The Campus Novel Trap

“Novelists often teach out of economic necessity,” but campus life can consequently circumscribe their work.


in Beyond Words


“Write what you know” goes the old saw from creative writing classes. Momentarily putting aside objections from science fiction, fantasy, etc., there is undoubtedly some truth to the advice. Childhoods, family histories, and careers all help bring substance to a novelists’ work, without which we would likely be deprived of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, respectively — or, perhaps, be forced to settle with lesser versions of the same. And, of course, even Kurt Vonnegut’s time-traveling Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five is connected to the author’s internment in Dresden, J. R. R. Tolkien’s war for Middle-earth colored by his experience on the Western Front. 

But if novelists’ experiences help define their work, then their ubiquity of certain experiences threatens to homogenize novels. This is a common criticism when leveled at “the canon” of Western literature, written almost exclusively by white men, but it remains true beyond the critical lenses of race and gender, through the perspective of labor. If what we do for work helps define the stories we tell, then the novelist’s economic reliance on teaching is flattening the novel. 

Many novelists often teach out of economic necessity. Although it’s difficult to get absolute figures on a relatively informal occupation like novel-writing, the information that is available attests to the relationship between writing and teaching. The Authors Guild includes more than 11,000 published members and routinely surveys the industry. According to the guild’s most recent survey on the subject, only 21 percent of full-time authors earn all of their income from their books. Teaching, on the other hand, is such a significant source of income that it ranked twice — teaching writing and teaching other subjects — as a source of income on another survey conducted by the guild. 

The relationship between writing and teaching is so well established, in fact, that it birthed its own genre: the campus novel. Also known as the “academic novel,” the campus novel focuses on the lives of university faculty (as opposed to the varsity novel, which focuses on the lives of university students). Elaine Showalter, herself a professor of English at Princeton University, traces the evolution of the campus novel in her book Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents. While predecessors to the campus novel can be found beginning the 19th century, such as Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-72), the genre emerged as a distinct form in the 1950s. As part of the demobilization of millions of armed services members after the conclusion of World War II, the US government offered veterans education benefits, providing access to higher education to many Americans for the first time — subsequently establishing university life as a point of reference for the reading public. And novelists, already ensconced in the academy as instructors, found this reference point convenient to storytelling. As Showalter writes: 

Most of our universities act in loco parentis for students, creating a complete society on the campus, with housing, meals, medical care, and social life all provided communally and institutionally. They actively foster close personal relations between students and faculty. Moreover, the curriculum usually includes a program in creative writing; as a result, most faculties include a few professional writers who can observe the tribal rites of their colleagues from an insider’s perspective. 

As a society onto itself, the university can function as a stand-in for society at large, offering the novelist characters, settings, conflicts that are particular yet can be made to feel universal. It’s unsurprising, then, that the campus novel took off, with the publication of The Masters by C. P. Snow, The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy, Lucky Jim by Kinglsey Amis, Pictures from an Institution by Randal Jarrell, Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, and A Friend in Power by Carlos Baker. 

A New Life by Bernard Malamud may have arrived after the conventions of the genre were already established, but it well illustrates the relationship between the novelist and the campus novel. In 1949, Malamud moved from his hometown of Brooklyn to Corvallis, Oregon, to teach at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University), where he remained until 1961. While Malamud distanced himself from claims that A New Life was based on his dissatisfaction with OSC, it isn’t difficult to find parallels: Seymour Levin leaves New York to teach composition at Cascadia College, contrasting big-city upbringing and small-town professional life, literary aspirations and academic requirements, dreams, and realities in the process. Contemporary reviewers praised A New Life, but some, like Kirkus, found it lacking compared to Malamud’s two previous novels, The Natural, which drew on his love of baseball, and The Assistant, based on his childhood in Brooklyn. Yet it was the success of those earlier novels which had cemented Malamud’s position at OSC — earning him a promotion from instructor to assistant professor, according to Chester Garrison, a friend and fellow faculty member at OSC — and therefore contributing to the inevitability of A New Life. Thus, a pattern is revealed: work in academia, publish a breakout novel, publish a subsequent novel about academia. 

A pattern becomes a trap when it circumscribes other possibilities, and that is arguably what has happened in the decades since the advent of the campus novel. Contemporary novelists risk becoming ensnared by the campus novel, relying on the university as a setting not because it presents unique storytelling opportunities, but simply because that is where novelists are employed. Economic necessity drives them to teach, and the “write what you know” ethos leads them to the campus novel. While this pattern inevitably reproduces the systemic racism and sexism found in literature (over-representation of white men) by reflecting the systemic racism and sexism of academia (over-representation of white men), the “campus novel trap” can also maim relatively diverse narratives. 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American woman, demonstrates just how diverse a novelist can nevertheless fall into the campus novel trap. Generally categorized as literary fiction, The Lowland is arguably part historical fiction, part campus novel. The cleaved narrative follows two brothers from Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, beginning in the 1950s: Udayan, who remains in India, and Subhash, who comes to the United States. While the portion of the narrative that stays in Calcutta touches on rich historical fiction, tracing the Naxalbari uprising, a regional communist insurgency in 1967, the portion in the US seems flat by comparison — in no small part because it centers around university life. Subhash comes to the US as a graduate student and stays on interminably as a postdoc, then a researcher. Guari, whom Subhash marries after Udayan, her first husband, is summarily executed by Indian police for his involvement in the insurgency, is similarly sucked into university life. She takes courses at the school where Subhash works, then pursues her doctorate at another college, before finally leaving Subhash — but only to work at yet another university. 

The unevenness of The Lowland illustrates the trap of the campus novel. The university setting, which Lahiri is enmeshed in from teaching at Princeton University, Boston University, Baruch College, Barnard College, The New School, and the Rhode Island School of Design, flattens a story she otherwise tells with depth. And again, critics praised the novel, Lahiri’s second, but some, like The New York Times, noted how it failed to live up to her first, The Namesake, which drew more upon her family history, rather than the tedious experience of faculty. But once more, it was the success of the breakout novel that pulled Lahiri further into academia, making the subsequent campus novel a near inevitability. 

None of this is meant to suggest that authors should not write about labor. Moby-Dick is as much about the physical work of whaling as it is about the symbolic quest for the unattainable, and Herman Melville is able to draw on the intricacies of the former to drive readers to the latter. But there is no genre of “whaling novels” as authors are not inevitably sucked into the whaling industry in order to supplement their writing careers — as is the case in regards to academia. And as much as the university can be used as a stand-in for the wider world, it can only be a very particular kind of world: that of upper-class malaise or bourgeois ambition or proletariat disillusionment, sure, but not that of, for example, whaling. Even as university life has become more accessible, it remains distinct from the rest of society. Just because authors find glimpses of the universal within the campus walls does not, of course, mean that the campus is universal. 

Slipping into the campus novel trap is, as mentioned, a byproduct of economic necessity — and that necessity appears to be growing more dire. Novelists take work teaching because it provides them with relatively reliable income, but even those who teach struggle financially. According to the aforementioned surveys from the Authors Guild, full-time authors on average earned only $20,300 from all of their writing-related activities, including teaching, in 2018 — but more than 54 percent of guild members also reported that their incomes had declined since the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, the current reality is, in fact, much more bleak. And that is without taking into account the plight of adjunct faculty, who teach the majority of all college courses, yet must rely on public assistance to survive, according to a recent report from the American Federation of Teachers. A pattern is emerging of novelists and teachers alike being impoverished. A trap is being set. •