One of the most interesting sessions at our recent University Book Festival was a talk by the author, David Lodge, on the Evolution of the Campus Novel. Those of you who know me well will be aware that I had the privilege of being taught by David and that I am as great an admirer of him as a teacher as I am a novelist, so this was one event I certainly wasn’t going to miss.
Although they weren’t his first novels, it was David Lodge’s Campus Novels, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work that really brought him to general attention. Centred in and around Rummidge University, no one who worked or studied on our campus had any doubt as to which institute of higher learning he was really writing about and those of us who were students read eagerly to see what insights we could glean about the private lives of our tutors, not to mention the grimy revelations about faculty politics.
Talking about the history of the genre, Lodge made the point that it was very much a post World War II phenomenon. Although there were novels set in and around universities prior to that date, they were, for the most part, either about student life or mysteries of one sort or another. For Lodge, one of the defining factors of the Campus Novel is that its subject and point of view is that of the university staff rather than that of the students. He spoke about early American examples, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution both published in the early 1950s, but pointed out that the term Campus wasn’t used in the UK until the establishment of the University of East Anglia in 1963 and that the major English examples all came later, following on from the great expansion of university education in the 1960s.
It was this expansion and the consequent opportunity for professional writers to join the staff of the growing number of universities that Lodge saw as one of the major factors in the rise of the genre. Novelists need to create a world in which their fictions can exist and suddenly they found themselves with a ready made world around them. It isn’t a coincidence that most Campus Novels are set in Faculties of the Arts or Humanities; this was the microcosm of the world in general that their authors found themselves inhabiting and many of the characters and situations they met there were ripe for exploration.
Inevitably, the question arose as to whether or not any of the characters the reader meets in these novels were based on real people. There was great controversy when McCarthy’s book was published as several colleagues or ex-colleagues felt that she had used the novel to settle old scores. Lodge insists that in his case the only such instance is the character of Morris Zapp in Changing Places, who is based on his great friend Stanley Fish. I found that fascinating. There may have been many objections when McCarthy’s book was published but I wonder how those same people would have felt had they been left out? I ask this because I know several people who are ‘proud’ to claim that they were the inspiration for one or other of Lodge’s characters and I’ve actually worked with two who were convinced that they were the real Philip Swallow. They wear their fictional status as a badge of distinction. What Lodge did do was to ‘invent’ two new Universities which now actually exist, University College, Limerick and the University of Gloucester.
Another question raised was whether or not the Campus Novel travelled and Lodge was pretty clear that he thought it was just an Anglo-American phenomenon. For the most part European Universities are not designed as campus institutions and it is that sense of living and working within a closed community that is central to the genre’s being. And, also, he claimed that the European Academy was much more concerned to preserve their dignity than was the case in most British or American Universities. The prevalent tone of the Campus Novel is either comical or satirical and therefore perhaps not to the taste of our European neighbours.
One of the best things about a talk like this is that you come away with a list of titles to add to your tbr pile. Having spent most of my adult life in and around either college or university campuses I love this genre. As well as McCarthy and Jarrell other authors mentioned included Malcolm Bradbury, Robertson Davies, Rebecca Goldstein, Francine Prose and Amanda Cross. Bradbury and Cross I’ve read but the others are all just waiting to be explored. Despite the fact that I have little enough time to read the novels Lodge suggested, if you have other authors you would like to add to the list I would be more than grateful.