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  • The Rise of the Academic Novel
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

1. The Academic Novel versus the Campus Novel

The academic novel is usually thought to be a marginal genre, perhaps with some exceptional moments like Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe (1952), Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954), and David Lodge's Small World (1984), but otherwise quaint and eccentric, depicting the peculiar world of academics and appealing to a coterie audience.1 However, over the past two decades, it has become a mainstream genre in American fiction, with entries by a good number of prominent contemporary American novelists, including Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, T. C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Percival Everett, James Hynes, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, John L'Heureux, Sam Lipsyte, Lorrie Moore, Tim O'Brien, Richard Powers, Francine Prose, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, and Neal Stephenson, as well as older novelists such as Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth, and Robert Stone. The university is no longer an alien world but a familiar setting, and professors no longer a strange species but like other beleaguered white-collar workers and denizens of the middle class.

Novels set in a college or university have been a persistent occurrence over the past century in the US. They're typically conflated under the rubric of "the college novel," "the campus novel," or "the academic novel," but I think it is useful to distinguish among novels that center on students and those that center on professors. 2 I would call the former "campus novels" because they tend to revolve around campus life and present young adult [End Page 561] comedies or dramas, most frequently coming-of-age narratives. The latter I would designate "academic novels" because they feature those who work as academics, although the action is rarely confined to a campus, and they portray adult predicaments in marriage and home as well as the workplace, most familiarly yielding mid-life crisis plots. In the early part of the century, there was a vogue of campus novels, usually portraying students' adventures, lessons (in and out of class), and sports, with works such as Owen Wister's Philosophy 4 (1903), a short novel recounting a few days in the lives of students getting ready for finals, Fitzgerald's iconic This Side of Paradise (1920), Percy Marks's The Plastic Age (1924), and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel (1929). All were popular, Philosophy 4 following on the heels of Wister's best-seller The Virginian (1902), The Plastic Age quickly made into a 1925 Clara Bow film, and Fitzgerald's and Wolfe's launching their careers. Sometimes a boys' book (many focused on football) and sometimes an almost prurient look at the life of the young (depicting drinking binges, for instance), the campus novel fused with the bildungsroman in This Side of Paradise and Look Homeward, Angel to bring it into the mainstream of American fiction.

The campus novel has continued, with some noteworthy entries like Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992) or, most recently, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (2011), but it transferred a good deal of its momentum to film during the middle of the century.3 There has been a prolific march of films, which have subdivided into several genres of their own, from the carnivalesque fraternity film, most famously Animal House (1978), which seems to spawn regular imitators like PCU (1994) and Van Wilder (2002 and sequels); to the more sober life-lesson film, such as The Paper Chase (1973) and Good Will Hunting (1997); to myriad variants of horror movies, such as the Scream series.4 Conversely, the academic novel has picked up momentum since the postwar era, surpassing the campus novel in number and prominence. 5 Many depict the "small world" of academe, but by century's end the academic novel had stepped out of the confines of so-called genre fiction by cross-pollinating with mainstream literary modes. Parallel to the way in which the campus novel grafted with the bildungsroman and became a prime theater of coming of age, the academic novel has grafted with the mid-life crisis novel, the marriage novel, and the professional-work novel to become a...


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