My favorite literary genre is the campus novel.
That feels like a funny thing to say. In fact, it feels strange that the genre exists at all. (There’s no such thing as a “farm novel” or a “firehouse novel” or a “military base novel,” even if plenty of stories take place in those settings.)
On reflection, though, maybe it isn't so strange. After all, universities are often weird worlds unto themselves. They're run by people who've devoted themselves to reading and thinking, and they're attended by younger people who are going through some of the most transformative periods of their lives. There's all kinds of drama at college, even if a lot of it occurs in the library.
Here are a few of my favorite campus novels - as well as one that should be read with a touch of skepticism.
Kingsley Amis’ first published novel didn’t create the genre, but it might as well have. The main character, Jim Dixon, is a young lecturer at a middling British university. His struggles with women, writer’s block, and academic pretension are hilarious and, like most of Amis’ fiction, touching too.
Lodge’s first campus novel follows two professors – one British, one American – as they exchange jobs for a semester. Each is fleeing something and seeking something else, and naturally, neither finds exactly what he’s looking for.
CP is satire, and it’s funny as hell. Lodge nails some of the silliness and self-importance of academia – especially the way fancy words and concepts are used to mask confusion – but the book never feels heavy. Toward the end, it gets a little slapstick for my taste, but there’s a whole lot of lovely stuff here.
John Williams writes the life he knows – that of an English professor at a Midwestern university. His title character, William Stoner, grows up on a farm, attends agricultural college, stumbles into a required course on English literature – and sees his world blown wide open.
From this point on, Stoner devotes his life to teaching and writing. He marries, has a child, lives the joys and frustrations of academic life, and eventually passes away. His dying reflections are gorgeous, understated, and – like some of the final passages in Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing – worth reading all on their own.
Harbach’s debut novel takes place at a fictional Midwestern college, but it doesn’t have much to do with academic life. Instead, the book focuses on Henry Skrimshander, one of the school’s most talented baseball players.
This might be the first great book I’ve read about the beauty and terror of college sports. Harbach shows us what Henry feels when he’s playing well – the loss of self-consciousness, the flow-state concentration, the joy of moving in harmony with teammates toward a common goal.
But Harbach also takes us into the pain that shows up when all of that breaks down – when Henry’s self-consciousness takes over and he tightens up on the field, when his bright athletic future goes dark, when he’s tossed back into the rest of his life. It's moving stuff, and for a bookworm like me, it illuminated a dimension of college life that I'd barely been aware of.
The novel’s title character – a poor student from rural North Carolina – arrives at a prestigious college on scholarship, only to discover a world of intellectual posing and social climbing.
I saw a lot of this at Princeton, and it came as a shock. But there were other, lovelier sides to life there, too. (In a gorgeous setting filled with smart, curious people, how could it be otherwise?) Unfortunately, Wolfe doesn't seem very interested in these things; he's so keen to uncover nastiness that he neglects almost everything nice.