An Episodic Life: Andrew Sean Greer, Malynne Sternstein, and Seminary Co-op on Campus Novels

October 14th, 2018

Ends, beginnings, and the unreliable narrators and "signals of a spirit" in-between. On this episode of Open Stacks, Pulitzer Prize winning author Andrew Sean Greer talks us through the end of a relationship in Less, University of Chicago professor Malynne Sternstein parses Nabokov's 1957 academic parody Pnin, and Co-op booksellers recount some of their favorite campus novels of and before its time. 


(Above) Andrew Sean Greer at the Co-op, June 14, 2018. Greer reads from his 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less, and recounts the series of moments he gathered he'd won. Here is his official statement on winning the prize: 

"Nobody is more surprised than I that I won the Pulitzer Prize.  I was working at my job here Italy, and had just persuaded a dog to let me put her into polka dot pajamas (not my dog) when I heard the news.  I didn’t believe it.  So I called my friend Michael Chabon, who screamed.  I asked if it was true, and he said yes!  And I asked what do I do now?  And he said Andy, now you write whatever you want to.  And then I went and drank a lot of red wine.  I hope somebody put some money on me because they have surely made a fortune now. Let’s be honest: it was an incredible year for books, and writers like Jesmyn Ward, Celeste Ng, Min Jin Lee, George Saunders, Elif Batuman and Hernan Diaz all deserve mention here, as well as dozens of other amazing books (you should really follow Celeste Ng on Twitter). As for my book, all I can say is that it is about the foolishness of American myopia, the uneasiness of being gay in the world, the difficulties of love, but most of all it is about joy.  A writer friend once said the hardest thing to write about is joy.  I took it as a challenge.  It’s tough year, and a tough time in the world.  And perhaps it is foolish to believe, but I do believe, despite all this, in the possibility of joy."

Malynne Sternstein and Colin consider Vladimir Nabokov's 1957 novel Pnin, conspicuously set between his breakout novel Lolita and Pale Fire, on the fictional campus of Waindell College, which Greer says inspired him to "turn point of view into a plot twist." Pnin's "self-parodyic, episodic life," says Sternstein, makes it a novel less about its eponymous protagonist than writing itself. 

While the literary world is quite familiar with Nabokov's entomological passion for butterflies, less has been written or pictured (see below) about his interest in squirrels, seen throughout Nabokov's work as "messengers," says Sternstein, "between the divine and the mortal." 


Vladimir Nabokov, circa 1975 | Photograph by Horst Tappe / Getty Images

Speaking of break-ups, Kelli Korducki (above) spoke at the Co-op on July 31, 2018 about her book, Hard To Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up. Here's an excerpt from that conversation on what led her to "get to the bottom" of breaking up:

“I wanted to get to the bottom of the cultural and economic developments that have enabled women, like me, to break up with stable and decent partners or with any partners at all. And why, despite those developments, the decision to stay or to go has remained so charged. When did it become so difficult to figure out not only what we should want but what we do want? I wanted to understand where the material concerns and emotional ethics of partnership had historically diverged in the first place.”

Visit Literary Hub for "A Campus Novel for Every Kind of Back to School Reader." And find Alex and Ethan's academic novel recs below. What's your favorite campus novel? Drop us a line at

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