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.”