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Campus Fictions

Published onJul 09, 2019
Campus Fictions

Elaine Showalter commented that campus novels are valuable because they offer a kind of social barometer of university life. I think she is right. I cited her study of campus novels in the opening sections of this book. I have also included a list of some of my favourite books. Ann Oakley, a sociologist and novelist, commented that the main purpose of a campus novel is to amuse. ‘Academic pomposity must laugh at itself, or we are all definitely doomed.’ The satire often contains serious insight. For example, re-reading Frank Parkin’s campus farce The Mind and Body Shop it is striking how many things that seemed like harmless artistic licence in 1987 have actually become realities (i.e. the loss of university pensions, commercialization of the university, rampant managerialism).

Campus fiction also captures some of the hidden social damage and tragedy in great minds humbled by time. Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain captures the complex drama of racism in America through the fate of his protagonist Coleman Silk. Silk sacrificed his African American family and past to pass as a white and become a professor of classics. Then Silk loses his job as a consequence of an accusation of racism being made against him. Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice tells of a Harvard psychology professor – Alice Hoffman – who is stripped of all the academic things she holds dear by early onset Alzheimer’s disease, the first sign of which is when she stares blankly at an article unable to complete a peer review for the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

Academic fictions often find a way to speak about the inaudible tensions and anxieties in academic life. Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty is a cautionary tale of an art professor, Howard Belsey, whose critical imagination blocks him from seeing any beauty in art. It is also a study of how academic life carries a cost for his long-suffering wife Kikki. Theirs is a ‘mixed marriage’ – I am not referring to the fact it as a union of an African American woman and a white Englishman. Rather, Smith captures brilliantly the position of non-academic partners in her dinner party descriptions. Kikki is constantly questioning herself because she cannot quite read the in-jokes, the academic references to Foucault or Derrida or the allusions to disciplinary infighting or adoration.

I have assembled some of my favourite campus novels in the list below along with a couple of critical studies of the genre.

  • Bradbury, Malcolm. (1975) The History Man. London: Penguin Books.

  • Carter, Ian. (1990) Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post War Years. London: Routledge.

  • Genova, Lisa. (2007) Still Alice. London: Simon and Schuster.

  • Lodge, David. (1978) Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. London: Penguin Books.

  • Lodge, David. (1984) Small World. London: Secker and Warburg.

  • Lodge, David. (1989) Nice Work. London and New York: Penguin Books.

  • McCarthy, Mary. (1951) The Groves of Academe. New York: Harcourt.

  • McGuire, Ian. (2007) Incredible Bodies. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

  • Oakley, Ann. (1988) The Men’s Room. London: Virago.

  • Oakley, Ann. (1999) Overheads. London: HarperCollins.

  • Parkin, Frank. (1987) The Mind and Body Shop. New York: Atheneum.

  • Russo, Richard. (1997) Straight Man. New York: Random House.

  • Showalter, E. (2005) Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Smiley, Jane. (1995) Moo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Smith, Zadie. (2005) On Beauty: A Novel. London: Penguin Books

  • Tartt, Donna. (1992) A Secret History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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