What’s Behind Our Obsession With Novels About Prep Schools and Elite Colleges?

When I received a review copy of a forthcoming book about post-college female friendship called Bennington Girls Are Easy, I immediately grabbed it for my summer reading pile, and even considered vaulting it ahead of many other similar-seeming books about young women. The title immediately called to mind alumna Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — her masterpiece about the aesthetic pursuit of evil at a Bennington-like institutions — and I salivated.

I have a huge pile of books to read, yet that word, “Bennington” enticed me far more than the silly “girls are easy” cliché. What was it, I wondered, about novels that refer to elite educational institutions, preferably small and cloistered ones, that makes some of us readers lose our literary senses? Is it a kind of safe elitism, a chance to snuggle up between ivory towers without experiencing that world directly? Or is it the opposite: a desire to revel in the rotten stuff that lurks within those campus confines? Is there a third, simpler option: do we just reflexively grab these books because, like family reunions and road trips, a new student at a fancy school is an ever-effective setup for fiction, given that it comes with immediately recognizable motifs (haves and have nots, stuffy administrators, parties and secrets) and built-in sources of tension?

The ultimate example of this type of novel is Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep, a breakout hit in 2005 partly because of its title and its epic marketing campaign. Between its memorable grosgrain belt-adorned flaps lay a rather uncomfortable chronicle of a dour loner navigating her way through a tony boarding school — it was an interesting book, but not exactly a fun book. Yet the setting and the story’s references to Ivy League colleges and splashy magazine covers gave it a gossipy feel that kept readers fascinated. And everyone asked the question: how much of it was real?
prep

In The Secret History and Prep and other novels of their ilk, the narrator or protagonist is often an outside observer, a middle-class type who is both entranced (sometimes too entranced) and repelled by the culture of the place. As stand-ins for the reader, these characters encompass our love-hate affair with elitism. We can enjoy reading about the awfulness of someone’s  WASPy classmates. We may experience genuine pleasure from hearing about their posh lives, while at the same time getting to coddle our sense of grievance against them.

Another sub-type in this class of books is the one embodied by Bennington Girls Are Easy, which follows friendships forged in the hothouses of these institutions as they make their way through the world. Mary McCarthy’s iconic Vassar-graduate chronicle The Group is the obvious example, while J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement  more recently explored the friendships of four girls at Smith, the  women’s college in Massachusetts. These novels, as a rule, are moderately more optimistic about the institutions they describe, comparing the closeness fostered in a school’s artificial environment with the way the “real world” pushes people  into separate spheres.

A lot of prep school novels, however, have less profound meditations to offer — see the YA Gossip Girl series and its zillion imitators. And some such novels, like Marisa Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, use the highbrow nature of their setting to coat what is ultimately a totally fine genre novel beneath a thrilling literary veneer. They make their readers feel smart.

Finally, a large subset of novels get their momentum based on their proximity to real life. One story was documented by Elissa Strauss in Jezebel when she reported on a novel describing a teacher-student affair — written by an instructor who, as it turned out, basically documented his affair with a student.

In the book “Marie” scoffs at the guidance counselor who tells her, after news of the affair gets out, that she was used and that she should be angry. Her last line in the book is: “I still dream about him.” Real-life “Marie,” however, felt taken advantage of and violated.

Former students of Maksik say he was a very popular teacher, and many saw him as a mentor… They say that anyone who reads the novel can get a sense of the way he taught because many of the conversations in the book were lifted directly from ones they had in class. A few I spoke with said they felt that he courted adoration — he flirted with girls and would eat lunch and play sports with boys — but even they concede that he was an inspiring teacher for many, which made the initial betrayal of the student-teacher affair, coupled with the second betrayal of publishing a novel about their lives, all the harder to cope with. They also say that because the novel is so obviously based on real people and events, it’s hard to know when the truth ends and fiction begins.

A half-decade or more after I graduated, a rather pulpy novel about my high school alma mater, Horace Mann, called Academy X, got published to some buzz. Despite mediocre reviews,  it still got the author fired from the school. Yet here’s where it gets interesting: unbeknownst to most of us, the truth about our school was far, far worse than the very silly, mildly lecherous novel might have suggested. Rather than just awful rich people angling for power, a New York Times Magazine cover story uncovered decades of terrible abuse swept under the rug. Today, a board consisting of those rich parents that Academy X lampooned continues to hem and haw about restitution for victims. A school that I, and the book’s author, found to be a mix of disgusting elitism and heady sophistication, turned out to be much more, and much worse.

And there’s the crux: these books often hint at something insidious that’s already baked in to these institutions. Look at the campus rape stories that have emerged from idyllic-seeming colleges like Swarthmore and Amherst, and entrenched abuse stories at boarding schools like  St. Paul’s. Institutions — even the most beautiful, posh, and exclusive ones — share a quality of self-protectiveness, a willingness to sacrifice people to maintain their good names, their ivy-lined buildings and walks, their reputations as safe and nurturing spaces. No wonder reading about these places draws readers in; they are truly terrifying settings. And that chilling quality also explains why Tartt’s book remains the most successful treatment of a fancy school to date; through her Classics-loving hedonist murder clique, she effectively uses horror and satire to get at the dark heart of institutionalized snobbery.