I write a mystery series set at a university and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad? Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous? Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even idiocies that make great material for satire. Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.
And because I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of colleges and universities over the years about other books of mine (often because they’re being taught there), I get told lots of stories. At some point during my visit–in a car, at a dinner, walking up a staircase–somebody takes me aside and spills secret tales of academic pettiness or worse. Committee infighting, tenure sabotage, rival speakers, snarky faculty emails, you name it. If all that sounds like bald men arguing over a comb, in the words of Borges, it is. Academia demonstrates the vanity of professional sports, the cruelty of big business, and the hypocrisy of politics.
But for all the stories I’ve been told while on the road, I’m usually just a witness, not a participant. That changed recently.
I was invited to a small private college to read from one of my most successful books, My Germany, a memoir about growing up in the shadow of Germany because my parents were Holocaust survivors. I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, however, but by another department.
I love readings. I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings from my fiction and non-fiction on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.
Only four people turned up for this particular reading, an all-time low for me at a college campus. Part of the low turnout was the ill-chosen time: noon. But the chagrined coordinator told me privately that the real problem was something else. Whenever she brought in a speaker who creative writing students would naturally be interested in, English Department professors consistently cold-shouldered the event. Why? Apparently they feel they should be the only ones inviting authors to campus, and if someone else does, they refuse to promote it.
I never obsess about numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400, the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college. Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.
It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.