James Hynes Writes Funny Things About Serious People
Next week, James Hynes will drive from Austin to St. Louis so that he can begin the book tour for his new novel The Lecturer's Tale, which is a satire. He is from the Midwest ("the small town of Big Rapids," Mich.), so the prospect of spending the month of February driving around the Midwest to read out loud from a book does not seem all that bad to him. Nonetheless, what he is concentrating on now, several weeks before his book tour, is a hot day that is indelible in his memory: August 3, 1997, the day The New York Times printed a review of his second book, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror, which is also a satire.
Publish and Perish is a funny book about people who aren't very funny. It is hard to like most of the characters. This is the basic plot of "Queen of the Jungle," the first novella in Publish and Perish: Paul, a big jerk, attempts to catapult his wife Elizabeth's early attainment of tenure into tenure for himself. It's no surprise that academic satires have a tendency to turn sour. Institutions of learning have lofty ideals and they should, but they also have a long way to fall. The discrepancy between what a university should be and often is is a well of inspiration that satirists have been dipping from for quite some time. Or at least satirists of a certain kind. The condensed action of "Queen of the Jungle" may make it sound like vile stuff, but Hynes, who has spent nearly his entire life in and around academia, shovels so much abrasive wit, detail, and knowing humor on top of the plot that the novella becomes a joy to read. Paul was supposed to be the successful one, but he is finishing a post-doctorate fellowship at substandard State University of Iowa, while Elizabeth, the better theorist, is tenure-track at a university in Chicago, so she's only home on the weekends. "Something was wrong with Paul and Elizabeth's cat, Charlotte," the story begins. "She was peeing outside of the litter box, and driving her owners to distraction." Charlotte knows a secret that Elizabeth does not: While Elizabeth is in Chicago, Paul is sleeping with a communications grad student named Kymberly who wants to have a talk show and put an extra "Y" in her name to distinguish herself ("it separated her from all those other Kimberlys out there, and would look terrific in the opening credits of her show"). Long ago, Elizabeth and Paul decided that they shouldn't feel required to say "I love you" to one another ("as an intervention against hegemonic practice," of course), but adultery is adultery, and eventually Paul has to pay.
Hynes had professors digesting the text with the kind of diligent glee usually favored by pre-teens trading Pokémon cards. But Publish and Perish also attracted readers who have nothing to do with the university because it is engaging and vivaciously unpredictable (even though Hynes borrows from that Victorian master of fright, M.R. James). Hynes has a vigorous respect for horror, for telling a good story. There are so many people looking over their shoulder in this book that they could easily fill a Calvin Klein ad.
Mixing academic satire and horror, at least in the form of three novellas, seemed like a gamble. It took eight months for Hynes' agent to sell Publish and Perish "and virtually all the major houses in New York turned it down," Hynes says. He tells a familiar story, of hearing editors say, "I love it, but ..." In his case, everyone seemed to say, "We love it, we think it's very funny, but who wants to read novellas? Novellas don't sell." George Witte, an editor at a new publisher, Picador, had something to prove and was willing to take a risk on books other editors wouldn't touch. He paid Hynes an advance that covered both Publish and Perish and The Lecturer's Tale, and Publish and Perish, Hynes says, "earned the whole advance back and then some, so it was the first time in my life I ever actually made money on a book over and above the advance." (Hynes got an agent one month after enrolling at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His first novel, The Wild Colonial Boy, which is a political thriller, received good reviews but Publish and Perish seems to have had a more sizeable readership.)
Then Hynes read what he calls his "dream review" of Publish and Perish in The New York Times. "Hynes is fearlessly playful, a riveting storyteller and a graceful observer of human folly," novelist Cathleen Schine wrote. "She called me gleefully playful or something like that," Hynes now recalls, several years later, "and I really took that to heart when I was writing [The Lecturer's Tale]." Gleeful, fearless: In Hynes' satirical universe, there's not much of a difference. In fact, the satirist known for having a little fun at the expense of literary theorists created a theory of his own while writing The Lecturer's Tale. "I was ... basically operating under the principle of 'throw it on the wall and see if it sticks,'" Hynes says. "If it made me laugh, it stayed in."
Things that James Hynes threw on the wall that stuck:
Hynes may have written a first novel that can legitimately be categorized as a political thriller, but there's no reason The Lecturer's Tale can't be called one, too, at least as far as the battleground of ideology is concerned. In the midst of all the "sharp glances," "muttered imprecations," and a "hissing undercurrent" at one decidedly off-kilter faculty party stands Nelson Humboldt, the embittered protagonist of The Lecturer's Tale, a man on the brink of absolute failure, a visiting adjunct lecturer on a semester-to-semester contract at the University of the Midwest in Hamilton Groves, Minnesota. Everyone, including Nelson himself, knows that he's become a mediocre thinker. On the first page of the book he is made a former visiting adjunct lecturer by Victoria Victorinix, chair of the English department's undergraduate program. He has no idea what to do. Then his finger is removed. Nelson had always longed for a stance of "enlightened centrism" between the English department's warring factions of cutting-edge theorists and canonical traditionalists, between "scholarship and pedagogy, theory and praxis"; now he can make it happen. "I love the idea of making [Nelson] a mediocrity and turning him into an Armani suit-wearing power in the department," Hynes says.
"I write about a subject in order to explain it to myself. A novel is my way of thinking out loud," Hynes writes in "Why I Bother," an essay he contributed to a book of essays about writing, The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life From the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Hynes explains that he read George Orwell's essay "Why I Write" when he was in his impressionable mid-twenties, and he accepted Orwell's four reasons for writing as his own (sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse ["desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity"], and political purpose). Once beyond his mid-twenties, however, and with one political novel under his belt, Hynes realized that only the first two reasons are worth anything, at least to him. In his essay, Hynes lists his reconfigured reasons for writing: sheer egoism, intellectual curiosity ("this is similar to Orwell's 'historical impulse,'" Hynes writes, "but my version doesn't require, as Orwell's seems to, that the writer know 'true facts' and 'things as they are'"), to reproduce the experience of reading his favorite books, and to erase himself in the creative act ("writers are achingly self-conscious people, whose live-wire awareness of everything around them, or of the constant engine-room hum of their own imaginations, makes them crave some sort of peace").
But it is using writing as a process of explaining something to himself that sheds light on his satire. All satire is about ambition and vanity and ego, but for Hynes, there is something unique about academia. "I don't want to call it hypocrisy," he says. "That's too strong because there's a lot of perfectly honorable and genuinely intellectually curious people in academia, and I know a lot of them. But the thing that fascinates me is that here is an institution that bills itself as being a more or less pure, a more or less disinterested search for truth, and yet when you get down in the trenches, on the ground, in the halls of the department, everybody's just as vicious and nasty as they would be in the halls of government or a courtroom environment. ... In academia as in any institution, what even the most decent people often end up admiring is power."
Hynes says that The Lecturer's Tale will probably be his last academic satire. "There are only so many funny mock paper titles a guy can think up," he says, laughing, but the real reason is that Hynes wants to be "one of those people who does all sorts of things. ... I had no intention of setting myself up permanently as one sort of writer." He is considering returning to work on a historical novel about Jacob Roggeveen, the Dutch explorer who discovered Easter Island. He admires Jane Smiley and Paul Theroux because they are contemporary writers who will try just about anything -- commercial fiction, literary fiction, satire, travel writing, journalism. But it seems inevitable that Hynes may spend more time explaining himself to himself through his writing. "A friend said something to me about The Lecturer's Tale, he said, 'This reminds me of a jilted lover.' And it's true: I have a real love-and-hate relationship with academia. As I speak, I am looking for an academic job."