Maveety lampoons academic life

January 26, 2001

Mary Ann Travis

Venom is not what Nancy Maveety had in mind when she wrote her first novel, The Stagnant Pool: Scholars Below Sea Level. Sarcasm is more her style. After all, she says, it's a sad day when academics can't laugh at themselves. Mockery, especially self-mockery, typically sets the tone for academic banter.

That's the world Maveety, associate professor of political science, knows, and that's the setting for the book. Maveety's over-the-top exaggeration of the faults and foibles of a cast of characters teaching and studying at fictional Carondelet University in New Orleans "is all motivated by affection,"she says. And she wants readers to know that.

Maveety wrote The Stagnant Pool, an academic satire set at a private, research university, because she says she loves the genre. She ticks off a list of authors and books that inspired her: Changing Places by David Lodge, Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Moo by Jane Smiley and Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.

In her book, Maveety says, it is graduate students-- angst-ridden and insecure as they are-- who are her heroes. It was with a "wistful fondness" for her own graduate school experience at Johns Hopkins University that she wrote the book as a tribute to graduate students. But she says she had to be over her graduate school days and her untenured experience before she could put her novelist's pen to paper.

"You can only go back and visit those things when they are safely behind you." Maveety has been at Tulane since 1986, and she began writing The Stagnant Pool in summer 1998. "I like to write," she says. "And there are certain expressive outlets that aren't really there with academic writing because it's constrained in a format. This is very different."

Very different, indeed. This is satire. And it is mean, the way satire is supposed to be, says Maveety. "Otherwise, it's not funny. If it's too affectionate and gentle and nice, it's not satire anymore."

Don't expect to identify actual real people as models for the characters in the book. Maveety swears that her characters-- Barb, the unceremoniously unfunded philosophy graduate student; Joel, the anthropology graduate student whose dissertation is on hair; and Steve, the newly tenured political science professor, who thought he was "set" because he "managed to get tenure without anyone in his field really noticing him or his work"-- are composites of types, not people you know in Norman Mayer Building.

A budget crisis kicks off the action in The Stagnant Pool. Maveety admits she was inspired by reality. "We had a budgetary crisis, and it did impact graduate students."

But Tulane's crisis was never as severe as Maveety portrays Carondelet's crisis. Satire is exaggeration, Maveety points out. Yet, it is easy to imagine that the reactions of real faculty members in a departmental meeting would not be much different than those of Maveety's made-up faculty members when they meet about impending budget cuts.

Maveety writes, "Panic swept through the room. Good God, have they done away with tenure? Is the administration dissolving the department? Horrors, is our teaching load being increased?" Maveety says she found it "cathartic" to write the book, published in December by University Press of the South, a small academic publisher in New Orleans.

New Orleans figures prominently in The Stagnant Pool, and Maveety says she loves the city, which she describes vividly, potholes, Mardi Gras parades, hangovers and all. Like all the characters, Joel, whose scholarly pursuits lead to his cross-gender dressing and a streetcar ride wearing a dress and a wig, has to deal with New Orleans and the contrast between the life of the mind and the life of the body:

"Unbelievable that he, an anthropologist had not realized this before: why, it was good to be thrust amid vapid, carnal, hedonistic beings in a hot, sticky dilapidated environment. It forced the man of ideas, the contemplative man, to defend himself, to constantly define himself: that perennial threat of dissoluteness, of dissolution, of stagnation, of decay in a supine position-- it brought the life of the mind in sharp relief."
Besides looking for tenure-track positions, Maveety's graduate students are looking for love. And what would a novel be without romantic relationships? Being academics, Maveety's characters analyze everything.

She says, "That's a reality of our lives. There's this tension always between your professional self and your personal self." Maveety leaves some relationships up in the air, in the hands of fate, and, perhaps, ripe for a sequel. She says she'd like to write another academic satire, but she's not giving up her "day job."

"I like being a political scientist," she says. Her specialty is the American judicial system. On Feb. 1, she leaves for a Fulbright teaching appointment in Estonia for five months. "So no one can find me," she says. Just kidding.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000