Writing a novel is something I’ve always wanted to do. And it's certainly been a liberating change from writing research papers where I have to bend my thoughts around those of everyone who ever said anything along similar lines. This book let me develop a fuller sense of my own literary voice. I'd briefly considered majoring in literature actually, but decided against it because it just seemed like too much fun. I reasoned, perhaps naively at the time, that philosophers strive to describe reality directly and objectively, so had to have more impact on the real world than mere novelists!
Having taught philosophy at several American universities over the last two decades, I've amassed quite a store of experiences that I take to be symptomatic of nothing less than an American cultural crisis. So depicting them in a kind of hyperreal dystopian form seemed like the perfect way to stimulate a broader awareness of the phenomenon—a culture or narcissism fueled by a consumer economy and constant electronic interaction. It's a society in which citizens grow up seeing themselves first and foremost as consumers, thus reshaping the mission of the university according to market principles. So while the book is officially a work of fiction, it's closely based on actual events. Imagine a cross between Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism and Joseph Heller's Catch 22, if the latter were set on a college campus instead of a military base.
I don't know if it's necessarily the best way to express these ideas. Several books and essays have already been written about our age of narcissism. There's also a rich critical literature on consumerist culture and how it is reshaping the university. But it occurred to me that these ideas had not yet been depicted in novel form—at least as far as I knew. I found this rather surprising, so decided that there was perhaps a new literary niche to fill here.
But really the main reason I decided to use a fictional narrative is that I hoped it would give the ideas a chance to have more impact than an academic article or a non-fiction text ever could. Some editors actually told me that the story seemed like a good basis for a corky sitcom. So I've started to contact Hollywood agents and a few choice film directors.
Also, good fiction has a transportive power that traditional non-fiction can never achieve. If the writing and story are good enough, readers will identify with the characters. Ultimately, my goal is not only to reach the widest audience but to have some psychologically transformative effect on readers who may already be falling into some of the troubling patterns of thought and behavior I am trying to expose. So the target audience is not only other professors who may find it to be an amusing and affirming depiction of their own frustrations as college instructors, but the so-called new adult market, many of which are college students or recent graduates.
So, given the audience - the quick, non-thinking new adults who expect things to be pre-chewed, what makes you think the book would help them to reflect on themselves?
That's an excellent question. There's always a nagging self-doubt when doing any kind of cultural criticism that you only reach the converted. And I'm sure that no one can hope to reach everyone. For many have simply stopped reading altogether. And some will always be beyond the pale. Still others will be put off by the protagonist’s conceit. But for the rest, what I've done is try to sprinkle as much sugar as possible for the medicine to go down. The fiction format is only the beginning. I've also taken the trouble to write in an engaging style so it feels like a page turner where the ideas can actually become secondary to the pleasure of the read—I've had several readers already report this. There's also a good number of colorful characters, some racy passages, quite a bit of humor, and a dose of real drama in the third act. Of course the irony here is that people might then get through the entire book without actually letting the ideas sink in. I have to hope that doesn't happen. That the seeds are still planted deep down in their minds and will bear fruit later.
I've also written almost the entire book in the present tense, which I found to be quite a challenge. There's a reason most novels aren't written this way—it's hard to pull off. But if done well, it can carry the reader into a zen-like state of mindfulness. Some readers have compared the style to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is also in the present tense. Both books have an almost hyperreal feeling to them in which the mundane details of every moment are described. But those details come together to form a compelling experience or picture of reality. My hope is that ultimately, this will help instill mindful habits into readers who tend to bore easily. Our culture is always looking to the next moment. People rarely savor the present anymore. And this to me is also part of what fuels the general psychology of narcissism, which is always looking outward to the next personal gratification.
It's also a book that college students and recent graduates may want to pick it up just to get a glimpse of what a professor sees when he looks at them through a critical lens. I've included humorous office-hour experiences for instance that can help them feel what it's like to be on the other side of the desk. And finally, I've included a few mini philosophy lectures, for example, on the nature of bribery and distributive justice that speak indirectly to the underlying ethos of the narcissistic frame of mind, that I hope will help new adults start to think less egoistically.
In all, your novel depicts a pretty grim picture. What messages if any of hope do you include?
This was a difficult decision. I wasn't sure I should include any hope at all for fear that it would chafe against the darkly satirical thrust of the book. But since I'm writing from a desire to humanize the culture, I decided I had to include some optimism. Ideally, I'd like the book to make some difference and straight satirical novels don't really do that in my opinion. Take for example Candide, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, Animal Farm, or American Psycho. These are all imminently influential social satires. But I don't think any of them does much to offer actual solutions—beyond bloody revolution. American Steam breaks out of this pattern by folding in a dash of progressive policy around the edges.
[mild spoilers ahead] But it does so in a paradoxically unresolved sense that I don't want to give away here. However, I will go ahead and mention a few spoilers. One of the problems I describe in the book is the growing reliance on underpaid adjuncts and contingent college faculty. This to me is a major crisis in American public education. And I have thought a great deal about it during the decade and a half I have spent as a college professor without a full-time renewing or tenure-stream position. There may finally be some positive change on the horizon as adjuncts increasingly join labor unions and urge their elected officials to take action. The solution offered in the book is tied to accreditation renewal, where universities must convert enough adjuncts to full-time status so that over fifty percent of courses are taught by full-time faculty.
I also suggest a way to stem the excessive vocationalism currently taking over higher education by confronting one of its root causes: the massive tuition debt problem. It's understandable that students (and their parents) want to see a specific job waiting for them after college, given how exorbitant tuition has become. So the book concludes with a national budget bill making all bachelor's degrees at public universities tuition-free. This is done without raising taxes by transferring four percent of the trillion-dollar yearly war budget—defense and homeland security—to the Department of Education. Several studies have concluded that this is roughly all it would take.
As a result, we begin to see vocationalism abate considerably as more students start to attend college to gain a solid education instead of mere marketable skills. This helps stem the cultural tide of narcissism by opening students' minds to the value of clear thinking and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake. Predictably, college enrollments increase substantially, providing the funds needed to start promoting adjuncts to full-time positions. It's fitting that President Obama has just launched an initiative to make community colleges tuition free and that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants to extend it to all public bachelor's programs. So the book ends by inviting us to imagine how a few plausible policy shifts could humanize the culture and help society work more equally for all.