This classic satire by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo is hilarious and beautifully written. Straight Man’s narrative begins with, “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels” and takes off at full speed from there. Finding out how Professor Hank Devereaux’s nose has been bloodied is worth the price of the book.
David Lodge’s Changing Places belongs in the hall-of-fame of campus novels, along with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, and Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels. This is a bawdy transatlantic satire, with British and American academics coming in for an equal skewering.
In White Noise (winner of the 1985 National Book Award), Don DeLillo’s protagonist chairs a department of Hitler Studies. Satire, social critique, and family drama come to a head during an Airborne Toxic Event that sends Professor Jack Gladney and his spouse and children on the move. The portrayal of Jack and Babette’s marriage is unforgettable.
The Female Persuasion
Lest one begin to think that all academic satires feature male protagonists as well as male authors (hello, Mary McCarthy, Jane Smiley, Donna Tartt, and Francine Prose!), here’s Meg Wolitzer with The Female Persuasion, which hinges on a campus lecture by a sort of fictional Gloria Steinem. Has any other novel so insightfully examined female friendships, mentorships, and changing concepts of feminism? I love this book.
It’s almost impossible to believe The Nix is Nathan Hill’s first book: this is a hugely ambitious novel that succeeds on so many fronts. Disillusioned professor Samuel Andresen-Anderson is roused from his video-game addiction when his mother, who abandoned him when he was a child, makes the national news by throwing rocks at a Presidential candidate. What else can he do but write a book about her?
J. M. Coetzee
Brilliant Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee takes the academic novel in an entirely original direction in Elizabeth Costello. Fictitious author Costello embarks on a series of campus lectures that baffle and enrage her audience. Coetzee takes on animal rights, literature, history, religion, philosophy—and the tedium of the post-lecture meal.
84, Charing Cross Road
Every list should include an outlier or exception, so let me end with Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road—which isn’t a novel, and isn’t strictly about academia, but its portrayal of the love of books and the way literature creates relationships is unparalleled. If you didn’t read it in 1970, don’t worry: there’s still time to enjoy it now.
The Shakespeare Requirement
After Dear Committee Members was published, some readers asked me why I thought campus novels are so appealing. My answer: academia is a weird little world. Take a person who has spent a dozen years alone in a library studying an arcane topic, then toss her into a university and expect her to compete for resources with other poorly socialized individuals. It’s a situation meant for satire.
I hadn’t planned to write a follow-up, but I became very fond of my irascible main character, Jason Fitger, and wanted to see how he would survive his first year as department chair. Hence: The Shakespeare Requirement, out this month. My novels tread within the footsteps of several other magnificent books about academe.
Featured Image: Shutterstock; Author Photo: Tim Fransisco Photography