Campus novels

by Chris Armstrong on August 3, 2023

I’m a complete sucker for them. I don’t know why: you’d think twenty-odd years as an academic would have cured me of the idea there is anything romantic or glamorous about universities. But I keep going back to the trough. Some good recent ones: Julia May Jonas, Vladimir; R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries; Rachel Henstra, The Red Word; Sally Rooney too. Further back, I loved On Beauty, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Marriage Plot. Even further, then of course The Secret History, Possession, all the David Lodges, Stoner, the whole caboodle.

How is my love for these books compatible with the fact that real-world academic life is increasingly crappy? It’s not obvious that they’re offering a rose-tinted version of reality to divert myself with – or not all of them, anyway. Should we expect to see fewer of them, now that academia is ever more precarious, bureaucratic, stressful? What the hell is going on with the Dark Academia craze? (I’ve dipped my toes in there too). Why are campus novels so enduringly popular, with academics and non-academics alike? Is it just that the setting WORKS so well, as a microcosm? What are their vices? And, well, which good ones have I missed?