The Campus Novel

| Wild Kingdom

As part of my research for my current manuscript-in-progress, Wild Kingdom, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the “campus novel,” that is, a novel that is set at an academic institution and that often deals with the palace intrigue of a department (most frequently, of an English department). This summer, I’m planning to (re)read lots and lots of campus novels, as a way of thinking about how fiction writers explore the closed world of academia. Here are some of the books on my list:

  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  • Stoner by John Williams
  • The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy
  • The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie
  • Moo by James Smiley
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
  • Blue Angel by Francine Prose
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
  • The Lecturer’s Tail by James Hynes
  • Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
  • Digrace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Oleanna by David Mamet (okay, this one’s a play but still so very relevant!)
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt

At the moment, I’m reading Elaine Showalter’s very readable Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents. Showalter is, of course, a renowned literary critic. But, Faculty Towers is pure pleasure, a scholar’s accessible (even personal) take on the genre of the campus novel. Here’s a sample of her elegant, perceptive prose:

Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted or destroyed. On the spelling corrector on my computer, when I click on English, the alternative that comes up is Anguish. Like the suburbs, the campus can be the site of pastoral, or the fantasy of pastoral—the refuge, the ivory tower. But also, like the suburbs, it is the site of those perennials of the literary imagination John Updike names as “discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear.”

As part of my summer of research, I hope to find other critical texts about the campus novel. When writing poems, sources of inspiration can often be found in the most scholarly of sources. It’s always surprising and interesting to see when and how the next poem will arrive.