Thursday, October 02, 2008

It's academic, or, win a book!

I haven't read many academic mysteries, but I always had the idea that they constituted a pretty genteel genre. Not so Iain Levison's Dog Eat Dog (though to be fair, the book is more a caper novel than an academic one).

Levison's chief target is his co-protagonist Elias White, an ambitious schemer who has calculated that his road to academic stardom lies in being seen as a Nazi apologist:

"Elias also wanted the article to be posted on White Supremacist websites, so he could argue furiously against its misinterpretation by evil people with a harmful agenda. This kind of conflict usually resulted in the most prized of all commodities, news coverage."
But Elias was nothing compared with his father, a feckless fraud whose "God-given ability to slither around unnoticed was rewarded each year with a fatter paycheck and a slimmer workload, until, after forty years of teaching, he found himself collecting nearly $100,000 for teaching one class a semester."

I'd say Levison is even harder on academia than that other acid-tongued crime writer/professor, Amanda Cross. You can win a copy of Dog Eats Dog and find out for yourself if you are the first with the right answer to this academic question: What was Amanda Cross' real name, and at which American university did she receive tenure?

Send your answers along with a postal address to detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net.

As much as I love Bitter Lemon Press, and as much as I enjoy Levison's accurate digs at the psychic toll of being overworked and underutilized in a dead-end, initiative-crushing job (at least, a friend tells me the digs are accurate. I wouldn't know from personal experience), where were the copy editors?

Page 96 contains this mismatch of number: "And he always handed the good ones off to her, rather than finish it." A few pages later, a sentence uses the word attribute when asset was called for: " ... her gender was more of a career detriment that her charm, personality, and positive attitude were attributes."

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Philip said...

One brief bio I found of Levison says that he works as a carpenter, but, if those two quotations are anything to go by, it would seem someone has been giving him the skinny on academe: both are spot-on. This Beats Working for a Living by Professor X; Poisoning the Ivy: Malpractice in the American Academy, by sociologist Michael Lewis; and When Power Corrupts: Academic Governing Boards in the Shadow of the Adelphi Case, by sociologist Lionel S. Lewis are works Levison might well have consulted to boot, especially the last, replete with tales of PIs hired by Adelphi faculty to search their president's garbage and the president's anonymous obscene phone calls to faculty leaders, although that is pretty mild stuff. It gets much worse, though little of the really ripe stuff finds its way into the media.
Those three books are not in complete agreement, mind you, and there is a certain irony in the fact that Lionel Lewis' review of Michael Lewis' book starts with the sentence, "Poisoning the Ivy should not have been written or published." If Lionel offers solutions, he is also, it seems, part of the problem.

Anyway, what academics know and crime fiction writers should note is that academic politics puts anything that may go on in corporate boardrooms, the House of Representatives or the backrooms of certain Italian restaurants in New York look like a squabble in a sandbox. There are novels to be written. And given the contemporary academic use of notoriety to attract students, hiring convicted junk-bond traders to teach finance and neoconservative unilateralist zealots fresh out of the Defense Department to teach diplomacy, characterization should not be a stretch even if you're not an academic insider.

October 02, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

The worst dirty secret, if you ask me, is that 70% of the academic labor force in the US is now adjunct - generally on part-time temporary contracts to avoid paying them benefits or decent salaries, let alone provide any job security.

This will sadly decrease the potential of academic politics as a plot device because those who scramble to beat traffic running from one school to another don't have time or any motive to pay attention to campus politics. The novel of bare-knuckled academic politics at the ivy leagues will soon seem as old-fashioned as murder at a country house party among the nobility.

October 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, the biographical blurb on the book's cover says Iain Levison has been a fisherman and a cook as well as a carpenter. I wrote that he was harder on academia than Amanda Cross had been. Had I expanded the comment, I would have guessed that he, unlike Cross, was not an academic himself and was coming at the subject with the gleefully bared teeth of an outsider.

I studied art history part time a few years back (alas, my master's remains unfinished), and I remember thinking that my job and my studies each provided a welcome refuge from the politics, jealousy and back-biting of the other. I remember in particular the sniping when one graduate student, female, received a teaching assistantship with the head of the department, male, in two consecutive semesters. Well! We all know what that means.

October 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, I'm not sure that's such a secret, but it's obvious that no one cares. It's just one more example of the creeping (thundering, actually) shift of power away from labor and toward capital in America.

But yours is the first speculation I have seen about the effect this could have on academic politics as a plot device.

October 02, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Copy-editing is a lost art at the publishing houses (he asserts, willing to cite numerous examples if called upon).

October 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

At publishing houses, so at newspapers, apparently. I am told that all but the biggest houses farm their copy editing out to free-lancers. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, though it could create opportunities for me as I seek to move from a moribund field into a merely troubled one.

October 02, 2008  

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