Goodbye Pnin

John Dugdale traces the history of the campus novel, which is pretty short. It had a brief flowering in the US, then again in England as US-styled colleges became popular. Now he says the campus novel is dead, even though writers are still trying to mine their immediate surroundings for the stuff of fiction.

The cut-off communities that writers love to observe are hard to find in the interconnected contemporary world, and they're otherwise usually forced to visit the past (the Tudor court, the monastery, the long-ago country house) to satisfy such cravings. Also not to be overlooked is their collective reluctance to leave any experience not translated into fiction, whether it's the almost universal experience of being a student or the now widely shared one of teaching literature or creative writing.


Looking over the most recent set of campus novels, Dugdake suggests the genre has simply exhausted itself.  I wonder if the decline of the campus novel is a symptom not of bad writing so much as a decline of a whole experience of the humanities on campus. The intellectual foppishness lampooned in so many campus novels has died out, killed off by the relentless spread of empiricism in much the same way as eighteenth-century philosophical eccentricity was pushed out by nineteenth-century Utilitarianism. There's no way we could laugh at Timofey Pavlovich Pnin today. 

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