The Academic Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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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The academic novel at its peak

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The high point for the academic novel came in the 1970’s and 1980’s and in the work of British writers Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. In contrast to the first wave of novelists in the 1950’s, Bradbury and Lodge were full-fledged academics who continued their multiple careers as teachers, scholars, and creative writers (Lodge at the University of Birmingham and Bradbury at the University of East Anglia). Bradbury’s first novel, Eating People Is Wrong (1959), focused on Professor Stuart Treece, head of the English Department at a university in the Midlands. That novel was followed by Stepping Westward (1965), set at a midwestern university in the United States (Bradbury had studied at Indiana University) and satirizing the new fad of hiring creative writers at universities. A British writer brought to Benedict Arnold University turns out not to be the Angry Young Man the university thought they were getting but quite the stodgy reverse.

Bradbury’s best work is The History Man (1975), a novel set at the University of Watermouth, England, and an attack on academic fads and trends of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, many of them sexual. Bradbury’s protagonists, Howard and Barbara Kirk, lead the revolution, but Bradbury skewers them mercilessly. Rates of Exchange (1983) follows the linguist Dr. Petworth to the fictional East European country of Slaka for two weeks of misadventures in language and travel during the Cold War. The book is a dark comedy that was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Lodge has been equally prolific and has produced a trilogy of academic novels. Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975) centers on two professors of English literature, one British and one American, who swap jobs for six months. Philip Swallow takes the position at the State University of Euphoria, while Morris Zapp, from Euphoria, spends a year at Swallow’s University of Rummidge. This exchange...

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The later academic novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Increasingly, the academic novel after the 1980’s began to reflect the influences of feminist and literary theories that were becoming staples of academic scholarship. A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) won the Booker Prize in 1990 for its story of two British scholars of Victorian poetry, whose relationship shadows the secret affair of the two nineteenth century poets they are studying. The novel is steeped in contemporary feminist and literary theory and reflects its roots in metafiction (as in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1969) as it jumps between centuries.

The academic novel of this time touches upon both the humorous and the serious, beyond the topic of scholarship. Jane Smiley’s Moo (1995) is more satirical in its approach as it digs into the political machinations and consumerism both of faculty and administration at a large midwestern college named Moo U., well known for its agriculture department. (A giant hog called Earl Butz resides there.) While Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), too, is a hilarious take on academic politics, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), which won the Booker Prize in 2000, is a tragic novel about David Lurie, a professor at a South African university who resigns his position in the face of charges of sexual harassment and then faces the rape of his daughter.

The academic novel of the twenty-first century confirms the trends of the first...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Carter, Ian. Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post-war Years. New York: Routledge, 1990. What Carter calls the “first study to connect literary, historical, and sociological aspects of modern British universities” finds a connection between the academic novel and the decline of British universities under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History, 1950-1995. New York: Routledge, 1995. Study of the academic or campus novel, as Connor calls the British version. Examines its themes and other distinguishing features in chapter two, “Conditions in England.”

Moseley, Merritt, ed. The Academic Novel: New and Classic Essays. Chester, England: Chester Academic Press, 2007. Unusual collection of essays both critical and historical that examine the academic novel as a literary subgenre as well as a point of contention for its often unflattering depictions of academic life.

Rossen, Janice. The University in Modern Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Examines the Anglo-American academic novel in terms of the power structures Rossen considers to be critical to campus life and the fate of faculty.

Showalter, Elaine. Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. After a theoretical introduction, Showalter surveys the academic novel decade by decade, from the 1950’s into the twenty-first century. Appends a “Bibliography of Academic Novels” that lists more than sixty examples of the form.

Womack, Kenneth. Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Literary critique focusing on the writers who have the academy and its foibles as subject matter for their novels. Examines Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Smiley, and others.