Favorite Campus Novels

Vintage College

When writing a post about campus novels, it’s appropriate to take the definition from Wikipedia, no?

Campus novel /ˈkampəs ˈnävəl/: A campus novel, also known as an academic novel, is a novel whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university. The genre in its current form dates back to the early 1950s.

The campus novel, which may or may not be dead, is still one of my favorite genres. It’s usually funny, sometimes bizarre, occasionally romantic, and often ludicrous. Despite having been to college, I cannot relate to the campus novel, which is perhaps why it fascinates me.

These are a few of my favorites, except DeLillo, which I wanted to include simply because I slogged through it (and you may want to).

01. Straight Man // Richard Russo (review). Perhaps my favorite… “William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt.  Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character–he is a born anarchist– and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans.  In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television.”

02. The Secret History // Donna Tartt. When you produce one novel every decade, it better be good (hint: it is). “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries.” Which is only the beginning.

03. The Art of Fielding // Chad Harbach. Another favorite (if you’re sensing a theme here)! “At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.”

04. Joe College // Tom Perrotta. “For many college students, Spring Break means fun and sun in Florida. For Danny, a Yale junior, it means two weeks behind the wheel of the Roach Coach, his father’s lunch truck, which plies the parking lots of office parks in central New Jersey.”

05. Wonder Boys // Michael Chabon. “Chabon presents a hilarious and heartbreaking work—the story of the friendship between the “wonder boys”—Grady, an aging writer who has lost his way, and Crabtree, whose relentless debauchery is capsizing his career.”

06. White Noise // Don DeLillo. The “literary” campus novel. “A brilliant satire of mass culture and the numbing effects of technology,White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney, a teacher of Hitler studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America. Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the rocky passages of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism. Then a lethal black chemical cloud, unleashed by an industrial accident, floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” that is a more urgent and visible version of the white noise engulfing the Gladneys—the radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, and TV murmurings that constitute the music of American magic and dread.”

07. The Marriage Plot // Jeffrey Eugenides (review). “It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.”

Really, these novels may set out to prove that college is far from any fun…

So…college, huh? I‘m very close to hitting the ten year post college anniversary. I’d rather not think about that. As always, share your thoughts and feelings, it’s been rather quiet around here lately. 

(photo found here, original source unknown (too grainy for me to read))

7 thoughts on “Favorite Campus Novels

  1. I think the campus novel may be my favourite genre as well. Likewise, my university years were not much like what I read about but I think that was largely because kids in Australia don’t tend to ‘go away to college’ – most go to a university in their city, stay living at home or move to a share house. Kids from rural Australia (and sometimes city kids) live in ‘colleges’ on campus, which is the closest you’ll get to a true campus-genre experience. But I did get the parties, the romances, the relationship dramas, so can’s complain! 😉

    2 & 3 – agree. At of Fielding probably my absolute favourite. I just loved that book and still recommend it to everyone I meet (but I STILL DON’T OWN a Westish Harpooners tee… https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/top-ten-bookish-things-that-arent-books-that-id-like-to-own/ )

    4. Haven’t actually read this one…
    7. I think we’ve previously agreed to disagree on this one. I didn’t love it.


  2. I’ve never read a campus novel before; I didn’t know it was a thing, really. But I think it’s about time I change that. The Secret History has piqued my interest, so I’m going to keep an eye out for it at my library!


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