Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian campus novels

Two recent articles in The Conversation inspired today’s post, Lucas Thompson’s “Liked Netflix’s The Chair? Here are 4 moving, funny novels set in English departments” (published 26 October) and Catharine Coleborne’s “Beyond Oxbridge and Yale: popular stories bring universities to life — we need more of them in Australia” (published 5 October).

Defining the term

Wikipedia describes campus or academic novels as those “whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university”, which sounds pretty obvious! They say that the genre in its current form dates back to the early 1950s, with Mary McCarthy’s The groves of academe (1952) being an early example. I’ve not read it, but I have read a much earlier novel, Willa Cather’s The professor’s house (1925), which some argue fits the genre. I’ve also read JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to safety (my review), and one of the Kate Fansler mysteries from the “campus murder mystery” sub-genre. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited, which I’ve also read, is regarded bu some as a separate genre, “varsity novels”, because its focus is students. Who knew?

Wikipedia continues that many well-known campus novels, like those by David Lodge, are “comic or satirical, often counterpointing intellectual pretensions and human weaknesses” but there are serious ones, like the aforementioned Disgrace, and Philip Roth’s The human stain. Sally Rooney’s Normal people, which I’ve still not read, is a recent example of the genre.

Thompson’s above-linked article in The Conversation suggests, a bit tongue-in-cheek, another sub-genre, The English Department Novel. He recommends four titles to get readers started, but as none are Australian, my focus here, I’ll move on.

The Australian campus novel

When pondering Australian versions of the genre, I was hard-pressed. The first that came to mind was Dymphna Cusack’s 1936 novel Jungfrau (my review), but only a couple of the main characters are students or lecturers. I was consequently relieved then to read Coleborne who reassured me that I wasn’t alone. She says that, compared to North America and Britain, “Australian readers and audiences have had meagre opportunities to examine the world of the university in novels, television or film” and she goes on to name some of their examples, including the recent TV series The Chair, which inspired Thompson’s article. She does, however, offer some Australian examples, none known to me: Laurie Clancy’s The wildlife reserve (1994), Mary-Rose MacColl’s No safe place (1997) and Michael Wilding’s Academia nuts (2002). She doesn’t mention David Williamson’s play (adapted also to film), The Department.

Wilding wrote about his campus novel in Griffith Review’s edition 11, Getting smart (2007). It’s worth reading because I can’t do it justice here. He says he’s not sure there are any clear conventions for the campus novel, and discusses some examples. There’s such variety that he felt “it was more a case of having to define your own different vision. Most of these writers were too uniquely themselves to serve as a model”. In the end, he felt the two main options were farce or a murder story. And what did he decide?

Despite all the provocations and irritations of academic life, I felt uneasy about murder. So farce it had to be. For a while, anyway.

Then it was a case of finding a model, and he turned for this to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister :

Here the comedy was classically designed to instruct with delight, radically demystifying the manipulations of the political establishment. This was didactic comedy, comedy that told the truth about revered institutions. It was an extraordinarily subversive and educative show, and I acknowledge its influence gratefully. Who after watching it could ever again believe that a commission of inquiry was designed to do other than provide a whitewash? Who could ever expect ministers and prime ministers to do other than lie? Who could ever again believe principles and policies took anything but second place to political survival? When I came to write Academia Nuts, I consciously attempted to inform the humour with a similar didactic purpose.

He says more, including how he came to write a second revised edition. It’s eye-opening, particularly about the intersection between reality and fiction – do read it. Meanwhile, Coleborne is surprised that the genre here is so thin, given universities have a “rich history as a catalyst for social change”. She argues that with the opening up of universities to a wider range of students in the 1970s, “hopefulness about the value and purpose of tertiary education was palpable. Campuses were lively, and students sought debate, difference, dialogue”. She identifies a number of non-fiction works which confront university life, including some I’ve read, like Jill Ker Conway’s The road from Coorain and Helen Garner’s The first stone.

BUT, she believes that “the overwhelming lack of a collective memory of university education and the student experience in Australia now presents a serious problem in our social, cultural and political life”. She believe that US and British campus novels “highlight questions of personal journeys into education and beyond, and rites of passage. They touch, too, on issues of inclusion and exclusion and campus culture”. It’s time, she believes, for us to both celebrate and critique “these spaces in public debate”, to think about “the value, purpose and role of universities in public life”.

Diana Reid, Love and virtue book cover

Into this space has come a brand new Australian novel just published in September, Diana Reid’s Love and virtue. Neha Kale, reviewing it in The Sydney Morning Herald, says that “Reid is a long-time fan of the campus novel, books, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sally Rooney’s Normal People“. And she quotes Reid, recently graduated from university herself, on the campus novel:

As a form, when you have a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities and you put them in a confined space, it is inherently dramatically interesting. 

Good point. Typical of its genre, this campus novel addresses contemporary issues. Here, they include consent, class and privilege (which are not new issues, actually, in campus novels!) Coleborne quotes Reid, who said she wanted to grapple with

“how hard it is to make moral judgments … So often the way we judge other people is by asking ‘is what you did moral?’. I think the question we need to be asking [should be]: ‘is the course of action you took the most moral one given all the courses of action available to you?’… I accept that you can be paralysed by nuance and never do anything. We need people who think in black and white.” She smiles. “I just don’t think those people lean towards becoming novelists”.

Literature is, in fact, where ambivalence can be explored, she believes. Absolutely!

Theresa Smith reviewed and enjoyed this novel.

Do you like campus novels, and, if so, care to name any favourites?

84 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian campus novels

  1. Interesting post, WG! Never knew campus novels are a genre of their own. And yes, I watched “The Chair” on Netflix and found it a fresh subject. Wrote a review on it too at Ripple (link on sidebar) On another topic, today being November 1, for the first time I’m joining Novellas in November. And my list is out… of course, each has a movie adaptation. 🙂

  2. Hilarious title, Academia Nuts! Seems apt. I’m sure The Chair could have many more episodes with the wealth of material and situations that gave been occurring in academia worldwide over the past 18 months. A hotbed of drama, bad behaviour, deviousness and the brutal treatment of employees. It seems that many are walking up to the realisation that universities like corporations have little loyalty, though many join them feeling a kind of familial connection.

    • It is great isn’t it Claire.
      When I was in bed last night, I was thinking that I should have more explicitly discussed the themes. You’ve listed some of them. I think that “corporation” like behaviour has always been there but I think it’s worse now because of that loyalty factor. So few academics have tenure or security now. It’s disgusting.

  3. Because I’ve read Lodge, I guess, I think of the campus novel as being about staff rather than students. I like to look along my shelves while I try to come up with examples. I won’t have that opportunity this week, but something will pop into my head eventually, probably just after I see another reader suggest it.

  4. I never knew there was such a category as the campus novel though I’ve read a few. I was happy that you included a favorite, The Secret History. According to Wikipedia it belongs to a new genre of dark academic novels. Another dark academic novel could be Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I agree that your reviewed ones sound great.

    • Thanks Carolyn. I didn’t realise the Murakami had ventured into the field. I need to get back to reading him. The length of some of his recent novels is a bit offputting! Even if they are good , I sometimes think I could read 2 or 3 good novels in the same time, getting quality AND quantity!

      As for dark academic novels, it reminds me that I saw something the other day re less satire being written, which is sad, I think. I like serious themes, but they don’t have to be presented “darkly” always, do they?

  5. Yes, Pictures From an Institution by Randall Jarrell. I had supposed that Jarrell’s “Benton” was Bennington, but have since read that the comparable school where he taught was Sarah Lawrence.Bernard Malamud wrote A New Life, set at a school that apparently was recognizable as Oregon State University. And Robertson Davies set The Rebel Angels at a Canadian university, I suppose modeled on the University of Toronto.

    James Hynes is I believe the inventor of the synthesis of occult and academic fiction. The place to start is probably Publish and Perish, a set of three novellas. I believe that some of its characters appear also in the novel The Lecturer’s Tale, and know that a couple definitely do in the novel (not set in academia) Kings of Infinite Space. All are quite entertaining. I found when I read Alvin Kernan’s memoir In Plato’s Cave that I could assign models to a number of the characters in The Lecturer’s Tale: no doubt those in the know could do better.

  6. First, I’ll add an Australian one, Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey. She’s Australian by way of South Africa, but the novel is set on a US campus, under a president very much like Trump. It’s an excellent book which deserved more attention than it got.
    It’s one of 11 books I’ve tagged as campus novels at Goodreads, which includes Disgrace and The Secret History which you’ve mentioned. Then there’s Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer, which is hilarious; Stoner by John Williams which is heartbreaking; The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie; the David Lodge trilogy, Possession by AS Byatt, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith.
    And, I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my 1001 Books wishlist is White Noise by Don DeLillo.
    I’ve never heard of those Australian ones you’ve mentioned…though there are fragments stirring in my brain about ‘asides’ (usually barbed), in other Australian novels, Castro’s Phantasmagoria, perhaps…

    • Thanks very much Lisa. Yes, I thought about Possession though it’s interesting that it didn’t come up in searches, though On Beauty, White Noise and some of the others you mention did. I’d forgotten about Ceridwen Dovey’s book, though – mainly because I haven’t read it so it wasn’t in my mind. Interesting that The Conversation article didn’t mention it given how recent it is.

      I agree that there are asides and references in quite a few Aussie novels, including Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion.

  7. If a book is billed as campus-lit/ campus novel, it’s basically an automatic buy for me – it’s a genre I really enjoy. I will certainly be looking up Love & Virtue, but as to other Aus examples…. tricky! The movie Love & Other Catastrophes was set at Melbourne Uni (but not based on a book). Of course, The First Stone was also about Melbourne Uni but is not a novel… I’ll keep my thinking cap on.

  8. I wouldn’t class Brideshead Revisited as a campus novel. There are sections which take place in an Oxford college but more of the novel happens outside that setting. Which really poses the question – how much of a novel has to take place at a university to qualify as a campus novel? If it’s just part of a setting I don’t think it does.

    • Yes, good question Karen. It comes up a lot – that book I mean – and yet I thought the same as you. I’m wondering whether it’s because the characters got to know each other there and it frames the background for their relationship. As I wrote in my post, some call it a varsity novel because it’s about the students. That frees it a bit from my assumptions about campus novels?

      For me, I’d define campus novels as those in which saying something about academia is an important part of the novel?

  9. Wallace Stegner’s wonderful Crossing to Safety – about the friendship of two college academics in the USA and their wives. An old favorite of mine!

  10. Now I’m wondering to what extent the novel must be set on the campus. For instance, I love the novel East Pittsburgh Downlow by Dave Newman, which is about an English professor at a community college (which absolutely has its own flavor compared to universities), but he definitely leaves the campus and meets the most interesting people in Pittsburgh.

    The only book I can think of that stays in the academic through and through is Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufmann, but that’s a high school setting.

    • Oh thanks Jeanne. I haven’t heard of those. Love hearing all these.

      Why did you go into moderation I wonder? I think 2 links put a comment into moderation but you just have one here. Maybe you used a different email address ?

      • Ohhh, I’m SO glad you mentioned Mayr’s novel as I was struggling to think of that totally bizarre title. (And I would love to forget the story too. WG, stay clear. LOL Mayr is very good, and she’d be too good for your taste here. Nightmares would ensue and she would cackle over her success.)

  11. As an academic, I do enjoy campus novels and am happy to define the genre generously. I have just read Love and Virtue and enjoyed it. My favourites include Posession and The Secret History. My reading has turned light during lockdown, and I have read some fun campus genre fiction – Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus). On my to-read list at the moment: Crossing to Safety, The Topeka School, Real Life, Gaudy Night. I’ve also added some of the suggestions here – thank you!

  12. Hi Sue, I like campus reads, but I didn’t know the existed as a genre. I loved Stoner by John Williams, Disgrace by J M Coetzee and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegnar. Normal People by Sally Rooney, could be considered because it is about two friends from secondary school and their university years. The only Australian one I can think of is Helen Garner’s The First Stone. But my favourite, now that I know there is a genre, would be Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

    • Amazing how many specialist genres there are out there, eh, Meg. I did mention First stone in my post, but it’s not fiction so doesn’t really count in terms of the genre. But, it’s worth mentioning, isn’t it.

      Pale fire did come up in some of the lists I saw. I should read it, and Stoner.

  13. One more author: Malcolm Bradbury. The novels of his that I have already are all set in or around universities: Eating People Is Wrong, Stepping Westward, The History Man, and Rates of Exchange. The second listed is set mostly in the US, the fourth in an invented Eastern European country, the others in England. All are entertaining.

    • Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for a while, George. I had to rack my my brain, and then I realised it was for his literary criticism – Shakespeare mainly – that I knew him, though I was vaguely aware he wrote novels too. Thanks for the blast from the past – and updating it!

  14. Besides the Canadian one that Jeanne mentioned above, I was also reminded of a lesser-known Jane Smiley, Moo. Very funny. And lighter (much) than her usual fare. I also enjoy the old-fashioned, early 20thC, stories by American writer Jean Webster, which are bookish (about a young wanna-be-writer) and set in ladies’ colleges (which seem to be partly high-school and partly college) and of course the classic Anne of Green Gables follow-ups by L.M. Montgomery like Anne of Windy Poplars (or Windy Willows, depending which country you live in) with Anne as a young teacher and none of the town’s leading family members, the Pringles, like her one bit. These older books are maybe more school stories than campus novels, but there’s another blurry boundary, I s’pose.

    • Ah, you know, Buried, I read Moo way back when. I liked it as I recollect but had completely forgotten it.

      Is this the Jean Webster who wrote Daddy Long Legs? I remember that novel and film.

      And yes, school stories too, though I think the line is pretty clear between secondary and tertiary education?

      • Yes, exactly! Jerusha’s stories (Dear Enemy is the companion, which focuses mostly on her best friend Sally) though she goes by Judy after she starts her studies. I think they call that a college in the book, but it feels like a school story somehow. Maybe just her innocence? (I rewatched the film over the summer and can’t imagine how I sat through all those dance sequences as a girl along with the changes they made to the story. Sheesh LOL)

        • Interesting Buried. In my Territory of Australia, “College” is for Years 11 and 12. We don’t use college for universities here, though there was a period where we did have them as university alternatives. Colleges, though, can be accommodation residences in universities! Terminology can be so tricky across cultures, can’t it? You have to rely SO much on conte×t.

        • In my first year at uni I was in Trinity College attached to Melbourne Uni, then when I resumed my tertiary education aged 30 I first went to a Technical College, then to a College of Advanced Education (formerly a Teachers College) which during my years of study became Edith Cowan University.

      • TBH I can’t really remember it, I read it at school because I (kind of) had to in the library because it was a well-known book and a librarian has to know her stock. But mainly what I remember is the hatefulness of the girls.
        But I would always assume that a ‘campus novel’ is set on a university campus.

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