The question's academic

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Adrian Mourby explains the popularity of the campus novel.

If you're taking an amusing, amoral and intelligent book on holiday with your this summer there's more than a chance the main character will teach in a university. Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Michael Frayn, Frederic Raphael and Andrew Davies have all given us heroes who were licensed to lecture. Women have added to the genre too. A S Byatt and Iris Murdoch were not content just to work as academics they wrote about them too; last year Hazel Holt wrote Murder on the Campus (Pan Books Pounds 4.99) and this summer's Moo (Flamingo Pounds 6.99) is another campus novel by Jane Smiley.

So at home are we with the don as hero that no-one pauses to wonder why this profession has spawned its own genre. Why did solicitors never capture the popular imagination? Whatever happened to the dental novel? What's wrong with accountants? Ask any university lecturer and he'll tell you that his day is no more exciting than that of the average bookkeeper. So why can't novelists resist him?

It was not always so. Universities were not unknown in prewar British fiction but Thackeray, Compton Mackenzie and Evelyn Waugh made sure their heroes only passed through as students. The only dons who featured in fiction before the second world war were those who acted as amateur sleuths when there was a murder at an Oxford college.

The campus novel, a book that sets academics centre stage and firmly at each other's throats, only emerged over here in 1954 with Lucky Jim (Penguin Pounds 6.99) although America had been producing the genre since the late 1940s.

Something significant changed with Kingsley Amis' Jim. Suddenly British authors discovered a whole new kind of hero. The academic was everything his or her creator might desire: witty, active and amoral. This new breed of hero also had the opportunity to pursue what Professor Bernard Bergonzi has called the traditional themes of fiction: power and sex.

Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury's History Man (Penguin Pounds 5.99) abused his academic freedom in order to gorge himself on both. He got away with it too. Professor Bradbury, himself a model of academic rectitude, sees the early appeal of the academic novel as lying in its ability to reflect the changing world of post war Britain. "The red brick university campus was a site of contemporary social and cultural transition, a world where culture is no longer taken for granted but struggled for and where rapid social transitions are taking place. Jim Dixon's values were ordinary and provincial at a time when there was a marked movement away from metropolitan themes towards provincial subjects and a note of anti-Establishment protest."

But the academic hero survived the era of the Angry Young Man in a way that the Angry Young Man himself did not. In the Wilson and Heath years he became the erudite observer of state-sponsored folly who can do little to influence events, but laments them like a middle-aged Thersites. Frederic Raphael never found himself a better spokesman than Gavin Pope in Glittering Prizes (out of print): "What sort of stuff are we actually going to put in the library? Summaries of summaries, epitomes of epitomes, the Modern Masters series of Modern Master, the Modern Mistresses series of Modern Mistresses and large quantities of the number you first thought of. In a word, baby-tins."

By the Eighties when David Lodge is writing Nice Work (Penguin) and Andrew Davies A Very Peculiar Practice (Coronet) the academic hero had become an eloquent but ineffectual St George, blasted by the demands of the Thatcherite Dragon. The barbarian of business ethics is at the porter's lodge and academics, such as Robyn Penrose and Stephen Daker, have no choice but to give in. But they do so with a wry and knowing smile.

However Andrew Davies sees the campus as offering novelists more than a mirror for society. "There is a tradition of university lecturers being picturesquely crazy which is an enormous help to any novelist who wants to spice up the narrative. There is only a certain amount of latitude when you write your policeman, dentist or TV producer. Use too much imagination and people will object that this character could never hold down the job."

The university is also a world where a writer can justifiably sit four people down at a canteen table and draw legitimately on every character type. A poet can be elbow to elbow with an engineer, mathematical philosopher or orthopaedic surgeon.

Michael Frayn, whose Trick of It (Penguin) features an academic who actually marries his subject (the woman whose novels he teaches) believes that most novelists are fascinated by university lecturers. "Ninety seven per cent of novelists were once themselves students and therefore have a vague recollection of what academics are like and what they do, and believe they could have been academics themselves, if only they had not had better things to do than write weekly essays and pass exams."

It is my theory that the academic hero is really what the author would ideally like to be. He has intellectual integrity (which we do not), he has security of tenure (which we do not), he is surrounded by youthful members of the opposite sex who find his work a turn on (which is not true in our case, but is certainly what we believe to be our due).

All this sex, security and integrity, as any university teacher will tell you, is nonsense. Most academics spend long hours marking, integrating teaching modules, strengthening links with industry and finessing their interdisciplinary throughput. But we novelists prefer to think differently. The sexy don has joined the knight, the detective and spy as literary hero.

Adrian Mourby's first novel We Think the World of Him was published earlier this year by Sceptre. His second novel, about an academic, comes out next year.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today