Back to School – Fourteen Excellent School Novels

 

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Countless academic satires as well as tons of other novels which take place in school or on campus have been written. The following are all ones I have read and have found enjoyable and/or moving.

‘Election’ by Tom Perrota (1998) – Here is a novel about high school politics wherein a history teacher decides to get involved in a school election much to his detriment. Given the circumstances and the manipulative overly ambitious girl Tracy Flick, who can blame him?

‘This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920) – This is Fitzgerald’s first novel written when he was only twenty-three years old, and I like it better than ‘The Great Gatsby’. It is a thinly disguised version of Fitzgerald’s college days at Princeton turned into fiction.
“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.”
“I’m a slave to my emotions, to my likes, to my hatred of boredom, to most of my desires.”

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark (1961) – What would a list of school novels be without Miss Jean Brodie at her prime?
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
“It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.”

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks (1991) – This is probably the saddest novel on the list, because it begins with a school bus crash that kills fourteen of a small town’s children and cripples several others. Not only does it tell what happens in the town’s schools afterwards, but also it explores the entire town’s reactions through the points of view of four different townspeople.

‘The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy (1951) – There have been many satires of academic campus life, and this novel is one of the sharpest.
‘To be disesteemed by people you don’t have much respect for is not the worst fate.’ – Mary McCarthy, New Yorker

IllTakeYouThere‘I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates (2002) – I consider this one of the prolific lady’s best. It takes place in the 1960s with a girl being asked to join a popular sorority, then getting kicked out and falling for a troubled but brilliant grad student in one of her classes.
“The individual who’d been myself the previous year… had become a stranger.”

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‘Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1957) – ‘Pnin’ is an academic comedy about Professor Pnin who is supposedly based on Nabokov’s time teaching at Cornell University in New York. The novel has been described as ‘heartbreakingly funny’.

‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – The school scenes here are particularly memorable. The Pilgrim boy is an indifferent student more interested in other things. The Indian boy is the far superior inquisitive student and will go on to Harvard. All is seen through the eyes of the sister of the Pilgrim boy.

‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis (1954) – Some novelists hit the jackpot on their first novel and will never again attain that success. That’s Kingsley Amis. This would go on my list as one of the funniest novels ever.
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.‘

‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975) – a dark and scathing satire about the absurdities and contradictions of campus politics and life. This is the novel that killed sociology as an academic discipline.

“Marriage is the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world.”

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson (1910) – It is one of the few classic coming-of-age stories depicting a girl becoming a woman as she attends a girls’ school.
“The most sensitive, the most delicate of instruments is the mind of a little child.”

‘Wonder Boys’ by Michael Chabon (1995) – The hilarious blocked novelist Grady Tripp is also a professor, but the main reason I’m including it here is because the New York Times review by Michiko Kaukitani contains a sentence that is perfectly suited for all of us book bloggers: “It is a beguiling novel, a novel that for all its faults is never less than a pleasure to read.” This is the perfect line in order to hedge one’s bet about a novel. It is also accurate. ‘Wonder Boys’ is a modern classic.

‘Staggerford’ by Jon Hassler (1977) – This book humorously pins down school life in a small Minnesota town through the eyes of a teacher. Jon Hassler is a Minnesota writer who died in 2008. He is too good to be forgotten. Hassler has been described as a Minnesota Flannery O’Connor. The several novels of his that I have read, including Staggerford, have all been excellent.

lucky‘A Good School’ by Richard Yates (1978) – The story of a boy in the shabby second-rate Connecticut boys’ boarding school Dorset Academy in the 1940s much like the one Richard Yates attended himself. This is a strong novel by one of the best, if not the best, late twentieth century writers.

 

I have left out so many school novels starting with ‘Small World: An Academic Romance’ by David Lodge, ‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles, and ‘Galatea 2.2’ by Richard Powers.

What are your favorite school or college novels?  I would like to hear about them.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on September 21, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    An interesting selection – I am very fond of Pnin – wonderful novel!

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Pnin and Pale Fire are my two favorite Nabokov novels. One novel I didn’t mention is ‘Pictures of an Institution’ by Randall Jarrell which is a great academic satire.

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  2. I’d submit Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh and Old School by Tobias Wolff.

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  3. At the university level, I think Straight Man by Richard Russo is hilarious.

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  4. Wonderful list. I would add Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless.

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    • Hi Caroline,
      I’ve read ‘Young Torless’, and it is an excellent book. He is attending a military academy, and for some reason I thought it was more a military establishment than a school.

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  5. I very much like this list, and there are some I haven’t read, others I haven’t read in years! I love Malcolm Bradbury, but haven’t read The History Man, and I have never read David Lodge’s college novels. You mention so many, so I don’t have much to add. The only one I can think of right now is Pamela Dean’s Tam-Lin: don’t let its billing as a “fantasy” fool you; it is one of the great college novels. I finally got my husband to read it, and he agreed with me it’s “a great book.” He went out and got some Renaissance poetry to read, because he was so inspired by the heroine, an English major.

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    • Hi Kat,
      Tam-Lin by Pamela Dean sounds interesting. There was a song on the famous Fairport Convention album Lief and Liege called Tam-Lin. I wonder if the story in that folk song is related to Dean’s novel.

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  6. I’ll second Old School by Tobias Wollf and Straight Man by Richard Russo (although that is strictly a campus novel rather than school – pedantic? moi! ).

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  7. At the university level, I think Straight Man by Richard Russo is hilarious.

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  8. Posted by yodcha on November 23, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    Very interesting list to which I would add Stoner by John Williams, centering on the career of a professor of literature at a state college in America

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