BOOK CRITICAL: Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill (Part 1)
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
I mean, I was just going to write a book review, but I felt like there were so many elements in James Tate Hill’s Academy Gothic that needed more than a little bit of a review. So, if you’re an author and you want some writing tips, this entry will be for you because I think there’s a lot to talk about in Academy Gothic–Though, based on my other book responses, I’ve always got a lot to say.
After going through the novel and grabbing most of my highlighted sections, this turned into so many pages that I’ll be breaking up this critical into multiple write-ups. The subjects covered in this write-up will be: Chekov’s gun, Humor, and bad lines/narrative voice.
So let’s get started.
The blurb on the back of the book reads:
“Hardboiled noir meets academic satire in Academy Gothic.
Tate Cowlishaw is late for another faculty
meeting when he discovers the body of Scoot Simkins, dean of Parshall College. Cowlishaw might be legally blind but sees that a man with three bullets in his head didn’t put them there himself. The police disagree. When Cowlishaw investigates, he is told his teaching contract won’t be renewed. Suspects aren’t hard to come by at the college annually ranked “Worst Value” by U.S. News & World Report. While the faculty brace for a visit from the accreditation board, Cowlishaw’s investigation leads him to another colleague on eternal sabbatical. Before long, his efforts to save his job become efforts to stay alive. A farcical tale of incompetence and corruption, Academy Gothic scathingly redefines higher education as it chronicles the last days of a dying college.”
Before we dive into quotes and craft, there’s one more thing I have to mention about this book: it’s a novel I picked up at AWP in Tampa this year. This was not one of the three books I picked up at a Clash table, but I picked this up at a different table, Southeast Missouri State University. They had three novels present, a couple poetry collections, and I think a few anthologies. The novels were all winners of their local novel prize, but this one sounded the most interesting. I picked it up because I was looking for humor, as I mentioned before, but I was also looking into stories with investigators, either novice or otherwise, because of the horror/mystery novel I’m planning and I wanted to get into reading some of the genre I plan to write, that is, investigation (since I’ve never dove deep into mystery). The gentlemen who sold me this novel also mentioned how Tate could see ghosts. With a name like Academy Gothic, you’d sort of expect that, right? With that cover and that name, it kind of gives off, not full on horror or anything, but maybe Crimson Peak style gothic story. Little bits of creep sprinkled in–something.
Spoiler alert: There are no ghosts.
And that’s actually my first criticism.
The ghost thing wasn’t something the bookseller made up or got wrong. Nah, Tate, the main character, says he can see ghosts. In fact, early on he says how he used “I can see ghosts” as a way of getting the job at the academy. He helped the founder with a ghost problem and the founder kept him around after that. Having finished the novel, it seems like it was just a ploy for the author to take shots at the education system; “Look. The people they hire don’t have to have skills. Just niches.” That’s fine. I have my own bones to pick with “higher education” so that wouldn’t bother me, but rather than feeling like a pot shot, this enter time it felt like Chekov’s gun.
If you’ve never heard of it before, “Chekov’s gun” is the idea that if you show a gun in Act I, then you better use it by Act III. You can’t tell the audience something that seems like a game changer then never use it and the introduction/use of the ghost thing seemed like a plot device that was never used or explained away if it was just a prop to go LOL, these higher education dudes are FOOLS. Adding to that, Tate didn’t even have ill-will toward Dr. Parshall, the guy who gave him the job, but he was actually very fond of Dr. Parshall and talked to him about seeing his dead grandmother. The last chapter of the book is Dr. Parshall and Tate wheeling around the campus one last time and the last two lines are:
“There’s that poltergeist, Nick. Above the theater. Do you see it?”“I see it,” I said. (pp. 248)
Now I’ll be the first to say I’m not very good with allegory, so I don’t know if this is referring to something less literal, but… I didn’t get it which resulted in the ending being even flatter for me. If you call something gothic, there should be some gothic elements to it…
So… expecting ghosts and never having them used or the whole thing explained… I feel cheated.
Now to the humor, which I think is important since this is called a farcical satire.
Farces are hard to do, satires are also hard to do. In fact, just recently I submitted a short story to my writing crit group that is also a satire and they all concurred satire is easily one of the hardest, if not the hardest genre to write because you can turn soap-boxy really fast and also not be funny or entertaining.
I think Hill did satire best when he created the setup of the university system. The professors who didn’t care about anything but getting their check, the school who would call for tens of thousands of dollars and at the end of this where dean graduated the last class before the school was to be shut down (due to lawsuits) and said, “What are you even prepared for?” When he spoke of the system that kept changing graduation requirements so people couldn’t graduate, and how the university was devaluing classes and subjects by making them more and more generic until areas of studies were basically useless. I also thought it was funny that different businesses sponsored school buildings and they got cheaper and more low rent each year because big doner’s didn’t want to be associated and it was very obvious the school was just money-grabbing, however, they could. YES. Let the Rob’s Rib Shack sponsor the theater. That’s hilarious. Or:
Enter an enterprising administrator named Randall “Scoot” Simkins, who relaxed admission standards to accommodate the needs of the modern student. As it turned out, these needs were right in line with the financial needs of the school’s trustees. (pp. 27)
That’s where I think his satire worked best. Where I think it fell flat was in the narrative. I can’t tell if this was supposed to be his satire on hardboiled detective stories or if it was his skillset and something he chose to do because he thought it was brilliant, but he had so many lines that were overwritten that just weren’t funny like:
He handed me a stick, the kind wrapped in foil that loses its flavor in a hurry. (pp. 20)
It took me longer than it should have to realize that was a stick of gum, but… It seems like someone trying to write more flowery to get points or trying to be lyrical. It takes me back to my GaiaOnline days where all the Adv. Literate roleplays where you tried to be lyrical to be impressive, but you were also required to hit a word minimum instead of saying, “He handed me a stick of gum,” you’d write the above because you NEEDED that word count.
I’ll have to go over all the don’ts I experienced in those forums someday.
Now, in looking at some reviews for this novel, I saw people refer to some of the lines I thought were just bad, and I’m willing to concede some room that the lines could have been funny if the overall narrative wasn’t overwritten. When you fill a narrative voice with metaphors or way too much snark or you try so hard to be snarky that almost every reference to anything is snark, you end up sounding like you’re trying too hard. Your jokes get lost in your one thousand attempts to be clever and you actually desensitize your readership to the clever lines because there are just so many attempts to be funny or stand out.
At 12:42, cutting through the dense fog of hang-ups, came a voice no one ever described as a beacon of light. (pp. 22)
This is just bad and it read as trying too hard. Perhaps someone found this as funny. Perhaps this is supposed to be the satire of the hardboiled noir… but something actually tells me this book isn’t actually hardboiled as I don’t think it hits some of the necessary genre tropes.
I could hear dark brown eyes and a smile just a little bit naughty. (pp.40)
You can’t hear dark brown eyes.
The lack of attendees in any of the rows I passed seemed fitting for a man without friends or family. (pp. 69)
This is one of the MANY “no shit” lines I feel like I read. Rather than being funny, it felt redundant. Rather than feeling like a deadpan delivery from a narrator who really doesn’t care, it was just captain obvious going, “is my deadpan humor and snark tickling you yet? Like, no one loved this guy. Let me tell you again how no one loves this guy.”
Hill, and the character Tate, both enjoyed reminding the readers of information they already knew–information that didn’t need to be restated. He liked to remind us no one liked the dead dean. He liked to remind us that Mollie and Carly both wanted Tate so bad they couldn’t control themselves around him. They liked to remind us that Thayer was a tiny man when it wasn’t necessary:
Thayer pulled a big breath into his little lungs. (pp. 134)
He did stuff like that a lot and it’s more annoying than anything.
Delilah left that one in the air for a while, let it collect on our shoulders like falling ash. (pp. 72)I connected the syrupy accent to its lumbering owner, whose acquaintance I had made at the end of the afternoon’s memorial service. (pp. 105)He tossed those words like a handful of sand into the ocean. (pp. 106)
Do any of these lines even add to the story? I don’t think they do. We’re back to GaiaOnline levels of trying hard.
Edward began a figure eight around her legs, which she didn’t let him finish. Sometimes when an animal likes someone, you can take it as a sign of their essential goodness, but Edward liked anyone who scratched behind his ears. We all do. (pp. 111)
So this line bothered me because the whole point of it was to say, “Animals know when people are good. If an animal likes someone, you can trust they’re good.” But then he ends the paragraph by saying, “well, animals like everyone if they bribe them so…”
So the sentence about how animals can sense good character is just extra garbage.
Carly hadn’t been gone the length of a slow pop song about second chances when the hard knock came. It seemed closer to the doorknob than the peephole. I pictured Carly on her knees, asking for my forgiveness. (pp. 112)
The pop song thing doesn’t read well. The rest of this line speaks to Tate’s character which I’ll talk about in the next blog entry.
He extended his hand, his knuckles connecting with my groin in a gesture no one has ever mistaken for a handshake. (pp. 112)
See, I think this line could have been a good, funny one to stand out if by page 112 we hadn’t already been inundated by lines just like this that fell flat on their faces. By the time I read this one, I was like, “Another overwritten line? For real? Ugh…..”
“…we are profoundly confident…”
The rest of Delilah’s thoughts were swallowed by Jefferson Totten’s enormous, jungle-cat yawn. (pp. 127)
This happened a couple of times and I don’t think people think about it when they actually put phrases like this into their writing. So, when you use a simile or/and expression like “enormous jungle-cat yawn,” you have to consider the background your narrator has and what would bring them to say that. ‘Enormous jungle-cat yawn’ seems like something a father of young children might say if he were talking to those children. It doesn’t seem like something a flat-humored “professor” who lies about seeing ghosts and doesn’t care about anyone but himself would say. He doesn’t have any relationship to jungle-cats and this language, frankly, seems very immature and out of character for Tate.
What might have been a laugh dripped thickly from his lips. (pp. 128)
What does this mean? GaiaOnline trying hard again.
He pronounced it slowly, a child wrapping his tongue around a species of dinosaur. (pp. 128)
Where does Tate get his context to say it sounds like a child trying to pronounce a species of dinosaur? Again, we’re out of character. Also, there’s something… very off about describing it as “a child wrapping his tongue around.” I’m just saying, that’s not the usual terminology anyone would use when describing a child trying to pronounce a word.
Her frustrated words floated toward me with the odor I now recognized as human waste, pushing its way through the defenseless fibers of my cotton shirt. (pp. 142)
Trying too hard.
A smile ran away from his face. It had better places to be. (pp. 145)
This is a line that I didn’t particularly like, but I think if the narrative wasn’t so overfilled with useless, overwritten text, it would have stood out.
I went around Ms. Freyman’s desk, relatively free of bric-a-brac. (pp. 164)
I don’t know what this means.
I stared at the felt-covered wall between me and the blonde with whom I had slept two nights ago.
The brunette with whom I had slept last night crossed her legs. They were the kind of legs that benefitted from a good crossing. (pp. 175)
At that moment in time, there was literally no reason for Tate to bring up having slept with both women. He hadn’t just entered the conversation with them but decided he needed to brag about having slept with them when it really had nothing to do with the situation–while at the same time calling one of them a slut for having slept with him.
I think it’s confusing, distracting, and unhelpful. It also feels like the sort of novice mistake someone makes to call their characters “the blonde” or “the brunette” rather than their name as a way of trying to create variation in how characters are referred to. Lots of authors think they need to do this or their readers
Tweel squirmed like a man under a quilt who doesn’t want to be there. (pp. 186)
This was another “no shit” line. You throw a blanket at an aggressor to slow him down, of course, he doesn’t want to be under there. This wasn’t funny. It could be funny if it had a setup, but *throws the blanket on him* “LOL. LOOK, HE STRUGGLES LIKE SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T WANT TO BE UNDER THERE” is not a joke and punchline.
The busy Oriental rug was even busier with colorful piles. (pp. 191)
It would have just been better to say colorful clothes littered the busy Oriental rug. The above phrase is trying too hard to be obscure.
Mollie shook her head hard. Her black hair levitated like those carnival swings tethered to a carousel. (pp. 194)
Okay, shake your head hard enough to make this happen. This is comically unrealistic. I get this is humor, this is satire, but up to page 194, this novel never set itself up to be cartoony, which is what it HAS to be in order for hair to fly like a swing ride at the fair. Try it. You might snap your own neck.
This line went on for way too long and what makes me think Hill doesn’t know what overwriting is or that he’s doing it.
She pushed me gently against the door. Her lips pushed a little less gently against mine. Our tongues finished the job. It was a long job, but I didn’t mind the work. (pp. 45)
With this line, I think Hill didn’t have an editor or had a university editor who was either too afraid or lacked the critical eye to tell him what to cut. This sentence went on way too long. Everything after, “Our tongues finished the job,” could’ve been cut. It’s excessive, unfunny, and doesn’t add to the story.
“By the way, I like you better when you’re crying.”
“Fuck you,” Juliet said, but took my advice on the tears. (pp. 214)
What does “took my advice on the tears” mean and how does Tate know she took the advice? If he’s saying, in that moment, he prefers her sobbing to screaming profanities and punches, how does he know that she has made some major life change to cry more? Did she turn up the tears on the phone? Yeah–he’s not even looking at her. He’s on the phone with her, so what does taking his advice on the tears mean?
Delilah’s daughter took jagged breaths. “She called me an ungrateful little twat.” (pp. 215)
The problem with this line comes from how just a line before this, Hill had referred to “Delilah’s daughter” as Juliet. This was another attempt to ‘variate the narrative” in an amateurish way. This is also often used to try and give readers more information without doing it in exposition and it doesn’t work.
I spoke with the unconvincing interest of a man trying to delay the story’s ending. (pp. 218)
The novel’s ending or the ending of the rant going on at the time in the story? Because both needed to end. This is again, a bad line that doesn’t help Tate.
In fact, Tate was never a likable character. He didn’t have any redeeming qualities about him, he wasn’t particularly good at anything, and he wasn’t interesting. Every snarky line he entered seemed like an attempt to convince us to his side, but really just made me dislike him more… but I’ll get more into my problems with Tate (and the characters of this novel) in my next entry about Academy Gothic.
My heart thundered away. (pp. 227)
This was the start of a chapter. It’s a cliche and a bad way to start a chapter. Don’t. And where is the heart thundering away to? Just don’t.
Being laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I’m my own boss. I get to watch movies all day. I set my own hours–sixteen a day, but if the economy turns around, I might hire another part-timer. So what if I clear eight or nine hundred a month after taxes. And can’t afford insurance. And sold all my belongings that wouldn’t fit in the two rooms in the back of the store, which aren’t as draft as they used to be once I patched the holes where the rats got in. Galen sighed not quite as heavily as a bus coming to a stop. (pp. 200)
More than anything, this rant felt heavy-handed with misery and resentment rather than being funny in any way. This felt more like a personal rant from Hill on what he believes universities are guilty of causing in the youth because let’s face it, Tate would never condemn the higher education system for what it does to our youth because he’s benefiting from it and doesn’t do any work. Galen was never really given a character, albeit, no one in this book really had a character or voice of their own and just had to say what Hill made them say. This made it easier for him to insert whatever he wanted when he wanted, but this rant felt very out of place and the conversation itself felt prompted just for this paragraph rather than organically spawned.
A girl seated in an alley asked if I wanted a date. She had a lisp consistent with missing teeth. I kept walking and she yelled something in Spanish or Italian. Her words reminded me of the foreign film, and I wondered about becoming a translator, the kind who worked over the phone and don’t have to read. Then I remembered that I didn’t know any foreign languages. I didn’t even know braille. (pp. 201)
This happened shortly after the last paragraph after Tate left the video store. I didn’t really understand the importance of this other than to remind us that Tate’s in a bad part of town, but okay, I could accept that… if he stopped this sentence after he mentioned her yelling at him. We didn’t need the extra garbage about foreign films or translators. The rest of this paragraph doesn’t add anything to the story, especially as Tate thinks of it all and basically says it’s stupid all at the same time.
I passed through the tree-lined neighborhood regarded as run-down when blacks lived there. When whites in their thirties moved in, it became up-and-coming. (pp. 202)
Annnnnnnnd…. This is all there was to this sentence. This, again, felt like Hill trying to insert something that didn’t belong, especially as there was no description or justification behind any of it. It had nothing to do with the story, anything that had happened in the last 200 pages, or anything that followed that sentence. It was just a randomly inserted sentence of “racism.”
There were so many bad lines throughout the narrative, I could not possibly respond to them all in a blog post. This one is already so long… But let’s finish line comments on a good note:
…wealthy enough to use the seasons as verbs. (pp. 62)
This was a fabulous line because it told us exactly who the people were Tate was interacting with. Normal people who work 9-5 don’t say they’re going to summer in New York or winter in Florida. Only a very specific kind of upper-crust person uses seasons as verbs and I really loved this line.
In next week’s BOOK CRITICAL, I’ll cover Tate’s character and the ladies in his story, including his little love triangle, if you can call it that.
Really, it’s just Tate planting his seeds where he can…