Five of the best campus novels | Books

Five of the best campus novels | Books

The beauty of the traditional campus novel is that it’s rarely reflective of most students’ actual experience – at least not in the UK. High stakes interpersonal drama, soft-serve Marxism and ivy-covered stone are less the modern student experience than terrible housing, dating-app ghosting and a staple diet of Super Noodles and own-brand vodka. It’s unsurprising, then, that tales of a more enlightened student experience are perennially popular.

These five novels offer a glimpse into the gilded world of high-level academia from New England to north London.

Published in 1992, the cultish campus novel – which has recently found a new generation of fans thanks to BookTok – follows an increasingly sinister group of Greek mythology-obsessed classics students at an elite, New England liberal arts college. A foundational text for fans of the “dark academia” trend, it’s not surprising that this deftly written tale of incest, bacchanals and toxic friendship is as beloved now as it was more than 30 years ago.

Written in lyrical, glittering sentences that pay zero heed to grammatical conventions, Eimear McBride’s second book is the campus novel for the intrepid reader. It follows Eily, a young Irish student at a prestigious London drama school who embarks on a chaotic affair with an older, mildly famous actor. Our protagonist may spend more time in a north London bedsit than she does on her actual university campus, but it’s worth including simply for its brilliant depiction of the highs and occasional horrors of finding your way in the world.

In some ways Stoner is the anti-campus novel. A departure from the usual fetishisations of academia, its protagonist William Stoner is as repressed in later life by the Middle America university where he teaches as he was once liberated as a student. Covering Stoner’s life, death and anticlimactic career, it’s a novel that explores how life’s accumulated disappointments can wear a person down. If it sounds like a drag, rest assured that it’s precisely the opposite. A must-read for anyone who’s ever felt as if they betrayed their class in pursuit of a good education.

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Wallace, the protagonist of Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, is the first black student to be part of his doctoral group in three decades. His father has just died back in Missouri and – keeping a conscious distance from even those he’d describe as friends – he neglects to tell anyone at the Midwest university he attends. Real Life follows Wallace over one late summer weekend when things – the work he has spent all summer cultivating, his (frequently confounding) relationships, his attempts at outrunning trauma – begin to fall apart. It’s a campus novel about self preservation in the hostile and homogenous halls of white, wealthy academia.

The title of Zadie Smith’s third novel was taken from a poem by her husband Nick Laird. There is a long precedent of the novelist borrowing from the poet: the story goes that when they were students at Cambridge she turned up at his bedroom and asked for all of his notes the night before an exam. More recently, she borrowed the title of her 2018 essay collection Feel Free from her husband’s then unpublished poetry collection. But it’s hard to think of a better title for On Beauty: a brilliant novel about two clashing intellectuals set in a haughty New England liberal arts college. Part send-up of the self-seriousness of East Coast academia (the author herself makes a cameo), part paean to Howards End, it’s one of her best.

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