It’s August again, and thanks to the genre of books known as “campus novels,” back-to-school isn’t just for the kiddos! According to Wikipedia, a campus novel is “a novel whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university.” Well, sure. But that’s not all.
Historically, the campus novel has had a preoccupation with elite institutions. Many critics have argued that the campus novel has a problematic history where race is concerned. Bryan Washington notes that campus novels have a tendency to be “inextricably optimistic,” but “the campus novel could just as soon be called The Adventures of Eccentric White Kids. For a genre built on the notion of change, it’s lacking an awful lot of it.”
However, in her article on campus novels written for The Atlantic, Maya Chung posits that contemporary campus novels “have expanded beyond the confines of the Ivy League and deal with some of our society’s most pressing questions. From early education to university, schools provide rich dramatic fodder for stories about intellectual exploration but also relationships, politics, gender, and creativity.” In other words, campus novels have evolved. What better place than the college or university campus, really, to explore various social dynamics and values?
In fact, Lavelle Porter’s book The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual considers the ways fictional narratives of higher education have shaped public perceptions of the university space, examining “how Black intellectuals crafted counternarratives in defiance of white supremacy and created their own academic and intellectual lives. Yes, the academic novel can be playful and melodramatic, satirical and vengeful, but it should also be read as a genre that addresses the meaning and purposes of the university and the place of Black persons in it.”
Whether the books on this list raise questions around race, class, or gender or are simply set in or around campuses, all of them are excellent reads. Get ready to take some notes, because you’ll want to remember these!
The Make-Up Test by Jenny L. Howe
This is a fat-positive, feminist romance if I ever read one! Allison Avery is a smart, stylish, and frankly fierce protagonist who’s just started studying medieval literature in a prestigious PhD program. Of course, grad programs are always riddled with tensions (sexual and otherwise), so when Allison’s ex Colin shows up tensions rise pretty darn fast. I loved Allison’s character for her real-feeling anxieties and self-doubt just as much as I loved her for her strong character and awareness of her own worth. Her struggles with her dying father’s emotionally abusive stance on her weight were one of the most moving aspects of the book for me. At the same time, Colin was the most surprising character to me throughout the novel (I can’t say why without plot spoiling, but I can say that this was a good thing).
Dr. No by Percival Everett
This is hardly your classic campus novel — in fact, it’s more of a genre mash-up of campus and spy novels. I mean, the villain’s dream is to become a Bond villain…so it probably won’t come as a surprise that there’s a heist that features prominently in the book. However, the aim is to steal a shoebox full of nothing, so the villain hires protagonist Wala Kitu (the meaning behind this name is very witty) to do the job. Why Kitu? Because he’s a math professor whose area of specialization is nothing (as in, nothing is the very thing he studies). The plot snowballs in the most entertaining and unexpected ways, and the seemingly-bizarre mash-up works really well.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Protagonist Alex Stern can see ghosts. Despite her rough history and traumatic experiences, she’s invited to attend Yale University and join a secret society called Lethe that keeps an eye on the other secret societies. Mind you, these aren’t exactly the secret societies you may have heard of — these ones are tied to old and powerful magic. Alex’s paranormal abilities make her uniquely suited for her work with Lethe, and when another student is murdered, the novel’s various threads begin to draw together. Ninth House (the first book in a series) is a work of dark academia and its examination of Yale’s secret societies brings it into intriguing territory where the campus novel is concerned.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Batuman’s novel is, arguably, not your conventional campus novel. It does take place at Harvard (partly), but it diverges from the more common portrayal of petty academics and dastardly university politics. Instead, it focuses on a first-year undergraduate student named Selin who’s trying to figure out what to do with her life. She makes a lot of friends, scores a summer job teaching English in Hungary, and has a long-distance relationship with a student named Ivan. It’s as much a coming-of-age novel as it is a campus novel, which actually makes it quite unique, and it’s an enjoyable read on top of that.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou
Chou’s satirical story of a PhD candidate trying desperately to finish her dissertation is a smart deep-dive into the many facets of racial passing. Protagonist Ingrid Yang may be Taiwanese American, but her dissertation advisor pushed her to write about a celebrated Chinese American poet. When Ingrid makes a startling discovery about the poet’s true identity, the academic sphere goes absolutely bonkers. In some ways, it’s a simple enough storyline; but in Chou’s capable hands, it’s an insightful and hilarious exploration of a wide variety of social dynamics tied to systemic racism in the academy.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Taylor’s campus novel is aptly named — it feels very reflective of real life. It features a Black, gay, mid-career biochemistry graduate student named Wallace. As his department’s first Black student in decades, Wallace faces myriad forms of racism ranging from microaggressions to damages to his experiments that are likely intentional. The novel covers only a small span of time in Wallace’s life, albeit a crucial one (between the suspected sabotage of his experiment and the recent passing of his father), and invites the reader into the fraught social and systemic aspects of graduate school.
Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood
I love that this campus novel focuses on an adjunct professor — and Elsie Hannaway, like many adjuncts, has to supplement her academic income with other work. In Elsie’s case, she moonlights as a girlfriend-for-hire. She’s mastered the balancing act as she waits for a tenure-track position to open up, but when Jack Smith enters the scene, her worlds collide and put everything Elsie has worked for at risk. Hazelwood’s “STEMinist” romance will have you thinking about campus novels and the academics who populate them in entirely different ways.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
Since dark academia arguably arose from the campus novel, I absolutely could not resist capping this list off with Babel. Kuang’s massive novel tracks grad student Robin Swift and his small cohort of misfits at the fictitious Royal Institute of Translation at none other than Oxford University. Set during the height of the British Empire’s colonial enterprises, this book presents a fantastical alternate past with some seriously impressive worldbuilding. It also manages to offer a pretty scathing critique of the racist, heterosexist, and classist dynamics at the core of real-world colonialism and its lingering impacts. Oh, and I should mention that this is, above all, an extremely engrossing story.
When All Else Fails, Try Study Hall
That’s right, even outside of academia you can always bone up on campus novels. Take some notes on this list of campus novels or study up on some campus novels that are also great comfort reading. Or since we’re talking about school, why not take a quiz? This one’s fun, I promise. Just answer some quick questions about your back-to-school wardrobe and you’ll get a rec for a campus novel!