School Daze: The Best Novels About The Campus

“I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior.”

– Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928

Those were the days. A novelist could teach for a year or two and emerge with enough satire to fill a library. Alas, the Academy has grown more ludicrous and exaggerated with each succeeding generation and is now almost beyond parody. Today, all a smart writer has to do, in Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase, is tell the truth but tell it slant.

This melancholy observation was brought to mind by Roger Rosenblatt’s comic tale Beet, the story of a professor who fatuously assumes that college is a place for colloquy and intellectual adventure. Instead, he finds an arena rife with faculty politics and political correctness, with courses like Little People of Color and Postcolonial Women’s Sports. The administration is even worse than the staff: eyeing the Internet, the chairman of the board of trustees demands, “Why couldn’t we run the whole college online? From one building? From a Quonset hut! From a lean-to, for Chrissake! An outhouse!”

Funny stuff. But the fact is that colleges are falling all over themselves to hustle dollars from the Net. Google has more than six million references to courses you can take without bothering to enter a classroom. As for PC, the very real Occidental College offers The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie?; Oberlin has a seminar called She Works Hard for the Money: Women, Work and the Persistence of Inequality; and UCLA makes much of Queer Musicology, exploring the ways in which “sexual differences and complex gender identities in music and among musicians have incited productive consternation” during the 1990s. I could cite hundreds more.

All of which makes me long for the simple lunacies of the past. In film there was the immortal Horse Feathers, in which Groucho Marx takes over Huxley University and announces the razing of the dormitories. “But Professor Wagstaff, where will the students sleep?” “In the classroom, where they always sleep.”

In the library and bookstores there’s a vital subgenre called the Academic Novel. The shelves bulge with examples, produced by writers forced to seek a living in the land of chalkdust and theses. Five are standouts. First among equals is Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, in print for more than 50 years. Amis, an Oxonian who found himself stuck in a backwater college in Wales, sent up postwar British education with this infuriated piece of comic art.

The title character is Jim Dixon, a young lecturer anxious for tenure. In a publish-or-perish environment, he coldly appraises his own work: “It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on non problems… ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. Let’s see.. oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

Surrounded by professorial charlatans, under the thumb of an inane department head, Dixon seeks refuge in love affairs and booze. These culminate in a drunken spree and the disheartening hangover: “a dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” The aspiring professor will feel no better in the days to come. But the reader will.

In the U.S., poet Randall Jarrell co-founded the Academic novel industry at about the same time. His only work of fiction, Pictures at an Institution, elegantly lambasted a place called Benton College, which bore an odd similarity to the progressive Sarah Lawrence College where he had taught. Though the place exalts Creativity with a capital C, says the narrator, “If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: if would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art.” One student hands in a story about a bug that goes to bed and wakes up as a man. The writer acknowledges that yes, she has been slightly “influenced by Kafka.” Plagiarism? Never heard of it.

Diversity-for-diversity’s-sake is already beginning to creep through the ivy, and Jarrell derives a great deal of amusement recounting the foolishness that will soon overtake higher learning. But Pictures is also a satire of a satirist – novelist/critic/contrarian Mary McCarthy, here called Gertrude Johnson. (“As a writer Gertrude had one fault more radical than all the rest; she did not know – or rather, did not believe – what it was like to be a human being. She was one, intermittently, but while she wasn’t she did not remember what it had felt like to be one…”) Johnson comes to campus as a lecturer but her real purpose is to write her own roman a clef, and that’s exactly what McCarthy did. Her novel is entitled Groves of Academe. Hers is bitchier; Jarrell’s is livelier; both belong in your library.

Some fifteen years later a new humorist, Malcolm Bradbury, emerged from Academia with a novel entitled The History Man. Like Amis, the author was a teacher based in one of Britain’s new “red brick” universities. His anti-hero, Howard Kirk, is a Marxist hustler who takes advantage of the poor (in this case graduate students), dismisses a decent, gentlemanly undergrad whose opinions differ from his own as a “heavy, anal type,” and teaches the softest pseudoscience in the catalogue: sociology. Kirk attempts to seduce any female within reach, a penchant which might threaten the career of a lesser villain. Not this prof. For one thing, he agrees with one of his students: turpitude in the 70’s should be defined as “raping large numbers of nuns.” Anything less is a minor transgression. For another, he considers himself invulnerable to middle-class attitudes about sex and its consequences. In fact, he’s right. It’s his wife, Barbara, who agrees to go along with his insufferable fraudulence, and who pays for it with her life – a tragic conclusion to a coruscating moral tale.

Bernard Malamud, one of the triumvirate of prominent Jewish writers (the others are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth) specialized in the human condition, not the campus situation. But he, too, paid his dues as a college instructor and later used his experience to animate an overlooked novel, A New Life. The protagonist, Seymour Levin, is a New Yorker who snags a job teaching in the West (Malamud once taught at a college in Oregon.) Levin’s very first class sets the anticlimactic tone. As the students listen to him raptly he reflects: The young people “shared ideals of seeking knowledge, one and indivisible. ‘This is the life for me,’ he admitted, and they broke into cheers, whistles, loud laughter. The bell rang and the class moved noisily into the hall, some nearly convulsed As if inspired, Levin glanced down at his fly , and it was, as it must be, all the way open.” Malamud’s gentle humor touches on Levin’s late awakening of love, as well as on the professor’s melancholia when he realizes he’s “engaged in a great irrelevancy, teaching people how to write who don’t know what to write.” An overlooked work, low-key but perceptive and witty.

Changing Places, by the Briton David Lodge, ventures across the pond to satirize two institutions, the cold, dank British University of Rummidge and the glistening, pretentious American Euphoric State University. The former seems to resemble the University of Birmingham, where Lodge taught for decades; the other might recall the University of California in Berkeley, where Lodge was a guest lecturer. But that, no doubt, is strictly coincidental.

In this tour de farce, two professors do indeed change places, the sedate Englishman Philip Swallow flying to America, and the adrenal Morris Zapp heading off to Blighty. Both are set upon by history – unrest has hit both campuses, and both are caught in a power struggle between students who want to determine the curriculum and professors who are more interested in survival than in education. Never has Shaw’s observation been more valid: the British and the Americans are separated by a common language. Lodge, one of the most inventive contemporary writers, uses unusual techniques to tell his story. In one merry and telling sequence, a group plays Humiliation. This is a game in which the player admits that he has not read a classic – War and Peace, for example. Soon the contest degenerates from confessional to a revealing battle of one-upmanship in which one English prof boldly announces that he knows nothing of Hamlet. A character complains that novels suffer from comparison to films: a reader, by fingering the pages, can tell when a book is about to end, whereas one can’t be sure when a movie is about to end. And so Lodge’s last chapter is written as a screenplay – an apt commentary on all that has gone before. This who admire this book can read the rest of the author’s bright Academic trilogy, Nice Work and Small World.

It goes without saying that these selections are highly subjective. Amazon or Barnes & Noble can supply many more novels of Academia including, to name but a few, John Irving’s The Water-Method Man; Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov; Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, Jane Smiley’s Moo and John Updike’s Bech, a Book.


  • Stefan Kanfer

    Stefan Kanfer, former book review editor and senior editor for Time magazine, writes widely for City Journal on political, social, and cultural topics. He is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Last Empire, the story of the De Beers diamond company; Stardust Lost, about the Yiddish Theater in America; biographies of Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Humphrey Bogart; plus novels and thrillers.

15 thoughts on “School Daze: The Best Novels About The Campus

  1. THe aforementioned STraight Man by Richard RUsso is a hilarious send-up of academia, but also a good novel on the middle age identity crisis. Also try Blue Angel by Francine Prose, a nice parody of academia, political correctness, and a few other issues we encounter in the hallowed halls and ivory towers of American education

  2. Another recent book, very good and unusal in this genre for incorporating race and multiculturalism, is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

  3. Robert Barnard’s first book “Death of an Old Goat” set in an outback Australian University is also good stuff about a newish university in that country

  4. Another very funny social satire of down-at-the-heels academic life in Britain is Robert Barnard’s whodunit School for Murder, set in a provincial English “red brick” university, replete with the dreary squalor of backbiting careerism tied to political correctness elevated to mindless mediocracy of monumental scale.

  5. I recently read and greatly enjoyed “The Secret History,” not much of a satire, but with a well-observed and very true-feeling sense of life on a small campus. Plus, murder most foul! How can you go wrong?

  6. That was excellent – thank you for sharing those thoughts.
    I’m really surprised you didn’t talk about Decline and Fall, although you quoted from it. Pennyfeather’s friend who joins the League of Nations is a most interesting character because his education is clearly utter nonsense, but he still manages to do a decent job in the real world. How exactly can universities, being full of themselves, still produce competent citizens? What exactly has broken down now that makes the universities worse than they’ve always been?

  7. Readers might be interested in my book, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontnts (2005), which deals with all the books mentioned and many others.

  8. Although she is best known these days for her intemperate rant in a left-wing rag after John Kerry’s 2004 loss, Jane Smiley’s Moo struck me as a charming and entertaining look at life at a large, midwestern state university when I read it after finishing my doctorate in 1997; since then, I’ve often reflected on how this or that individual I’ve encountered in academia reminded me of a character from the book.

  9. I would add as a recommendation “The Dean’s December,” where Saul Bellow puts words in his protagonist’s mouth that no doubt explicitly express his?Bellow’s?views about contemporary campus life.

  10. Tom Sharpe’s series about Henry Wilt (“Wilt,” “Wilt on High” etc.) are also worth a look.

  11. On the off chance you haven’t read it, may I suggest Richard Russo’s *Straight Man*? Funnier than Lucky Jim and Lodge put together, I dare say. And, because more recent, more relevant to the latest fads & fashions.

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