Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Once a week we will take a randomly chosen word and try to link this to the world of books - watch out this might get a bit tenuous!

Today's word is CAMPUS: the grounds of a university or college.

An easy one to start as several novels have been set in and around universities, indeed 'The Campus Novel' can be regarded as a genre in it's own right. The idea of a novel set in and around university life can be traced back to 1925 with the publication of Willa Cather's 'The Professor's House' but it came into it's own in the 1950's and onward. There are several advantages to a novel set within the confines of university life

-the setting is a closed world in much the same way as the country house detective novel was for Agatha Christie,

-time within the novel can be clearly structured, broken down into terms and years,

-the university gives a clearly defined power structure both within the university staff and between student and teacher

The world of the campus is one that has clear structure which can be exploited for dramatic effect and which provides a microcosm of the more extended and messy world beyond its walls. David Lodge, author of many campus novels, is clear about their attraction for a writer "The high ideals of the university as an institution - the pursuit of knowledge and truth are set against the actual behaviour and motivations of the people who work in them, who are only human and subject to the same ignoble desires and selfish ambitions as anybody else. The contrast is perhaps more ironic, more marked, than it would be in any other professional milieu." It is therefore no surprise that the campus has provided several novelists with comic opportunities, Lodge among them.

Universities and those who have access to them have however changed over the years, they are less the preserve of the elite and now cater for the bulk of school leavers. This democratisation of the university is perhaps the reason that the emphasis has moved away from class and old ideas verses new towards issues surrounding the purpose of education itself. It is the question of whether education is solely for obtaining points at the end of 6th year or a degree for a particular job, or does education serve a wider more holistic purpose?

Where does the school novel fit into this, particularly that staple of children's fiction the boarding school, think Harry Potter, Vampire Academy and the Twilight series. It would seem that the campus novel is alive and well in children and teen fiction, perhaps because it provides that necessity for such stories - an almost adult free environment. Whilst the university novel has foundered in recent years (the last I can remember is Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Symmons published in 2004) the school novel seems to be alive and well and positively flourishing.

Some Campus Novels:

Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

The Human Stain - Philip Roth

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis

Wonder Boys - Michael Chabon


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