A citation in fiction means an institution’s brand is sufficiently familiar to help define a fictional character: Princeton preppy. Penn State party boy. MIT brainiac. Harvard kingmaker. Berkeley radical. Notre Dame jock.
Writers create collegiate identities for their characters for the same reason motorists affix alma mater bumper stickers to their cars — college can be central to our sense of social identity, as essential as home town, career or income bracket. A writer might just as easily peg a character as a Camel smoker or a Prius driver. But colleges are more richly evocative than cigarettes or cars.
Colleges “are talismanic in all kinds of ways, of course, signaling the final arc of adolescence, of freedom, of languor and the first or last sparks of intellectual promise,” said John Gregory Brown, an English professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Colleges “show up in novels and stories to suggest the ghosts that might be lingering in a character’s life.”
Colleges seeking brand identity and national repute are just as happy to claim fictional alumni as real ones. Wikipedia pages for colleges and universities routinely track references on television and in film, some seemingly haphazard and random, many more knowing and purposeful. Any fictional portrayal, good or bad, serves “as a bellwether of sorts of how embedded you are in the popular consciousness,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs.
Colleges may derive tangible benefits from pop culture cameos as well, although such benefits are difficult to measure. The sheer number of intelligent people in “The Social Network” — not to mention the sybaritic partying — surely contributed in some small way to Harvard’s record 35,000 applications this year. “I do expect positive press can drive up applications and improve yield on a short-term basis,” said Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at U-Va.
Authors have been writing colleges into works of fiction since at least 1828, when a 23-year-old Nathaniel Hawthorne drew upon fresh memories of Bowdoin College in “Fanshawe,” generally regarded as America’s first college novel. Recent years have seen the genre explode. In his bibliography for “The American College Novel,” author John E. Kramer tallies more than 200 college novels published between 1980 and 2002 alone.