Colleges like “Athena,” “Dupont” and “Corinth” have served as settings for celebrated and popular novels that explore the sometimes-seamy underbelly of academe. In creating these fictional institutions, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Alison Lurie obeyed an unwritten rule in the genre of acadmic novels: Don't pick on real colleges, and be accurate and fair if you absolutely must name an existing institution.
In his latest legal thriller, The Associate, John Grisham has ignored the implicit advice of some of his literary forerunners. Rather than create a fictional university as the site of a fraternity house rape that comes to haunt his protagonist, or set the scene at the University of Virginia where a similar incident took place, Grisham connects that scene to Duquesne University, a private Catholic college in Pittsburgh. Perhaps predictably, Duquesne officials are none too pleased.
“As would any institution, we think it’s unfortunate that he chose to use our name and associate it with a fictional incident of this nature, especially when Duquesne students are generally known for their leadership and integrity,” Rose Ravasio, a university spokeswoman, said in a statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The rape that Grisham ties to Duquesne actually has its basis in a true story that took place at the University of Virginia, where a former student confessed in 2005 to raping a classmate while at a fraternity party two decades earlier.
Grisham could not be reached for comment, but he told the Post-Gazette he meant no harm. Turns out, Grisham is just a Steelers and Pirates fan, and saw the campus once during a sports-related sojourn in the city.
“It was not my intent or desire to embarrass Duquesne University or make anyone there feel uncomfortable,” he wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper. “This is a fictional story that takes place off the campus.”
Duquesne officials did not respond to calls for comment Friday afternoon.
The central character in Grisham’s novel, Kyle McAvoy, attends Duquesne on a basketball scholarship, connecting the character -- however inadvertently -- to a sports team at the university that has had its own painful history. In 1984, four Duquesne basketball players were charged with raping a student. More recently, in 2007, five Duquesne basketball players were shot while leaving a dance at the student union.
The potential to inflict inadvertent harm on real-life people, or to dredge up painful episodes, is one of the very reasons novelists should avoid setting stories in real colleges, according to Lurie, whose fictional Corinth University has been featured in several novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs.
“You don’t want to cause people embarrassment and suffering,” she said in a Friday telephone interview. “I’m surprised that Grisham didn’t just make up a university; it seems very strange. I think it was right of him not set it in a place where it originally happened, but it’s so easy to make up a university.”
“I think this is just a mistake,” she added, “and it’s likely to cause ill feeling if not lawsuits.”
Hazard Adams, who has drawn upon his own experiences in academe for novels and a memoir, echoed Lurie's remarks.
"I think it is inappropriate to use the name of an actual university in a piece of fiction when the issue is as explosive as [sexual assault]," said Adams, professor emeritus at the University of Washington's Department of Comparative Literature. "In my three novels, comprising The Academic Trilogy, set on university campuses, I have invented fictional names and probably would do so no matter what the subject matter."
No Objections from Virginia
While there may be legal reasons, it’s unclear exactly why Grisham chose to set the scene of the alleged sexual assault in his novel at Duquesene, as opposed to the University of Virginia, where Grisham found his inspiration.
In 2005, a former Virginia student penned a letter to a classmate, apologizing for raping her at a fraternity
party in 1984. William Beebe, who wrote the confession as part of an Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007. He was released after six months.
While the story made national news, it was most extensively covered by media in Charlottesville, Va., where Grisham lives. Grisham has developed close ties to the University of Virginia. His son, Ty, graduated from there in 2005, and he gave the university’s commencement address in 2007.
Carol Wood, a spokeswoman for Virginia, said she could appreciate the concern that Duquesne officials have expressed. That said, Virginia officials have not voiced public objections to the novel.
“My first reaction when I read [a review of The Associate] was not concern about our university, but concern for the person who was at the center of this real life, very hard story,” Wood said. “So that’s where my heart goes, to this person who already went through a very difficult time, and here it is being used in a novel.”
The victim, Liz Seccuro, actually sees a potentially positive outcome to the publicity Grisham's novel is sure to generate.
“I think it teaches people that these things happen every day,” she told a television news station in Charlottesville.
It’s fair to say that there are elements of the real-life story Virginia officials might rather not relive. Seccuro said she reported the sexual assault to university authorities and campus police back in 1984, but was not taken seriously. She later started an organization, known as Sisters Together Assisting Rape Survivors [STARS], and her account of the university’s response on the STARS Web site is particularly damning.
Real Colleges Often Inspire
Even when academic novels feature invented universities, authors often draw inspiration from real institutions. Preparing to write I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe visited several universities, including the University of Florida. William "Bill" McKeen, chairman of Florida's journalism department, recalls accompanying Wolfe – in his trademark white suit – around campus. Wolfe even camped out in McKeen’s office for a few hours, observing him working with students.
“Students would come in to talk to me about something, and while I’m doing my paperwork here’s this guy in a white suit,” recalled McKeen, who wrote a biography of Wolfe. “It was iconic, let me tell you.”
Early on, Wolfe made it clear to McKeen that he envisioned a private institution for his novel, not a state flagship like Florida. But Wolfe was interested in what a big-time athletics college was like, so McKeen toured him through the Florida Gators’ football locker room and athletics facilities. Of course, there was also an obligatory meeting with Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida football coach and Heisman Trophy winner.
“They got along famously,” McKeen said.
Dupont University, the fictional institution where Wolfe set his novel, was widely thought to closely resemble Duke University. If there’s a piece of Florida in the novel, however, it’s probably the locker room Wolfe saw on his visit, McKeen said.
Drinking also figures prominently in Wolfe's novel, and the author got a glimpse of some of Gainesville’s finest watering holes during his week-long visit.
“My daughter was in school here at the time, so he went over to her sorority house for dinner, and I think they had drinks together,” McKeen said. “And I took him to a few places in town to have drinks.”
Occasionally, authors writing about academe end up describing colleges they had no intention of portraying. Such was the case with Lurie’s novel, The War Between the Tates, which concerns an affair between a professor and a graduate student. Lurie drew from stories at Cornell University and several other colleges, but she took heat from an institution that never figured into her inspiration.
“I got a letter from somebody at Williams College who said ‘How could you have exposed this thing that happened at Williams College?’ ” Lurie recalled. “I knew no one there and I hadn’t heard of the case.”