The college campus is a small and unusual world-within-worlds, abiding by a different sort of conventions and rules and home to an abnormally diverse cast of characters. The students and faculty who live and work in these strange environments provide material to the campus novel, a genre that focuses on their interactions – usually from the faculty perspective. This week we consider three prominent examples – Lucky Jim (1954), Stoner (1965), and Wonder Boys (1995).
It’s strange that the “campus novel” genre exists. After all, there’s no such thing as a “farm novel” or a “firehouse novel” or a “military base novel,” even if plenty of novels take place in those settings.
But it makes sense, too: university campuses are weird places, and often worlds unto themselves. At their best, they’re intellectual and scientific laboratories, as well as venues for teaching. But they’re also arenas for the expression of values that don’t get as much respect elsewhere, and even refuges for certain kinds of people. There are thousands of colleges spread all across the United States, and many of them have way more in common with each other than with the towns or cities that surround them.
I don’t think it had occurred to me (prior to your suggestion) that a genre of “campus novels” actually exists. But clearly it does, because the best of lists are readily available.
The reasons are probably intuitive – most authors go to college, they often have formative experiences during their stay, and they come away from this strange, exceptional time of life feeling nostalgic. They may suspect that these were the best or most interesting years they are likely to have, and so feel excited to write about them. Those who succeed will likely be the ones who do so early, before the weight of the world has crushed their ambitions or driven them on to new subject matter.
From there, they may go on to get MFAs, or teach in English departments, and their material may come out of that routine. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about whether creative writing can be taught, or whether creative writing programs are actually making things worse.
There is also a wide variety of plot material on a college campus, ranging from the love- and sex-lives of beautiful people in the prime of their youth to the quirky personalities, enormous egos, and departmental politics of the faculty.
You can find all of this stuff and more in the titles we’ve considered. Lucky Jim and Stoner are largely faculty-focused, but with some romance and scandal, while Wonder Boys has everything for everyone. That one, in particular, gets me. I first came upon it when I was a writerly college student in Pittsburgh. Somehow it seems to me that, as long as that book exists, that version of me will always exist and stand before a dozen possible futures. Which is probably why there’s a genre.
I like that. I don’t tend to live in the past much, but whenever I think about college, I often have the itch to play it back – to go through it all again as the guy I am now. I spent so much of my time there studying or being anxious – about the future, about girls, about whatever – that I didn’t step back very often and just marvel at what a wonderland the whole place really was.
One of the things I like most about this genre is that most of the narrators are professors (see Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Julie Shumacher’s Dear Committee Members, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man), which means that they’ve chosen to live in that wonderland forever.
Of course, it’s not the same for them as it is for undergrads: they’re there as professionals, and they’re subject to all of the silliness, frustration, and absurdity of faculty life that you’ve alluded to.
But that can make for interesting novels. As best I can tell, teaching at a university is still vastly different than holding just about any other job. Professors are often deeply learned people – they’ve got lots of literary and philosophical tools at their disposal. But they’ve also got all sorts of difficulties: the economic purgatory of pre-tenure teaching; a guild-like professional system that often encourages intellectual and personal timidity; the temptations of all those young, hot-bodied students; etc.
Professors also have lots of time to fret about this stuff. (In fact, I suspect that a tendency to fret helps get a lot of people into humanities PhD programs in the first place.) All of this may make professors pretty natural narrators.
Yeah, maybe, but there are as many different types of professors as there are people in general. I’ve known some who are really quirky types, the ones who get a pass on their eccentricities because they’re supposed to be brilliant, kind of like how rock stars are allowed to trash hotel rooms. I’ve known others who are extremely bookish, others still who are very administrative, and probably a majority that are just normal people balancing work and personal lives. They have kids, mortgages, pets; they go to church on Sunday and turn up to parties with homemade potato salad. They just don’t fit any kind of stereotype, and for that reason may not be especially prone to narration.
But that seems to be reflected in the books. Stoner, for instance, is about a guy who is as quiet and unassuming as anyone in the world, who takes his work seriously, who wants love, a home, wants to talk and write about Medieval literature. His story is a testament to the power of really beautiful prose, because there’s no particular element of that plot that screams for prizes. The first page summarizes the story, and it lets you know that there is nothing here to blow your hair back. And yet I loved it. It’s a simple story beautifully told.
For me there is a stark contrast between Stoner and Lucky Jim on this point. Amis’ book is chock-full of conflicts and misunderstandings and drunken bad decisions. It is driven by constant comic action that implicates many facets of campus life. It’s very often funny. And yet it didn’t really move me in any specific way. I wouldn’t read it again.
In a sense Wonder Boys is a happy medium between the two, with loud characters and goofy situations and a lot of comic action, but with a certain heart as well. Plus Chabon is a master craftsman. He’s kind of like David Foster Wallace in that you can read fifty of his sentences in a row and be struck by each one, so that you go back and re-read them and realize that they are perfect – they could not have been written better. And then that inspires you to try to write like they do, but you can’t because you aren’t them.
It pains me to say this, but I did not enjoy college. There were good times, for sure, but I was far too anxious about the state of my immortal soul to ever really let loose. I did like the classes, though, and the library, and the sitting quietly and thinking about ideas. That may be why I never left. If I was as talented as John Williams I might presume to write a novel about it.
Yeah, I was probably talking too sweepingly about professors there. Perhaps part of the reason is the impact they had on me in college. What power! Remote intellectuals, but (sometimes) mentors, too. Men and women who spent a lot of time playing a real-life version of The Glass Bead Game, but who also (sometimes) brought an inspiring moral seriousness to their work. People who thought the way they could make their contribution was by thinking very deeply and speaking very clearly about things.
I wanted to do what they were doing, and I wanted them to think me capable. So it was probably difficult for me to remember that in many cases, these were just regular folks with a very distinctive way of earning a living.
The pomp and circumstance didn’t help. There so much prestige and exclusivity surrounding these folks; their titles were often a whole sentence long. I bought into it hard.
A bunch of our narrators struggle with this, too. There’s the difficulty of attaining their jobs and the status that comes with it – but there’s also the day-to-dayness of things, the potato salad and churchgoing. Stoner wants to live his quiet life, as you say, but some of his colleagues (and his wife) don’t seem to think that’s enough.
You’ve been teaching at the university level for a long time now. Have you faced any of this in your own life?
That’s kind of hard to say, because status questions are necessarily a little abstract. There was a lot of anxiety back when I was finishing graduate school and entering the job market. In the first few years out I paid my dues as an adjunct and completed about two dozen phone interviews without ever getting a campus invite. That was pretty discouraging. Then, when a tenure line opened at my current university, I went through the process and ended up landing the job.
Though sometimes I do get a bit wistful about climbing the ladder – putting in for a higher status position at a higher status school – I’m usually very content where I am, and I would just as soon stay clear of the rat race. That little ambitious spark gets kindled about once or twice a year, when I go to conferences and bump into grad students who ask me a little sympathetically if I’m “happy” in my position, or whether I have applications out for a research spot with a lighter teaching load. I always handle this diplomatically, but in my head I’m usually thinking bro don’t you have a seminar paper to write?
A different sort of status question arose around my university earlier this month, and eventually engulfed the whole Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). The faculty contract had been expired for over a year, and negotiations with the System had reached a crisis point that drove us to strike. There were many who questioned whether PASSHE had been negotiating in good faith – after all, the longer we went without a contract, the longer they went without paying any step increases.
But though the core issues at stake were not about compensation, PASSHE’s public relations effort had mostly involved casting the faculty as money-grubbers, an argument that has a certain resonance with working class taxpayers.
Like most state systems, ours has seen its public funding cut dramatically over the years, so there is a real sense in which we are barely a public institution at all anymore. We do get a small percentage of our budget from the state, though, and those who contribute that money do not like the idea of a bunch of liberals sitting around drinking lattes, reading Christopher Hitchens, corrupting the youth, and demanding ever more money to do so. As a bargaining tactic, it is effective.
When the boiling point was finally reached and we spread out to picket lines, the criticism generally took this form.
So anyway, there are times when the vision of professor-as-inspirational-thought-leader (the one you and I carried through our college years) runs up against that of professor-as-effete-flaneuristic-societal-leech.
Allan Bloom observed in The Closing of the American Mind that universities exist to provide a certain class of thinkers with a certain degree of leisure, in the interest of expanding human knowledge, stimulating inquisitive student minds, and so improving the quality of life of the whole community. Public universities exist because we agreed, at one time, that this mission was worth public investment. But now the University feels a little bubble-ish, in the economic sense. That’s something our novels are a little too dated to capture.
These days, “Lucky” Jim Dixon would probably never get a job, John Stoner would cede some of his book-writing to labor agitation, and Grady Tripp may well have gotten himself retrenched. The millions of other professors out there, the ones who bring the potato salad, would still be picking up their kids from school, still be mowing their lawns, still be paying down their considerable student loans, and otherwise trying to ignore the local editorials insisting that they’re terrible.
The financial stuff is fascinating. Shumacher’s Dear Committee Members deals with money, but only within the context of the university itself. (The English Department is starving for funds, while Econ and other, trendier departments are inundated with resources.) As far as I know, we’re still waiting for the contemporary campus novel to be written – the one in which the professor feels pressure coming from outside the bubble, in which town-gown tensions play out through the legislature and the governor’s office, in which MOOCs and online universities challenge the university for student loyalty – all of that. Maybe you should write it, E.
Maybe I will! It will be a period piece, set back in the brick and mortar days.