What are the Best Novels about the Academic Life?

Over the weekend, I started reading Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park. Carter, a law professor at Yale, made his name with nonfiction books like The Culture of Disbelief, and he also wrote a column for Christianity Today for several years. He’s now successfully transitioned into a career as a bestselling novelist. The novel’s narrator, Talcott Garland, is an African American law professor at a fictional Ivy League-type university (like they say – write what you know!), and a number of scenes are set within the academic world: departmental politics, classroom teaching, even pick-up basketball with fellow professors.

Reading this novel got me to thinking: What are the best novels about the academic life? To qualify, the novels would have to be good novels themselves, but they would also need to represent the academic world truthfully. I start with one that I’m certain should be on the list, and a few others that I enjoyed reading, though I’m not sure how truthfully they represent the academic world. Do you agree with my choices? What are your suggestions?

The Sure Thing

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – Stegner is one of my favorite novelists, and he spent virtually his entire career in academia, teaching at Augustana College, U. Utah, U. Wisconsin, Harvard, and finally at Stanford. Most of his novels, however, are set far outside the academic world. Crossing to Safety, however, tells the story of two couples, their lifelong friendship, and their divergent careers in the university world. One scene that stands out to me: one of the characters (an English professor) working hard to land a survey course textbook contract early in his career, so that the royalties would provide a financial cushion down the road.

Question Marks

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe – The story of a brilliant country girl from the hills of North Carolina who wins a scholarship to a (fictional) Ivy League university and encounters massive culture shock during her first year, Wolfe based this novel on his observations of his children’s university experiences. Wolfe, per his usual style, never misses an opportunity for satire or cynicism. His depictions of athletes, fraternity and sorority members, and intellectual wanna-bes, though, create a morality tale that, while interesting and educational, doesn’t really address real university life.

That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis – The first two books of Lewis’ Space Trilogy are set on Mars and Venus; the third at an English university. Which is the most alien? A fiction companion to Lewis’ work of educational philosophy, The Abolition of Man, the ideas presented within Strength are powerful and important. How many universities, however, are controlled by an evil supernatural conspiracy? (On second thought, don’t answer that. 🙂

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – Another of my favorite novelists, Chabon wrote this story, set within an academic creative writing program, based on his own difficulty writing his first post-grad novel (which he ultimately abandoned). Like Charlotte Simmons, the sensationalistic aspects of the novel stretch the limits of reality. Chabon also wrote Wonder Boys before he began exploring his Jewish identity and his love for genre fiction in novels like his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which added greater depth to his writing in my opinion. (See also Alan Jacobs’ review of Chabon’s “Jews with swords” adventure novel Gentlemen of the Road and my own review of Chabon’s alternate-university/hardboiled-detective novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) Ultimately, Wonder Boys says more about Chabon than it does about university life.

Those are my quick picks. What are yours?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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  • kenbenge@gmail.com'
    Kenny Benge commented on September 14, 2009 Reply

    I think I Am Charlotte Simmons has more to say than we think. If you pay attention to the beginning of the novel, you will notice that its main theme is how the sexual revolution has impacted learning at undergraduate institutions. See this excellent review article by Peter Berkowitz at the Policy Review website: http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/3431656.html

  • maudlinbann@gmail.com'
    Michelle Butler commented on September 14, 2009 Reply

    Off the top of my head:
    Richard Russo. Straight Man.
    Dorothy Sayers. Gaudy Night.

    I’ve heard that there are a couple of mystery series set in universities but don’t know them myself.

  • hannaheag@comcast.net'
    Hannah commented on September 14, 2009 Reply

    I absolutely agree about Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. It’s an amazing novel, one of my favorites in any genre. Its portrayal of an Oxford women’s college in the 1930s goes far beyond chronicling the educational system in that place and time (though it does that well) and raises the big questions about what it means to have integrity and what that looks like in the academy and beyond.

    I have found, though, that the situation of the characters in Gaudy Night doesn’t make much sense to most readers unless they’ve already read the two preceding novels in Sayers’ mystery series: Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.


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