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Beyond Admissions: The Campus Novel

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

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I sat on a panel last weekend at the Boston Book Festival with three incredible authors of recent releases to discuss “The Campus Novel.” Long-held favorites in American literature, campus novels are set in academia with protagonists coming of age among a variety of pressures. Schools, after all, have long provided ripe settings in literature — think THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Patrick Conroy. They are convenient microcosms, mysterious islands unto themselves with specific codes of conduct and traditions. If a writer’s primary objective is to ‘world-build,’ then campuses provide a great head start.

the-nine-campus-novel-by-jeanne-blasbergIn addition to my novel, THE NINE, the Boston Book Festival panel included CJ Farley with his novel AROUND HARVARD SQUARE, Mona Awad and BUNNY, and Elizabeth Ames who wrote THE OTHER’S GOLD. While THE NINE is set on a fictional boarding school campus, AROUND HARVARD SQUARE and THE OTHER’S GOLD are set on college campuses, and BUNNY portrays one young woman’s experience in an MFA program. Our moderator, Lisa Borders, kicked off the discussion with the ways we had each spun this recognizable genre, however, CJ Farley was quick to point out that the four novels, with regard to subject matter at least, were more similar than different.

the-others-gold-campus-novel-by-elizabeth-amesThere was head nodding on the stage. We were, he continued, all dwelling on the theme of exclusivity and groups — whether cliques of friends, societies (secret and otherwise). Our protagonists are disheartened as they meet continuous tests of acceptance inside their respective academic settings. And while our young heroes and heroines may have been conflicted about these groups at first, they ultimately wanted in. Whereas one (a parent for instance) may have assumed gaining admission to the likes of Harvard was success in itself, our characters are disheartened with the continuous tests of acceptance that are set out before them. BUNNY and THE OTHER’S GOLD are interesting in their deep dive into the world of female friendship and the intense bonds (for better or worse) that are created on campuses during early adulthood. After touching on the theme of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal were obvious follow-ups in all of our novels.

Summer Reading & Literary Calisthenics

 

In EDEN, Rachel has a habit of doing literary calisthenics every summer morning. Her book of choice is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. She’s memorized passages and her paperback is so tattered the pages are on the verge of becoming unglued from their spine. In EDEN, bookshelves are stuffed with favorite novels and lots of books are read, from Sarah’s favorite E.B. White to Thomas’s favorite Tom Clancy.

Summer is traditionally a time for reading. We can thank the habits instilled in us by school systems that handed out reading lists every June with the expectation that those books held the key to success for the coming year and the understanding that, come September, there might be a test….

Reading in bed in the morning has got to be one of life’s greatest indulgences, a luxury I admit to lavishing upon myself every once in a while, especially in the summer. However, I don’t reach for Melville. I have a stack of new titles at my bedside. But there are a couple of books that are perpetually there, because this is when I’m deep into revisions. One of those books on craft is STORY by Robert McKee. Its subtitle is “Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting”, but don’t let that fool you. STORY is not for screenwriters alone, but for storytellers of all genres.

STORY is written so clearly and breaks down the tenets of any successful narrative. It serves as a reference book, yet includes many wonderful examples and anecdotes. It is great the first time then serves as an important refresher.

For a writer, reading as much as possible is an important part of the work. So in addition to books on craft, I have re-read several classics during past summers including East of Eden, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and Jane Eyre. I’m not sure what classic is in store for me this summer. It’s usually a spontaneous decision! If you have any suggestions, please pass them along.