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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.

The Human Stain

Coleman Silk is a well-respected professor of classics at a prestigious New England college who finds himself falling foul of the PC brigade when a throwaway phrase he uses in a class is perceived to be racist. The subsequent fallout from the affair is laden with irony: Silk is himself black but, being sufficiently light-skinned to pass himself off as white, has being duping those around him for several decades. Self-invention is nothing new in American literature but this searing, multifaceted portrait of racial and gender politics – Silk’s arch enemy is an ambitious young French academic named Delphine Roux – refracted through campus life is one of Roth’s finest achievements. The Human Stain also feels strangely prophetic in an age when the term ‘transracial’ has become something of a buzzword and self-styled hate mobs have commandeered social media to censure those deemed guilty of wrongdoing.

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Tender

Tender tells the story of Catherine Reilly who has left small town Ireland to take an arts degree at Trinity College, Dublin during the late 1990s. Here she becomes captivated by aspiring artist James Flynn, a brash, nimble-witted young man who begins to dominate her every waking thought. James might be gay but that doesn’t stop an increasingly frantic and obsessive Catherine from making ever more dubious decisions as she doggedly pursues her quarry. Belinda McKeon’s second novel offers a heady exploration of callow young adulthood, with all its attendant pratfalls and cringe-inducing blunders. Tender is spot on when it comes to the blithe self-absorption of youth but Catherine is still sympathetic enough to make her relatable to any reader, young or old, who has ever been a fool for love.

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The Idiot

Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is a linguistics freshman at Harvard University in the mid-1990s when she falls for a Hungarian mathematics student whom she courts through email. With its perceptive take on the foibles of academia and joyous observational humour – ‘I had a slab of German chocolate cake the size of a child’s tombstone’ - Elif Batuman’s cheerfully chaotic doorstop of a novel, published earlier this year, is a delight from start to finish.

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Stoner

First published in 1965 to modest sales and tepid reviews, John Williams’ novel Stoner became a posthumous international bestseller when it was reissued in 2013. Having endured a hardscrabble childhood on his parents’ farm, the eponymous protagonist William Stoner takes a degree in agriculture at the University of Missouri, but, to the dismay of his unworldly parents, soon finds himself gravitating towards English literature and a career in academia. Stoner is beset by difficulties that range from a loveless marriage to the machinations of a faculty colleague but, in resolutely unassuming prose, Williams explores how the consolation he finds in literature – ‘the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words’ – acts as a balm against personal misfortune. 

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Ravelstein

The life of Saul Bellow’s friend, the philosopher Allan Bloom, inspired the Nobel laureate’s acclaimed swan song. Following years of penury, ageing academic Abe Ravelstein finds himself in clover when a book he’s written becomes an unexpected hit. Bellow’s digressive late masterpiece is an unashamedly highbrow take on death, friendship and the intellectual life.  

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The Secret History

Set in an elite private college in Vermont, The Secret History opens with narrator Richard Pappin admitting to his part in the murder of fellow student Bunny Corcoran. We later learn how working-class Richard, newly arrived in Hampden College on a scholarship, comes to fall in with a group of moneyed aesthetes whose boundless devotion to ancient Greek culture will have shocking consequences when they try to channel the spirit of Bacchus in a Dionysian rite. One of the most beloved debuts of the 1990s – and indeed the twentieth century – Donna Tartt’s pitch-perfect psychological thriller is such a brilliant page-turner, first-time readers run the risk of shirking their studies in order to devour the book in a single sitting.

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Possession

AS Byatt’s intricately-plotted Possession, an upmarket thriller about a pair of literary academics attempting to unravel a mystery surrounding two Victorian poets, successfully riffs on the conventions of the detective novel, while also making space to pastiche nineteenth-century English literature. If the description makes it sound stiff, rest assured that Byatt brings considerable humour, compassion and intrigue to proceedings. 

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On Beauty

Zadie Smith’s rich and warm-hearted campus comedy centres on the academic brinkmanship between two very different intellectuals: Howard Belsey, an art history lecturer at the fictional Massachusetts university of Wellington, and his vastly more successful peer Monty Kipps, whose book on Rembrandt has, much to Howard’s chagrin, been a huge hit. Unusually for a campus novel, On Beauty casts its net wide when it comes to ethnicity and culture: Howard is a white liberal from a working-class London neighbourhood; his wife Kiki is a black Floridian; and Monty, a black conservative born in the Caribbean. With its vast supporting cast and multi-layered storytelling, On Beauty is a winningly capacious novel but, behind a breezy façade, it poignantly counterpoints intellectual showboating with human folly.  

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All Souls

Interestingly, many of the most successful examples of the campus novel are written from the perspective of protagonists whose outsider status gives them a particularly novel view of proceedings. All Souls, Javier Marías’ shrewd comic novel, is told from the perspective of an unnamed Spanish lecturer visiting Oxford who finds himself in a permanent state of bemusement as he navigates university life. 

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Disgrace

JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize winning novel is a tense, queasily compulsive account of a life in freefall in post-Apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a Cape Town University lecturer who, having been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, repairs to his daughter’s farm where an appalling act of violence is the catalyst for an impossibly difficult act of self-reckoning.

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Daragh is an editor and freelance writer based in Dublin