Arguably the most significant thing about Zadie Smith's On Beauty, whose subject might be summarised as "what it means to be a liberal in the 21st century", is that it is set on and around the campus of a small liberal arts college on the north-eastern American seaboard. Not only do some ghosts from a rather outmoded tradition in the mod-ern English novel suddenly twitch with phantom life (it can hardly be coincidence that the chief male character shares a first name with The History Man's Howard Kirk), but the reader senses that the background chose itself, so to speak: that Smith realised at an early stage that the university offered an A-grade setting for the kind of moral-cum-intellectual issues she wanted to explore.
A fictional sub-genre whose heroes and heroines are mostly critics, whose tragedy is the non-renewal of tenure, and whose romance is the rediscovered T S Eliot letter in the library stack, was always going to attract its own critical literature. The last major conspectus of the campus novel was Professor Ian Carter's Ancient Cultures of Conceit (1990), a stuffy and somewhat tendentious book. Carter, a sociologist who had been piqued by Malcolm Bradbury's satirising of his subject, did not always appreciate that certain British contributions to the form were simply trying to be funny rather than symbolising aspects of our national decline. Among other virtues, Faculty Towers does at least give notice of a sense of humour - Elaine Showalter notes the tendency of the shifty female characters in the novels under discussion to be called "Elaine" - even if it sometimes waxes a little too enthusiastic over the roman a clef element on which the genre necessarily relies. (Was Stanley Fish the inspiration for David Lodge's Maurice Zapp? Was Kirk based on Laurie Taylor?)
Showalter locates the germ of the postwar movement begun by Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim in C P Snow's The Masters (1951), set in the late 1930s, but dramatising a sempiternal conflict between contending personalities and political standpoints. Even in the shadow of Spain and Munich, these were good times to be a don: "we lived the least anxious, the most comforting, the freest lives", as Snow's Lewis Eliot puts it. As Showalter demonstrates, the 1960s and 1970s had their enticements, too. Expansion was in the air (more students, more jobs), together with sexual politics and not giving a damn about Vietnam. Come the glamorous 1980s, the MLA conference floor was awash with high-profile media celebrities: Derrida, Kristeva and all the others had, however temporarily, gone mainstream.
Two decades later, on the other hand, university novels tend to be about harassment suits and the English department's struggle to save its photocopier from the colonists in Media Studies. Elaine Sho-walter is American, and so, her book is unavoidably skewed in the direction of Princeton and Yale: we get lots on Lurie, Roth and Franzen, but there is no mention of Bradbury's prophetic Eating People Is Wrong (1959), or even such a maverick item as Simon Raven's take on the Cambridge version of les evenements, Places Where They Sing (1970).
These omissions are a pity, as including such details would help to buttress a line of argument in which Showalter takes a more than passing interest: the campus community's lasting value to the novelist as a medium through which to test some of the limits of liberalism. In Eating People Is Wrong, for example, the well-meaning Professor Treece agonises over his obligations to the African student Eborebelosa, despatched from a British colony "at the expense of a terrorist society dedicated to driving out the British", and set to study English language, economics, sociology and chemistry with particular attention to the making of gunpowder.
In the context of home-grown Muslim extremism, the story has a ghastly significance. The same could be said of Bradbury's second novel, Stepping Westward (1965) - which Showalter does animatedly discuss - in which the tepid liberal values of an English novelist sent on a creative writing exchange are contrasted with the much sturdier variant practised by one or two of his American colleagues.
Full of sharp little comments on the changing campus climate and some punctilious plot summaries, Faculty Towers is, in the end, a rather typical demonstration of the modern academic on safari: short, personalised and, even at 160 pages, apparently requiring a couple of research assistants to do the preliminary spadework.
D J Taylor is the author of Orwell: the life (Vintage)