A problem that every novelist confronts is the question of structure, of how to organize fictional materials—plot, character, setting—into a coherent and compelling whole. Some novels come with a built-in structure, such as stories about journeys (often called picaresque novels), in which a hero or heroes encounter various adventures. Another common fictional form is the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story, which follows a character from birth into adulthood. Finally, there is the form known as the ship of fools, in which characters, confined together (in, for example, a ship, plane, or prison), resort to sharing stories to pass the time. The academic novel follows this last structural format, as it is usually set in a single college or university community and tells about the lives and relationships of a group of faculty and staff. Related to the academic novel is the college or campus novel, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959). The college novel is an older form with similar settings, but it usually focuses on students and student life and is often a variant of the bildungsroman.
The academic novel emerged as a separate subgenre of the modern Anglo-American novel following World War II. Early examples include C. P. Snow’s The Masters (1951), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954). The reasons for the sudden emergence of the academic novel as a separate form at this time are fairly clear. First, there was a boom in college and university attendance after the end of World War II, as U.S. soldiers and other servicemembers returned from war seeking an education funded by the new G.I. Bill. State universities in particular began to enroll higher numbers of veterans—and then baby boomers and graduating high school students—in what came to be known as open admissions programs, after the 1960’s.
Second, writers began to take jobs in academia. Before World War II, novelists rarely ventured onto college campuses; neither Ernest Hemingway nor James Joyce, for example, had any kind of academic background, although college dropout William Faulkner...
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