Back to School Novels

 

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.”

 .

.

‘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.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 10, 2010 at 3:48 AM

    Anthony Burgess’s “Byrne” is adroitly witty in Don Juan sort of way. You could also try W. S. Merwin’s rhapsodic book about a leprosy outbreak in 19th century Hawaii (improbably enough),”The Folding Cliffs”. Daryl Hine’s two book-length verse memoirs “Academic Festival Overtures” and “In and Out” are technical tours de force treating his dawning awareness of his homosexuality.

    I was looking through “Academic Festival Overtures” again and can’t resist giving a sample of the effortless, sophisticated verse found there:

    Our interest, indeed belief in the existence
    Of certain fictional characters, such as God,
    Outside their original, literary setting,
    Is a tribute not only to artistic fraud —
    What E. M. Forster calls ‘faking’ — but to the reader’s
    Naive or knowledgeable gullibility
    Which, not content with Happily Ever After,
    Wants to know the hero’s subsequent history,
    As if life, which furnishes so few happy endings,
    Could improve upon the false symmetry of art,
    Or with its unpredictability and failures
    Had any palatable lesson to impart.

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  2. Hi Steve in Minneapolis,
    These lines you quote from Daryl Hines are intriguing. They sure are original carrying more ideas per line than most poems. The rhymes are unique – “God” and “fraud”, “gullibility” and “history”. I think this is a verse novel I will need to read more of to really appreciate – “Academic Festival Overture”. These are lines that require a lot of thought in order to discover the complete impact. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. I’m also interested in W. S. Merwin, although I’ve never read his work.

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  3. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 10, 2010 at 4:50 PM

    It is probably fair to say in that looking for a fragment that would stand on its own as a set piece I have given a mis-impression of Hine’s book. Most of it is in a straight-forward, almost breezy, memoir style and is not at all difficult to digest (although just as skillful). His other book is in unrhymed anapests.

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  4. I’ll check this book out – “Summer Festival Overtures” by Daryl Hine.

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  5. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 11, 2010 at 3:32 AM

    Just notice though that the title is Academic (not Summer) Festival Overture (named after an orchestral work by Brahms).

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  6. […] I’ve been reading about verse novels as well as reading examples of the form as preparation for writing my own epic – as they’re […]

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  7. […] Literature, Poetry, Writing Tags: poetry, verse novels 0 Lately, I’ve been reading about verse novels as well as reading examples of the form as preparation for writing my own epic – as they’re […]

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  8. Two excellent verse novels:

    After the Lost War by Andrew Hudgins

    Sonata Mullatica by Rita Dove

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  9. Hi,

    Perhaps, you’d like to hear this verse novel from New Zealand (currently being broadcast on Radio New Zealand):
    http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/drama/book_readings/respublica

    Or, you can catch up with the episodes at:

    http://immortalmuse.wordpress.com/listen-now/

    Cheers,
    KS

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  10. Posted by Olivia on May 21, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    There are two outstanding contemporary novels to add to your list. Darlington’s Fall: A Novel in Verse by Brad Leithausen, published 2002,is excellent, telling the adventures of an entomologist, born in Indiana in 1888. Derek Walcott’s Omeros, published in 1990, is written in tercets and is set on the Island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Literature Prize. I highly recommend both of these works.

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  11. Hi Olivia,
    Thank you for your excellent suggestions. I’m very familiar with Brad Leithauser’s work, having read his novels ‘Hence’ and ‘Equal Distance’. I remember being very impressed with his writing, but kind of lost track of him in recent years.

    Derek Walcott’s Omeros is one of those books I keep meaning to read. Perhaps your suggestion will give me the impetus to actually read it. Thank You.

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  12. I loved The Golden Gate even if I suspect I didn’t catch all the poetry there since English isn’t my native language. Well, I understood enough to find it fantastic.

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