University of Glasgow front gates. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Campus Novel, from an on-campus viewpoint

Book Columnist Ruhee Parelkar explains the endless appeal of the campus novel.

Before I came to university, my understanding of what university life would be was created by the campus novel. I spent countless hours sifting through books, looking up academia mood boards on Pinterest and fantasising about how my life would change the moment I stepped into the hallowed grounds of a university campus.

Of course, real life proved to be far less dramatic than the books I had lost myself in. Sadly, I was not initiated into a secret society, nor did I engage in a battle of wits with an intellectual superior during a lecture. Yet, the campus novel genre has always proven to be a foolproof method of getting myself back into study mode and ready for a year of university life. With a fresh year beginning for us, let me take you on a journey through this genre and prepare you for what campus life would look like if we all lived in a piece of fiction.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, authors began to explore the dynamics of university life, academic pursuits and the interactions between students and faculty — topics that had previously been largely untouched. Over time, this form of the novel has become a distinct and recognizable genre, especially with the resurgence of fictional works that combine the campus setting with darker themes and contemporary issues.

When it comes to the quintessential campus novel, there is a variety of recurring tropes that shape this genre. These range from campus politics and intellectual discussions to unconventional teaching methods and love affairs. The squabbles and clashes between students and faculty, whilst entertaining, also highlight the cutthroat competition and disparities that envelope the world of academia. Intellectual debates, on topics such as philosophy, art, politics and science, simulate the critical analysis and exchange of ideas that are at the very core of academia. However this trope can also be used as a form of satire in order to mock academic pretension.

Another tried and tested trope of this genre is a professor engaging in unconventional teaching methods. It’s always a treat to live vicariously through characters whose eccentric professors challenge traditional pedagogical approaches. And most importantly intense love affairs, especially those between faculty members and students, are a staple of the genre, concerned as they are with complex power dynamics.

These tropes are supported by a range of character archetypes, iterations of whom you are bound to find in every novel falling under this genre. More often than not, the campus novel is narrated by an idealistic student who begins university naïve and enthusiastic, and whose innocence allows us to truly connect with them. They then encounter further archetypes such as the rebel, a student who refuses to follow the rules and challenges authority and traditions. There is also the overachiever, an ambitious character who excels academically and bears the stresses of this mantle. You have the campus king or queen, a potential point of conflict or an ally, shaping the university dynamic. There might also be the bumbling professor whose absent-mindedness and quirky behaviour provide us with comic relief. Or you might encounter the jaded and cynical professor, who delivers a critical perspective on academia. My favourite of these is the enigmatic professor who is mysterious and captivating with an elusive persona and unorthodox worldviews.

The genre’s tropes and characters uncover a host of themes that are integral to academic life. Of course, there are discussions surrounding hierarchical structures in universities, class-related struggles, and an urge to pursue intellectual topics. However, a theme that I resonate with is a journey of self discovery and finding one’s identity. Beginning university was a fraught time period for me – I was fresh out of school in a new country with a vague idea of what to expect and how the world would work. It was the people I met at university, the conversations I had, the work I studied and the experiences I went through that shaped me. It was not an easy transitional period, but it was a relief to know that what I was going through was universal. I found it comforting to turn to books with this theme and trust the process of changing and adjusting to what this phase of life asked from me.

Having given you a brief outline of this genre, I think it’s time for me to recommend you a a few books to begin your foray into campus novels. Here are five campus novels to start with.

  1. ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis: A classic that epitomises the genre, this novel follows
    the misadventures of a bumbling professor navigating the challenges of academia.
  2. ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt: A dark and atmospheric tale of a group of
    classics students entangled in a murder that explores the boundaries of morality and
    Intellectualism.
  3. ‘The Idiot’ by Elif Batuman: Follows a young woman’s experiences during her
    freshman year at Harvard University as she navigates the complexities of academia,
    relationships, and her own sense of identity.
  4. ‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor: Set in a Midwestern university, this novel follows a
    Black graduate student navigating complex relationships, personal challenges, and the
    microaggressions he encounters within academia.
  5. ‘Chemistry’ by Weike Wang: Centers on a graduate student in chemistry who faces
    challenges in her academic pursuits and personal life. It provides a unique perspective
    on the pressures and expectations of pursuing a scientific career.

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