Publish and Perish
by James Hynes
1998 (originally published 1997) • 338 pages • Picador
The more I read about the peculiar, insular world of higher academia, the more I think of it as a horror show. It’s an obviously biased perspective, especially since I respond to my mother’s repeated queries about the possibility of grad school by braying “NOOOO” at the top of my lungs. I mean, I have friends from college who are attending graduate school with the elegance, grace, and ferocity I expect out of my fellow Valkyries (look, your college wasn’t as cool as mine, it’s okay, we can move on together). They seem to be managing just fine! But reading about why Our Lady of Gossip Anne Helen Petersen left academia for BuzzFeed last December sent me leaping from article to article about both the poor employment prospects facing would-be academics and the poor treatment those academics receive if they do get hired.
With that atmosphere firmly planted in my headspace, out of the depths of my reading list emerged Publish and Perish, a trilogy of three horror novellas set in academia. Long time readers may remember that the unnameable behemoth that is my reading list was birthed in 2009 out of a copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust in my high school library. Publish and Perish is, if I recall correctly, one of the first recommendations in Book Lust (or More Book Lust, which I also heartily raided). I bring this up because Publish and Perish feels like a blast from the past—both my personal past, when I gobbled up recommendations essentially sight unseen (…like, way more than I do now) and the past of 1997, when Publish and Perish was published.
By which I mean that reading Publish and Perish after determining to spend most of 2015 in a lady-centric, queer-positive, chromatic, and otherwise diverse glorious haze of prose feels like a step backwards. I did factor in some room for straight white dudes in that diet; I have John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt and Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System out from the library at the moment, and I cannot wait to get to them. (A History of Ancient Egypt barely gets to the building of the Great Pyramids! How great is that? No, I’m not apologizing.) But Publish and Perish starts off affirming an entitled straight white dude vision of the world and never quite recovers from it.
The first novella, “Queen of the Jungle,” finds a professor cheating on his more successful professor wife with one of his students. The only problem is that his wife’s beloved cat, Charlotte, is onto to him and doing whatever she can to alert her mistress to his behavior. I had initially thought that this would be quite a black short story where the professor, whose swaggering entitlement borders on parody, would suffer his comeuppance, but he succeeds in drowning Charlotte in a passage that made me stop and gasp out loud on the subway. “99” finds Gregory Eyck, a cultural anthropologist whose reputation was ruined by the student he was having an affair with (YAWN), trying to infiltrate a cozy British village in order to exploit their secretive old rites for a BBC television show. It’s just like The Wicker Man, except without this sweet tune. “Casting the Runes,” the only novella with a female protagonist and an overtly Lovecraftian presence, finds an academic cursed by the secretive old chair of her department who wants to plagiarize her amazing article. The widow of the last man the professor successfully cursed rushes to her aid, and the two of them successfully reverse the curse—with the help of a riot grrl, well, riot.
It is tempting to read the arc that the novellas ultimately make—from the professor successfully murdering his wife’s cat to the professor whose exploitation of indigenious cultures is answered by being made a sacrifice to pagan gods to a female professor successfully reversing a curse through the help of other women—as progressive, but “Casting the Runes” ends with Virginia tempted by the same runes that her nemesis used. In “Queen of the Jungle” and “99,” the mistresses’ bodies are an utter fascination, which is deeply problematic for Eyck’s mistress, who is Sri Lankan (a fact we only learn in “Casting the Runes,” instead of “99”). It’s bad enough that it’s a painful relief to get to Virginia, a Midwestern woman who falls deeply in love with Texas, just being described as a real person. (And the only bodily fixation is her horror at the widow referring to breasts as “boobies”.) Hynes doesn’t push the parody hard enough to make it clear who exactly we should be laughing at, especially in his bemused description of a hotly anticipated conference about the racial politics and cultural history of Easter Island, and therein lies the problem.
Publish and Perish just reminds me that the supposed default worldview is anything but, and those kinds of assumptions and that kind of general entitlement is beyond boring to me these days. Onwards and upwards.
I rented this book from the public library.
I work for a division of Macmillan.