife and grad student in the '60s, I devoured books like ''Lucky Jim,'' C.P. Snow's ''The Masters,'' and Alison Lurie's ''Love and Friendship'' because I wanted tips on fitting into university culture. I even tried to model myself upon Domna Rejnev, the ardent young literature professor in [Mary McCarthy's 1952 novel] ''The Groves of Academe,'' though I'm about as far from her as I am from Queen Latifah.... Of course it's true that women in such novels have mostly fared badly. Still, these books are not only fun to read, they offer a social history of the university-including women professors' struggle for respect, status, and power.
IDEAS: Since the late '60s, fictional professors have grown more and more grotesque, and their departmental squabbles more petty. Why?
SHOWALTER: In the early '70s, the job market for new Ph.D.'s in literature tanked-so untenured professors who write novels have become even more disillusioned. And since 1968 the academy has no longer been a sanctuary-the simplest questions of curriculum or faculty recruitment have been politicized.... Also, by the 1990s English departments had lost confidence in their mission-yet another reason the genre of academic fiction has become so nihilistic.
IDEAS: You write that what appeals to you most about the genre is its seriousness, even sadness. How so?
SHOWALTER: There's certainly a disparity between the utopian fantasy of university life-a group of people who transcend the quotidian and devote themselves to teaching and scholarship-and the all-too-human reality. But some of the finest academic fiction-''The Masters,'' ''The Groves of Academe,'' David Lodge's ''Nice Work,'' A.S. Byatt's ''Possession''-treats the disparity as tragicomedy, without condemning higher education or all professors.