The End of the Campus Novel?

7 06 2006

Writing about web page

The accepted list of campus novels starts with ‘The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy from over 50 years ago (shamefully I’ve not read it yet) then Pnin by Nabokov.

This extract from Guardian article by David Lodge on the latter (link) sums up the genre nicely:

To consider the possible sources of Pnin in Nabokov’s experiences at Cornell is to be reminded that the book was a very early example of the “campus novel”, a subgenre which is very familiar to us now, but was only just beginning to manifest itself in the early 50s. Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952) has some claim to be the first in the field, and Nabokov would certainly have been familiar with it, since he knew both McCarthy and her husband, Edmund Wilson, who was one of his closest literary friends at this time (they fell out later). Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954) which was, for those in the know, a riposte to McCarthy’s book, gave a further impetus to the new genre, though Nabokov had already embarked upon the Pnin stories when it appeared.

Lodge goes on:

What the three books have in common is a pastoral campus setting, a “small world” removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, in which social and political behaviour can be amusingly observed in the interaction of characters whose high intellectual pretensions are often let down by their very human frailties. The campus novel was from its beginnings, and in the hands of later exponents like Alison Lurie and Malcolm Bradbury, an essentially comic subgenre, in which serious moral issues are treated in a “light and bright and sparkling” manner (to borrow the phrase applied to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, who would certainly have a written a campus novel or two if she had lived in our era).

And looking at the more recent examples the list is really dominated by David Lodge (although Amis was first):

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
The History Man, Bradbury
Changing Places, Lodge
Small World, Lodge
Nice Work, Lodge
Thinks…, Lodge
Porterhouse Blue, Sharpe (but at the Carry on end of the spectrum)
The Human Stain, Roth
Disgrace, Coetzee
A Very Peculiar Practice, Andrew Davies
I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe

I’ve never actually managed to get hold of the Andrew Davies one, despite the Warwick connections, but it is interesting that it is in fact only the British ones on the above list which could be described as comic – Roth and Coetzee are both deadly serious and Wolfe is just rather dull.

The Wilding line (to get to the point of things) seems to be that, basically, campuses are just not funny any more and therefore we won’t get any more Lodge–ish productions.

I do hope that isn’t the case. And given the number of people I’ve met who say they are working on the next great campus novel at the moment, I think there is much comedy still to be written about apparently joyless campus activities.

(I’d welcome ideas for chapter 7 of mine on RAE criteria bingo)



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