Too many novels set in liberal arts colleges; not enough in real life.
As with most of contemporary American fiction, we can trace the rot back to Bret Easton Ellis. But that’s no excuse for the rot to continue to take hold, exhausted as it was in late 80s. So forget the big names, rave reviews. It’s the last resort of the uninspired. A fictionalization of the privileged author’s college years. Yawn.
Camden, the liberal arts college of the sex-fuelled The Rules of Attraction (1987) was, as we all know, a wafer-thin disguise for Vermont’s Bennington College. Forget that its one of the top 20 most expensive colleges in the US. Well, actually, don’t forget, just shake your head miserably and move on. This is the very same college where Donna Tartt had her Greek students indulge in mystery, murder and wandering about being all Ally Sheedy. Though she called it Hampden (such wicked imagination) for The Secret History (1992). To exhaust a tired seam, we also had Jill Eisenstadt’s Camden College (yes, Bennington. Again) in From Rockaway (1987). And that’s where it should have ended.
But no. We’ve only just had time to get over the hugely disappointing The Marriage Plot (2011) set in and after Brown University – Ivy League, naturellement; New England, of course, even if it is unfashionable Rhode Island. Author Jeffrey Eugenides probably knew what he was writing about, given he graduated Brown in 1983 – a whole year after his dopy fictional graduates. Littered carelessly with semiotics and anti-depressants, it limps where the previous Middlessex (2002) sparkled and The Virgin Suicides (1993) haunted.
Then along comes blockbuster du jour, The Art of Fielding (2011). Though it is set outside of New England (gasp!) in the Midwest, at the fictional Westish (dear oh dear) University, it is, as you’ve probably guessed, a liberal arts college. A stretch, I know, from a Harvard graduate from, er, the Midwest. And while the baseball is a refreshing angle, the campus feels very much like a place we’ve been before. Many, many times.
It is not campus novels per se that annoy. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) is one of the best novels of last 50 years and that is set in a bucolic midwestern college – nattily and deliberately dumbly titled The College-On-The Hill. But it is also an exemplary postmodern take on Hitler Studies, airborne toxic events, consumerism and the fear of death.
And after all, wasn’t the first American campus novel (published anonymously, and immolated when it didn’t sell) by that old dark romantic Hawthorne, with his own take on his undergraduate life at Bowdoin College – you’re picking up a pattern here, the liberal arts college in New England. Fanshawe (1828), set at the fictional Harley College (didn’t start very well, did it) has the scarlet letter written all over it – i.e. you wouldn’t even bother if it wasn’t for his later classics.
But this later breed of campus novel has the whiff of being self-regarding and elitist – two things that should make lovers of contemporary fiction shudder. Not to say that the Community College novel is the only path, but it has to be acknowledged that while the vast majority of graduates from colleges high and low have to jump straight into the sweaty toil of life, the more privileged have time to write about it. And the life and times of barely grown adolescents isn’t all that interesting.
There’s a huge swathe of modern life that needs novelists to dissect and make sense of, rich college kids can look after themselves. From Richard Russo to Tom Wolfe (not his college, his daughters, for god’s sake: DuPoint for Duke), everyone seems to want a campus novel on their library card.
It is getting dull, ladies and gentlemen, it’s getting navel-gazingly dull.