Writing Academic Satire... For Fun and Profit

11/03/2011 11:34 am ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Essays, stories and books of mine are taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I've spoken at a lot of different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community collages.

They all have something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about some eccentric in his or her department. Or about scandal, a schism, or some long-simmering vendetta.

And I think to myself, "You can't make this stuff up!"

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn't like a candidate because "He smells." Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor's seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student's doctoral defense so as to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student.

I served my time in academia for over a decade and a few years after I left, I decided to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being "the real world," but I disagree. At times it's far too real. It can exhibit the oversize egos of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the ruthlessness of organized crime.

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in "Michiganapolis." Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is a composition teacher there. That makes him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric (EAR) especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course.

He's even more of an outsider because he's published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he's from the East Coast, he's Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he's out.

Universities, especially in a period of tight budgets, make a great setting for satire. As I once heard a sociologist at Oxford University say, "Even at the best of times, academics don't have good methods of conflict resolution." Not a bad place for murderous rage and even murder.

Working on this series has been a blast and brought some surprises, like getting my first review in The New York Times Book Review, being invited to a conference at a Caribbean Club Med (really!) and seeing some of its books taught on campuses.

And then there's the feedback and commentary. When I appeared at one school to read from the latest in the series and talk about mysteries, someone in the audience asked, "Is it realistic that your amateur sleuth stumbles across a corpse every year?"

Before I could answer, someone else at the back of the auditorium called out, "Next time, kill a whole department!"