I always enjoy a Richard Russo novel, especially for his sympathetic portrayal of people and their work. I just finished his new novel, “That Old Cape Magic,” and not an ounce of sympathy was spared for his three main characters, all of whom toil in the academic field. The main character – hypercritical, emotionally distant, basically miserable – was only outdone by the parents, both English professors, who caused him to be that way. Dad was a lecherous, doddering, accident-prone, feeble old man, and Mom haunts him from the grave with a constant stream of snarky remarks, after a lifetime of bitterness at being stuck at a second-rate institution in nowheres-ville. Happiness is not realized until he dumps both their ashes at Cape Cod.
Some version of the creepy professor seems to pop up in current fiction at an alarming, and disproportionate, rate. Examples abound, in the works of Jane Smiley, Alison Lurie, David Lodge, Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, and many others. Now, I’ve been around professors all my life – colleagues at work, neighbors in my college town, friends, my husband, even my father and most of his friends were professors in the UMass system. Some were doozies, sure, but most were smart, dedicated, kind, and pretty normal, too.
So where does this characterization come from? We don’t see similarly portrayed doctors, or accountants, or even lawyers, which is supposed to be the punchline profession. Are these writers still angry about a C- in organic chemistry? Resentful that their colleagues seem to always get cushier committee assignments and easier courseloads (virtually all of these novelists are or have been professors themselves)? Or do they simply see their colleagues and themselves through a distorted lens?
It seems to me that professors come off best in the action/adventure genre: handsome, witty, handy with their fists, and, of course, intelligent. While no professor I know lives the life of Robert Langdon in “The Da Vinci Code,” perhaps a scholar’s best chance for a positive portrayal in contemporary literature is to find some swashbuckling topic to study, and basically emulate Indiana Jones!