The Failure of the Campus Novel

Zachary Martin

Dec 09, 2010

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I've been spending the winter break reading "campus novels." Even if you've never heard the term before, you've almost certainly read one: DeLillo's White Noise; Cather's The Professor's House; Coetzee's Disgrace; Roth's The Human Stain; Amis's Lucky Jim; Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise; and Chabon's Wonder Boys, to name just a handful, all feature as their primary characters college students or professors and take as a primary setting the university campus. From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Neal Stephenson and Wallace Stegner to Alice Walker, almost any author you can name has taken a stab at representing the academy in fiction. Some of these novels are good; many more of them are execrably bad. Why should this be so? Hawthorne so detested Fanshawe, his semi-autobiographical account of his years at Bowdoin, that he bought up the unsold copies, burned them, and denied ever having written the book at all. When the genre is any good at all, when a campus novel manages to engage and entertain the reader, it is almost always at the expense of the Ivory Tower. To wit: David Lodge's excoriating (and hilarious) send-up of university life on both sides of the Atlantic in Changing Places or Mary McCarthy's pedantic and mannered, but no less ruthless, satire of liberal arts colleges in The Groves of Academe. Alternately, there are the ominous works of Roth and Coetzee that portray the university as the locus of inflexible and reactionary politics. To put it another way, I can't account for or excuse the overwhelming number of straw men in novels about the world of higher education. As a writer, student, and teacher who was raised by two college professors and has spent fairly his entire life in the academy, I can't help but wonder why there is such a dearth of earnest, affecting fiction that takes place on college campuses and treats the college professor or student as, first, a human being and, second (if at all), as a symbol. The usual charge leveled at campus novels, and the usual explanation for their second-class status as literature, is that they're the epitome of novelistic navel-gazing. The only thing more self-absorbed, in most minds, than fiction about the academy is literary criticism about fiction about the academy. Or, as Elaine Showalter puts it in her survey of the genre, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents: "Perhaps it's the ultimate narcissism for an English professor to write...about novels by English professors about English professors." Underlying this belief is the idea that the university maintains a privileged place in our society, and is therefore unworthy of pathos. To write earnestly about these elite institutions would be a crime against fiction, so the thinking goes. Yet college is now the common experience for 70% of high school graduates. And if you think colleges are full of privileged elites, just try talking to any adjunct about their subsistence wages and untenable workload or any recent graduate about their accumulated debt and current job prospects. The simple fact is that higher education--whether at a university, liberal arts college, community college, trade school, or online--has become an emotionally, economically fraught experience for a majority of Americans of all ages, and our fiction does not yet adequately reflect this reality. (I simply cannot name a novel that takes as its subject community college life, or that tracks an adult working through an online degree, or an adjunct who must file for bankruptcy; on the other hand, I can give you ten novels off the top of my head about rich twits at elite colleges or tenured faculty at research institutions suffering through midlife crises.) We continue to write quaint and amusing or scornful and dismissive stories about our institutions of learning and too often save up our real passion for other subject matter. On the pop culture front, the gamut currently runs from the melodrama of The Social Network to the situation comedy of Community, with little room in-between for the honest compassion that makes for good fiction. This certainly isn't because of the critic John O. Lyons's belief that "the novel of academic life has fostered no Fielding, Flaubert, or Tolstoy." This is essentially untrue. The genre has produced wonderful (if not Flaubertian or Tolstoyan) novels like Bernard Malamud's A New Life and Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and it has wrought at least one novel of enduring greatness: John Williams's Stoner (1965). I can't help but quote at length the following scene from the opening pages: At school [William Stoner] did his lessons as if they were chores only somewhat less exhausting than those around the farm. When he finished high school in the spring of 1910, he expected to take over more of the work in the fields; it seemed to him that his father grew slower and more weary with the passing months. But one evening in late spring, after the two men had spent a full day hoeing corn, his father spoke to him in the kitchen, after the supper dishes had been cleared away. "County agent come by last week." William looked up from the red-and-white-checked oilcloth spread smoothly over the round kitchen table. He did not speak. "Says they have a new school at the University in Columbia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he thinks you ought to go. It takes four years." "Four years," William said. "Does it cost money?" "You could work your room and board," his father said. "Your ma has a first cousin owns a place just outside Columbia. There would be books and things. I could send you two or three dollars a month." William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been farther from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice. "Think you could manage the place all by yourself?" he asked. "Your ma and me could manage. I'd plan the upper twenty in wheat; that would cut down the hand work." William looked at his mother. "Ma?" he asked. She said tonelessly, "You do what your pa says." "You really want me to go?" he asked, as if he half hoped for a denial. "You really want me to?" His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away. He laced his fingers together and held them up from the table, almost in an attitude of prayer. "I never had no schooling to speak of," he said, looking at his hands. "I started working on a farm when I finished sixth grade. Never held with schooling when I was a young 'un. But now I don't know. Seems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain't rich like it was when I was a boy. County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University. Maybe he's right. Sometimes when I'm working the field I get to thinking." He paused. His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped hands dropped to the table. "I get to thinking--" He scowled at his hands and shook his head. "You go on to the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage." It was the longest speech he had ever heard his father make. That fall he went to Columbia and enrolled in the University as a freshman in the College of Agriculture. If the situation here feels dated, no doubt the emotions not. Stoner is a novel that goes on to give lie to the false dichotomy between academia and "the real world" and reveals what education can give a man and what it can take away from him. If fiction is good for anything, it is to reveal the universality of human experience, and we writers would do well to remember that, and to stop treating our college characters and settings like they are something apart from, above, or beneath the rest of the world.