Portrait of the Academic as a Young Man
Michael Klein isn’t your typical first-time novelist scribbling away in the proverbial garret. He’s currently on leave from the Fletcher School, serving as the chief economist in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.
He began his undergraduate studies as an English major, dreaming of becoming a writer. Soon, though, he learned about comparative advantage, the economic concept that suggests that if you’re good at two different things, you should pursue the one for which you have a relatively greater talent—and skip the other. In Klein’s case, that meant switching his major to economics. So much for the writing career, or so he thought.
Klein, the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economics, has published his first novel, Something for Nothing (MIT Press), a wry tale of a young economist at the beginning of his academic career. The protagonist, David Fox, isn’t exactly where he thought he’d be after earning his Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University. He’s a visiting assistant professor at Kester College, in semi-godforsaken Knittersville, N.Y., hoping to latch onto a tenure-track position somewhere—anywhere—the following year.
In the meantime, he’s faced with a dilemma: in the publish-or-perish world of academia, are all opportunities to publish worth pursuing? He takes up an offer from an evangelical-based think tank to print a paper on the success of teenage abstinence programs he wrote for an econometrics class. That gives the young professor about five minutes of his allotment of fame, for good or ill.
The lessons he learns produce an amusing take on the academic life, reminiscent of the British novelist David Lodge’s early books about the foibles of living in and around ivory towers.
Tufts Now: How did you get the idea for the book?
I woke up one morning and had the idea for the title of the novel. I woke up the next morning, and I had the first line: “It’s so hard to know what’s true.” I bought a black-speckled notebook on a Sunday afternoon, and basically worked out what turned out to be the whole plot.
Was the writing very different from what you were used to?
It felt like when I write an economics research paper. You have an idea of what you’re doing, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s an organic thing. You see connections and how things fit together and can expand upon them.
The ability to write dialogue and interject humor came naturally, so I really enjoyed it. That summer, in 2007, I gave myself over to it full time, and in seven weeks I had a completed draft. Then I started showing it to friends and got some very good suggestions and comments. That fall, I worked in the evenings to revise it, adding some more characters and a subplot.
How would you describe the book?
It’s mostly meant to be humorous, but it also touches on some more serious themes, like intellectual integrity, the way one focuses on career versus other life choices and being satisfied with your position in life. For example, there’s David’s career compared to that of a woman who started graduate school with him, but ended up on a much faster track—and that of an economics professor who doesn’t get tenure and ends up working in a bookstore. These are the kinds of things that everybody faces—most certainly young professors starting out—and I was able to draw that out of my own experience and that of my friends.
What makes working at a university different from, say, the corporate world?
One notable thing about academia is that it’s much more hierarchical than many other fields. There are literally rankings of departments, and rankings of people by citation count, so everybody knows where they are in the pecking order. People rightly or wrongly ascribe their success to where they are working, usually meaning that “If I’m not in a good enough place, I don’t get as much attention as I deserve.” There’s also a real up-or-out decision at the point of tenure, and that creates a lot of stress.
Like the character David, you got a Ph.D. from Columbia and an undergrad degree from a Boston-area university, and started out teaching at a smaller college. Is there any inference we should draw?
I write about things I know—I guess I’ll leave it at that. [laughs]
The title, Something for Nothing, is ironic, really: the whole book builds up to the fact that you never get something for nothing.
Right. That violates the basic principles of economics. There are a number of parallels and double meanings in the book. “Something for nothing” is the title of the research paper that this guy is using to advance his career, but there’s a question of whether he himself will get something for nothing.
You seem happy to skewer a left-wing sociology professor and a right-wing think-tank leader, both of whom are full of self-certainty.
One time a student asked me, “What is your view about this issue?” My response was “Why do you care what I think?” I feel that professors shouldn’t use their lecterns as pulpits. What you are trying to do as a professor is to get students to think for themselves. But it’s sometimes the case where professors may espouse their own views, and I don’t think that’s what you’re really supposed to do. Of course, those portrayals are fiction, but there’s an element of truth in that.
There’s a subplot involving a young coed flirting with David. Was this based on real life?
Not mine! Certainly one hears second- or third-hand of dalliances between professors and students. There was an article about 15 years ago in The Atlantic, and this one professor had said it was good for the students. I remember [former Tufts provost] Sol Gittleman had this wonderful retort: “No, never!” I think it happens, but it’s not based on personal knowledge.
One amusing thing was the description of a typical classroom: the women in the front row, dutifully taking notes; men at the back row, never volunteering to answer questions; second and third rows of students committed to the class but “concerned about not appearing too earnest.”
I’ve been a professor for 25 years, and there are a lot of sociological things you notice: who sits where, what people come to office hours and what people don’t, who asks questions in class, interactions of students among themselves. There are just lots of things that I’ve observed, and it was fun to be able to introduce those into the novel.
Are you writing anything new?
Since joining the Treasury in May 2010, I haven’t had time to do anything else. When I finish at Treasury in December, I want to spend a little bit of time thinking about what I want to do next. I’m thinking of trying to write a more popular press book about economics for a wider audience, using the experience I’ve had in Washington.
Will you have a Kindle edition of Something for Nothing?
Yes, but I encourage people to buy hardcovers from independent bookstores.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at email@example.com.