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Adventures in academia
Absent-minded professors and ivory towers star in campus novel genre

By Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Aug. 28, 2010
Egghead elitists. Haughty highbrows. Pointy-headed pundits. These are among the
epithets hurled at academics, who evoke ready-made images of absent-minded
professors living in ivory towers while remaining clueless about the real world.

I was once one of them, and I'll admit there's a grain of truth in such caricatures - at least
as applied to some of my former colleagues.

But even the most dedicated scholars don't live in a library, and the disconnect between
impossibly high-minded visions of the quest for knowledge and the inevitably earthy
compromises of everyday life can be extremely funny and unbearably sad - in ways we
all recognize from our own lives, regardless of who we are or what we do.

It's therefore little wonder that a distinct genre of campus novels has flourished since the
1950s. You don't need to be a professor to appreciate them - any more than you need to
be a lawyer to enjoy novels about the law. The best novels always reach beyond their
ostensible setting, and the best campus novels are no exception.

In the beginning
The campus novel took off following World War II, as college enrollments skyrocketed.
Three remarkable novels, each one unique, got the ball rolling.

C.P. Snow was first with "The Masters" (1951). Set in England at Cambridge, its focus is
the 13 fellows who must pick a new Master to lead their college.

Snow's description of each fellow is nuanced and psychologically acute, and his account
of their often prickly personalities, paranoid tendencies and shifting allegiances will ring
true for anyone who has ever been enmeshed in office intrigue.

But "The Masters" also repeatedly idealizes its cloistered university setting as one that
can contain the interpersonal conflicts it describes. One never doubts that these gents
eventually will shake hands, pass the decanter and toast the institution they love.

Set in 1937, "The Masters" looks back nostalgically toward a world that vanished during
World War II. The year after it appeared, the always feisty Mary McCarthy published "The
Groves of Academe" (1952), which showed little reverence for the professors at
fictional Jocelyn College, a progressive liberal arts school in east-central Pennsylvania.

Taking place during the height of the Red Scare in the early 1950s, the central figure in
"Groves" is Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar who has bounced around because of his
difficult personality, lousy teaching, failure to publish and left-wing politics.

Jocelyn takes him in when its president, himself a onetime radical, decides to cut
Mulcahy a break, willingly overlooking his deficiencies as a professor and hoping that a
fresh start will jumpstart his stalled career.
Big mistake. When budget cuts threaten Mulcahy's position, he uses every page in the
Joe McCarthy (no relation) playbook to frame the president as an enemy of academic
freedom, supposedly out to ruin Mulcahy because of Mulcahy's suspected ties to the
Communist Party.

In the process, "Groves" demonstrates how vulnerable liberalism is to demagogues from

the left as well as the right - not only revealing why American universities knuckled under
during the Red Scare, but also anticipating the politically correct orthodoxy that would
sweep campuses in the decades to come.

All of McCarthy's characters talk brilliantly - too brilliantly, at times, to be believable.

"Groves" can sound like a Socratic dialogue rather than a novel, but the conversation is
so good that you're not likely to care.

There is nothing Socratic about "Lucky Jim" (1954), Kingsley Amis' first novel. Jim Dixon
is a history lecturer in a provincial college who has little patience for the "niggling
mindlessness" of academic research involving a "funereal parade of yawn-enforcing
facts" shedding "pseudo-light" upon "non-problems."

Jim's specialty is the Middle Ages, but as he notes early in the novel, "we all specialize in
what we hate most." Jim seems to hate almost everything associated with his academic
life, including the pedantic history professor who controls his future and the female
lecturer who has ensnared him in a seemingly hopeless relationship.

Fortune smiles on Jim in the end, but only because he finally lights out for a non-
academic career in London, having first entertained us with more than 200 pages of
nonstop, very funny satire on the life he leaves behind.

The world of David Lodge

In characteristically generous fashion, British writer David Lodge has described "Lucky
Jim" as a "magic book for me," and Lodge has kept Amis' comic spirit alive in a number of
campus novels, the best and funniest of which are "Changing Places" (1975) and its
sequel, "Small World" (1984).

"Changing Places" begins with the following wonderful sentence: "High, high above the
North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English literature approached each
other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour."

The professors, both 40, are Morris Zapp and Phillip Swallow, who are swapping roles for
a semester as part of an exchange program involving Zapp's State University of Euphoria
at Plotinus and Swallow's University of Rummidge.

Plotinus, across the bay from "the glittering, glamorous city of Esseph," is a thinly
disguised Berkeley; dreary Rummidge is modeled on the University of Birmingham,
where Lodge taught for 27 years.

Zapp is an academic superstar who publishes frequently but doesn't much care for
literature. Swallow is a fussbudget who, "scarcely known outside his own Department,"
has published little but loves literature.

By novel's end, the men have not only traded countries, but also wives and large chunks
of their respective personalities; Lodge's obvious model is Henry James, who wrote
numerous novels exploring the relationship between England and America, and whom
Lodge went on to commemorate in "Author, Author" (2004).
The satire in "Changing Places" is broad and gentle; one almost wishes that Lodge's
comedy had harnessed more of Amis' savage energy. But Lodge is clearly having a good
time telling his story, and "Changing Places" is a fun - even joyful - book to read.

By the time of "Small World," Zapp is confidently proclaiming that "the single, static
campus is over." "Scholars these days," he continues, "are like the errant knights of old,
wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory."

And in search of sexy women - like Angelica, the beautiful, elusive graduate student who
is pursued by young English professor Persse McGarrigle. Or sexy prizes, like the UNESCO
Chair of Literary Criticism that Zapp covets, with its hefty salary, generous travel
allowance, and waiver of any requirement to teach students or grade papers.

There are quests galore in "Small World," as jet-setting academics embody the meaning
of desire itself, that insatiable search for more - sex, power, prestige, you name it - in a
world where enough is never enough. "Small World" is a campus novel on steroids; it has
slipped its moorings to explore the wider world beyond the ivy-clad walls.

Only connect: Jane Smiley and Zadie Smith

In a recent e-mail exchange, Jane Smiley singled out "Small World" as a "great
inspiration" in writing her own campus novel, "Moo" (1995). "I was teaching at Iowa
State at the time," Smiley wrote, and the campus novel "was such a ripe subject that I
couldn't resist."

Smiley added that "Moo" "is one of my favorites of my own books." It is also one of the
best campus novels, successfully integrating a large Midwestern university and the
surrounding community while managing a dizzying number of subplots.

"Moo" has a huge cast that includes professors, students and administrators as well as
secretaries, cafeteria workers, a shady Texas billionaire and - most famously - a pig
named Earl. Incredibly, Smiley gives each of them - and I really do mean each of them,
including Earl - enough face time to come to life.

There are plenty of dark clouds hovering above Moo U., involving penny-pinching
politicians, the privatization of the university, dubious cloning experiments, the
destruction of a rain forest and racial prejudice. There's also a truckload of the petty
intrigues and backbiting that are a staple in every campus novel.

But "Moo" never loses its good-hearted empathy for its characters, and even the most
noxious of them - an economics professor whose two great loves are the free market and
himself - comes across as fatuous rather than evil.

It's no accident that "Moo" is structured in five parts and ends with a wedding, because it
reads like a great Shakespearean comedy: wise, accepting and affirming.

The same goes for Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" (2005), which unfolds on the campus of
fictional Wellington College, a thinly disguised Harvard.

"On Beauty" revolves around the families of academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty
Kipps. Howard comes from England and is white, working class and radical; Monty comes
from Trinidad and is black, rich and conservative.

Neither man is easy to love; both are self-involved and both cheat on their long-suffering
wives. But while Smith doesn't excuse their conduct - and while she has her share of fun
with academics and their petty foibles - she is as intent as Smiley on demanding more
than just satire, from both herself and the campus novel.

Smith's inspiration, openly professed in her acknowledgments, is E.M. Forster and his
novel "Howard's End" (1910), in which two very different families come together and
eventually learn to love one another - largely because Forster himself is so generous, and
so willing to forgive their many faults.

Smith displays similar generosity - not just toward the Belsey and Kipps families, but also
toward the campus novel; she clearly believes that all three can grow.

It is no accident that the final, moving scene in "On Beauty" takes place in a classroom,
where a beleaguered Howard - recently separated from his wife and soon to lose his job -
is giving a lecture to showcase his talents for prospective employers.

I'm not telling you what happens, but I defy you to read it and remain unmoved, which
suggests in turn that the classroom still has a great deal to offer - not only to teachers
and their students, but also to writers and their readers.

The reading list
If you want to ace the exam on campus novels, here are 10 more that you should read,
listed in chronological order:

Randall Jarrell, "Pictures from an Institution" (1954). A witty satire - less a novel
than a series of snapshots - tracing a year at a progressive woman's college and
featuring a female novelist bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mary McCarthy.

Alison Lurie, "The War Between the Tates" (1974). The best exploration in a campus
novel of the thankless role of faculty wife - particularly when her husband is sleeping with
the students.

Malcolm Bradbury, "The History Man" (1975). There are no limits - sexual or political
- for English sociology professor Howard Kirk and his wife, Barbara. A dark look at the
psychic cost of an academic environment that confuses indulgence with freedom.

Don DeLillo, "White Noise" (1985). DeLillo's best-known book takes us to College-on-
the-Hill, where Jack Gladney chairs the department of Hitler studies. A devastating
indictment of what happens when even the exotic becomes commonplace - and when
our freedom to choose anything devalues everything.

Carol Shields, "Swann" (1987). The fictional Mary Swann was an abused Canadian
housewife who also wrote poetry, which becomes another carcass for academics to pick
over once it is rediscovered by Sarah Maloney, a feminist English professor and Swann's

A.S. Byatt, "Possession" (1990). A stunningly original and beautifully written story of
two British academics whose own romance blooms while they reconstruct a secret love
affair between two Victorian poets. Winner of the Man Booker prize.

Richard Russo, "Straight Man" (1997). Hank Devereaux is chair of a dysfunctional

English department in a rural Pennsylvania college in this laugh-out-loud but also
poignant account of a 49-year-old academic who long ago settled for less and now pines
for more.
J.M. Coetzee, "Disgrace" (1999). Winner of the Man Booker prize, Coetzee's account of
an aging professor who resigns following an affair with a student also explores how the
changes sweeping post-apartheid South Africa affect those who have lost the power they
once took for granted - in and out of the classroom.

Francine Prose, "Blue Angel" (2000). Prose's Vermont version of the classic Heinrich
Mann novel features a creative writing teacher with a drinking problem and his
infatuation with a student who has an agenda of her own. Among the best of the many
recent novels skewering the politically correct campus.

Philip Roth, "The Human Stain" (2000). Set during the memorable summer of Monica
Lewinsky's stained dress, Roth's protagonist is a distinguished 71-year-old classics
professor whose dramatic fall from grace highlights our ongoing inability to talk about
race and sex.

Who's afraid of the campus novel?

Universities have served writers well, offering subjects for serious study - lit crit,
pc, AI - and opportunities for farce. Aida Edemariam conducts her own research

The Guardian, Saturday 2 October 2004

Ever since Vladimir Nabokov published his lovely, sad, ruthless and very funny
novel Pnin, the beginning of term has been a staple scene in the campus novel.
"The 1954 Fall term had begun... Again in the margins of library books earnest
freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as 'Description of nature', or 'Irony'; and
in a pretty edition of Mallarmé's poems an especially able scholiast had already
underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it 'birds'."

The details of the scene change; the first paragraph of Don DeLillo's White
Noise , for instance, is saturated with late 20th-century excess: "The station
wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the West
campus... students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the
objects inside..." Or, as Malcolm Bradbury put it in the first line of The History
Man: "Now it is autumn again; the people are all coming back."

This academic year begins with Tom Wolfe's latest attempt to characterise an
age. And despite those who believe that, while university life will continue, the
novel of academia has had its day, Wolfe has chosen a campus novel - I am
Charlotte Simmons, 600 pages set at a moneyed college on the eastern
seaboard - with which to do it.

From a practical point of view, of course, the attractions of the campus haven't
changed much: it is a finite, enclosed space, like a boarding school, or like
Agatha Christie's country-houses (the campus murder mystery being its own
respectable sub-genre); academic terms, usefully, begin and end; there are clear
power relationships (teacher/student; tenured professor/scrabbling lecturer) -
and thus lots of scope for illicit affairs; circumscription forces a greater intensity -
revolutions have been known to begin on campuses, though that doesn't seem
to have happened for a while. And it's all set against the life of the mind.

"The high ideals of the university as an institution - the pursuit of knowledge and
truth," says David Lodge, author of some of the more popular campus novels of
the last century, "are set against the actual behaviour and motivations of the
people who work in them, who are only human and subject to the same ignoble
desires and selfish ambitions as anybody else. The contrast is perhaps more
ironic, more marked, than it would be in any other professional milieu."

The campus novel began in America, with Mary McCarthy's The Groves of
Academe (1952), Randall Jarrell's reply to it, Pictures From an Institution (1954),
and Pnin (1955). (Nabokov's Pale Fire is, inter alia, a campus novel, and a
murder-mystery.) "Campus" is, of course, an American word, and Lodge makes
the distinction between the campus novel and the varsity novel - the latter being
set at Oxbridge, and usually among students, rather than teachers, thus
disallowing the joys of Zuleika Dobson, or Jill, or Brideshead Revisited; he claims
Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954) as the first British campus novel, and a

To all the standard elements, Lodge explains, Amis added "the English comic
novel tradition, which goes back through Evelyn Waugh and Dickens to Fielding";
ie, an element of robust farce later elaborated by Tom Sharpe in Porterhouse
Blue, for example, or by Howard Jacobson.

"I don't see why the campus novel has to consist of farce," says AS Byatt, who
dislikes Lucky Jim, seeing it as both sexist and thoroughly anti-intellectual. "I find
it baffling." She has much more time for what she calls true comedy, in Terry
Pratchett's Unseen University, or in Lodge's Nice Work (1988), which she feels
have more respect for a profession based on serious thought.

This is an older tradition, again. "I compare it to pastoral," says Lodge. "If you
think of a comedy such as As You Like It, you get all these eccentric characters,
all in one pastoral place, interacting in ways they wouldn't be able to do if they
were part of a larger, more complex social scene. There's often an element of
entertaining artifice, of escape from the everyday world, in the campus novel.
Quite interesting issues are discussed, but not in a way which is terribly solemn
or portentous."

The other, probably inevitable, addition was class. Much of the tension in Lucky
Jim is between Jim Dixon and his socially superior boss; apart from the fact that
she's simply prettier, the thing that binds Jim to his eventual girlfriend, Christine,
is their mutual recognition of a kind of aggressive gaucheness, assumed to be
more authentic than the baying, madrigal-singing Welches. But it's a fruitful
collision nonetheless.
"If you're interested in the phenomenon of meritocracy, which transformed
English society in the postwar period, then the university is - or was - a good
place to observe it," says Lodge, who like many of his colleagues in the 60s and
70s was a first-generation university graduate. "The Kirks are, indeed, new
people," wrote Bradbury in The History Man, which was published in the same
year, 1975, as Lodge's Changing Places. "But where some people are born new
people... the Kirks arrived at that condition the harder way, by effort, mobility
and harsh experience."

These two seminal English campus novels are set in and immediately after "the
heroic period of student politics", to quote Lodge's Nice Work, when new
universities seemed to be appearing all over the country, change seemed
possible, social mobility achievable, and promiscuity mandatory - the necessary
mixing and mating of comedy, or farce, meshing nicely with the burgeoning
sexual revolution and women's lib. And even though Bradbury's novel especially
has a great sense of darkness, pointing, among other things, to the inequalities
of unfettered sexuality at that point in time, both now read as historical novels,
imbued with a quixotic hope.

But in English higher education everything is set, even in celebration, against

Oxbridge, says Ian Carter, author of Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British
University Fiction in the Post War Years (1990), and a professor at the University
of Auckland, citing those who made the conscious choice to go to Sussex, for
example, instead. The American campus novel was, he feels, better able to avoid
the trap of class, "perhaps because American universities are so highly
differentiated, so recognisably placeable; novels could take on a larger variety of
themes without automatically having to deal with class."

Though the oil crisis of 1973 was the beginning of the end of the boom in new
universities, Thatcher prompted the next great satirical subject: Lodge cites
Andrew Davies's A Very Peculiar Practice, and his own Nice Work transfers the
contrapuntal, mutually illuminating UK university versus US university structure
of Changing Places to UK university versus UK capitalist industry.

A concurrent subject was the rise of literary theory, gently skewered in Robyn
Penrose, standing for the university side of Nice Work (she is a devotee of
"semiotic materialism" who believes there is no such thing as the "self", though
"in practice this doesn't seem to affect her very noticeably [so] I shall therefore
take the liberty of treating her as a character"). John Mullan, lecturer in English
at University College London, who has written, in these pages, that the English
campus novel is a fossil form, says "nobody notices, but AS Byatt's Possession
[1990] is an extremely acid attack on feminist literary criticism."

So, as the university changed, British campus novels were changing in tone -
angry, coruscating, debunking, or, in the case of Michael Frayn's haunting The
Trick of It (1989), melancholy; and the younger generation of novelists - Martin
Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan - weren't writing them. "It might be that the
clutch of books that appeared in the 70s and 80s were to do with the fact that
we were about to see a world vanish, maybe they were all elegies to an idea of
the campus," says Howard Jacobson. "My novel [Coming From Behind, a "rotten
poly" satire published in 1983] came towards the end of it - and was in a way a
parody of what was already a parody, since my campus wasn't even a campus."

Jacobson argues that fear of elitism put paid to the campus novel. "Although half
the country goes to campuses... everybody is embarrassed to talk about it. I
think once democracy got going on the English novel, and we felt we didn't want
to write anything that might upset anybody or make them feel out of it, that was
the end of the campus novel. I miss it. And also, of course, campus novels were,
by their very nature, funny, and funny is not in either. Campuses have become
tragic places. Maybe that's all it is. They're pure wastelands, really."

"Universities are depressed," says Byatt. When institutions such as the University
of East Anglia were built everything was "shiny, white and new," and because "in
those days universities were intensely hopeful" you could afford farce, because
"you had a solidity. Now they're terrified and cowering and underfinanced and
overexamined and overbureaucratised."

Not everyone shares this bleak view. Lodge, for one, published a new campus
novel, Thinks... in 2001, and says "There's a tendency for people to sneer at the
genre as if it's played out, while actually they take a good deal of interest in
reading it. The fact is that universities change and societies change, and
therefore there are always new fictional possibilities."

Laurie Taylor, who for 27 years has written a satirical column about universities
for the Times Higher Education Supplement (and was rumoured to be the model
for Howard Kirk in The History Man), concurs. This week he judged a competition
for the THES that asked for the first chapter of a new campus novel. The entries
were "full of campuses in which management experts and management gurus
and development leaders, all speaking management jargon, are locked in a
battle with the few people left who still believe that there's something more to
universities than providing people with degrees that enable them to get jobs."

For this is the major battle still being fought, first joined under Thatcher, and
continued under Blair: "the campus is now a site for a clash between two pretty
fundamental values": the instrumental and the intrinsic, auditors versus
intellectuals. Taylor cites a novel he recently reviewed, Academia Nuts, by
Michael Wilding (2002), "which is very clever, in the grand tradition of Lucky Jim -
but all about the impossibility of writing campus novels any more."

' "This", said Henry. "All this." There it was, their world lay all before them. The
deserted common room. The chipped cups. The worn, unfigured carpet. "There's
not an awful lot here," said Pawley. "I think you need more than the common
room." "The university as such," said Henry. "You'd better hurry," said Pawley.
"It's all being out-sourced. There's hardly anything left. The virtual university. No
tenured staff. No gross moral turpitude." "I shall write about the university in
decline," said Henry. "I think you might have left it too late," said Dr Bee.'
So "there are still plenty of laughs," says Taylor, "even though the laughter is
now bitter instead of affectionate." But Academia Nuts is also Australian, and it is
instructive to look away from England to see how the patient is really faring.
Canada had Robertson Davies, now dead, and more recently Jeffrey Moore, who
won the Commonwealth Best First Book award with a campus novel, Red-Rose
Chain, in 2000; JM Coetzee's fierce, brilliant Disgrace (1999) is set in motion by
the narrator's misdemeanors on a campus in Cape Town.

Europe never had very many, though All Souls, by Javier Marias, is "wonderful",
says Byatt; in order to write a good campus novel you have to have been a
university teacher, says Lodge, and in Europe that would be a betrayal of
professional dignity. But in America the genre seems to have grown in stature,
mutating into something important, and relevant. The increasing ubiquity of the
university education is as true there as it is here (as David Mamet put it in
Oleanna, "college education, since the war, has become so much a matter of
course, and such a fashionable necessity... that we espouse it as a matter of
right, and have ceased to ask 'What is it good for'?") and ensures a large
audience less hamstrung than the British by class-consciousness.

The English department continues to provide great fodder (for Richard Russo, for
example) but one of the more obvious trends has been the rise of novels
satirising creative writing courses, such as Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. "It's
like shooting fish in a barrel," laughs Francine Prose, whose National Book Award-
nominated Blue Angel updates the Marlene Dietrich movie, placing it in a
creative writing course in a tiny college in northern Vermont. "The minute they
started allowing writers on campus they were in trouble"; of course they were
going to start mocking the day job.

"Where is the novel we ought to have, about science departments?" wonders

Byatt, who frankly wishes that English departments, wallowing in self-
referentiality, could be discontinued; Lodge's Thinks... again of contrapuntal,
bipartite structure, plays a novelist teaching a creative writing course off against
a cognitive scientist; the usual farcical bed-hopping ensues, but it's a knowing
nod to the genre in what is mainly a serious exploration of the nature of
consciousness and the limits of AI.

This, too, is a trend established in the US, by writers such as Jonathan Lethem,
whose As She Climbed Across the Table is about a physicist who discovers a hole
in the universe, and a sociologist who studies academic environments; or by
Richard Powers, who in Galatea 2.2 has a cognitive neurologist train a neural net
to pass a course on Great Books.

Francine Prose set out to write a novel of obsessive love and ambition, "and
somehow the campus seemed the perfect way to talk about those things". This
seems a general discovery: White Noise, 20 years old now, is, as well as a study
of the threats, and the seductive promises of science, and a celebration of
family, a sustained and darkly funny engagement with the idea of death; Donna
Tartt's bestseller The Secret History (also a campus thriller) takes the influence
tutors have over their nubile charges to violent extremes. Power is so clearly
demarcated on campus, and, increasingly, so easy to lose.

The great novel about this - though it is great about nearly everything - is Philip
Roth's The Human Stain. Coleman Silk, professor of classics, is also dean when
he utters one inadvisable word, "spooks"; the tumbrils of politically correct
outrage roll, and he loses his job. (One of the central ironies of the book is that
he is African-American, passing as white.) In the controlled space of the campus
he has been king, overhauling departments, sweeping them clean, but in a word
he has been forced into exile.

Exile is, in the late 20th century, itself almost a fossilised concept: where,
centuries ago, you might be forced to leave a village as punishment, how many
communities now are close-knit enough to function in this way? The campus,
especially highly differentiated, self-sufficient American campuses such as
Coleman Silk's in sleepy New England, is our alternative; banishment is no less
keenly felt. And it nearly drives Silk mad.

Political correctness never made much headway on British campuses, and in

fact, says Alexander Star, who edited Lingua Franca, the magazine of American
academia, until it folded three years ago, the worst has been over in the US for a
while now. The animating anger of The Human Stain is, therefore, dated. But it
doesn't matter. For in pc, and in literary theory, and on a modern campus, Roth
found a way to address some of the big cultural questions of the later 20th

Silk's nemesis is a young French academic called Delphine, bright, ambitious, a

mistress of theory. She is also far from home, and lonely, and increasingly
"destabilised to the point of shame by the discrepancy between how she must
deal with literature in order to succeed professionally and why she first came to
literature": that instrumental v intrinsic argument rearing its head again.

The dichotomy, for Roth, is clear: ideology is the enemy of humanism, of the
human; ideology is fascism, communism - is political correctness. And so, in
America at least, the campus novel has become a way to measure the state of
the nation. It has taken on the elements of classical tragedy, but it is still
amusing, albeit often bleakly so. No wonder Tom Wolfe wants to join in the fun.

Campus novels join the big league

Sushmita Mohapatra & Savitha V, TNN, Nov 17, 2007, 01.24am IST
BANGALORE: In a market where a book is considered a bestseller if it sells 3,000 copies, Chetan Bhagat's Five
Point Someone — a novel set on the IIT campus and based on student life — broke records when it sold over
50,000 copies. It might also have earned itself a place in the history books as the trigger for a trend that might
have shaken up the Indian publishing industry.
That trend is the campus novel. Books like Bombay Girls, Bombay Rains; Keep Off the Grass; Anything For
You Ma'm; Everything You Desire and Joker In The Pack are now trying to replicate the success of Five Point
"Demographics also boost the popularity of such campus books, with half the country below the age of 25," says
Crossword Bookstores head, operations and marketing, Aniyan Nair. Six out of 10 such titles have done an
average of 3,000-4,000 copies, making the genre well worth betting on for publishers.
For those who have been-there-done-that, they offer an alluring measure of nostalgia. For the young and raring-
to-go, they're aspirational. "These books make readers relive their college years. A campus book cuts across all
age groups. It finds readership not only among alumni but also among aspirants," says Orient Paperbacks
managing director Sudhir Malhotra. Orient published Joker In The Pack by IIM alumni Ritesh Sharma and
Neeraj Pahlajani.
The book, based on the life of a middle-class boy in IIM Bangalore, was launched two months ago and is going
into its third re-print. "If you were to make a comparison with popular writers like Shobha De whose books sell
over 30,000 copies, sales amounting to 3,000 may seem really small. But in a market like India, it is still a very
significant figure," says Landmark's Madhu.
Campus books have another advantage when it comes to distribution. "One thing we have noticed is that quite a
few of our customers (for campus books) are alumni of the respective institutions. And now that almost every
educational institution has its own online community or group, information is shared online, leading to a lot of
online purchases of such books," says online shopping portal COO K Vaitheeswaran.
The Rs 13,000-crore Indian publishing industry has been growing at 15-20%, but Indian fiction is only just
emerging as a growth driver. According to industry sources, the last couple of years have seen many more
young writers coming up. "The publishing industry has also come of age and more publishing houses are now
willing to take a risk with first time writers," says Mr Nair.
"We get hordes of manuscripts for campus books and many of them are non-writers. However, the books that
are published do reasonably well,"says Harper Collins Publishers India senior commissioning editor Saugata
Mukherjee. Harper Collins is publishing two campus books — Bombay Girls, Bombay Rains, a medical school
novel by Anirban Bose and another management school book Keep Off the Grass by Karan Bajaj. Mr
Mukherjee adds that post the success of Five Point Someone, the interest has certainly peaked.


England: K. Amis, Lucky Jim 1954

India: C. Bhagat, Five Point Someone 2004
England: M. Bradbury, The History Man 1975
England: A.S. Byatt, Possession 1990
South Africa: J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace 1999
England: D. Lodge, Nice Work 1988
India: S. Natarajan, No Onions, No Garlic 2006
USA: P. Roth, Indignation 2008
England: D. Sayers, Gaudy Night 1935
England: Z. Smith, White Teeth 2000
USA: D. Tartt, The Secret History 1992
Australia: M. Wilding, Academia Nuts 2002
Is it dude-lit in disguise? Is it meant to be frothy or filling, shallow or sweet? I mean, would
we call Erich Segal's "love story" a campus novel in India? ...

‘A’ literature for Rs 100

Isn’t the ‘a’ in the headline wrong? Yes. But grammar isn’t necessarily the
big thing in India’s booming mass market for quickie English paperbacks.
Start with a horny male protagonist, describe everything from sunset to
smut, don’t worry about dictionaries, and you have a bestseller.
Our correspondent Dutta takes a walk on the wild side of India’s English
language publishing
Language is no barrier to writing a novel.” Not a statement that can find its way into any
author’s Ten Rules to Writing but Animesh Verma, 24-year-old author of two novels, is
sure, solemn even, his voice free of any irony, as he spells out his manifesto.
“Grammatical errors, spelling mistakes doesn’t (sic) matter that much. I am not writing a
(sic) literature,” he says.
In all fairness, that charge — of writing literature — is not one that could be brought
against Verma. He could perhaps be tried, though, for outraging the modesty of the
English language. There he is, in one of the early chapters of his debut novel Love, Life
and Dream On: an IITian’s story of romance (Srishti Publishers, Rs 100), describing with
bungling earnestness a character in love. “The girl gazed at Aniket for a moment and
smiled. The small glance made Aniket reach cloud nine in a moment. He began to
Dream. (Prof) Mr Banerjee kept on stressing the types of bonds and Aniket realised the
formation of a new bond. Bond of LOVE.”



Back on top
In Day Scholar, Siddharth Chowdhury writes once again with honesty and precision about young people.

I dling away in a small, local bookstore a few weeks ago, I was casting about for something I could read
with real pleasure. One book that had been looking at me, face-out, was Day Scholar by Siddharth
Chowdhury. It's not just the lovely cover design that beckoned but its economy: a slim, elegant Picador
hardback of 160 pages. I was already familiar with the first chapter of this book excerpted in the
anthology about school stories, Recess, where a few Delhi university students, including the story's
narrator, Hriday Thakur, watch through a gap in the door their thuggish landlord indulging in anal sex
with his married mistress. The scene is described with enough matter of fact graphicness to earn your
respect at once for an Indian author willing to write with such brutal frankness.
You know at once he isn't kidding about; that this won't be another sentimental, cute or nostalgic
account of youth. The profane, dark and embarrassingly comic atmosphere immediately thrusts these
students into the sleaze of the adult world. But it is the next chapter that really drew me in: a coolly
understated, humorous and charming introduction to the story's writer-hero and his ‘fellow gallants' of
Patna's Kadam Kuan neighbourhood, recounting the rituals of school-ending and college-beginning.
Excited, I also bought Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut, and the next morning ran, more than walked, to a
used bookstore I remembered having a single copy of his debut, Diksha at St.Martins.
Siddharth Chowdhury writes about young people in exactly the way I had always hoped Indian writers
would, but usually never do: with precision, honesty, affection, style, an accurate ear for dialogue
around the themes of friendship, love, writing, girls, cinema, sex, rock music and college life. His new
novel, Day Scholar, brings all this together perfectly and beautifully. Day Scholar is a masterpiece in
modern Indian fiction. The first, I'd have to say, in Indian English literature about university life, since it
has no real precedent. It isn't exactly a coming of age story; neither is it just a campus novel. It's that
even rarer thing: ‘the college grad-as-writer-hero' genre.
Hriday, just graduated from Patna Commerce College has joined BA (Hons) at Delhi's Zakir Husain. He
has found strange digs at the Shokeen Niwas hostel whose unpredictable, crazy residents (such as the
older Bihari student Jishnu da) are not what he bargained for when he left Patna to make it in Delhi.
Hriday's ambition is to be a writer, and amidst the crazy goings on here, he tries to write. But perhaps
the tough, vulgar and shady environment of Shokeen Niwas may just yet give him some street wisdom
and make a writer out of him. He reads and writes just to keep himself sane; to clarify. Meanwhile, he
also falls in love with the ardent and erotic intellectual Anjali Nalwa.
Familiar territory
Shokeen Niwas, not the college, is the set-piece of the novel and it works because it is like all the
hostels we have known, full of cracked characters and philistines, and a bookish, sensitive adolescent
like Hriday has to make sense of them. If Hriday had come to a place full of intellectuals and artists,
there wouldn't have been any comedy or surprise. The sticky thing about writing about things that are
so close to our own growing up is to write without gushing and affectation even though that's how it
actually happened. While Siddharth does his fair share of gushing in Diksha and Roughcut (‘more a
Truffaut girl than a Goddard moll' kind of thing), in Day Scholar there's a fine restrain about self-
referential details.
He achieves this distance by making his hero-narrator self-effacing, keeping what happens to him in the
background, while building up other characters and their concerns.
The spare, stylish prose and its elegant economy is note perfect: sentence by sentence it is interesting.
Nothing is wasted or thrown away: the writing is just so much, and not more. Each chapter is so
carefully worked out, they feel self contained and can stand alone as satisfying short stories in their own
And I can't think of another Indian author who has used a city and its neighbourhood as fellow
characters, or as Chowdhury would say, ‘fellow gallants' with as much vivid recall and fondness. Patna
and Kadam Kuan, a ‘tough Behari-Bengali neighbourhood' always form part of the action and
background in his fiction. (His first novel is fetchingly dedicated to Patna). Characters recur from
previous stories (like Ritwik Ray from Patna Roughcut turning up in Day Scholar), and we find them
always going down the mean streets of Kadam Kuan. From their roots here, they move away later to
other neighbourhoods in Delhi. The Patna- Delhi-Patna movement is a rock and roll jig to the head-
banging music of Kadam Kuan.
Hriday remembers: “Around 5.30, about three times a week on an average, Yamini Sahay, along with
her elder sister Rukmini, would stroll in from Kadam Kuan for the chaat and gol-gappas sold near the
market entrance. Time for the cigarettes to come out. Prajal and I would stand in front of the bookstall,
light our Gold Flakes and just stare at the Sahay sisters as they tucked in massive quantities of gol-
gappas. The secret perhaps of their architecturally perfect behinds. After the gol-gappas, the sisters
would take a leisurely stroll around Hathwa Market and we would follow them ten paces behind, passing
a Gold Flake back and forth between us.”
Just right
The nostalgic references to the things of the late 1980s and 90s are placed just right, sharply drawing a
time and place without calling attention to itself: Vicky mopeds, Rajdoot/ Yezdi bikes, North Star
sneakers, Competition Success guides/Brilliant Tutorials, Natraj pencils, Golden Eagle beer, Binaca
toothpaste, Navy Cut cigarettes, Divya Bharathi movies, Boney M and Bata sandals.
In one of his stories, a character says he considers Ray's “Apur Sansar” the greatest love story, and it
would be lovely to have Hriday return in Chowdhury's own version of his ‘Apur Sansar', grown up now,
married, a published author looking for a way to understand life. I can't think of a better way to close
this piece than borrowing a 1980s limerick from Day Scholar itself that Hriday, the devout writer (“I
wrote and kept myself alive”) makes up about himself, and offering it here instead to its wonderful
author: “ Soda, Lemon, Gingerpop, Siddharth Chowdhury Back on Top.”
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Books are flowing from IIT and IIM portals. And they are for the masses
By Mandira Nayar in The Week dated 25th Jan 2009
Dil Chahata Hai changed everything. The movie not only proved that Aamir Khan-with the
right haircut and the facial hair-can believably pass for a 25-something, but also that the
young in their eccentricity have their own vocabulary. The DCH moment opened up doors
for writers and film directors to finally use personal experiences to tell India’s urban story.
Rohithari Rajan, 29, an IIM-A graduate, probably never realised selling soap had fringe
benefits (other than rare free samples). Stranded in villages he could barely identify on a map
on a rural stint with Hindustan Unilever, Rajan decided to venture into a territory that his
degree would have never prepared him for-fiction.
Rajan’s book IIM->Ganjdundwara is a bit like English August, but with a definite message.
He is among the young authors who are using their experiences to tell stories without a
literary hangover. “I spent the time without anything to do, so I started to maintain a sort of
blog,” he says. His log-not on the World Wide Web-became the basis of his book published
by Indian Log.
The IIM brick building in Ahmedabad is almost synonymous with aspirations of millions of
middle class Indians anxious to be part of the bright new India. The toughest B-school to get
in, it is better known for its marketing mantras and less for flights of fantasy.
But its students spend sleepless nights conjuring up creative solutions for complex business
problems (sleep-deprivation is a state of mind that recruits soon get used to). They are
moving beyond just making their name in corporate corridors and are finding comfort in
fiction. And like IIM-A products, they have managed to strike the right formula to success.

Unlike the arcaded corridors of Delhi’s elite colleges, where India’s literary novel was
carefully crafted, literature emerging from IIT and IIM is accessible, autobiographical,
aspirational and inclusive.
“The demographic profile of India is very young,” says author, and IIT professor Rukmini
Bhaya Nair. “These books express the aspirations and the language of this group. The English
has local orientation. These stories are quasi autobiographical,” she says.
The booming publishing industry in India, eager to grab on the changing reading habits and
the demand for entertainment through the word, has started encouraging new genres. “People
now have different goals. There was a time when, for 10 or 15 years, there were just big
awardees and no one apart from that. On the other end, there were people who had 500 copies
of their books sold at pavements at Connaught Place. This gap has begun to be filled,” says
Amitabha Bagchi, author of Above Average.
Young Indians, bred on a diet of pulp from foreign shores, have now come out to write in the
vocabulary they know to create detectives, criminals, military heroes and mushy heroines.
However, in the course of experimenting with different genres, there are those who stick to
the milieu they are most familiar with. Propelled by the need to tell a story, writers, like New
Age Hindi movie-makers, want to pepper the literary landscape with ordinary characters.
“My characters will not save the world,” says Rajan. “They are typical everyday people.
There is an audience for this, people who have grown up in the 80s and 90s India like I
have,” he says.
This young tribe, banded together by the common experience of growing up in pre-satellite
television India, may turn to this brand of literature, masala, pulp or commercial fiction for
comfort, but there are others who lap up the stories because they find that the barriers of
language have been broken. Chetan Bhagat, the poster-boy for the trend of pulp with an
Indian twist, will be remembered for being the first to step across this divide. The popularity
of his books can perhaps be best judged by the sheer volume they sell. His first book, Five
Point Someone, was not easy to get published. The book about three friends at IIT offers
readers a glimpse into the world of ‘average’ IITian with the pressure to perform and keep up
with the brightest brains. It has been on the best-selling list for years and is slated to become
a big budget film. His latest book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, on the riots in Gujarat, has
sold five lakh copies.
His books-blockbusters in his own words-have opened up a whole new audience of readers,
left out in the cold by cerebral writing. An investment banker, Bhagat bristles at his work
being described as masala. “My books are mainstream. Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie are
niche writers,” he says. “They are straight from the heart, are an expression and not written to
create an impression,” he says.
Bhagat may never get the Booker prize (his opinion on that coveted award is bound to upset
the jury, he compares it to a Miss Universe pageant), but he, like good Hindi film directors,
knows the pulse of his audience. He wears patriotism on his sleeve and launches a tirade
against the biggest evil in the country-elitism. “It is not Indian if you don’t like Chetan
Bhagat,” he retorts. Bhagat’s success is not only due to his price-Rs 99-but also to the casual
tone of his language. His readers are those who may speak English haltingly, but realise its
importance to get ahead.
A simply told story, his book is like the Hindi movie, which has the power to make the
viewer a part of the celluloid world. “These are stories about ordinary people,” he says. “A
class V student can enjoy it and so can an 80-year-old uncle. They will both ask the same
question, kya hua?”
Salman Khan has his loyal fans, but he, probably, never realised the magnitude of the
expectations when he acted in Hello, adapted from One Night @ a Call Center. Bhagat has
been receiving mails from irate fans who feel that the movie did not do justice to the book.
Bhagat is not the only one with a big movie deal to his name. Karan Bajaj, the author of Keep
Off the Grass, which sold 10,000 copies within two months of its launch, has managed to
land a Hollywood studio. Bajaj, who “majored in drinking beer with friends in engineering
and IIM days, now chases the ghosts of his past through frequent vacations in exotic locales”.
His book, officially on a best-seller list, has crossed 25,000-and he has signed a deal with the
producer of Dark Knight to make a film.
While Hollywood is just turning its attention to urban India, the Hindi movie industry, on a
revamp phase, is looking to find something new. Books, then especially written by authors
who ‘get’ the mood of the youth, are a natural place to turn.
Tuhin A. Sinha, a scriptwriter in Hindi cinema, has decided to make a movie to tell a personal
story. His two books, That Thing Called Love and 22 Yards, both bestsellers, were born of a
desire to see his works have his name on them.
“The anonymity of being a scriptwriter made me write,” he says with a smile. “Scriptwriting
is a collaborative effort and writing a book is entirely your own baby. You even hold a book
like a baby.” Sinha continues to talk about the urban landscape moving from relationship to
cricket and crime.
“Two years ago when I typed the name of my book on Orkut, only 38 or 40 people had read
it,” he says. “Now when I go to the site, I find that at least 1,000 people have put it as a
favourite read.”
Social networking sites like Orkut may have changed the way keep in touch, but they also go
a long way in spreading the word about fiction. “The Facebook crowd tends to be more
sophisticated,” says Sinha. Sites like Orkut provide young people in tiny places with no
‘hang-outs’ the rare freedom to interact with the opposite sex without the prying eyes of
English is still an aspirational language. Love affairs are often simple and the young find
themselves trapped between the world they see on television and the rigid small town
morality that binds them. It is in this semi-urban India that campus stories-of average people
finding love and coping with everyday reality-find plenty of takers. And Bhagat, an icon,
draws his strength from these readers. “A boy in Ujjain bought my book both in Hindi and
English. The shopkeeper asked him why. He told him that the Hindi book was to read at
home and the English to show off to his friends in college,” says Bhagat.

The reason for the success of these books is that the Ujjain boy is not alone.
Abhijit Bhaduri, author of Mediocre But Arrogant and Married But Available, discovered his
popularity on Orkut. “There is a fan club,” he says, his face breaking into a grin. A blogger,
Bhaduri discovered that his brand of humour worked when his first book, based on a B-
school experience, became a bestseller. The book brings alive the times of a young graduate
from an MBA school. There are sketches, songs-Pink Flyod’s ‘Comfortably Numb’-and silly
situations spurred by Old Monk.
“I am illiterate when it comes to literature,” Bhaduri says. “I am not schooled in literature,
but I write my own worldview like Rushdie. My story is about an average person,” he says.
Bhaduri, an avid contributor to school magazines, continued to write in his spare time. An
HR executive with a multinational, he wrote constantly and found one day that he had
actually written a book.
Driven by different ambitions-whether to just tell a story like Rajan so that he can make a
difference even after joining the corporate world or by the need to take the narrative forward-
young Indians are increasingly chronicling their times.
Bagchi, an IIT graduate and now a professor, wants to do more than just get people to relate
to a book. His Arindam Chatterjee may have been a regular boy, but his book, labelled a
campus novel, spun out of “philosophical concerns” he had.
“You have to extend the history of writing as a writer,” he says. “You are trying to push
forward things that have been said so far.nna


Chandrahas Choudhury

This was a period in which Indian literature went forward and expanded outward at the same time,
bringing into its embrace many of the literary riches of its past and present that were hitherto restricted
to specialists or speakers of a particular regional language

The book business encompasses three universes that overlap substantially but have distinct identities
and histories. These are: publishing (the book as a physical object, the mechanics of book editing,
design and printing, the size of the market and the quality and diversity of the publishing houses within
it), book selling (the bookshop as a site for browsing and buying, and as a cultural space, the
distribution networks of publishers, book launches and other publicity methods), and, less tangible than
the other two, but the thread running through it all—the idea of literature, of a reading culture. This is
the acknowledged potential of the written word, deeply considered by an individual writer and then
sifted through multiple quality-control filters, for nuanced thinking that calls on all the riches of
language, unforgettable verbal patterns, provocative ideas or narrative methods, world-changing
argument or a defence of the status quo, spiritual elevation or thrilling timepass, for a mirror on the
world or a vision of an alternative world. From a global perspective, not since Gutenberg invented the
printing press in the 15th century has there been a more momentous decade in the history of the book.
Both book-publishing and book selling have changed shape enormously from the turn of the millennium
onwards. In the West, the decline of print culture and the arrival of the e-reader and the e-book have
made it possible to imagine a day, due within our own lifetimes, when the printed book (like the printed
newspaper) will be no more than a curiosity. Indeed, a hundred years from now, the very word “book”
may not mean anything, as we move further into a world of integrated multimedia.

Simultaneously, the spread of the Internet, and the growth and burgeoning power of have
precipitated a crisis for bookshops, which were previously the site where all the elements of literature
came together. Meanwhile, globalization has, arguably, made “literature” a bigger and richer space for
most serious readers, making more kinds of books more easily available to more readers, permitting old
books to be sold alongside new books, and allowing readers, through the Internet, to have a stronger
say in book discussion and, thereby, sales.

India’s book economy is on a different arc, however, and, like the Indian newspaper industry, is still on
its way up rather than down. For an observer of Indian literature in English, the last decade was full of
bright lights on all three counts of publishing, book selling, the density and internal diversity of the idea
of literature, and the spread of a reading culture. (For the purposes of this essay, I include under “Indian
literature in English” both work originally written in English and that translated into English).

We might think of this decade as one in which Indian literature went forward and expanded outward at
the same time, bringing into its embrace many of the literary riches of its past and present that were
hitherto restricted to specialists or speakers of a particular regional language (see, for instance, the box
on the Clay Sanskrit Library project). As the hub of the many literary cultures that make Indian
literature the most complex and multilingual national literature in the world, Indian literature in English
has a huge responsibility, one that it realized better this decade than in any one previously.
The birth of many new publishing houses and imprints in the last decade, the explosion in the number of
books published, the increase in the number of bookshops (particularly the big chains such as
Crossword, Landmark and Odyssey), and the growth of the online book trade all point to one thing. The
book business is growing rapidly. Further, many more players have a slice of that pie than was the case
10 years ago. A number of major English trade publishing houses in India appeared over the last
decade, with major new players such as Random House, Westland Books, Hachette, Navayana and
Srishti claiming a share of the trade even as they helped increase its size with their distinct emphases.

Widening Internet penetration has stimulated e-commerce, allowing readers in places without bookshops
to buy books, and even those in areas with bookshops to access a much wider range of books or buy
books at substantial discounts. Online book selling, almost negligible in 2000, now accounts for about
Rs100 crore worth of business every year, divided up between players such as Flipkart (where I do most
of my shopping), Rediff and Indiaplaza.

The physical Indian bookshop, though, with some honourable exceptions, continues to be a
disappointing place for the serious reader. Stocking an inadequate range of titles and manned by staff
who have no real interest in or knowledge of books, bookshops in India don’t yet manage to fulfil the
publisher Andre Shiffrin’s idea that “the good bookshop doesn’t just have the book you want, it has the
book you never knew you wanted”.

A great part of the appeal of books, we must remember, is their allure as physical objects: the way they
are designed, bound, typeset. This was the decade in which, for the first time in India, books as objects
met world standards. When I was a literature student in the year 2000, it was possible to distinguish a
book published by an Indian publisher from a foreign one just by taking a look a it. This is no longer the
case, and Indian bookshops now take pride in a wealth of books by Indian writers that don’t just read
well, but look great. If there is something that Indian publishing needs now, it is better editors. To this
book reviewer, too many Indian books are currently let down by their sloppy English: hoary cliches,
confusing syntax, superfluities, stilted dialogue, clumsy metaphors, unselfconsciously purple prose.

Indian literature itself occupies a much larger place in world literary consciousness than it did at the
beginning of the decade, with a small raft of big Indian names giving way to a whole schooner of
exciting voices. Indian novels in English no longer exhibit the self-consciousness of most earlier works in
the language, and good new novels appear now not in their ones and twos, but at the rate of a couple of
dozen a year. Unfortunately, writers in English have a much greater chance of being published in
markets outside India (something that distorts foreign perceptions of Indian literature). This is slowly
changing, but it may take another decade to take full effect. The revolution must begin, however, by
more Indian readers consciously seeking out literature in translation.

Another pointer to the maturation of Indian literature in English this decade was the emergence of genre
fiction of various kinds, from thrillers to chicklit to campus novels to pulp fiction in translation, thereby
opening out the market for Indian fiction dramatically and bringing in readers hitherto deterred by or
unsympathetic to novels. Most of these books don’t yet meet the standards of the educated reader of
literary or genre fiction (and some, as Aadisht Khanna pointed out in a hilarious piece in Mint Lounge in
September, are so bad they’re good), but they are part of the story of Indian literature this decade as
much as an Amitav Ghosh or Aravind Adiga.

As a sign of India’s growing power within the world of Anglophone fiction, the decade was also marked
by the establishment of a number of indigenous prizes for Indian or South Asian works of high literary
merit. The Crossword book awards, established in 1998, were joined this decade by the Man Asian
Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction award and the Shakti
Bhatt First Book award. While still putting down roots in the Indian book world, these prizes allow us to
envisage a day when these, rather than overseas stamps of recognition such as the Booker, will be seen
as the primary arbiters of Indian literary merit.

Book coverage in mainstream newspapers and magazines, though, is not noticeably better than it was in
2000. This is one of the last missing links in the maturation of Indian literature, for without robust
literary debate and the reasoned evaluation of books, literature is hamstrung both at the level of its
influence in the public sphere and its power to reach new readers and widen the tastes of existing ones.

Currently, Indian literature is more deep and diverse than it has ever been, but no one newspaper or
journal—perhaps not even all the periodicals collectively—is able to take full stock of this on its pages,
and many outstanding titles (particularly academic publications, books from small presses, and works in
translation) come and go without a trace.

What Indian literature needs in the next decade is something like a New York Review of Books or a
London Review of Books—a New Delhi Review of Books perhaps?—to consolidate the many gains of the
decade gone by.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf (2009), recently listed by World
Literature Today magazine as one of 60 essential English-language works of modern Indian literature.
His forthcoming book is India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion (HarperCollins, January 2011).


Zachary Martin is a Ph.D. student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and an Assistant
Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast.

Zachary Martin is a Ph.D. student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and an Assistant
Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve been spending the winter break reading “campus novels.” Even if
you’ve never heard the term before, you’ve almost certainly read one: DeLillo’s White Noise; Cather’s The
Professor’s House; Coetzee’s Disgrace; Roth’s The Human Stain; Amis’s Lucky Jim; Fitzgerald’s This Side of
Paradise; and Chabon’s Wonder Boys, to name just a handful, all feature as their primary characters college
students or professors and take as a primary setting the university campus.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Neal Stephenson and Wallace Stegner to Alice Walker, almost any author you
can name has taken a stab at representing the academy in fiction. Some of these novels are good; many more
of them are execrably bad. Why should this be so? Hawthorne so detested Fanshawe, his semi-
autobiographical account of his years at Bowdoin, that he bought up the unsold copies, burned them, and
denied ever having written the book at all.

When the genre is any good at all, when a campus novel manages to engage and entertain the reader, it is
almost always at the expense of the Ivory Tower. To wit: David Lodge’s excoriating (and hilarious) send-up of
university life on both sides of the Atlantic in Changing Places or Mary McCarthy’s pedantic and mannered, but
no less ruthless, satire of liberal arts colleges in The Groves of Academe. Alternately, there are the ominous
works of Roth and Coetzee that portray the university as the locus of inflexible and reactionary politics.

To put it another way, I can’t account for or excuse the overwhelming number of straw men in novels about
the world of higher education. As a writer, student, and teacher who was raised by two college professors and
has spent fairly his entire life in the academy, I can’t help but wonder why there is such a dearth of earnest,
affecting fiction that takes place on college campuses and treats the college professor or student as, first, a
human being and, second (if at all), as a symbol.

The usual charge leveled at campus novels, and the usual explanation for their second-class status as
literature, is that they’re the epitome of novelistic navel-gazing. The only thing more self-absorbed, in most
minds, than fiction about the academy is literary criticism about fiction about the academy. Or, as Elaine
Showalter puts it in her survey of the genre, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents:
“Perhaps it’s the ultimate narcissism for an English professor to write...about novels by English professors
about English professors.”

Underlying this belief is the idea that the university maintains a privileged place in our society, and is therefore
unworthy of pathos. To write earnestly about these elite institutions would be a crime against fiction, so the
thinking goes. Yet college is now the common experience for 70% of high school graduates. And if you think
colleges are full of privileged elites, just try talking to any adjunct about their subsistence wages and untenable
workload or any recent graduate about their accumulated debt and current job prospects.

The simple fact is that higher education—whether at a university, liberal arts college, community college, trade
school, or online—has become an emotionally, economically fraught experience for a majority of Americans of
all ages, and our fiction does not yet adequately reflect this reality. (I simply cannot name a novel that takes
as its subject community college life, or that tracks an adult working through an online degree, or an adjunct
who must file for bankruptcy; on the other hand, I can give you ten novels off the top of my head about rich
twits at elite colleges or tenured faculty at research institutions suffering through midlife crises.)

We continue to write quaint and amusing or scornful and dismissive stories about our institutions of learning
and too often save up our real passion for other subject matter. On the pop culture front, the gamut currently
runs from the melodrama of The Social Network to the situation comedy of Community, with little room in-
between for the honest compassion that makes for good fiction.

This certainly isn’t because of the critic John O. Lyons’s belief that “the novel of academic life has fostered no
Fielding, Flaubert, or Tolstoy.” This is essentially untrue. The genre has produced wonderful (if not Flaubertian
or Tolstoyan) novels like Bernard Malamud’s A New Life and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and it has wrought at
least one novel of enduring greatness: John Williams’s Stoner (1965). I can’t help but quote at length the
following scene from the opening pages:

At school [William Stoner] did his lessons as if they were chores only somewhat less exhausting than those
around the farm. When he finished high school in the spring of 1910, he expected to take over more of the
work in the fields; it seemed to him that his father grew slower and more weary with the passing months.

But one evening in late spring, after the two men had spent a full day hoeing corn, his father spoke to him in
the kitchen, after the supper dishes had been cleared away.

“County agent come by last week.”

William looked up from the red-and-white-checked oilcloth spread smoothly over the round kitchen table. He
did not speak.

“Says they have a new school at the University in Columbia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he
thinks you ought to go. It takes four years.”

“Four years,” William said. “Does it cost money?”

“You could work your room and board,” his father said. “Your ma has a first cousin owns a place just outside
Columbia. There would be books and things. I could send you two or three dollars a month.”

William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been
farther from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.

“Think you could manage the place all by yourself?” he asked.

“Your ma and me could manage. I’d plan the upper twenty in wheat; that would cut down the hand work.”

William looked at his mother. “Ma?” he asked.

She said tonelessly, “You do what your pa says.”

“You really want me to go?” he asked, as if he half hoped for a denial. “You really want me to?”

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil
had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away. He laced his fingers together and held them up
from the table, almost in an attitude of prayer.

“I never had no schooling to speak of,” he said, looking at his hands. “I started working on a farm when I
finished sixth grade. Never held with schooling when I was a young ‘un. But now I don’t know. Seems like the
land gets drier and harder to work every year; it ain’t rich like it was when I was a boy. County agent says
they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University. Maybe he’s right. Sometimes when
I’m working the field I get to thinking.” He paused. His fingers tightened upon themselves, and his clasped
hands dropped to the table. “I get to thinking—“ He scowled at his hands and shook his head. “You go on to
the University come fall. Your ma and me will manage.”

It was the longest speech he had ever heard his father make. That fall he went to Columbia and enrolled in the
University as a freshman in the College of Agriculture.

If the situation here feels dated, no doubt the emotions not. Stoner is a novel that goes on to give lie to the
false dichotomy between academia and “the real world” and reveals what education can give a man and what it
can take away from him. If fiction is good for anything, it is to reveal the universality of human experience,
and we writers would do well to remember that, and to stop treating our college characters and settings like
they are something apart from, above, or beneath the rest of the world.