Written by Anna Hollingsworth
Finite, enclosed spaces, power relationships, the discovery of independence, and the pursuit of knowledge: university as a backdrop offers perhaps more grand themes for novels than any other institution. The avenues the stories can take form an equal goldmine; most notably, there is the dichotomy between the ‘best years of your life’ and the ‘Student Experience’, on the one hand, and the perception of universities as ivory towers cut off from the Real World, accommodated by dusty old books and equally vintage academics. It is no wonder that the ‘campus novel’ has established its popularity as a genre and has continued draw authors to universities throughout the decades, whether as academic institutions or springboards into adult life. That said, navigating the impressive amount of shelf space that campus novels occupy in any book shop can be a challenge. From the classics to the recent releases, and from social commentary to satire, these are my top picks for anyone wanting to dip a toe into the sea of university-based literature.
If I had to exemplify campus novels by one book only, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis would be strong contender for doing the honours. Set at a liberal arts college in 80s New Hampshire, this classic of the genre follows three sexually promiscuous, spoiled bohemian students and how they get tangled in a love triangle. Superficial as it may sound, Ellis’s campus drama is far from soap opera. Touching upon darker themes of university life such as drugs, suicide attempts, and debauchery, Ellis does not veer away from difficult topics in this satirical black comedy that has become something of a cult depiction of one type of student experience.
Another big name in the genre is Haruki Murakama’s Norwegian Wood, with a cult following in its native Japan and a recent surge in interest in the West following its transition from print to screen. The novel recounts the now middle- aged protagonist Toru Watanabe’s experience as student against the backdrop of the 60s student movement in Tokyo. Toru’s memoir centres around his relationships with two women, the beautiful yet emotionally troubled Naoko and the outgoing, lively Midori. With themes such as suicide, mental illness, loss, and finding one’s sexuality, Norwegian Wood mirrors the darker tones of the Beatles song it takes its name from; Murakami’s narration is far from bleak, however, and the novel reads first and foremost as a beautiful story of losing and finding Oneself.
A somewhat more quizzical take on student experience is Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. The novel takes its name from the opening question for the round for ten points on University Challenge (the book was published as A Question of Attraction in the US for the benefit of American audiences not as initiated in this pinnacle of British TV culture) and documents the misadventures of Brian Jackson in his first year of university. Brian’s childhood dream comes true when he is selected onto his institution’s University Challenge team; however, Brian’s dreams soon go beyond becoming a quiz hero as fellow team member Alice becomes the object of his one-sided love and a dichotomy emerges between Brian’s working class home and 80s middle class university circles.
Perhaps better known as the Academy Award nominated film by same name, An Education tells the story about a younger, yet through her experiences so much older, student. In An Education journalist Lynn Barber recounts the story of her school girl love affair with an older man and con. The memoir reads not only as an autobiography but also as a social commentary. Barber’s working class parents would do anything for a better life for their daughter. While this initially takes the form of getting Barber into Oxbridge, the university plans are soon swiped out of the way when a suitor comes along, and Barber’s parents persuade their daughter to marry the unattractive, paedophile-bordering man at the tender age of 17. It is only Barber’s discovery of another wife and children of her husband-to-be that save her from catastrophe and get her, just about, back on track and onto an English literature course at Oxford.
Also J. M Coetzee’s Disgrace is very much a social commentary, this time from the perspective of the more powerful party. Set in post-Apartheid South Africa, the protagonist of the novel is a professor of English who loses everything: a scandalous affair with a student brings his career to ruins, and when his daughter suffers a brutal attack at her farm, he also loses the ability to protect his family. A tale of culprits, victims, and most often both, Disgrace goes beyond the campus both physically and thematically.
Disgraces, often unintentional and comical, are presented in a very different light in David Lodge’s Small World. Sharp, witty, and self-reflexive, Lodge’s humorous masterpiece strikes a chord with anyone who has ever been to a conference. Small World is the second and best-known installment in Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, sandwiched between Changing Places and Nice Work. It takes the reader on a tour of international literary conferences, parading a cast of caricature-like characters and situations begging for comic effect: there is an innocent young Irish professor who falls madly in love with a mysterious, stunningly beautiful academic, failed attempts at joining the Mile High Club, old academic acquaintances recounting the decades of their lives and romances, and plots to win academic chairs. Academia can be a small world, and as such Small World is a painfully insightful and accurate account of it.
Another humorous classic is Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe, offering a satirical account of Cambridge life and the battle between tradition and reform. At the centre of the novel is Skullion, head porter at the fictional college Porterhouse, and his attempts to protect college honour. The latter proves to be a challenge, to say the least, as Porterhouse is better described as a club for gentlemen than as an academic college, featuring, among other mischiefs, a student fixated on his bedder, and fellows campaigning against radical reforms such as allowing female students to enter the college. Ruthless caricatures and sharp observations, Porterhouse Blue delivers campus satire at its best.
It is not all fiction, though: the student experience is the subject of intrigue even from a more journalistic, fieldwork perspective. Sean-Michael Green is a self- confessed college fan and snob – he compares himself to football enthusiasts – with a particular fascination about the elite Ivy League institutions. The Things I Learned in College documents his personal journey through all eight Ivies, living and studying with students at each institution for a month. From partying at a fraternity house at Cornell and crashing a sorority meeting at Dartmouth to attending a presidential candidate’s talk at Brown and engaging in lectures at Harvard, this is an account of learning through immersion and a sneak peak into the life at elite institutions. The curious thing is that a factual book such as The Things I Learned in College does not differ very much from its fictional counterparts. Perhaps it is precisely this that captures the appeal of the campus novel. Comedy, tragedy, love, loss, intellect, drugs – it can all be found at university, on the page and in reality alike.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.