When Academics Write Fiction

Those who write academic articles and books for a living are not always good at writing fiction. I’m reading a novel that, for me, breaks the mold: Stephen L. Carter‘s The Emperor of Ocean Park. As usual, I’m about 4 years after everyone else. Prof. Carter, a prolific scholar and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School, offers up a mystery about the death of a judge who narrowly misses becoming a Supreme Court Justice. (An interview with the author tells how the book came about.) The judge’s son, Talcott Garland, is a professor at an Ivy League law school set in a small city called Elm Harbor. It’s an incredibly fun (and long, which to me is a good thing, if it’s a good book) story, a mystery well worth the time (even though none of the characters are particularly likable).

What struck me most was a passage that many people who attend or teach in elite law schools might think, on their lowest days, but rarely articulate in public:

“… I return to my dreary classroom, populated, it often seems, by undereducated but deeply committed Phi Beta Kappa ideologies — leftists who believe in class warfare but have never opened Das Kapital and certainly have never perused Werner Sombart, hard-line capitalists who accept the inerrancy of the invisible hand but have never studied Adam Smith, third-generation feminists who know that sex roles are a trap but have never read Betty Friedan, social Darwinists who propose leaving the poor to sink or swin but have never heard of Herbert Spencer or William Sumner’s essay on The Challenge of Facts, black separatists who mutter bleakly about institutional racism but are unaware of the work of Carmichael and Hamilton, who invented the term — all of them our students, all of them hopelessly young and hopelessly smart and thus hopelessly sure they alone are right, and nearly all of whom, whatever their espoused differences, will soon be espoused to huge corporate law firms, massive profit factories where they will bill clients at ridiculous rates for two thousand hours of work every year, quickly earning twice as much money as the best of their teachers, and at half the age, sacrificing all on the altar of career, moving relentlessly upward, as ideology and family life collapse equally around them, and at last arriving, a decade or two later, cynical and bitter, at their cherished career goals, partnerships, professorships, judgeships, whatever kind of ships they dream of sailing, and then looking around at the angry, empty waters and realizing that they have arrived with nothing, absolutely nothing, and wondering what to do with the rest of their wretched lives.”

Only one side of the story, of course, but a pretty evocative, damning assessment of legal education and the life we lead as lawyers.

6 thoughts on “When Academics Write Fiction

  1. Thankfully we have choices. We don’t all have to go to work for “massive profit factories.” I’m just winding down an 18 year career as an attorney. I started out at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro (back when it had a comma in its name…), went to work for the OGC at Univ. of Tx. System, loved (and still love) my clients, never felt cynical or bitter (maybe a bit burned out from time to time), never got a partnership, didn’t have my ideology or family collapse around me. But I also didn’t make a boatload of money. Made enough to “retire” at 55 though. People in every profession waste their lives, John. It’s not just law or legal education that sends people down personally ruinous roads.

    So, you say it’s a really good book, huh? Have you had a look at Boyle’s book about Shakespear?

  2. What a hopeful post! It’s true, to be sure. You’re telling the other side of the story, which is of course important. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky: I love my job and can hardly believe someone pays me to do it. (And I also kind of liked the “massive profit factory” I worked for, but I worked there only for a year or so.)

    I’m very excited to read Prof. Boyle’s Shakespeare book — on my list to be sure — and not JUST because of its CC license.

    Happy Thanksgiving break!

  3. I liked the book a lot too (I was only three and a half years behind everyone else!), and I too turned down the corner of the page at that passage! It is, of course, a bit of a jeremiad, a blistering exaggeration that serves to illuminate a more modest but still troubling reality. And we are meant to understand that the narrator who speaks those lines has a ten-ton chip on his shoulder. Like Georgia and you, John, I feel very lucky with my path. But I agree that there is still some harsh truth in Talcott Garland’s assessment…

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