English departments are strange places. Even to those of us who spend our working lives inside them, they can seem utterly mysterious. Those looking in from outside must find them even more baffling. What exactly do lecturers do all day? They teach and interact with students, but what happens the rest of the time?
Literary scholars everywhere, writes Terry Eagleton, “live in a state of dread – a dread that one day, someone … will suddenly get wise to the fact that we draw salaries for reading poems and novels.” This fact, say Eagleton, “is as scandalous as being paid for sunbathing [or] eating chocolate.”
He has a point.
Harvard professor Deidre Shauna Lynch says even more bluntly that what English academics get up to simply “does not look like work” to those on the outside. Those of us writing on literature, she suggests, must make our peace with this fact. We must resign ourselves to being largely unknown to the broader culture, living in quiet obscurity.
And yet, as Netflix’s The Chair makes clear, life within an English department can actually look a lot like life in any other workplace. At the fictional Pembroke University, there are familiar office politics and dramas, as well as the usual mixture of ambition, resentment, and status-seeking that exist elsewhere. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) steers a team of colleagues who have eccentric literary quirks but are recognisable figures in many workplaces.
If you enjoyed this series, I’d recommend checking out these four novels, all of which offer compelling depictions of English departments. Forget the Campus Novel – the English Department Novel is a more interesting sub-genre.
1. Richard Russo, Straight Man (1997)
Russo’s comic novel shares many similarities with The Chair. It centres on the madcap adventures of William Henry Devereaux, Jr., who chairs an English department similar in size to that of Pembroke. Furious about recent financial cuts, Devereaux takes matters into his own hands. He uses a local television network to publicise his cause, threatening to kill one goose from the university pond every day until his department’s budget is reinstated.
Russo emphasises the slapstick, farcical side of departmental politics. Straight Man is a glorious send up of self-serious academics, the politics of literary theory, and intellectual ambition.
It also offers a perfect gloss on the old adage that academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low. I strongly suspect that the writers of The Chair had Devereaux in mind while creating the similarly hapless Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass).
2. John Williams, Stoner (1965)
John Williams may well have written the most moving novel ever to be set in an English department.
In understated, elegiac prose, Williams gives us the tragic life story of William Stoner, an obscure English professor at the University of Missouri, who enters as an agriculture student but develops a lifelong passion for literature. He lives his entire life against the backdrop of the university, and all of his significant relationships are found within the English department.
While Stoner’s contributions to the field seem middling to his colleagues, he inspires generations of students with his generous and rigorous teaching. His personal life may well be a kind of tragedy, but he finds redemption in his teaching and research, and a true home in the department.
Williams gives us an example of the English department novel at its most existential and weighty, one beloved of readers inside and outside the academy.
3. Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe (1952)
McCarthy’s novel takes us back to comedy once again, mining the same territory as The Chair and Straight Man but written well in advance of either. Drawing on her own experiences at Bard College and elsewhere, McCarthy gives us a farce with a serious political edge. Set at the fictional Jocelyn College, the novel centres on Henry Mulcahy, an expert on James Joyce who learns he has been let go, seemingly without cause.
As he fights to save his position, McCarthy shows us the subtle and shifting nature of allegiances within the English departments she knew firsthand, as well as the petty disputes and lurid scandals they can harbour. She pulls no punches, laying bare the gossip, naked careerism, and backstabbing that even seemingly mild-mannered English academics are capable of.
The novel also gives us a classic bait-and-switch. The central character, Mulcahy, whom we initially see as sympathetic and unfairly mistreated, slowly comes into focus as manipulative and profoundly unlikable. As we begin to see the central events from the perspective of once minor characters, the truth is revealed, and McCarthy skillfully shows us the mistakes of our earlier judgments.
4. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)
This wise and moving novel explores the lifelong friendship between two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Sid and Larry are English professors in Madison, Wisconsin, and the novel follows them as they chase literary ambitions while also managing substantial teaching duties.
Both are striving for tenure and are forced to negotiate complicated faculty politics. Ultimately, this is a novel about “quiet lives,” as the narrator tells us. Its great themes are friendship, marriage, and the nature of love.
And while the English department often fades into the background as Stegner explores other aspects of his characters’ lives, its politics are never far away. Sid and Larry are often concerned with the petty machinations of their academic colleagues, and Crossing to Safety includes many details that still resonate with life at a university today. Stegner’s novel also offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of literary studies from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Of course, there are many other novels within this sub-genre, including David Lodge’s beloved campus trilogy, as well as novels by Vladimir Nabokov, J.M. Coetzee, and others. While eating chocolate and sunbathing wouldn’t necessarily make for interesting fiction, life in an English department, it seems, certainly does.