A Brief Taxonomy of Fictional Academics

The most amusing pleasure of a campus novel is a particular sort of reveal: the topic of a character’s book or dissertation.

Orlando / Three Lions / Getty

Readers of detective fiction look forward to a big reveal: Whodunit? Readers of campus fiction hold out for a quieter pleasure. If a character is an academic, at some point the author will divulge the topic of the character’s book or dissertation. Generally speaking, writers don’t let this opportunity go to waste. You know how dogs look like their owners? The bouncy, athletic guy matches his golden retriever, and the tall, skinny lady with a long nose, her greyhound? Likewise, fictional academics resemble their work.

Perhaps because creative writers have reductive opinions of their scholarly counterparts, though, the question What breed is this academic? tends to yield one of only two answers. Many works in progress expose that the academic is a Tesman or a Lovborg.

Those labels are a reference to Henrik Ibsen’s realist masterpiece, Hedda Gabler, the story of a bored and jealous newlywed who destroys everything she touches (my subjective interpretation). The play contains two topic-reveal moments, with the second giving a whole new meaning to the first. Hedda’s husband, the aspiring professor George Tesman, explains that his book “will deal with the domestic industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages.” His aunt exclaims, “Fancy—to be able to write on such a subject as that!” A few scenes later, Eilert Lovborg, Hedda’s former lover and Tesman’s rival-in-scholarship, says that his book “falls into two sections. The first deals with the civilizing forces of the future. And here is the second … forecasting the probable line of development.” Tesman exclaims, “How odd now! I should never have thought of writing anything of that sort.”

No, he wouldn’t have. A book on at-home labor in one region in one time period, versus a book on the future of civilization: Ibsen’s not generally thought of as a humorist, but that contrast is as funny as it is obvious. Knowing nothing else about these characters, a reasonably astute reader would surmise, accurately, that Tesman is dull and reliable, Lovborg brilliant and extravagant.

As often as not, authors play the topic-reveal for laughs. Of course that’s how Kingsley Amis approaches the moment in Lucky Jim, the tale of a two-bit lecturer at a middling British university, because he plays just about everything in that novel for laughs. When a colleague asks Jim Dixon the title of his article, the narrator goes off: “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 … The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

Was Amis thinking of Tesman when he came up with that? I have to think he was. Such specificity, such drudgery, such a waste of time. Granted, Dixon, who has a flair for the romantic, isn’t nearly as yawn-enforcing as his topic. In this case the dissertation doesn’t reflect the character so much as his dim view of his chosen profession; Dixon believes that the ivory tower rewards Tesmans, so he has strategically chosen a Tesmanian topic. Yet Dixon and Tesman do have this in common: a total inability to inject the spark of life into their work.

The campus novel furthest from Lucky Jim in sensibility is probably Stoner, by John Williams, a depressing cult classic about a man born into a Missouri farming family who develops an abiding passion for literature. William Stoner’s dissertation, which he eventually reworks into a book, is not obviously woeful: “The Influence of the Classical Tradition Upon the Medieval Lyric.” Stoner’s particular sphere of interest, however, is as death-infused as the novel he animates. “He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets,” the narrator says, “and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death … and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.”

At the end of the novel and of his days, Stoner reaches for his book, the great production of his intellectual life, which he must now leave behind. Although, like the classical and medieval Latin poets, Stoner accepts his death, readers will find it hard to come away with anything other than bitterness and a feeling of mockery when the narrator notes that “the book was forgotten and that it served no use.” In Stoner’s final line, the book falls “into the silence of the room,” like its author into the silence of the universe.

A small, forgettable book by a small, forgettable man. Definitely on the Tesman side of the Lovborg-Tesman spectrum.

Grandiose Lovborgs crop up fairly often, too. The title character of Saul Bellow’s Herzog is an intellectual historian and the author of the book Romanticism and Christianity. Oh, is that all? In Changing Places, by David Lodge, Morris Zapp embarks “with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them.” How greedy. If a sure sign of a Lovborgian personality exists, it’s “absolutely everything.”

Perhaps the greatest Lovborg of them all is Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. Although Frankenstein hardly qualifies as an academic novel, the man who propels the narrative is certainly a scholar—a scholar-scientist, to be precise, who develops a technique to impart life to nonliving matter. He succeeds, as everyone knows, but his creation is monstrous, as everyone also knows. It annoys purists to no end when readers refer to the creature as Frankenstein. (That’s not his name; he doesn’t have one.) To me, though, the error serves as a convenient reminder that fictional scholars have a God-to-Adam—or owner-to-dog—relationship with their work. Lovborgs choose Lovborgian topics, and Tesmans choose Tesmanian topics.

I wrote a novel set on a college campus and, as I revised this piece, I finally bothered to ask myself: Is my protagonist, Anna Brisker, a Tesman or a Lovborg? My first thought was that Anna fits into neither category; I’m obviously far too original for typecasting, I said to myself. But no, I must admit that I fell into the binary trap. Anna’s researching an intellectual history of inspiration—roughly, other people’s ideas about how words get on the page—which she can’t finish, because she isn’t disciplined enough to ground her airy notions in a specific case study. She’s a Lovborg, that is to say, who’s fallen behind because she lacks Tesmanian focus.