tár is a campus novel, grow up
campus fiction, transcending genre
Last week, I threw out 143 pages of my next novel Group Show because the pages had become a knot of shame and guilt. I found myself unable to re-enter the story. There was too much scar tissue. So after many months of trying and failing and staring blankly at my word doc, I just pitched the whole thing into the garbage and started over.
I’ve been chipping away at a new beginning for the novel and trying to think very deeply about the kind of book I want to write. Part of this is because I want to get the novel over with so that I can focus on other novels that feel very urgent and alive to me. Part of this is because I genuinely do want to understand the characters I’ve created in Keating, Jean, Nora, Veronica, Cambria, and Lina. I want to write about the petty politics of regional museums and mid-sized Midwestern cities. The book is alive to me in a way it hasn’t been in a long time, so in that regard, starting over was smart. But in the pragmatic sense, beginning a novel is never easy.
So here I am on a Tuesday procrastinating, reading the reviews on the website of the NYT. I came across a glowing review of Sonora Jha’s The Laughter, out today from Harper Via. The review was by Rafael Frumkin, who I mostly know from having read and really loved a couple of his short stories on submission when I worked at Electric Lit. Rafael is a very good writer—his stories were observant, funny, and cut through with a shimmering darkness. I’ve not read Jha’s novel, but it sounds like something I’d enjoy. I just ordered it (should we…book club? hahah, unless????)
The review, like every other piece of Rafael’s that I’ve read, is wry, intelligent, and immensely enjoyable. He is alert to the novels’ strengths and charms and makes it sound…very compelling. I’m convinced. The final paragraph, however, is maddening because, Frumkin writes, “To say “The Laughter” is just a campus novel is to vastly undersell it; it’s also the story of America’s changing cultural landscape and the major political and philosophical shifts needed to uplift and protect the marginalized. This is a smart and hilarious book not just for anyone who wants to laugh at the absurdity of academia, but for anyone who wants to become a better person by doing it.”
This probably does not mean anything to most people. They probably read a paragraph like that and think, Oh yes, sounds great, amazing. Which, to be clear, yes, you should. But I read a paragraph like that and I want to put my head through a window. Let me explain.
I have spent a great deal of my literary output writing in and around the genre of what might be called “campus literature.” I have ALSO spent a great deal of my READING life reading in and around the genre of what we might call “campus literature.” When I was very young, I read fiction on the erotic site NiftyArchives, and the section I went to most was the College Life section. So much of my early erotic and aesthetic education came by way of the narrative rhythms of academic and campus life. Even now, when I am sick or feeling low, I turn to webtoons set mostly in college settings. Or perhaps in a cousin setting: the office. I would argue in fact that office fiction is merely a form of campus fiction. In this way, one might say that there is academic fiction and office fiction, both of which function as operations performed upon the broader genre of campus fiction. There are other varieties of campus fiction as well. Fiction set at summer camps, fiction set on space stations, in art studios or museums, or even in the military. Tár is both a paperwork movie AND a campus fiction! Indeed, paperwork movies often overlap with campus fiction! The Report is a campus fiction! Spotlight? Also kind of a campus fiction! All The President’s Men? Campus fiction! Scandal? Campus fiction! Grey’s Anatomy? Campus fiction! A Few Good Men? Campus fiction! Any fiction that involves a person coming out of the broader society and entering into a social space that is not the domestic sphere but remains discrete from that broader society is a kind of campus fiction.
What I love about campus fiction is that is provides a world in miniature whose rules and laws and rigors can be stand-ins for the rules, laws, and rigors of the broader world. The other thing I love about campus fiction is that it often provides a crucible for conflict and drama that might not occur elsewhere. Because a campus often draws people into relation who might not otherwise have been in such relations. This is most obvious in the academic iteration of the genre. Boarding schools, high schools, colleges, and private academics (magical and non-magical alike) often feature commentary on class, race, religion, and political ideology. On a college campus, one often encounters divergent viewpoints for the first time, and one sharpens one’s sense of self through these collisions and confrontations. As a writer, I find this irresistible. This also holds for other kinds of campus fiction—offices, warships, generation ships destined for other worlds, palace intrigue, detective agencies, etc—and one could say that campus offers a dramatic pretext for this kind of cross-societal conflict.
To me, campus fiction is not transcended by commenting on race, class, gender, or skewering patriarchy or capitalism. To me, these are essential impulses in the form. To call something a campus novel or campus fiction is not to undersell it at all because the very genre insists upon these kinds of critique. Campus fiction shouldn’t just be a tour through the glamor and artifacts of prestige. The genre demands more and insists upon more. That is why I find myself endlessly fascinated by different kinds of campuses and the kinds of human drama that get staged within those campuses.
I guess I just feel like, a campus novel by default should offer us some insight into the conflicts and forces at work in broader society. That is why one chooses a campus as a setting in the first place. Because at the scale of the local, one has access to the concourses of the universal. It just seems silly to me.
When I wrote my novel Real Life, I wanted to write a campus novel that had a black person at its center. In so doing, I didn’t think of myself as transcending the genre. I considered myself as writing into the genre and using the tools of the genre to talk about things that were in my life at the time. Loneliness, isolation, a feeling of depression, a feeling of inadequacy. To me, the genre felt like a home, and it felt like the appropriate place to stage the story I wanted to tell. Yet, an interesting thing happened. In America, people mostly consider that book as being about race and they consider it a novel about a black man feeling sad because white people are mean to him. Very few people called it a campus novel. I suppose because that word means something different to the people of America. They imagine it’s A Separate Peace or The Secret History. But in the UK, I told people that it was a campus novel, and they listened and that is more how the book gets talked about over there. To me, Wallace’s problems are not because he is black. Wallace’s problems are because he does not know how to connect with other people. Wallace’s blackness is not a problem to him. It is true that he has racist labmates and that the white people in his life are inadequate at times to the challenges he faces as a black person. But also, those same white people fail each other because of class and gender and sexuality. Wallace also fails other people of color because of gender and other things. All of these things to me are easily and freely at home in the campus novel.
Yet people in America kept saying like, “Yeah, it’s not just a campus novel though.” And I kept thinking, yeah, but it is though. I don’t think the genre needs our apologies. It does not need transcending. I mean, if I had staged the novel within a coal mine, would people be like, “It’s not just about coal miners tho!” No, they probably wouldn’t. Even though a novel set within a coal mine about coal miners is itself a kind of campus fiction! But no, in this country, “campus fiction” seems to mean “college students” and that for some reason also translates to “privilege” which in our weird Neo-Calvinist theology of the Elect that we have going on means “bad.” Which causes us to need to transmute campus fiction into something purer, meaning, social commentary about the big ticket issues of our day. And I think that’s rather silly. Because, campus fiction isn’t necessarily an elite genre that caters to an elite cadre of readers.
Campus fiction just means fiction that takes place in a particularly delineated social space that is not the home. A novel set within a coal mine about coal miners is a campus novel. A novel about a museum set within a museum is a campus novel. A novel about some poets trapped in a cave who have to decide which of them to eat in order to stay alive? That’s right, a campus novel. A novel set within a small-town police department that solves a variety of crimes? Also a campus novel. Police procedurals are campus fiction! Wolf Hall is a campus novel! The story of Moses is a campus fiction! The Bible is a campus novel!
There is this thing that keeps happening in American publishing discourse. Where every book is said to be transcending its genre. Or blending genres. Or making use of “hybridity.” And, like, I don’t know. Genres are fine. They are capacious. They are much more interesting and nuanced and complicated than some people seem to think. I got into un petit beef with someone on Twitter about this because they said that I was being harmful for saying that people needed to get better at reading genres. Apparently, they felt that their friends who write hybrid texts needed defending.
I mean, it is true that I think hybridity is a scam. And what most people call “hybrid” is just prose but lyrical and lacking transitions and/or making use of autobiography and asterisks. I mean it is true that I think the liminal pals are out here trafficking in ephemeral descriptions of fruit and/or rib bones and/or birds and/or the eyes/mouths of reptiles. I have virtually no patience or respect of that kind of writing. However, people can do what they want. I don’t have to like it. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do what they want to do.
However, that had nothing to do with my point. Which was to do with this notion of transcending genre and form. I get a lot of students who are doing very ambitious work formally. And who experience some anxiety with respect to genre. On the matter of form, I often find myself asking them, “Is this form the the story needs?” And trying to ascertain if the form came before the story—sometimes, yes, sometimes, no—and on the matter of genre, I tend to tell them, I don’t know, do what you want. I bring this up to say that I believe people imagine me to be some sort totalitarian ruler. I am not. I am just a person with opinions. And I respect other people’s opinions. I never try to make someone do something they don’t want to do. And I always try to help people arrive at a more intentional expression of their aesthetic. When I say I don’t really fuck with hybridity, that’s just my opinion. However, I do think a fixation on “weird” and “hybrid” that has been circulating (particularly in the small litmag spaces of online) for the last ten years at least has led to many writers putting form before the story they’re trying to tell.
Again, sometimes this is intentional and is carried off with great effect. But other times, it’s just a received idea that gets propagated at the formal level and causes a lot of difficulty for aspiring writers especially. But then, that is very much not my ministry. I am an inveterate rule-follower. I believe in rules and order and the strict demarcation of genre. It brings me great comfort to not let my aesthetic food touch on the plate of my art. Separate but equal vibes only around these parts.
But what I have come to tell my students—what I really do believe—is that sometimes you have to tell yourself things in order to write. Things about your writing, about genre, about form, about yourself, about readers, etc. And that at the end of the writing, it is still possible that someone will read the thing you wrote and call it by a name you simply do not recognize. And that this can and will be painful and confusing, which is fine. We live with it. We write the next thing. For some writers, their whole artistic life is a prolonged exercise in being misunderstood. What matters most is that your own conception of yourself and what you’re doing stays within sight and that you can pursue your own interests with intention and urgency and clarity and passion and, yes, sometimes, even happiness.
Anyway, to bring this back around, I don’t like it when people say a thing transcends its genre. But maybe I just feel very pricked by this because campus fiction is the genre I know best and deepest. And I am tired of feeling like I have to apologize for that.
Like, life is a fucking campus. Get over it.