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The Lecturer's Tale

3.49  ·  Rating details ·  803 Ratings  ·  97 Reviews
Nelson Humboldt is a visiting adjunct English lecturer at prestigious Midwest University, until he is unceremoniously fired one autumn morning. Minutes after the axe falls, his right index finger is severed in a freak accident. Doctors manage to reattach the finger, but when the bandages come off, Nelson realizes that he has acquired a strange power—he can force his will o ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published February 9th 2002 by Picador (first published 1997)
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Nov 20, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Kat D. -- James Hogg, sista!
This was probably not the best choice of reading material as I begin the steps towards graduate school; but I'm certainly now more alert. The first chapter is about the best piece of writing I've read in years, and the tale spins out from there in wildly unpredictable ways. Suddenly we're jumping off a cliff and falling up, reminding me of LaValle's Big Machine, beginning with a realistic intro with a dash of fantasy, followed by huge dollops of over-the-top supernatural fireworks. This book alm ...more
Oct 02, 2010 rated it liked it
Part supernatural fantasy and part sharp-edged satire of the world of academic English departments. This may be one of the first campus novels to take on the plight of adjunct and contingent faculty, or at least one of the first that I've read. This passage in particular, a description of the underpaid composition instructors in the basement of the fictional English department, has stuck with me:

"Above the industrial hum rose the steady murmur of lonely women in their thirties and forties, their
Oct 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
Enter the world of THE LECTURER'S TALE -- after having sunk into your plush desk chair in the grand office reserved for the Chairperson of the English Department at Almost-Ivy University. You might occasionally chuckle at what you consider clever parodies of the squabbling among factions in an academic community. Or you might feel defensive and start a chain of contemptuous responses to the outrageous distortion of what happens in academic communities.

Enter the world of THE LECTURER'S TALE -- a
Bursting at the seams with literary pedantry and pulsing with the bitterness of every thwarted novelist who ever wound up teaching bored and disaffected students, Mr. Hynes wittily skewers academia while pointing out what draws students and professors of classical and modern literature to its stagnant marshes. In a world where tenure is as coveted as the gold at the end of the rainbow (and seemingly as elusive), where faculty battle it out using Shakespearean slang and politically incorrect raci ...more
Jul 17, 2009 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: bitter failed academics, angry grad students, lit majors
I should love this book. The critiques of literary criticism, queer theory, the politics and absurdities of academia, all of that ring very true. There are some lovely imbedded references to literature, primarily the hoary old chestnuts of the canon, with a few nods to the New Canon of Tokenistic Inclusion. It's self-aware and ironic and yet also strangely earnest.

In short, I should be the audience for this book.

And yet. I'll give it "good" primarily because rarely does anyone so accurately se
Apr 05, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: literary
I eagerly turned to this book after loving Hynes' Next, but I was disappointed. Hynes must have been badly burned in the university, allusion intended if you read the book. In Next, in an offhand way, he portrays academics as the scorpions that I'm sure many are, but in The Lecturer's Tale he goes over the top. So this is a broad satire/farce with elements of a horror story about the absurdity of English Departments in the 1990s. And it was slow reading, full of action but somehow dull, maybe be ...more
Johnathan Alesso
Aug 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
This unusual, wandering tale of the darkest side of university politics is a challenging, yet rewarding read. The smoldering, shadowy undertones match the scheming, amoral characters as they resort to the most primitive means to secure themselves tenure. The old joke about back-stabbing in a university English department is brought to full and literal life in these pages.

The main character, an irresolute, morally ambiguous, middle-aged professor of a Minnesota university uses an unexpected magi
May 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: hynes
this is the second from hynes for me...some sort of satire of the academic world. verily. did the casual walk-through of a few reviews...wanted to see/read the salient points...the potential of this one sounds hinky-doobie, like as portrayed on the cover, this deal with the fingergtip sparkling to life...some sort of midas-touch deal...hmmmm.

there's two thingies from others on white pages to start out...a quote from james ogg, the private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner...a quote t
Jun 26, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who's still a little wistful about the Western Canon
Recommended to Alan by: Mari's Books in Yachats, Oregon (plug)
The Western Canon is on the run. All those books by Dead White Males, the "male and pale" - those volumes that to some minds define civilization, are beseiged, under attack from every quarter, their territory surrounded and encroached upon by upstarts and pretenders of every stripe. It'd take magic, some (to coin a term) deus ex machina , even to eke out a compromise that allows Shakespeare and Milton and James Hogg (who?) and their august company to retain a little shelf space in the new unive ...more
Aug 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for” says Robert Browning and that is how James Hynes” The Lecturer’s Tale begins. This was what Nelson Humboldt’s father believed as a simple high school teacher. Nelson was really trying to outdo his father as a lecturer for Midwestern University in Minnesota, but things were not quite going as planned and his reach had far exceeded his grasp until that day when he was fired and his finger was severed in a freak accident.

Sep 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
I'm not entirely sure how to review this book, mostly because I'm not entirely sure what I thought about it. I guess the best way to go about it will be to outline things I'm more certain about, and then move into things I'm much less certain about:
Strengths: Hynes is an excellent writer with a great sense of humor and a way with dialogue. He also clearly has a solid grasp on the state of academia (at least in the English departments) in the late 1990s. Additionally, he seems to know his primary
Apr 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
OK, I am giving this a 5, but I think it should probably be 4.5. I think his Kings of Infinite Space is a better read overall, but I still loved this. I do think the audience is a little limited. You have to want a satire of academic life and the world of literary theory set within a crime novel that has supernatural elements. There are so many potential turn offs there, that it is only fair to comment on them. If you think this would sit well with you then do give the book a try. Hynes's langua ...more
Jul 05, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2015
"In a discipline where scholarly heft was defined by being more postcolonial than thou, Lester Antilles was the heftiest of the lot. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school he had announced to his dissertation committee that doctoral theses at major Western universities were a primary locus of the objectifying colonialist gaze on native subjects, and he refused on principle to participate in the marginalization of indigenous voices or to become complicit with the hegemonic discourse of Wes ...more
Alison Lafferty
Jan 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
What. Even. Was. This. Book. While I liked it because it was written about an English department at a state university, therefore I'm familiar with the underlying problems the department has like underfunding and a devaluing of non-tenured faculty and misogyny within the workplace, the book got weirdly surreal around the middle and became sort of a shitshow of lesbian faculty vying for a tenured position. Our protagonist, of course, is male and so at times his other interactions with males is al ...more
Susan from MD
Oct 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
I finished The Lecturer's Tale today and really enjoyed it. It was very funny - definitely not a serious book about academic life!

The main character, Nelson Humboldt, is a lecturer in the English department at a small university. In the story, his life is pretty miserable, culminating on being fired and severing a finger on the same day. But all is not lost for Nelson, as his relationships with colleagues change over subsequent months.

The faculty and the "system" portrayed in the book are real
Oct 25, 2011 rated it liked it
I've read this twice - once about halfway through my phd program, all in one stretch, on a flight from Houston to Yekaterinburg, Russia; the second time last week, 7-8 years later, as I approach my penultimate annual review before the university that employs me renders its tenure judgment. Both times I found it entertaining, though the cramp-inducing laughter I remember from that endless flight east didn't manifest when I re-read it recently. This time, though, I found the impact of the jokes wa ...more
Elizabeth Quinn
Nov 12, 2010 rated it it was ok
I added James Hynes name to my list of authors-to-read after seeing a positive review of his latest novel in the NYTimes Book Review. I chose to begin our acquaintance with The Lecturer's Tale because I enjoy a great academic novel such as Richard Russo's Straight Man or Jane Smiley's Moo. Hynes sets his tale at a revered Midwestern public university with an English department riven by factions still warring over the correct approach to teaching literature with some upholding a canon of dead whi ...more
Nov 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: English majors
Shelves: contemporary-lit
The stereotypical characters and the lengths to which they will go in the game of "one-upsmanship" are not confined to the world of the academic. Look around folks! The power hungry thrive in every walk of life...politics, industry, etc. Everyman seeks power in his own little world.

To truly understand and enjoy most of the literary allusions and nuances in this book, one must be either an academic, an English lit major, or both. This is definitely not a book for the "man in the street". (It cou
Dec 09, 2007 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: post modernists.
This is a "clever" book. The best way to explain is by example: in college I had a (disliked) housemate who was an English major. He once wrote a poem in which each line referred to a poem discussed in one of his classes, and the lines were in order. So, this poem could only be understood by about a dozen people in the world, who might think it amusing. But it was clever.

The beginning is very amusing to anyone who has some experience with English academics. But then the book falls apart. First,
Matt Fox
Feb 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Academics and would-be Academics
Recommended to Matt by: a friend who went to grad school with me
While Hynes bases this book's characters on either real-life and famous theorists and academics I could not help but see that these charicatures could apply to my former English dept. As students, we often hold our professors and mentors in such high esteem, but as I learned and as Hynes shows, that behind closed doors, English depts. are riddled with back-stabbing practices, with colleagues often at each other's throats and their positions within academia. Hyne's book is hysterical, and if you ...more
Dec 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Engrossing. Hynes gets at the personal feelings and motivations of the main character. Humorous descriptions of narrator’s shortcomings and those of other characters. Secondary characters don’t come alive for the most part, but the focus is on the narrative anyway.

A struggling lecturer is suddenly endowed with a supernatural power; he can will others to do what he says. He of course abuses this power, and the results are hilarious. Along with all the academic infighting and politics, a huge amou
Jan 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
This is a wonderfully quirky story about a struggling academic trying to get tenure. He's a sad sack . . . until he discovers a magic power derived from his reattached finger that was severed in an accident. He discovers that he can control the actions of others merely by touching them with this finger. The story unfolds about how he abuses this power in order to try to get tenure.

It really is more wacky and fun than I've described. My wife and I read it together and had to put the book down num
Sep 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have read Hynes backwards, starting with what I feel is his most realistic work, Next, followed by his goonies esque Kings of infinite space, and closing with this lecturers tale. Which borrows heavily from both, though in fact both borrowed liberally from this text. The tower sequence has it's clear similarities as does Victoria swiss watches to the subterranean office staff of kings, and there's a cat. It took me three volumes to make up my mind about this author and I dig self reference, a ...more
Mar 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: academia lovers
Almost, but not quite, a four-star book.

Clearly, the author has talent. I just wish he had reined himself in at times, esp. during a couple of sequences when the bell tower was ringing out twelve o'clock, ring after ring, and also during several sequences chronicling all of about a dozen professors' thoughts and reactions.

Despite these shortcomings (for me), the book is sophisticated and entertaining. It captures some of the current zeitgeists, such as a) polarization, even in academia, betwee
Nov 15, 2011 rated it it was ok
This is one of the worst books I've read in the past several years. It starts out alright, but by the time you finish the first third of the book, the problems become very, very obvious. Aside from the rampant misogyny and the random (at best) plot, it's also clear that the author really thought he had a hit here. You can smell his smugness almost a mile away. The only reason that I didn't give it one star was that the beginning was okay, and that it wasn't so terrible that I just couldn't finis ...more
May 28, 2014 rated it liked it
One thing I will say definitively about this novel... it just does not stop until the very last page.

I enjoyed the book... very ambitious, awkwardly so at times, but with charm. The other novel I have read by Hynes, "Next", has much more graceful prose, but I finished it feeling dissatisfied with the conclusion - like part of the ending was missing. Well, "Lecturer's Tale" has ALL the endings. It just goes and goes.

Very much looking forward to reading more works by this author, as his style prog
Aug 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book--super funny satire of academia. As evidence, I'll list some of the wonderful book titles that the characters have written or read:
This Too Too Solid Flesh: Shakespeare as Phallus; It's Not Unusual: The Tom Jones Way of Knowledge; Reading With My Pussy: I Gang-Bang The Canon; Where's Waldo? The Representation of Everyman in Emerson, and Anal/yzing the Father: Penetrating Patriarchy From Behind. Oh, and there's also the oh-so-wonderful literary Magazine, Clitor/is.
Mar 29, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I didn't know what to expect from this book, and the first two-thirds were good. Hynes is a talented writer who effortlessly weaves together literary prose styles and references and sets forth a cast of characters with such realism it is impossible not to be invested in them. That being said, the last third descended into a maelstrom of insanity, and I left it feeling bewildered, annoyed, and disappointed. The playful jabs at oversexualized academia were amusing and entertaining, but on the whol ...more
Apr 06, 2009 rated it it was ok
An over-the-top lampoon of literary academia. The enjoyment derived from the book relies upon "getting" the insider-y jokes, allusions, and off-hand remarks about literary theory. While this is fun stuff for English majors, James Hynes totally goes off the deep end in the last 50 pages of the novel. Publish and Perish, Hynes's collection of three short "supernatural" novellas about academia, suffered from the same flaw. It feels a bit much to combine Richard Russo-esque caricatures with second-r ...more
Aug 13, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I really liked this book. It's this amazing bitter satire about the world of academia, especially English - the petty personal politics, the theory ways and then also this supernatural gothic horror element. It is incredibly funny, especially to anyone who knows anyone that spent a modicum of time in academia. There are throw-away jokes in the titles of the conference paper submission guidelines. And any novel that includes a throw-down between two professors consisting of naming Shakespeare quo
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“Indeed, it was not unusual for the dais to be littered with panties and boxer shorts after one of Branwell's talks at the MLA." (loc 4363)” 2 likes
“An advertising man understands even more viscerally than an academic that the world is made of discourse, Pescecane argued; he understands in his bones that true power resides in the infinite manipulability of signs.” 1 likes
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