Science fiction author Joe Haldeman once said:
Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.
And yes, ageing white professors cheating on their wives is definitely a recurring theme on this list – but there is also some sexual experimentation, a murder or two, slapstick comedy, and plenty of cheap wine.
In Omnia Paratus!
Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh
The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.
Lucky Jim (1954), Kingsley Amis – review here
It was the perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on 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.’
Pnin (1957), Vladimir Nabokov
While endowed with the morose temper of genius, [Lakes the Arts Professor] lacked originality and was aware of that lack; his own paintings always seemed beautifully clever imitations, although one could never quite tell whose manner he mimicked. His profound knowledge of innumerable techniques, his indifference to ‘schools’ and ‘trends’, his detestation of quacks, his conviction that there was no difference whatever between a genteel aquarelle of yesterday and, say, conventional neoplasticism or banal non-objectivism of today, and that nothing but individual talent mattered–these views made of him an unusual teacher. St Bart’s was not particularly pleased either with Lake’s methods or with their results, but kept him on because it was fashionable to have at least one distinguished freak on the staff.
A Single Man (1964), Christopher Isherwood
Kenny Potter sits in the front row because he’s what’s nowadays called crazy, meaning only that he tends to do the opposite of what most people do; not on principle, however, and certainly not out of aggressiveness. Probably he’s too vague to notice the manners and customs of the tribe, and too lazy to follow them, anyway.
Stoner (1965), John Williams
It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive – because we have to.
Maurice (1971), E.M. Forster
“I knew you read the Symposium in the vac,” he said in a low voice.
Maurice felt uneasy.
“Then you understand – without me saying more – ”
“How do you mean?”
Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue he whispered, “I love you.”
White Noise (1985), Don DeLillo
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain?
Possession (1990), A.S. Byatt
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.
The Secret History (1992), Donna Tartt
‘You want to know what Classics are?’ said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. ‘I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.’ A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.
Making History (1996), Stephen Fry
Literary studies were no more than a series of autopsies performed by heartless technicians. Worse than autopsies: biopsies. Vivisection. Even movies, which I love more than anything, more than life itself, they even do it with movies these days.
On Beauty (2005), Zadie Smith – review here
It was a surprise to Jerome how happy he was to be back. Three years ago he had thought he hated Wellington: an unreal protectorate; high income, morally complacent; full of spiritually inert hypocrites. But now his adolescent zeal faded. Wellington had become a comforting dreamscape he felt grateful and fortunate to call home. It was certainly true that this was an unreal place where nothing ever changed. But Jerome – on the brink of his final college year and he knew not what – had begun to appreciate exactly this quality. As long as Wellington stayed Wellington, he could risk all manner of change himself.
The Marriage Plot (2011), Jeffrey Eugenides
College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.
The Art of Fielding (2011), Chad Harbach
Literature could turn you into an asshole: he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.