What hope remains for the masses of disillusioned graduate students, unemployed PhDs, and embittered faculty who still, despite everything, believe in the fundamental virtue of teaching and interpreting literature? Two recent novels, Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox and Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, turn to speculative fiction to grapple with the current specter of humanities in crisis. Both authors are associate professors of the humanities, Mayr at the University of Calgary and Rosenberg at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; neither is shy about portraying the indignities of their profession in the starkest possible light.
To different degrees, these books borrow from the tradition of the campus novel, a genre that lends itself to satirical send-ups of the eccentricities and pretensions of cloistered academic intellectualism. But as they dive into the workplace struggles of beleaguered professors, both shift the tradition’s typical realism, and its attendant mordant skepticism, into the register of the surreal.
Mayr’s novel sets itself up as a classic example of the genre before twisting the typical campus plot into an utter horror show. Dr. Edith Vane is an earnest tenured professor of African Canadian women’s literature scrambling to maintain her departmental standing. Trapped in the familiarly mundane grind of research, teaching, office hours, meetings, and administrative evaluation, Edith also finds herself the target of the supernatural wrath of her building, Crawley Hall. Whispers, visions, and stenches haunt her senses; unknown stairwells thwart her passage to class; a sinkhole erupts in the parking lot. Edith is terrified, but also exasperated: she simply has no time to deal with supernatural horrors if she wants to keep her job. Navigating Crawley Hall’s malevolence amounts to extra unpaid labor for a worker already so overburdened she can barely find time for a bathroom break.
Confessions of the Fox owes less to the campus novel than to historical fiction, but this complex text is a genre mash-up. As it knots together numerous narrative and philosophical threads—queer theory, prison abolition, biopolitics, colonial resistance, commodity fetishism, and more—an academic plot unfolds on the margins. The book centers on the memoirs of 18th-century thief and folk hero Jack Sheppard, depicted as a timid young transgender man trying to shake free of a traumatic past and lay claim to his own identity.
In the document’s footnotes, a second story emerges. Placed on unpaid administrative leave by his university, present-day historian Dr. Voth edits Jack’s memoirs in what begins as a side gig but becomes an urgent personal mission. The project is commissioned by P-Quad, the university’s for-profit publishing partner, who contracts Voth’s editorial labor in order to turn a public document into a salable commodity. When Voth grasps the revolutionary potential of Jack’s story, however, the abyss between his institutional commitments and real intellectual work becomes intolerable. He abandons his contract and flees with the manuscript to a mysterious library, the site of a time-and-space-bending scholarly community built around textual revision.
Realism is not enough to capture either the abjection or the wondrous possibilities of being a 21st-century humanities scholar.
For anyone with a stake in humanities education, the problems that plague our professor-heroes may seem depressingly familiar. Before their novels enter the realms of the surreal, Mayr and Rosenberg take aim at a number of shared and wholly real-world targets. Both their professors work in asbestos-ridden, dilapidated buildings while their campuses pour money into renovations elsewhere. Both lament the slashed budgets and diminished faculty of their departments. Both are sourly resigned to the corporate takeover of their institutions. Ludicrous jargon governs their work life: Dr. Vane is in imminent danger of being “refreshed”—fired—in accordance with the university’s new “EnhanceUs plan,” while Dr. Voth sneers at the “optimization” of his university’s library into administrative offices. And an eerily similar villain looms large over both texts: the dean, locus of institutional power, whose unofficial motto seems to be “discipline and punish” (Voth’s nemesis is literally the Dean of Surveillance).
In line with the campus novel tradition, each book lays the groundwork to satirize the modern-day academy without departing the bounds of realism. The tropes above are exaggerated for irony’s sake, but hardly in the realm of fantasy. Yet both Rosenberg and Mayr use their realist critiques of campus life as launching pads into the supernatural. Why the generic shift? The key seems to be a sense, shared by two otherwise quite distinct texts, that there is something peculiar about modern academic life that defies ordinary representation. Realism is not enough to capture either the abjection or the wondrous possibilities of being a 21st-century humanities scholar. Dr. Edith Vane veers into the horror genre to account for the former, Confessions into utopian speculation to explore the latter.
Both directions of departure from strict realism hinge on the novels’ attention to the lived experience of being a minority. At work and in general, Drs. Vane and Voth are subject to multiple forms of marginalization, both as humanities scholars and on the basis of their personal identities. Embedded in each character’s professional struggle is the recognition that who they are intersects with what they study to make them a target of aggression and neglect. Dr. Vane is a black queer woman reading black women’s writing, Dr. Voth a trans man studying a trans man’s history. In each case, their work is dismissed as irrelevant until picked up by other, supposedly less self-interested parties.
Mayr, in particular, skewers the biases of the smugly enlightened academic workplace. Her novel is a chronicle of impostor syndrome experienced by a scholar whose apparent success—Edith has achieved the coveted status of tenured professor—is eroded by the racism, sexism, homophobia, and general elitist cruelty of her institution and colleagues. The book’s supernatural plot grows out of this entirely realistic horror story. It’s no wonder that Edith feels “she can’t pull off the professor masquerade and never will”: she’s yanked into group photos at a faculty reception because “we need more diversity”; she fears the dean’s disdain for her is emboldened by white male privilege.
Worst of all is Dr. Lesley Hughes, a prestigious scholar who once served as Edith’s graduate advisor and reenters her life as a senior colleague. Lesley is a compendium of nearly every wrong inflicted on a graduate student by a supposed mentor; her extremes might seem absurd to a reader who has not kept up with 2018 headlines, where the sordid details of academic hierarchies continue to emerge.1 “I own you,” this white woman used to sneer at her black advisee, scrawling “You should drop out” in the margins of Edith’s writing and brandishing false archival evidence at her dissertation defense in an attempt to prevent her graduation.
The forces in play are crystal clear. “For years and years,” Edith recalls, she was “Lesley’s cute and exotic-looking PhD student, her shy queer brown pet, and then when Edith was about to become a Doctor just like Lesley … Lesley curdled.” Yet the abundant evidence of Lesley’s unprofessionalism in no way diminishes her luminous career. Edith feels like an impostor because, in an institution fueled by exclusion and the consolidation of power, she is one. She clings ferociously to her title, a small affirmation, even in situations of abasement: “I’m Dr. Edith Vane!” she repeatedly shouts in desperation, trapped in an elevator in another of Crawley Hall’s devious tricks.
Mayr leaves the relationship between Edith’s mundane problems and her supernatural ones vague. Yet certain alignments are unmistakable. In both the realist and the fantastic registers of her story, Edith is a victim of persecution. Crawley Hall’s mysterious forces erupt in ways that undermine her authority, derail her confidence, and diminish her standing as a scholar—the same effects pursued by her domineering former advisor, sniping colleagues, and tyrannical boss. Shifting from realism to the realm of the supernatural allows Mayr to fully capture the horror of the marginalized scholar’s experience. Edith’s single attempt to confront Lesley, for instance, is interrupted by a sudden shower of larvae followed by the total collapse of the office ceiling. It is clear that ghoulish Crawley Hall, like the academic system itself, simply will not let Edith win.
Given the challenges these scholars face, one might reasonably ask: why not change careers? But Mayr and Rosenberg capture both the unequivocal joy and the potential power of scholarly work. Vane and Voth not only adore their source material but also experience their texts as life-changing forces for good in the world. Both dream that their work will revolutionize the traditional literary canon and counter prevailing (mis)representations of marginalized identities. Dr. Vane yearns for an unknown African Canadian memoirist to be recognized among the great writers of her country; she considers scholarship to be “her tribute, her temple erected to Beulah Crump-Withers,” a means of elevating the previously overlooked literary genius of a rural black housewife. Dr. Voth sees the Sheppard document as a chance to shift the discourse of transgender history from lurid sexological exploitation to courageous self-authorship.
Is Rosenberg’s novel a pure escapist fantasy, a utopian no-place? Or is there real hope for a grassroots rebuilding of the academic world?
These scholars want nothing more than to do right by their texts. They suffer when the power of those texts is misappropriated for ignoble reasons. Vane and Voth choose to study the humanities because they know reading matters: their students may be oblivious and their administrative overlords intellectually indifferent, but they experience the power of stories to make life worth living and new possibilities imaginable, especially for readers on the social margins. The work of teaching, interpreting, and writing is a way for them to channel that magic for others who need it.
In Confessions of the Fox, the magic of intellectual community becomes more than a metaphor. The novel’s utopian ending imagines a realm of fully liberated scholarship—the polar opposite of Voth’s ordinary work life, trapped in a system that rewards scholarly devotion only insofar as it yields institutional profit. The problem with P-Quad’s plan to copyright and sell an edited version of Jack Sheppard’s history is not simply economic: Voth’s deeper concern is the damage wrought by the voyeuristic cisgender gaze on a trans story. In what Voth considers a mark of authenticity, Sheppard’s confessions refuse to put trans bodies on display for the reader—a direct challenge to both the objectifying medical discourse of Jack’s day and modern cis-authored narratives’ persistent obsession with trans people’s genitals. “READERS NEED TO BE ABLE TO VISUALIZE,” insists P-Quad’s corporate rep in one of his all-caps missives, demanding that Voth produce the document’s “missing page”: an explicit illustration of so-called chimeric genitalia.
There is no such page, because this is not that kind of text. Indeed, a constitutive quality of Jack’s memoirs is reticence, not shyness or inhibition—Confessions is, among other things, an ardent paean to pussy—but a steadfast refusal to divulge secrets, both others’ and one’s own. Voth notes, for instance, that while Jack often recounts sex with his lover Bess in great detail, he never showcases her body for the reader, a tacit but firm recognition of the right of all people, sex workers like Bess included, to privacy and bodily autonomy.
Similarly, there are crucial elements of Jack’s story—physical and mental abuse, body dysmorphia, traumatic dissociation, the formative pain of “unheldness”—that Voth refuses on principle to unpack in user-friendly terms. As a man whose own body and troubled personal history are frequently scrutinized by prying outsiders, he cannot let this text and its sensitive delineation between storytelling and exploitation be betrayed. “There’s a difference between a confession one wants to give, and one that is taken,” Voth writes, a difference that is crucial to a humanistic enterprise and irrelevant to a private corporation trying to turn a sensationalist buck.
Guided by the manuscript’s gradually unfolding riddles, Voth executes a total escape from the oppressive forces of the neoliberal academy. He drives off the grid and into a Borgesian fantasy: a place he calls the Stretches, “a colossal library in chitin, spiderweb and glass.” There, a community of unknown beings—it is not clear if they are human—engages in a collective decolonization of history. Without revealing much—his story remains in the footnotes—Voth hints at a space of intellectual freedom, camaraderie, and mutual care. This new community gets him, his esoteric interests and radical desires, the way no one else (and certainly not his institution) ever could, or bothered to try.
Voth is circumspect about how he arrived at the Stretches, yet optimistic that readers can trace his path. The book ends with a lyrical call for movement-building through literature; Jack’s confessions, along with Rosenberg’s own book, are imagined as living archives of an ongoing project of collective liberation. Voth writes that Jack’s story contains “something just for us.” This “us” specifically hails queer and trans folks, people of color, and those who bear historical legacies of colonial trauma, yet also invites anyone so moved to join in the struggle: “Dear Reader,” Voth entreats in his final footnote, “if you are you—the one I edited this for, the one I stole this for … you will find your way to us. You will not need a map.”
Is this a pure escapist fantasy, a utopian no-place? Or is there real hope for a grassroots rebuilding of the academic world? Rosenberg’s novel ends in tension between the utter impossibility of reaching a place like the Stretches—Voth says he has entered “a different timescale”—and the narrator’s earnest plea that we must. The speculative form of this story tips toward optimism. Few of us may drive off the grid and into an extradimensional library. But the organizing principles of the Stretches—collectivity, multiplicity, gender and sexual fluidity, the commitment to confront hegemonic legacies and abolish entrenched forms of violence—are available to us in the here and now. Outside the existing academy, Rosenberg suggests, we may yet carve out space for the humanities as modes of radical cultural transformation.
The utopian register of Voth’s story is what allows him to triumph. Vane, trapped in her own, altogether different register of horror, is seemingly vanquished. In the book’s final lines, she waits to be rescued from the crumbling wreckage of Crawley Hall, unaware that she has transformed into one of the building’s ever-present hares. From one point of view, her victimization by the oppressive combination of neoliberal academy plus supernatural malevolence is complete.
In their speculative leaps, both novels offer different strategies for the defense of humanities scholarship.
Yet demotion from tenured professor to hare holds out its own possibility for resistance. Hares feature as a menacing and enigmatic presence throughout the novel, roaming the grounds and interiors of Crawley Hall. They frighten Edith, yet she also identifies with them: remembering how Lesley once called her “hare-brained,” she adopts the animal—intelligent, precocial, and nimbly equipped to outrun predators—as a personal totem. While she and her colleagues are constrained by institutional idiocies, hares freely run amok; they cause panic in classrooms, poop in elevators, and construct habitats in the greenery of the coffee lounge. All the hares’ weird activity amounts to getting in the way of university business as usual; they are bugs in the system, stolidly indifferent to academic drama. Despite keen awareness of the injustices ruling her workplace, Dr. Vane the human can never muster herself to fight back. In choosing a form of institutional resistance, she could do worse than throw her lot in with the hares.
Without straying very far from reality, both novels depict a profession in severe decline. But in their speculative leaps, they offer different strategies for the defense of humanities scholarship. Rosenberg’s guiding figure is the utopian fox: he holds out a vision of the radical institution we might, with much hard collaborative work, eventually build. Mayr’s figure is the hare saboteur: she suggests the utility of surreptitiously fighting the institution from within, however personally difficult that may be. Perhaps with these books, both authors are following the hare’s path, writing fiercely anti-institutional stories from their positions as employees of institutions. There are many such saboteurs in the modern academy, fighting to keep the most noble parts of their chosen profession alive despite the system’s tightening grip. As the old structures crumble, perhaps it is time to follow the fox and dream, then build, whatever we want to come next.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- See Nidhi Subbaraman, “Some Called It ‘Vigilante Justice.’ But an Anonymous Campaign Triggered a Real Investigation into a UC Santa Cruz Professor,” Buzzfeed News, May 22, 2018; Andrea Long Chu, “I Worked with Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser,” The Chronicle Review, August 30, 2018. ↩