The Oxbridge Literary Complex and Academia in Literature


I think this is probably fodder for more than one post, but here it is all lumped together…

While I make my way through the fabulous 500+ pages of Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope I thought I would blog about something that has been on my mind for a while.

In a way this is less of a post and more of an invitation for my British readers to weigh in on the Oxbridge stranglehold on British fiction and an opportunity for anyone to chime in on Academia in literature in general.

In American literature New York City looms large in the same way that London looms large in Britain. But I don’t think there are any equivalent U.S. educational institutions that are as all pervasive as Oxford and Cambridge are in British lit. I suppose Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League may have disproportionate representation in American lit, but again, not as omnipresent as the O&C megaliths. Not just as institutions that produced so many writers, but also as background in so many novels. And it is not just that they seem somewhat ubiquitous but that there is almost a complete lack of mention of other universities. Almost as if there weren’t any other Universities in Britain. It is very easily the case that I am just reading the wrong stuff. After all I don’t read a lot of modern fiction. Is this a story of a publishing industry that wouldn’t give the time of day to the so-called redbrick Unis?

And please, before you yell at me for being a dumb Yank, please know that I cast no aspersions on either Oxford or Cambridge, and I obviously love reading the fruits of their academic loins.

This discussion also begs the question about writers writing about becoming writers, and in many cases the academic milieu from whence they sprung. I love academic novels. The brilliant Stoner by John Williams (at a University in Missouri) is the first one to come to mind, and Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (at a University in Wisconsin) is the second. But then there is that whole world of academic novels where they focus on the writer becoming a writer. I also love those books as well, but tend to feel like the author is cheating a bit by writing some warmed over autobiography. And although I love those types of books, I think I reserve my highest praise for authors who come up with worlds way outside their own experiences (Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Muriel Spark, Ian McEwan, to name just a few).

So what think ye? Oxbridge, academic novels, writers writing about becoming writers…pick one or all and let me know what you think.

And while you’re at it, tell me your favorite academic novels or your favorite novels about writer’s becoming writers, or any good novel that uses some other British university as a setting. And if you have lots of opinions like me, give me all three.

Although I don’t really know of any specific academic novels about these particular intitutions, here are the three academic settings that shaped my life (some more than others):

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
(undergraduate days…)
University of Hawaii – Manoa
(first Master’s…)
Cornell University
(second Master’s…)

19 thoughts on “The Oxbridge Literary Complex and Academia in Literature

  1. Carolyn May 25, 2010 / 11:43 pm

    The first book that comes to mind is Brideshead Revisited, although now I can't remember if it was set at Oxford or Cambridge! It's not an academic story per say, but very nostalgic for all their glorious old student days, drinking champagne and eating strawberries. On the other hand, Possession by A.S. Byatt does feature non-Oxbridge universities, both Roland and Maud the two modern scholars in the book work at more modern and less glamourized schools.

    What are your two degrees in? (I'm a bit envious, would love a Masters or two!)


  2. Anna van Gelderen May 26, 2010 / 1:55 am

    If you'd like to read about a redbrick university in the UK you might try David Lodge's novels, many of which are set at the fictitious Universtiy of Rummidge. Small Wordl, Changing Places and Nice Work are all quite funny and definitely not about Oxbridge.


  3. verity May 26, 2010 / 3:41 am

    I was also going to recommend David Lodge. But also Malcolm Bradbury for similar things!


  4. callmemadam May 26, 2010 / 3:53 am

    Non-Oxbridge books. Like other commenters I'd recommend Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man) and David Lodge. My favourite Lodge novel is Nice Work but I also like Changing Places.

    The Daddy of all campus novels is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, set in a Welsh university just after the war (WWII).


  5. Merenia May 26, 2010 / 6:13 am

    Good satire of the academic world of Oxford and the Bod is found in Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym, also Less than Angels by Barbara Pym has hilarious commentary on academic world although not Oxbridge.

    Like the look of Uni of Hawaii… very envious!


  6. Hannah Stoneham May 26, 2010 / 1:12 pm

    What an interesting post Thomas – you certainly know how to start discussions! I think that in the UK Oxbridge definately has a very strong influence on acclaimed literature – but to an extent you and the followers of your blog (myself included) are a self selecting audience – as in we are drawn to books of that type and so sometimes it seems as though they make up a larger portion of the books available than they really do. I think (hope I am right, as someone will pick me up if not eek!) that the UK is a huge book buying market – and for many of the book buyers, Oxbridge does not figure hugely.
    As for my recommendations – well, slightly off choice – but have you read White Teeth by Zadie Smith? It is not about Oxbridge at all – but has an academic element and what is more, Smith wrote it straight out of Cambridge and in my view it has the Oxbridge stamp all over it in respect of style and structure and concerns etc.
    Lovely, thoughtful post, as usual.


  7. ArchitectDesign™ May 26, 2010 / 1:25 pm

    Have you read anything by Michael Chabon? I love his 'mysteries of Pittsburgh': the coming of age of a college student. I got my degrees from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and the apartment the character lived in was 1 block from mine! I followed his footsteps through the book on many of my own haunts to and from school. Especially loved his story in the book of the 'cloud machine' which was actually carnegie mellon's steam plant. Everyone refered to it as the cloud machine from the book. Really a great book I think – don't waste your time on the movie though!


  8. Nadia May 26, 2010 / 6:24 pm

    Loved this post, Thomas! Hmmm. The author pops into my head is Malcolm Bradbury. His books are such fun satires of life within academia. I loved his first book, Eating People is Wrong!


  9. Mlle Paradis May 26, 2010 / 7:13 pm

    wish i could contribute to all this – but i have to get to the beach! more hawaii pics for you over at passage paradis…i'm digging out my malasada pics too!


  10. Thomas at My Porch May 26, 2010 / 11:08 pm

    Carolyn: Oh I have read Brideshead a million times. I love that book (and mini-series). I have never read any AS Byatt, good to know the academic slant. From Hawaii I got an MA in American Studies but did most of my course work in Historic Preservation. The Cornell degree was Urban Planning.

    Anna: Or course! How could I forget about David Lodge? I love his work.

    Verity: I have never read Malcolm Bradbury, I had no idea there was an academic connection.

    Call Me Madam: I have Lucky Jim in my TBR pile. I will have to move it up a notch or two.

    Merenia: The odd, but perhaps not surprising thing is that I spent very little time on campus when I went to Hawaii. I worked 30 hours a week and spent all my non-studying time at the beach!

    Hannah: You are totally right about the self-selecting part.

    AD: I did read Mysteries of Pittsburgh way back in high school, I think was it published in the 80s? It's always fun to know the setting of a book on a first hand basis.

    Nadia: I love that title. I can't imagine what it is about.

    Mlle: I am on my way over to check them out. I hope you don't mind my long winded comments on them.


  11. mary May 27, 2010 / 7:34 am

    As I was reading this, I thought but what about Malcolm Bradbury, and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim … but I see others got there before me.
    But don't forget Zuleika Dobson (Oxford, v short, v funny) and CP Snow's The Masters (Cambridge, I don't think there's anything like as many Cambridge novels as Oxford ones).


  12. AnswerGirl May 27, 2010 / 11:54 pm

    My favorite book about a writer becoming a writer is William Goldman's THE COLOR OF LIGHT, which is set in part at his alma mater, Oberlin College, but is not really an academic novel. Academic novels I love: ROOKERY BLUES by Jon Hassler, MOO by Jane Smiley, and another vote for CHANGING PLACES by David Lodge.


  13. ramblingfancy May 29, 2010 / 10:23 am

    Fascinating post. I was just at Castle Howard, and the current exhibition was about the filming of the most recent Brideshead Revisited there – love the college quails' eggs party bits. There's my favourite Oxford mystery Gaudy Night ofc. Robertson Davies did some excellent Uni of Toronto novels too.


  14. madbibliophile May 30, 2010 / 3:35 am

    I have a weak spot for novels set in or around academia. I think the reason why Cambridge and Oxford features so prominently is because it appeals to the romantics in the readers. Who wouldn't love a chance to spend a few years in the same rooms and the same grounds as previous illustrious great minds? But there's also the popular theme of students who attempt to fit into the academic social system or disenchanted professors.

    The Stoner sounds like a fascinating novel and I'll be sure to search it out. One Oxbridge novel that springs to mind is 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt. Another isn't really academic but I did like 'Disgrace' by J.M Coetzee although that wasn't really romanticising uni's.


  15. Kim May 30, 2010 / 9:49 am

    I love Oxford. Probably because this summer will be my third time participating in the Oxford Experience (a one week course living on campus at Christ Church College). Heaven.

    One of my favorite books takes place at Oxford College, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. Sayers attended Oxford as do her characters, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. So for me, it is a very fun read.


  16. Thomas at My Porch May 31, 2010 / 10:14 am

    Mary: I loved The Master's. I had a great old orange and white Penguin copy that was almost, but not quite falling apart.

    Answer Girl: Loved changing places, don't know how I overlooked it. I liked the beginning of Moo but I remember liking it less and less as I read but I don't remember why. I read a lot of Hassler in high school, but I don't remember if I read this one. I will have to check out The Color of Light.

    Rambling Fancy: I have read some Robertson Davies, but I didn't know he did a University of Toronto series.

    Mad Bibliophile: Stoner is really worth it. I really enjoyed Disgrace. It had a great academic storyline although, as you say, not really romanticizing academia. Quite the opposite really. The thing I always have to remind myself about those cosy rooms at Oxford and Cambridge is that they must have been cold in the winter.

    Kim: Is the Oxford Experience tied in with any degree program or can anyone attend? Sounds interesting….


  17. Richard June 6, 2010 / 2:48 pm

    Interesting post, Thomas! Don't have any answers to your particular questions off the top of my head, but I remember laughing at the institutional presence of Cambridge University in H. Rider Haggard's wildly imaginative (i.e. goofball) She. And in terms of the U.S. city of Cambridge, I recently rediscovered Melville's famous line about the whaleship being his “Harvard College and Yale.” And although I shouldn't be surprised by it, that Hawaiian campus looks absolutely stunning!


  18. Thomas at My Porch June 11, 2010 / 8:54 am

    Oddly enough Richard, the Hawaii campus was my least favorite. It is in the Manoa valley of Honolulu which gets a lot of light (albeti pleasant) rain so the grass always seemed to be wet and not good for sitting. And the architecture was nothing to look at.


  19. zhiv June 17, 2010 / 1:37 pm

    Very much covering this material myself at the moment, reading Zuleika Dobson (or not reading it), and trying to get a sense of Oxford in fiction, partly as a follow up to reading other academic novels. We were reading Stoner around the same time, what a great book, and I would second the Lucky Jim recommendation, move it up the pile. Others I'd note are Straight Man, by Richard Russo. I started with The Headmaster (non-fiction), one of John McPhee's early books, and The Headmaster's Papers, by Richard A. Hawley. I want to read Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe. And I recently wrote an Oxford post, at least identifying J.G. Lockhart's Reginald Dalton and J.A. Froude's The Nemesis of Faith, not that I'm going to read them any time soon. Nice blog–off to read more.


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