The books Briefing: Elif Batuman, Sally Rooney

Why are so many writers attracted to campus novels? In a 2006 article, Megan Marshall writes that the genre is “escape reading”. With reference to older works such as The Harrad experiment and 3 in the attic, Marshall sees many university novels as “fumbling and sophomore confessional writings.” It has certainly changed. Campus novels today have expanded beyond the boundaries of the Ivy League and address some of our society’s most pressing issues. From early education to university, schools provide richly dramatic fodder for stories of intellectual exploration, but also relationships, politics, gender, and creativity. This is where we spend most of our youth’s intense, formative days, and in some cases where we are first exposed to injustice and trauma.

IN Either orher successor to The idiot, Elif Batuman takes her main character, Selin, from Harvard to Turkey, though Selin always remains the student: She is driven by the desire to live an “aesthetic life,” and the novel “could function as a curriculum,” as Jennifer Wilson writes. Selin gets to see the people she interacts with through her education as “good material” for a novel and struggles with the ethical dilemmas of making art out of life.

In Sally Rooney’s Normal people, external issues, such as class, are invading the campus environment. The relationship between the two main characters is from the beginning characterized by status: In high school, Connell is poor and tough; Marianne, even though she is rich, is an outsider. When they arrive at Trinity College, their status changes: Connell is the outsider, while Marianne’s “gawkiness becomes glamor.”

The school also forms the background for other types of power differences, especially gender-based ones. Sophie Gilbert discusses a wealth of memoirs and novels, including Excavation, His favoritesand My dark Vanessa to explore why male teachers so often prey on their female students. And both Disease education and Oligarchs takes place at girls’ boarding schools, writes Lily Meyer, where male school leaders “strive to shape and limit their female students.” In both stories, the female students become ill, creating a vicious circle: “The more ill the girls become, the more vulnerable they become to male predation.” Here “campuses display fruitful frameworks for exploring patriarchal authority.”

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What we read

CAMBRIDGE, MA - MARCH 26: Students sit on the steps of the Memorial Chapel at Harvard University on a sunny March 26, 1963 in Cambridge, MA.

Paul Connell / The Boston Globe / Getty

Academic discourse and unbelievable intercourse
“Many [novels about college students] is written by writers who have just graduated from university, wise enough to write something that can be published, but not yet old enough to have gained perspective on the sexual initiations or romantic failures they feel compelled to post to world. That’s why at least two great American writers have written campus novels, which they later regretted. “


crayon drawing of figures

Dadu Shin

Sex for the sake of art
“Creative writing is well connected with getting over a breakup. When Selin goes out to gather experiences, Ivan steps back into the background; where we once waited for his emails, we are now awaiting Selin’s inevitable UTI. Her sex-shy and eerie days behind her, she begins a college life more commonly and says yes where she would once have said no.

📚 Either orby Elif Batuman

line drawing of a woman's face against a green background

Hogarth books

Sally Rooney’s Little Rebellion Normal people
“At the beginning of the novel, when the characters are in high school, Connell’s stock is higher. Marianne is rich, and yes, Connell’s mother cleans her house, but she’s remote and strange. [while] Connell is athletic and well-liked… After high school, where they both go to Trinity College, the tide turns: Marianne’s mouth becomes glamorous, and Connell feels out of place due to grown hunting jackets and champagne. ”

📚 Normal peopleby Sally Rooney

cut out images of man and woman against a pink background

Najeebah Al-Ghadban

The literary troupe of addicts is everywhere
“Suddenly this kind of abuse seems to be everywhere – in the real world and in fiction inspired by it – the abuse of men who allegedly found girls who loved books… I do not know what to call this new genre where women think. to use writing to separate their understanding of abuse from their understanding of the language itself. But it’s a genre, one whose writers confront a clichéd setup – the predatory teacher or mentor – before they even begin. ”


a drawing of a girl's face against a red background

Counterpoint

The claustrophobic threat of boarding school fiction
Oligarchs uses the well-known phenomena of youth copying and boarding school isolation to create, in a canine – and eerie – way, a world that feels woman-focused but turns out to be the other way around. “


Want to hear more from our writers and editors? Stay in touch with us here about an upcoming book talk with Caitlin Flanagan on May 19th.


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next time is Counter-narrativesby John Keene.

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