Get Ready for the New Academic Year: a Selection of Must-Read Novels Set on College Campuses
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In its strictest sense, the term ‘campus novel’ refers to fiction set in the cloistered world of academia that tends to lampoon the worst excesses of faculty life, with all its petty jealousies, pomposity and rampant one-upmanship. The genre came to prominence in the 1950s when one British novel, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, set a formidable benchmark. The tale of an undistinguished medievalist Jim Dixon’s efforts to secure academic tenure in a provincial English university, with its unforgettable rogue’s gallery of fraudsters, pedants and stuffed shirts, offered an irresistible skewering of campus life.
Although Amis was by no means the first novelist to devote an entire book to the business of satirising university types – the American writer Mary McCarthy had already pipped him to the post with The Groves of Academe in 1952 – it’s fair to say his comic masterpiece was a major influence on the genre, particularly in his native Britain where writers including David Lodge (author of a trilogy of novels set in the fictional University of Rummidge) and Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man) would go on to carry the torch in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Following the proliferation of universities in the 1950s, in part to accommodate a newly affluent cohort of post-World War II baby boomers, American writers began to overtake their British counterparts with the sheer volume of campus novels they produced; although, as readers of Tom Wolfe’s bloated I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) will attest, quantity shouldn’t be mistaken for quality.
The campus novel has also developed some daring offshoots, particularly in America, in which the traditional satirical conventions and tropes are explored in new and unconventional ways. Vladimir Nabokov’s metafictional Pnin (1957), for instance, toys with form to the tell the story of a Russian academic who, having fled occupied Europe, finds himself teaching at a US college where he struggles to make sense of his new life.
But perhaps the apotheosis of this subgenre is Don DeLillo’s postmodern masterpiece White Noise (1985) which follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor of ‘Hitler studies’ in a fictional Midwestern university whose pathological fear of death intensifies when he and his family are forced to evacuate their hometown following a chemical accident. DeLillo’s eerily prescient dark comedy satirises academic fads and the offbeat intellectuals who peddle them but it is, more importantly, a surefooted exploration of the jagged terrain where mortality, authenticity, celebrity and consumerism all intersect.
If the campus novel tends to favour undiluted satire, the term ‘academic fiction’ might be more accurate in describing the kind of novel in which parody is pared back or modulated, allowing a sympathetic, affecting portrait of students and scholars to emerge. Here is a selection - some familiar, others less so - of must-read literary fiction with a university or campus backdrop that make perfect reading for the start of the new academic year.