David Lodge’s Nice Work may have been written in 1988, but it should be required reading for anyone in or near academe today:
You and I, Robyn, grew up in a period when the state was smart: state schools, state universities, state-subsidised arts, state welfare, state medicine–these were things progressive, energetic people believed in. It isn’t like that any more. The Left pays lip-service to those things, but without convincing anybody, including themselves. The people who work in state institutions are depressed, demoralised, fatalistic. Witness the extraordinary meekness with which the academic establishment has accepted the cuts (has there been a single high-level resignation, as distinct from early retirements?). It’s no use blaming Thatcher, as if she was some kind of witch who has enchanted the nation. She is riding the Zeitgeist.
There are some days when it’s just clearer than ever that neither those who have political power in Britain and America nor the zeitgeist have moved on from the Thatcher and Reagan era. The startling familiarity with which Lodge describes not just universities’ death by a thousand funding cuts, but also conversations about the utility of the humanities, the mission of local universities which are not Oxbridge, and even parodies of in-jokey, secret-code arguments about poststructuralism is kind of depressing for those of us who like to think that stuff changes over time. People have been having these kinds of arguments for generations upon generations, to be sure, but the urgency with which academics must defend themselves and their way of life seems to have come into our culture with the rise of the neocons and stayed in. Nice Work is a hilarious book, but it is also a book in which the academics are constantly under attack, in which the English-professor protagonist Robyn must fight as hard against the romantic suit of a manufacturing executive as she must to keep her non-tenure-track job. The one very easily becomes a metaphor for the other, a logical leap which is mirrored, somehow or other (I don’t quite know enough lit crit to work out how) by the deconstructionist analysis to which Robyn subjects Victorian realist novels in her professional life. Her job, essentially, is to make the realist novel seem unreal—but that’s a task also accomplished for her when she visits an actual factory and finds its hellish existence to be utterly alien to the green-quadded academic utopia she prefers to inhabit. But then in a scene where the aforementioned manufacturing executive subjects the arts faculty senior common room to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, we’re reminded of how easily academic utopia can be industrialized, how perilous that sense of utopia is, and why we should all probably be concerned for our futures and the futures of our institutions, long after the end of the official Thatcher era.