In Praise of the Campus Novel: Daisy Alpert Florin on Fiction and Self-Discovery
“A campus is a cauldron, a swirling pot of people learning about themselves.”
What is it about campus novels that makes us love them so?
The campus has inspired many novelists over the years: Michael Chabon, Kazuo Ishiguro, Curtis Sittenfeld, Elif Batuman, Nabokov, to name just a few. Readers love these stories, too; “the campus novel” has become its own literary subgenre, and TikTok accounts devoted to hashtags like #darkacademia flourish online. I’ve loved campus novels since I still lived on a campus myself; I stayed up late reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History when I should have been studying for finals. So what is it about campuses that make them such fertile territory for fiction?
A campus is a cauldron, a swirling pot of people learning about themselves, each other and the world both in class and—let’s be honest—mostly outside of it. College, if we are lucky enough to go, is the place we are forged, when the people we meet make impressions on us that can last a lifetime.Novelists love to tell the story of outsiders, and, in a sense, everyone’s an outsider in college.
For novelists, the campus—and I will limit myself to college campuses here although there are many wonderful campus novels set at boarding schools—is a particularly rich setting for fiction. College is a place of transformation. You enter as one person and leave as someone else.
The question of whether you are ready for adulthood when you leave college is one I explore throughout my debut novel My Last Innocent Year, and while I wouldn’t say I felt like an adult when I graduated from college in 1995, I was certainly a different person than I had been when I started. I had had experiences that changed me. I had been exposed to the world in ways that were beautiful and awful and strange. If a novel is about change, what better place to chart that change than college?
Space is compressed on a campus, especially a small one. There is a fixed number of people, or characters, you might bump up against. It’s hard to avoid a person you might want to stay away from, and if there’s someone you want to see again, chances are you will. Forced proximity creates tension and drama. Don’t shit where you eat is good advice, nearly impossible to follow in college.
Novels work best as stories under pressure. The cop on his last week on the job. The last Christmas before the family home is sold. The final week of summer vacation and the romance that will end once school starts again–or will it? Novels often have a ticking clock that propels them forward, and college is the ultimate ticking clock, even if we aren’t aware of it at the time. My novel takes place during Isabel Rosen’s final semester, when the ticking is as loud as it gets. During that time, she must ask herself if she has gotten what she came to college for and, if not, can she still find a way to still get it?College felt like the site where many of those decisions had originated and so I went back to see if I might still do something differently.
But college is also suspended time. Days move more slowly, as do seasons, as do years; the four years we spend there seem infinite when in fact they are anything but. I never once thought I would run out of time in college, always thought there would always be time for one more adventure, one last chance to get it right. It felt, in many ways, that I would be there forever, which makes sense, at least mathematically: At 18, four years is a large fraction of your life. It’s only when we’re older that we realize just how short it really is. I learned this many years ago when my kids were small, and we had a neighbor who left for college. Then one day, he was back, a college graduate. It felt like he had just left.
Novelists love to tell the story of outsiders, and, in a sense, everyone’s an outsider in college. No matter where you come from or what privileges you bring with you, you are coming from somewhere else and must learn how to become part of a community with new rules and mores. Even those who are part of the prevailing culture are forced to navigate relationships with people who aren’t. Those kinds of interactions can be fodder for conflict, which is the building block of any good novel.
Finally, I think it’s possible that campus novels work because college is one of the few times in our lives when we feel we could be living in a novel. You take yourself seriously in college, as you should. Your work is deeply important and might just set the course for the rest of your life or maybe even change the world. During those four years, you are testing out identities and experimenting with relationships you believe will last forever–and sometimes do.
There is a cinematic quality to college life. Deep relationships. Intrigue. You never know who you might sit next to in the dining hall or discover on the other side of a library stack. That class you sign up for or party you decide to go to at the last minute could end up changing your life. What happens to us during our college years, when we are 18, 19, 20, 21, stays with us longer than things that happen later and so become suffused with nostalgia. We almost always remember our college years fondly, even if they were difficult.
But really, it’s about being young.
I was 42 years old when I started writing My Last Innocent Year. I’d lived so many years beyond college at that point, and yet my college years called to me. I had been young for so long and now, it seemed, I wasn’t anymore, and I wanted to understand how that had happened. I had arrived at a point in (mid)life when many of the decisions I’d made seemed to have hardened into something irretrievable.
College felt like the site where many of those decisions had originated and so I went back to see if I might still do something differently. I wanted to find the girl I used to be–and, if I was being honest, still thought I was even if there was no external proof of that–and what better place to look for her than college?
My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin is available from Henry Holt and Co., a division of Macmillan, Inc.