The archetype is probably 'Lucky Jim' by Kingsley Amis...
January 12, 2016 10:05 PM   Subscribe

"From a comic standpoint, anyone who’s every been to a cocktail party with university colleagues knows that even at the best of times it’s an ongoing comedy of manners, a ballet of awkwardness. There exist in university settings the following: Competition, ego, eccentric personalities. Sartorial affectation (berets, tweed blazers, brightly colored silk scarves, Trotsky-style beards, all manner of glasses). Bureaucracy and Machiavellian maneuvering. Snubs and indignities and inappropriate flirtations.

"All, as they say, ripe for satire."

The source for the quotation above: Revisiting the Campus Novel - by Erin Somers, Ploughshares
10 Fabulous Campus Novels To Cozy Up With This Fall - Huffington Post, Maddie Crumb, 2015
Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse: what campus novels can teach us - The Atlantic, Megan Marshall, 2006
Who's afraid of the campus novel? - The Guardian, Aida Edemariam, 2004
The 50 Greatest Campus Novels Ever Written - Flavorwire, 2013 (slideshow)
10 Classic Campus Novels - Huffington Post, 2011 (slideshow)
12 Books Set at University That All Students Should Read - What Uni, Billy Picard
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (35 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nothing much to say here except that Wonder Boys is my particular favorite of these.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:37 PM on January 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Speaking of awkward and freakish academics, there was an elderly gentleman at a Scottish university who, in the after hours in his department, used to strip naked, oil himself up and then rub up against all the things he could find. A friend once found his underpants in the sofa in the common room, tucked in there for some reason. His access rights were only removed when some of the cleaners, tired of running into his oily, naked body in the evenings, combined and went to their union.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:39 PM on January 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


Professor Hefner I presume?
posted by clavdivs at 10:57 PM on January 12, 2016


You can't see me but I'm making my Sex in Ancient Rome Face.
posted by chavenet at 2:40 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I love a good comic campus novel - I'd particularly recommend David Lodge's trilogy - Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work - but I'd also add a very recent classic, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

All excellent reads.

(Also Brideshead isn't strictly a campus novel, as Oxford isn't strictly a campus)
posted by DanCall at 3:09 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Erin, Erin, Erin...

"... Jim Dixon, a lecturer in Medieval History, occupying the lowest hierarchical wrung at a stuffy English University."

I was trying to give up being a pedantic twat in 2016, and I let the tautology of "lowest hierarchical" wash over me like a champion, but I'm going to have to draw the line at "wrung" when it's not being used as the past participle of wring.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 3:11 AM on January 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


I was trying to give up being a pedantic twat in 2016, and I let the tautology of "lowest hierarchical"

I never make New Year's Resolutions, and that's not a tautology, pedantwatically speaking. It's a redundancy.
posted by thelonius at 3:26 AM on January 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Can I just add a quick pitch for Ian Flitcroft's The Reluctant Cannibals which has given me a good number of belly laughs, along with some from other cuts.
posted by cromagnon at 4:16 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Fool on the Hill?
posted by parki at 4:41 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've enjoyed Richard Russo's Straight Man and Jane Smiley's Moo. It looks like I've got a bunch more to check out if I so desire. Thanks!
posted by mollweide at 4:47 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've spent so much of my life on universities that I really enjoy a well done campus novel. There's one I've been trying to recall, and thanks to one of the lists in the FPP I've ordered in a copy of Francine Prose's novel to see if it is the one I am thinking of.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:33 AM on January 13, 2016


I wrote a campus novel a long time ago. (Not among the 50 best of all time, apparently.) Then I became an academic and found out it's really not very much like the "cocktail parties, pretention, and adultery" milieu that makes up the usual campus novel. Fortunately for me, my campus novel was more about structural linguistics, clinical depression, and checkers.
posted by escabeche at 5:42 AM on January 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


I recently read Dear Committee Members and found it to be very funny.
posted by Man-Thing at 5:46 AM on January 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I wrote a campus novel a long time ago. (Not among the 50 best of all time, apparently.) Then I became an academic and found out it's really not very much like the "cocktail parties, pretention, and adultery" milieu that makes up the usual campus novel. Fortunately for me, my campus novel was more about structural linguistics, clinical depression, and checkers.

Indeed. I wish life was like a campus novel around here. In a lot of parts of [American, anyway] universities, everything is so homogenized and corporatized that you really need a boardroom novel to do it justice. The eccentrics are retiring or getting driven out, and there's tremendous pressure on everyone else to be very much the Men In The Grey Flannel Suits.

I used to hear some rumors about Comp Lit, but even they seem to have gone sedate, and they were the real outlier.

When I was hired here lo these many years ago: on my way to the interview, I met one of our now late-and-lamented eccentrics, who asked me if I needed any sins forgiven - he could do that, you know, being a full professor. At the time, the lab for which I would soon administrate had a giant plastic rat which people would hide around the lab - in the plastics/glass supply cabinet, in the laptop drawer, under the pipet racks - and if you found it, you were supposed to move it to a new hiding place. We had ten or fifteen inflatable lab sharks/lab dolphins/lab creatures (promotional items from one of our suppliers) hanging from the ceiling in the main hall.

But now the world is grey, the mountains old, the forge's fire ashen cold, etc etc. Our eccentric is dead, the lab rat is long lost, someone came in one night and stuck pins in all the lab sharks, our goofiest staff member left to be a chef. An intense respectability has descended like a pall.

To be honest, it's the funding climate. There isn't space for oddity because everyone is competing so hard with each other for money, both internally and externally. And it's the decline of faculty governance - we have far more administrators with corporate backgrounds now rather than academic backgrounds.

Even my small liberal arts college got some big money about fifteen years ago and was forever changed in both mission statement and student body. It's still a great school, but it's very much about funneling people into high-paying professions, which was not the emphasis in my time.
posted by Frowner at 5:58 AM on January 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


"…but I'm going to have to draw the line at "wrung" when it's not being used as the past participle of wring."

I'll forgive a lot just for the thrill of having—finally!—seen someone use the word "loath" correctly.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 6:03 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Then I became an academic and found out it's really not very much like the "cocktail parties, pretention, and adultery" milieu that makes up the usual campus novel.

I've been in the academic milieu literally all my life (my dad is a professor, I've worked at universities myself as research or faculty support staff for the last 12 years). I've been to many cocktail parties and seen my fair share of tweed, but it's really all just a veneer overlaid atop completely quotidian situations and personalities. The campus novel maybe elides this fact to the flattery of academia but seriously, it's all the same shit wrapped up in a different package.

Honestly, though, as a faculty instructional support professional, the eccentrics are a pain. And oftentimes sexist assholes whom everyone tolerates because they're old and "eccentric." Yeah, no thank you. Please retire and enjoy your pension.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:11 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


(I should say in fairness to our eccentric - he was a doll, adored by everyone, and not a sexist jerk.)
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


My wife is back at school doing her PhD, and back in December I attended an end-of-term house party thrown by her program coordinator. It was a mix of profs, masters and PhD students, everyone was varying degrees of drunk, the best conversation was happening in the kitchen and the host had a fully-functional wax cylinder player that she fired up with some ragtime so we could party like it was 1915 for a few minutes. It was a great party, is what I'm saying.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:39 AM on January 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Is Zuleika Dobson the weirdest campus novel? Still good... but very very strange.
posted by Jahaza at 6:43 AM on January 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


(Also Brideshead isn't strictly a campus novel, as Oxford isn't strictly a campus)

And not all that much of the book takes place at Oxford. If we're making those allowances, Decline and Fall should make the list. Funnier book, for one thing. Plus, it takes place at University and at a public school.
posted by BWA at 6:44 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


escabeche wrote:

... my campus novel was more about structural linguistics, clinical depression, and checkers.

Where can I find this most wonderful novel, escabeche? I'm ... uh ... asking for a friend.
posted by math at 6:51 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was really surprised to see such scanty mention of Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, which is one of my favorite novels, campus or otherwise, and certainly one of the funniest I've ever read.
posted by Kat Allison at 7:00 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Came for Porterhouse Blue, was not disappointed. Also, At Swim-Two-Birds isn't strictly a campus novel, but it does centre around an unnamed student whose campus mischief affects the intertwining metafiction in the rest of the novel. Highly recommended.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:02 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


For darkly insane I suggest Mickelsson's Ghosts by Gardner.
posted by bdc34 at 7:05 AM on January 13, 2016


I don't know if it's in any of the lists (I'm certainly not going to click through fifty pages of Flavorwire, FFS), but maybe my favorite campus novel is The Big U by... wait for it... Neal Stephenson. Stephenson himself has dismissed it as "juvenalia", but I thought it was quite good; it's got quite a few of Stephenson's favorite tropes in it, and was probably the first thing that I read that acknowledge the reality (and prevalence) of sexual assault on campus--it's even an important plot point. The gigantic nine-square-block building that houses "American Megaversity" reminded me of this monstrosity at my own alma mater; Stephenson based it on this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:46 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you have not yet read Lucky Jim, I'm a bit envious. If you have not yet read Lucky Jim, go read it Right Now. I read it 1st as a high schooler and it didn't resonate. Read it again for a college course and laughed my butt off. I should read it again now that I'm a geezer. Really, it's a classic.
posted by theora55 at 8:03 AM on January 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


(on preview, curses at Halloween Jack)

Ctrl+F, The Big U
No results found.

Nope, all these lists are wrong.
posted by Quasirandom at 8:14 AM on January 13, 2016


Yet the first place my mind goes when hearing "cocktail party with university colleagues" is actually a play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary. Not on an associate professor's salary!"
posted by dnash at 8:27 AM on January 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


> If you have not yet read Lucky Jim, I'm a bit envious. If you have not yet read Lucky Jim, go read it Right Now. I read it 1st as a high schooler and it didn't resonate. Read it again for a college course and laughed my butt off. I should read it again now that I'm a geezer. Really, it's a classic.

You might want to stick with your fond memories. I was in the same situation, but when I read it again as a geezer I was appalled by the outrageous sexism and other mental paraphernalia of its time. I'm afraid it hasn't aged well.
posted by languagehat at 11:15 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Now that I've looked at most of the lists (like Halloween Jack, I'm not bothering with the ones that make you click through slide shows), I'm glad to see Galatea 2.2 and Pnin, surprised not to see Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night or D.J. Enright's Academic Year (1955, set in Egypt, full of colonialist attitudes but still amusing). And I was glad to see this:
"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."
Also, apparently there's a book University Fiction, by David Bevan, that those seriously interested in the topic should investigate.
posted by languagehat at 11:38 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


languagehat: "You might want to stick with your fond memories. I was in the same situation, but when I read it again as a geezer I was appalled by the outrageous sexism and other mental paraphernalia of its time. I'm afraid it hasn't aged well."

Frankly, Jim comes off as rather a shit. There are certainly funny bits, but he wasn't someone I enjoyed spending a novel with.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:01 PM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


languagehat, I tried to read other work by Kingsley Amis, and some of it was good and some of it was just too sexist and mean. Martin's even worse. Not sure I want to risk re-reading it in the not-quite-as-sexist2000s. Gaudy Night is a lovely addition to the list.
posted by theora55 at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]




one of the first (and among very few) computer accounts I hacked in the 80's contained mostly a campus novel. The effort of reading the work turned me off forever to campus novels and computer account hacking.
posted by telstar at 7:09 AM on January 14, 2016


It's been thoroughly eclipsed by Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, but I'm fond of Lethem's As She Climbed Across the Table.

Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife had some good bits, though it's mired in sexism.
posted by Zed at 10:59 PM on January 14, 2016


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