Book Notes: Campusland by Scott Johnston

This novel is a satire of wokesterism at Yale, my alma mater. The author is an alumnus, so he knows the campus, the architecture, the weather, the traditions, everything. Anybody who’s been to Yale will chuckle nostalgically when they read this description of the Art & Architecture building, for example:

The building’s Stalinist slabs of rectilinear concrete, set here among Gothic and Georgian masterpieces, assaulted the eye. Naturally, that was the point… The concrete was cold and would sweat in the warmer months, giving off a dank, musty smell no countermeasures could ever fix. It was an angry, perspiring fortress.

I lived right across the road from the perspiring fortress the whole time I was at Yale, and the description is spot on.

The depictions of the crazy wokesterism that is convulsing academia are really great, too. That’s not surprising, though, because the material is so rich that the novel practically writes itself. The Mattress Girl, the Halloween protests, the “Dear Colleague” letter – you don’t need to invent anything.

What’s interesting, though, is that this accidental novelist managed something that tends to elude male writers in late middle age. He actually created a believable teenage female protagonist.

Few things are more awkward and unconvincing than portrayals of teenage girls by older male writers. Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, one of the worst books I have ever read, is a great example. The reason why older men are so bad at depicting teenage girls is that for these authors the #1 quality of such a character is her extreme vulnerability. Teenagers, though, are physiologically incapable of seeing themselves as vulnerable even when they actually are. They think they are invincible and exercise notoriously poor judgement as a result. We all know this but male writers seem to enter into “protective Grandpa” mode once they hit 50 and start describing teenage girls as scared little flowers cowering with terror in their bedrooms.

Johnston is not a professional writer, so he somehow avoided this curse. His 19-year-old female protagonist is actually believable. And it’s very refreshing finally to read something so realistic.

There’s also a really interesting moment in the novel that doesn’t get developed a whole lot but I found it very important. An old, jaded Yale [called Devon in the novel] professor tells a young, idealistic colleague:

“Most of us are just dialing it in, you know. One of the best-kept secrets in the world is how easy this job is, not to mention how overpaid we are to do it… The bubble is so comfortable that no one wants to talk about how it’s going to pop. Eph, I tell you, there’s a tidal wave coming for higher ed, and it’s going to take out a lot of schools. Excuse the mixed metaphor.”

“But you don’t think that could happen here, do you?”

“Oh, Devon will survive. It has the brand. And the money. Devon will be here when the sun cools. But it will slowly lose relevance.”

This is what I strongly believe. We are pissing away the really great gig we’ve got going, and it will be our own fault when it blows.

It’s a very enjoyable novel. Not high art, obviously, but definitely fun, extremely funny, very easy to read, the ridiculing of the rich, spoiled “victims of systemic oppression” is deeply enjoyable.

Highly recommended to people with a sense of humor.