When the team at Tortoise unearthed the novel First time: Ooh-la-la, released under a pseudonym by disgraced former Trinity Hall fellow Peter Hutchinson, it was to general revulsion.
The “erotic adventure”, set in the fictional St Badley’s College, Oxford, opened with two senior members of staff ogling young female students – and continued on similar themes. The author was keen to emphasise the playful literary nature of the story – highlighting thematic highbrow allusions to Barthes, Kafka, Balzac and Waugh. A dirty book is still a dirty book, whatever intellectual games are going on.
But the book is not unique or exceptional. This confection of intertextuality and problematic attitudes to women pretty much define the wider genre that is the campus novel. And like it or not – fiction defines the campus in the popular imagination. It is not a good look.
Clearly no real institution now runs along the shambolic lines set out by Lodge and Bradbury. Grotesques and caricatures abound: Elaine Showalter, who wrote perhaps the definitive critical look at the campus novel, noted with glee her various appearances within the oeuvre. Comic exaggeration, however, only works where there is a kernel of truth.
If campus fiction is not describing the sector as it is, is it describing a shadowy campus that underpins what we now know?
Your archetypal protagonist in such a work is a middle aged male academic in one of the humanities or social sciences – much like the author. He toils away at teaching – usually small, Oxbridge-style, tutorials – and his uninspiring research (on “a strangely neglected topic”). He is married – after a fashion – to a woman he loves – after a fashion. But he has erotic designs elsewhere – on his colleagues, his colleagues wives, his students, on random women he happens to meet. Lust, alongside some minor intrigue of university politics, drives what little plot exists.
Narrators helpfully steer us through this morass of desire by indicating – usually within a line or two of her introduction – the sexual desirability of every female character, generally alongside a brief but precise description of her breasts that could and shouldn’t be compiled into some kind of campus novel spotters’ guide. Academic women and students have a well developed sense of personal and sexual agency that both thrills and scares our protagonist – wives do not initially have this but it is prone to erupt in unexpected ways.
The men, meanwhile, maintain an imponderable sexual magnetism while being almost self-parodically ineffectual in every aspect of their professional role and personal responsibilities. The aging process is dealt with as a deep and profound challenge to masculinity. Intellectual torpor is so often linked to sexual dysfunction one is given to wonder what the lazy plotting and tired writing of the average entry into this canon says about the (usually male) author.
We seldom encounter administrators – when we do, we meet a ruthless female efficiency married to a kind of avuncular tolerance of academic foibles. Administrators are the only people who can get things done, but seem constantly to be dealing with largely imagined crises dreamed up by academics. Occasionally the protagonist will sleep with an administrator, but this is generally frowned upon. No-one ever sleeps with the Bursar, who personifies duty and dull care in the more ossified campus settings.
Leaders and managers are impossibly distant, tending indeed to be absent from their office at key points. These are available in two forms – primarily the ineffectual throwback who governs with a kind of gut instinct based on decades of calcified prejudice. The other model is from industry, young, prone to radical ideas and expecting a basic level of competence from those who work for him. The former is chaotic, the latter organised, but both can serve to save our narrator from an awkward situation with an unexpected intervention – either dying suddenly or allocating large and unexpected amounts of money.
Students are generally reduced to one or two identifiable personal characteristics – for men these are usually a tired reference to an almost forgotten fashion, for women this is (of course) their breasts. Other than occasionally taking vague and unspecified direct action, or performing menial chores such as sleeping with our protagonist (and then using this relationship to extort better grades), students are a simple substrate that provides a background upon which lust and university politics can act.
On the campus
The sketch above very much draws on the classic campus novel as written by David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury – or one of the very many derivative works in a similar style. A second, primarily US-focused, generation in this style widens the perspective while keeping the essential chaos and precariousness of the university at the centre. One of these, Adrian Pearson’s Cow Country, is probably the most satisfying novel about academic administration yet to be written – focusing, after a fashion, on the process of regional accreditation and strategic planning alongside the more typical guidance on love in the community college. Another, Jane Smiley’s Moo, takes a wider look at a similar Mid-West campus setting – drawing on financial, romantic, and literary parallels and tensions between academic life and a history as a farming-focused institution.
These two represent the recent major attempts to capture the modern university (you could chuck Julie Shumacher’s entertainingly arch epistolary novel Dear Committee Members in there too) as opposed to using a more traditional campus as a setting for something more character-driven and claustrophobic.
The tiny cast of C.P. Snow’s classic The Masters underpins a lowest possible stakes tale of political intrigue that – for me, at least – possesses more than a hint of Jane Austen. But as an oxbridge college novel, we expect the smallness of scope to come with the antique wood panelling. Consider, for example, Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue – the tale of an Oxford college with – apparently – one, singular, postgraduate student. Who promptly dies, in a sexual sub-plot.
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History uses this claustrophobia – in her case a tiny, seemingly unknown, department in a small liberal arts college. Her tautly written tale of friendship and murder cleaves close enough to the college to be a campus novel rather than crime fiction. But novels that use the university as a setting are not always university fiction – Brett Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction is just a Brett Easton Ellis novel, with all that entails. Don Dellilo’s White Noise has little to say that is specific to the setting.
To me, for a real campus novel there is always an idea of a university, and of literature – flawed as it may be – that drives unremarkable men to occasionally try to do the “right” thing. Any suitably established institution will resist change and codification out of habit and mistake this for analysis – and a university is no different. Continuity and change are two sides of a conflict that underpins but goes beyond any ostensible plot.
This is probably best seen in David Lodge’s university trilogy – or in Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton. The forces of modernity and (for that matter) critical theory work outside the campus rather than within it – there is virtue in sticking to eternal truths, be they the value of reading for pleasure or the choice of senior managers being based on a complex web of professional and romantic rivalries. New buildings are problematic – old buildings may be worn and dilapidated but they are also somehow correct.
And the old ways tend to triumph. The literature about a successfully modernised university is rare. Rummidge and Porterhouse College continue as they always did. Only Cow Eye College appears to change in any meaningful way, but again the change is external. It eventually becomes regionally accredited, but so does the reader. As Professor Smithcote puts it “Our humanity will be traded for the spoils of novelty. And our souls will be sacrificed upon the altar of continuous improvement”.
So how did universities gain a literature that celebrates exclusively eternal verities? We’re back in Newman’s conceptualisation of campus as inculcation into a secret society of scholarship. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem uses a science fiction setting to take this idea to an almost ludicrous extreme – here the university is literally a monastery, with students of all levels living sustainably in poverty, forgoing personal possessions, and interacting with the non-academic world only in carefully staged ceremonies and at specific request. (It’s OK, there’s a love triangle too).
But despite being eternal, the campus is ceaselessly (and seasonally) changing. John Williams’ Stoner, briefly revived a few years ago, takes an admittedly sweeter take on yet another affair to present an account of the whole career of an academic, lived out in a single university. Viewed on this broader perspective, an academic’s life work (and a singular academic feud) becomes oddly poignant – occurring as it does within an institution that barely seems to change at all.
The rhythm of the academic year divides time into types and themes rather than months and years. The fictional university does not move on because it does not have to – each September the board is reset and the game begins again. The students may look different, but the world is essentially the same. As a fictional setting that allows for a return to the beginning the university is ideal as a setting for the exploration of ideas that don’t ever have to reach a meaningful conclusion and for characters that never have to learn or grow.
Is that what the rest of the world thinks of universities? Perhaps, as in all parodies, there is more than a little truth in there.