The reason so many writers choose universities as their settings is likely because the campus environment is a well-known microcosm for the world itself. The university, after all, has political hierarchies, bureaucracy, people studied in all known disciplines, social dramas, scandals…you name it. Essentially every facet of daily existence is represented on campuses across the world. This is also the reason the campus novel can be so entertaining. Whether it stimulates our own nostalgia, provides a mirror to our current lives, or takes us somewhere altogether new and unique, the campus novel is an institution well worth dipping in to. Need help getting started? Here’s 15 of our favorite campus novels.
Prose uses a familiar campus-novel conceit in Blue Angel: Swenson, a university professor disillusioned with his tanking career, becomes smitten by one of his students, who not only shows immense promise as a writer, but seems to genuinely want his help. As their relationship grows and begins to cross lines of moral conduct and political correctness, Prose takes us into the mind of her protagonist, humanizing him as he betrays everything good in his life.
The novel’s protagonist is Richard Powers, who returns to his alma mater to live as a writer-in-residence. The narrative moves between his inability to write and memories of his recent, devastating break up. Pulling him from this cycle is the university’s computer science department, where he ends up spending most of his time and becomes involved in an experiment to create a machine with consciousness, allowing Powers (the writer of this book) to investigate what makes us human and what our brains are really capable of.
Ellis’ second novel, the one he wrote before American Psycho, primarily tells the story of three students caught in a love triangle. Ellis depicts the liberal arts college students as rowdy, sexually promiscuous, and very spoiled.
Smiley’s novel is true campus-lit. It takes place at an agricultural college in the Midwest, familiarly referred to as Moo-U. It follows a dozen characters during the course of a single academic year. The novel is a satire, depicting the sadistic and misguided intentions of its characters, all of which are quite funny, albeit dark.
Perhaps not as widely known as Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls, Straight Man is a great achievement, somewhat in the satirical vein of Smiley’s novel. The story’s protagonist and narrator is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., interim chairman of the English Department at a fictional Pennsylvania university that is severely underfunded and divided. Devereaux navigates the pressures of university politics and gets himself into many sticky, hilarious, and heartbreaking situations.
Wolfe’s novel follows Charlotte Simmons, a hard-working student from a poverty stricken town who is given a full scholarship. At school, Simmons is exposed to conspiracies and sexual exploits that force her to confront her naiveté and what else she must lose along with it.
Another Pennsylvania professor story, Wonder Boys is about professor and author Grady Tripp, who is seven years into writing his 2611-page follow up to his last novel, which was very successful. Like some of the other fictional professors on this list, Tripp has a number of personal pressures imposing on him: his wife leaves him, his mistress is pregnant, and he becomes implicated in a crime committed by one of his students. Through Tripp, Chabon is able to investigate and satirize the perpetual adolescence of the creative.
Paulina and Fran meet at a college party and form a friendship that is the focal point of the book. Perhaps needless to say, it’s a complicated one, and much of the complexity is about the forces that make it difficult for the friends to say exactly how much they mean to each other.
Nabokov’s eponymous protagonist, Pnin, is a professor of Russian at an American university. Pnin struggles to fit in, and even seems to become the focal point of some vague conspiracies he doesn’t quite understand. Throughout, though, he is optimistic and hopeful, the sort of character easy to root for, laugh at, and empathize with.
The Goldfinch author tells the story of a group of university students who, in searching for a way to live beyond the humdrum, cross over into depraved terrain. As they lose grip of reality, so too do they lose their moral grounding.
Though Stoner was first published in 1965, it remained largely little-known until its reissuing in 2003. Since then, many critics have come to call it one of the greatest underappreciated American novels of all time. The story follows the life and times of William Stoner, and English professor at a Midwestern University. His life is undistinguished, his relationships fraught with difficulty. It is a very simple novel, but what makes it miraculous is the wisdom and beauty Williams is able to procure from such, on the surface, ordinariness.
Barth’s fourth novel was perhaps the one that best formed his reputation as one of the great metafictional masters. The story is an allegory of the Cold War and follows George Giles, a boy raised as a goat who eventually becomes The Grand Tutor of New Tammany College. In typical Barth fashion (or perhaps defining what “typical Barth fashion” is) Giles Goat-Boy is a very complex novel that challenges (and rewards) its readers.
Regina Gottlieb begins attending a prestigious university graduate program. Others warn her about the predatory nature of her professor, Nicholas Brodeur. However, in a nice twist on the campus-novel conceit, Gottlieb begins to fall for Brodeur’s wife. My Education is Choi’s fourth novel and perhaps one of the most interesting campus novels written in recent years.
Roth’s novel is about Coleman Silk, a former professor cast from the university after being accused of racism. His wife Iris dies of a stroke shortly after, perhaps because of the stress caused by his dismissal. Though it might seem like a fairly straightforward beginning, the novel further peels back the layers to reveal that Silk is actually an African American himself who has been trying to pass for Jewish. One of the major themes here is the disparity between public perception and personal identity in academia, politics, and society at large.
This haunting and darkly comic novel is the story of (yet another) Midwestern professor, who has lost his wife and child in an accident. Though the protagonist is outwardly living a decent live with a comfortable job and a good sense of humor, he reveals to the reader that inside he’s completely numb. Though this one is often very funny, it’s at heart a poignant portrayal of grief and bereavement.
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