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”.
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?