Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Campus Novel as Social History

Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

I practically grew up on a university campus. My family immigrated to Canada when I was very young so that my dad could take up an academic job here. For our first few months in the country, the university put us up in student housing. Hence the many baby pictures that show me toddling across the campus green. I spent the latter part of my teens and most of my twenties as a university student, and ultimately opted to support my fiction writing by way of an academic career. The university is an institution that looms large in my life.

It’s no surprise then that I have a fondness for campus novels or that, once alerted to its existence by this excerpt, I quickly snapped up a copy of Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. I thought that I would love Showalter’s book. I didn’t. I was often frustrated, occasionally irritated, and, at one point, even enraged by it.

I have never thought of campus novels as constituting a distinct literary genre. I know that the term is now commonly used as a synonym for “type” or “category,” but I persist in thinking of “genre” as being integrally connected with form. To my mind, campus novels are united by setting and subject matter rather than by a set of formal conventions.

Showalter holds a different view. She claims genre status for campus novels and makes it clear that she is not thereby acceding to the criticism of those who find them wearyingly formulaic. Rather, she states:

For English professors, this repetitiveness also means that the novels operate on a set of conventions, themes, tropes, and values. Having read all the novels before gives us some distance on their narrative strategies and turns easy identification into something more intellectual.

This seemed a promising beginning. I was intrigued and ready to be persuaded.

Unfortunately, Showalter largely confines her discussion of that thesis to the introduction, and throughout the rest of the book she focuses more on what the campus novel has to tell its readers about academia than on what she has to say about the form of the campus novel. It seems that in the end she opts for the “easy identification” rather than the “something more intellectual” that her introduction promised. Ultimately, the book is more descriptive than anything else. Perhaps Showalter’s chosen structure, a decade-by-decade round up of campus novels, irrevocably tilts the book in this direction.

Showalter does provide interesting and insightful analyses of individual novels within this structure (her discussions of Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections particularly piqued my interest). And in pulling these individual analyses together, Showalter makes more of them than the sum of the parts. Over the past fifty years, she asserts, campus novels have “offered a full social history of the university, as well as a spiritual, political, and psychological guide to the [academic] profession.”

But ultimately Showalter goes too far in treating campus novels as reflections of reality. Throughout the book, she engages in frequent speculation about the actual institutions and people upon which fictional settings and characters are based. I realize that there’s something of a tradition of campus novels as romans à clef, and this sort of speculation can be fun in a gossipy, insider sort of way. The university depicted in A Nest of Singing Birds by Susan Hayley is reputed to have been based on my alma mater, and I admit that I read this novel as an undergraduate primarily to see if I recognized any of my professors in it. But I expect a more sophisticated mode of analysis from Showalter. And I was irritated by her attempts to refute authors’ denials of such rumours.

Having thus conflated various authors with characters in their novels, Showalter then criticizes those authors for the political views of their characters as if those views are their own. She does this even in instances when she’s made a point of mentioning distinctions between the author and character in question. For example, she describes R.B. Martin’s 1970 novel, Deadly Meeting, as depicting an academic world that “is still blind to women, unaware of race, virulently homophobic, and openly anti-Semitic.” She notes that Martin is gay and seems to find this fact inconsistent with his fictional world. But rather than concluding that Martin depicted the academic world of that time period as he saw it and not as he wished it to be, Showalter interprets Martin’s fictional creation as a direct reflection of his own political attitudes: “If I had been able to read this novel in 1966, when I first came to Princeton as a faculty wife trying to finish a dissertation on Victorian women writers, I would have been wiser than to have approached Martin for some scholarly support and advice.” At regular intervals throughout the book, Showalter similarly takes Carolyn Heilbrun to task for the attitudes of Kate Fansler, the protagonist of the mystery series that she wrote under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Showalter clearly detests Kate Fansler and seems irked that Heilbrun failed to provide women academics with a proper feminist heroine.

Using the conflation of author and character as a jumping-off point for political criticism is a poor substitute for literary analysis. And in taking this tack, Showalter undercuts her larger point. If what she most values about campus novels is their capacity to reflect the reality of the academic world, surely they have to be rife with sexism, racism, homophobia and class prejudice, sometimes even in the person of the protagonist. The university as feminist utopia certainly wouldn’t reflect any campus I’ve encountered.

In the introduction, Showalter describes her book as a “personal take” on campus novels that is not intended to be comprehensive. Indeed, the book is part of a larger series of “personal takes” which is described as follows on the flyleaf: “An occasional series of short books in which noted critics write about the persistent hold particular writers, artists, or cultural phenomena have held on their imaginations.” I find this idea very appealing, but this particular execution of it doesn’t work for me. I have admired and benefited from the insights of previous books by Showalter (for example, The Female Malady and A Literature of Their Own). This one simply doesn’t measure up. I would have preferred Showalter’s rigorous literary analysis to her personal take on the campus novel.


patricia said...

I've read a few campus novels and enjoyed them quite a bit; don't think I'd want to read a detailed analysis of the 'genre', though.

I assume you have read 'Rebel Angels'? Best campus novel I've read to date.

Kate S. said...

I have read Rebel Angels but I'd forgotten about it. I think I'm due for a grand Robertson Davies re-read. I've got a biography of him nearing the top of my TBR pile, and I expect it will propel me back into his work.

Anonymous said...

Campus novels. Tis interesting - seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. What does this say about higher education?

Most recent campus novel I've read is WALDEN by Michael Dolan. Worthwhile contribution to the genre.