Where’s the Diversity in the Campus Novel?

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September’s as good a month as any to return to the campus novel—as a genre, it’s damn near interlaced with the form itself. Since its inception around the 1950s—at least insofar as its American iterations are concerned—between The Secret History, White Noise, Wonder Boys, and any other number of university-based standouts, there’s been something inextricably optimistic about it. It implies transformation, a metamorphosis, and there’s energy in that. But if the genre is defined by its buoyancy, its flip side is a lack of diversity: a fact that’s as characteristic of the campus novel as the setting itself.

There are no HBCU novels. Our first-generation Mexican American freshman opuses are far and few between. Don Lee’s The Collective takes a stab at shaking the framework, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao rattles the genre’s predilections as well, but the campus novel could just as soon be called The Adventures of Eccentric White Kids. For a genre built on the notion of change, it’s lacking an awful lot of it.

If the canon is any indicator, the protagonist has probably run into trouble with faculty: they’ve discredited some theory, or fallen into bed with their professors’ partner(s), or written something borderline-redundant-but-insidious-within-the-confines-of-the-college. There is the introduction, in which the students find themselves acquainted with the new way of life. The rising action consists of them defining themselves as somehow “different.” The denouements end with our heroes’ coming to terms with that discrepancy, or finding reconciliation with that discrepancy, or coming to some other conclusion entirely, but the problem with this formula today is that the conclusions being reached are hardly divorced  from the catalysts that brought them on  in the first place.

In other words—even if some grand epiphany’s been found, everyone still looks the same.

In T. Geronimo Johnson’s, Welcome to Braggsville, these same tropes are addressed, but they’re simultaneously flipped on their heads. The conceit is acknowledged and subverted. The characters learn and grow and revert and grow again. With exceptions to the rules of the genre so far and few  between, you can’t help but relish them when they do appear—and despite the larky implications underlying the traditional campus novel, Johnson shies away from describing his characters’ engagements as fanciful. In a conversation with NPR, he said:

When I watch the kids in undergrad hang out and socialize and move through space, they seem to do so with a greater ease between the races. I don’t necessarily notice the same kind of anxieties that were around when I was in college with this generation that we’re talking about, but then I always remember that I’m not actually one of them, so I don’t know what it’s like to be on the inside.

Today’s campus novel really ought to look a lot more like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, with mingling of high and low culture as confounding to one party as it is to the other. (Once, after being asked how she decides the race of her characters, Smith noted that it’s because “my life looks like that. . . . I thought, God, my life has gotten white compared to the life I grew up with.”) If Smith’s academics aren’t entirely up on her younger characters’ colloquialisms, it isn’t because they aren’t urban or cool or down enough. They’re simply from another time. Remnants, if that isn’t too strong. And they’re as necessary for the institution—for the novel—as the rappers and taggers and protestors surrounding them.

It is always worth hoping that the campus novel will look more like our campuses themselves, but the fact that they don’t could be just as telling. On one hand, they look like nostalgia for a time that won’t come back, but on the other, they can almost be viewed as fantastical: some of the visions are on par with science fiction. But the closer we get to closing that gap, the more interesting they will be. And perhaps a genre that prides itself on youthful transformations will find one for itself.