The Book Briefing: Elif Batuman, Sally Rooney

The Book Briefing: Elif Batuman, Sally Rooney

Why are so many writers drawn to campus novels? In a 2006 article, Megan Marshall writes that the genre is “escape reading”. Citing older works like The Harrad Experience and 3 in the attic, Marshall considers many college novels to be “groping, sophomoric confessionals”. That has certainly changed. Today’s campus novels have expanded beyond the confines of the Ivy League and address some of our society’s most pressing issues. From preschool through college, schools provide rich dramatic material for stories about intellectual exploration, but also about relationships, politics, gender and creativity. It is where we spend most of the intense, formative days of our youth and, in some cases, where we are first exposed to injustice and trauma.

In Whether orits sequel to The idiot, Elif Batuman takes her protagonist, Selin, from Harvard to Turkey, though Selin still remains the student: she is driven by a desire to live an “aesthetic life”, and the novel “could also serve as a curriculum”, as the writes Jennifer Wilson. . Selin comes to see the people she interacts with through her upbringing as “good material” for a novel and faces the ethical dilemmas of making art from life.

At Sally Rooney’s normal people, external issues, such as the classroom, invade the framework of the campus. The relationship between the two protagonists is marked, from the start, by status: In high school, Connell is poor and cool; Marianne, although rich, is a foreigner. Once they arrive at Trinity College, their status changes: Connell is the outsider while Marianne’s “clumsiness becomes glamorous”.

The school also serves as a backdrop for other types of power differences, particularly those based on gender. Sophie Gilbert discusses a multitude of memoirs and novels, including Excavation, His favoritesand my dark vanessa to explore why, so often, male teachers prey on their female students. And both The lesson of illness and Oligarchy take place in girls’ boarding schools, writes Lily Meyer, where male headteachers “strive to mold and constrain their female students”. In both stories, female students fall ill, creating a vicious cycle: “The sicker the girls, the more vulnerable they become to male predation. Here, campuses “prove fertile settings for exploring patriarchal authority.”

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What we read

Paul Connell/The Boston Globe/Getty

Academic discourse and adulterous reports
“A lot [novels about college students] are written by authors fresh out of college, smart enough to write something publishable but not yet old enough to have taken a step back from the sexual initiations or love failures they feel compelled to broadcast to the world. That’s why at least two great American authors wrote campus novels that they later regretted.


colored pencil drawing of figures

Dadu Shin

sex for art
“Creative writing fits well with overcoming a breakup. While Selin goes out to accumulate experiences, Ivan retreats to the background; where we once waited for his emails, we now wait for the Selin’s inevitable UTI. With her days of sexual shyness and abstinence behind her, she embarks on a more ordinary college life, saying yes where she once would have said no.

📚 Whether orby Elif Batuman

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

Hogarth Books

The Little Rebellions of Sally Rooney normal people
“Early in the novel, when the characters are in high school, Connell’s stock is higher. Marianne is wealthy and, yes, Connell’s mother cleans her house, but she’s aloof and weird [while] Connell is athletic and well-liked… After high school, when they both attend Trinity College, the seesaw reverses: Marianne’s clumsiness turns glamorous, and Connell feels out of place against the backdrop of waxed hunting jackets. and champagne.

📚 normal peopleby Sally Rooney

cut out photos of a man and a woman on a pink background

Najeebah Al-Ghadban

The trope of the literary aggressor is everywhere
“Suddenly, this kind of abuse seems to be everywhere – in the real world and in the fiction that draws on it – abuse by men who allegedly found girls who liked books… I don’t know what to call this new genre, in which women seem to use writing to separate their understanding of violence from their understanding of language itself. – before they even start.


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

Counterpoint

The claustrophobic menace of boarding school fiction
Oligarchy uses the familiar phenomena of teenage imitation and boarding school insularity to craftily – and strangely – create a world that feels female-centric but turns out to be the opposite.


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

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