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?



@ChrisSmithMuso 08.03.23 at 3:51 pm

BEEN DOWN SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE UP TO ME, by Richard Farina. Thinly-disguised early 1960s Ithaca/Cornell. Hilarious and prescient.


Paul Martin 08.03.23 at 4:17 pm


kent 08.03.23 at 4:39 pm

I’m assuming you haven’t actually missed (only failed to mention) Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner).

Back in the day I really, really enjoyed Foolscap by Michael Malone.


Doug Fort 08.03.23 at 5:55 pm

Giles Goat Boy by John Barth


engels 08.03.23 at 5:57 pm

I thought the film version of White Noise (on Netflix) was very funny. (The book’s even better naturally.)


Chris Stephens 08.03.23 at 6:14 pm

Straight Man, by Richard Russo, is hilarious.


wbm 08.03.23 at 6:27 pm

I’m assuming that, even though it isn’t mentioned, you’ve read Lucky Jim. But Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution and Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe are also essential.And there’s some really good literary criticism about the genre by Christopher Findeisen.


Rosa 08.03.23 at 6:36 pm

“Straight Man” by Richard Rorty is one of my favorites, as is “My Education” by Susan Choi. I’m a few chapters into “All Souls” by Javier Marias and so far enjoying it a lot.


Jerry Vinokurov 08.03.23 at 6:43 pm

Pnin is surely one of the greatest.


Jeremy 08.03.23 at 7:06 pm

not quite a campus “novel”—or at least, not a traditional one, as it is epistolary in form—but Dear Committee Members absolutely rocked me. Funny, beautiful, poignant. Speaks to the absurdity of professorial/academic life.


Joel 08.03.23 at 7:17 pm

I’d echo the recommendation of Dear Committee Members, and Julie Schumacher’s follow up The Shakespeare Requirement is equally good (and a more conventional novel rather than epistolary). She has a new one coming out this month to complete the trilogy (David Lodge style?)


Chris Armstrong 08.03.23 at 7:22 pm

@Jeremy and Joel, I loved Dear Committee Members too but didn’t know there was a sequel – thanks!


Michael Rushton 08.03.23 at 8:13 pm

Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) is something to add to your list.


LFC 08.03.23 at 10:03 pm

A few:

1) Somewhat obscure and published under a pseudonym: Sophie Belfort, The Marvell College Murders

2) Not exactly a campus novel but adjacent in some ways to the genre: Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood

3) If you can stand or tolerate the characters (not everyone will be able to): Teddy Wayne, Loner


novakant 08.03.23 at 11:03 pm

Zuleika Dobson
by Max Beerbohm


John Q 08.03.23 at 11:51 pm

I’ve read all the David Lodge novels but wasn’t aware of most of the others. A whole new genre for me! A good thing, as with the loss of Iain Banks and Terry Pratchett, and some other authors going quiet, I’m running short on SF/fantasy


Kevin 08.04.23 at 2:09 am

Alison Lurie – The War Between the Tates


J-D 08.04.23 at 2:19 am

I thoroughly enjoyed Alison Lurie’s The War Between The Tates and Foreign Affairs and Jane Smiley’s Moo.


JPL 08.04.23 at 6:36 am

novakant @15:

Oh! That’s the one I was going to offer; now I’ll have to just second it, and offer my second choice, Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Two of the funniest novels in the history of English literature, 2 and 3 on the list in fact. Together with the David Lodge books, it raises the question of why academia is such a fruitful setting for comedy. Is it the special interplay between seriousness, pretention and folly? BTW, what about films? For example, Educating Rita?


Chris Bertram 08.04.23 at 8:21 am

I guess we can add Brandon Taylor’s Real Life to the pile, though I know you didn’t much like it. It is beatifully written though.

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2.

Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus is surely a campus novel too, albeit an unusual one.


Chris Bertram 08.04.23 at 8:28 am

And not a novel (because a poem): Philip Terry’s Dante’s Inferno, a retelling of the Inferno set on the campus of the University of Essex is simply wonderful (particularly if you know the University of Essex and have a working knowledge of British and Northern Ireland history and politics).


Chris Armstrong 08.04.23 at 9:51 am

I think I hadn’t realised The Netanyahus was a campus novel – I’ve now bought it!


Keith 08.04.23 at 10:27 am

John l’Heureux, The Handmaid of Desire; Donna Tartt, The Secret History. It’s non-fiction, but draws on the genre: Betty Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close.


Keith 08.04.23 at 10:29 am

And Jane Smiley, Moo.


Stephen 08.04.23 at 10:40 am

Also not exactly a novel: Ronald Knox, Let Dons Delight: a series of dreams of conversations in the Senior Common Room of Simon Magus College, Oxford, at fifty-year intervals from 1588. Skilled pastiche of successive styles, but requires some knowledge of English history.

Definitely a novel and hilarious: Tom Sharpe, Wilt. Qualifies if you count a community college in East Anglia as a campus. The other novels involving Henry Wilt are in my opinion inferior. Porterhouse Blue, about a college that has absolutely no connection with Peterhouse, Cambridge, honest, is quite good.

Robert Robinson, Landscape with Dead Dons. Maybe not a novel as it is only a detective story set in a university college, unworthy of serious intellectuals like CT people.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night. Also a detective story but definitely proto-feminist and so maybe qualifies.

Terry Pratchett: recurrent accounts of Unseen University and the Assassin’s Guild School, in too many satirical fantasy novels to mention.


Jake Gibson 08.04.23 at 11:28 am

Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. I’m not being entirely snarky..


Dogen 08.04.23 at 1:28 pm

Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway murder mysteries probably qualify and are a lot of fun.

I learned about them here on CT many years ago, so I’m surprised no one has mentioned them yet.


Ian Rumfitt 08.04.23 at 2:58 pm

I guess I think of Zuleika Dobson (no.15 above) as an Oxford rather than a campus novel (cf. also Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street and the ‘Staircase in Surrey’ sequence by J.I.M. Stewart). But, if we’re including the former (rather different) genre, it may be worth mentioning Lucy Atkins’s recent Magpie Lane.


Stephen 08.04.23 at 3:05 pm

Should have added Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels: a perhaps not entirely representative account of a Canadian university college.


wbm 08.04.23 at 4:23 pm

Death in a Tenured Position, an Amanda Cross (in real life the Eng. prof Carolyn Heilbrun) production. Not in the top tier (like some of the others, it’s really a murder mystery) but pretty good. And especially fun if you’re in English and recognize some of the characters.


PatinIowa 08.04.23 at 4:31 pm

The final scene of Straight Man is, to my mind, the funniest send up of an English Department I’ve ever read.

I was given a copy of it by a student in a writing class, saying I reminded her of William Henry Devereaux, Jr. After reading the first bit, where he obsesses over the imagined infidelity of his spouse, I said, “WTF, Madison?”

She said, “Not that. Just wait.”

She was right.


AcademicLurker 08.04.23 at 5:02 pm

Seconding The Rebel Angels and We Keep the Dead Close.

It’s not a novel but Publish and Perish is a collection of short stories featuring various mundane and supernatural murders in academia.


Kent 08.04.23 at 8:23 pm

John Gardner’s ‘Mickelsson’s Ghosts’ (1982)


SusanC 08.04.23 at 10:27 pm

Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand is a SF triller, but has a good few swipes at academia as the central character is a grad student desparately avoiding graduation.

Jacques Derrida’s The Postcard is kind of an e pistol Tory novel.

P.s. I read Doorways in the Sand long before I did my phd. The gag hits harder now…


SusanC 08.04.23 at 10:28 pm

Blasted autocorrect: epistolatory novel


J-D 08.05.23 at 12:25 am

The Masters and The Affair by CP Snow (from the Strangers And Brothers sequence, but they can easily be read and understood separately; there is also a campus setting for a significant but subordinate part of The Sleep Of Reason).


Alan White 08.05.23 at 2:57 am

Thanks to those who put me on to the trilogy of Dear Committee Members–I just ordered the second book. One great reason why CT is my everyday site.


David Morrice 08.05.23 at 7:30 am

Howard Jacobson, Coming from Behind (1983), set in Wrottesley Polytechnic (not, of course, the forerunner of Wolverhampton University).

Frank Parkin, The Mind and Body Shop (1986), a prescient satire on how universities became businesses.


Paul Segal 08.05.23 at 11:26 am

I read the first two of David Lodge’s campus trilogy and was really bothered by two things: the legitimization of the middle-aged male academic lusting after a female graduate student, and the borderline anti-semitic jewish stereotype of the brilliant but lascivious and cigar-smoking professor. Clearly products of their time, and perhaps no worse than their contemporaries, but it really put me off.


Slanted Answer 08.05.23 at 2:36 pm

“What the hell is going on with the Dark Academia craze?”

This article, and the NYT piece it links to, offers some speculations:

I remember finding Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem uneven but enjoyable.

I enjoyed John Osborn’s The Paper Chase rather less. That seemed a case where the movie was superior to the book.


Jonathan Lundell 08.05.23 at 2:46 pm

@SusanC, would def read an e-pistol Tory novel.

Conjure Wife is a solid recommendation, as is Giles Goat Boy.

Adding: The Glass Bead Game

And: liked Russ’s Straight Man; Rorty’s sounds like a must-read.


Suzanne 08.05.23 at 5:21 pm

Decline and Fall, natch.
Stretching the definition to embrace military academies, The Lords of Discipline.
Stretching the definition to books I didn’t much like, The Human Stain.


novakant 08.05.23 at 5:38 pm

Richard Rorty?

Is that a typo by an chance?


Austin Loomis 08.06.23 at 2:58 am

@Doug Fort: I’ll see your Giles Goat-Boy and raise you Neal Stephenson’s The Big U.


Diodotos 08.06.23 at 2:59 pm

William Gass, The Tunnel. I dare you.


Patricia Anne Bryan 08.06.23 at 8:41 pm

See my boards on Pinterest…Campus Novels and Dark Academia.Just discovered some Canadian.CNs..including The Red Word and Dark Star.


novakant 08.06.23 at 11:02 pm

William Gass, The Tunnel. I dare you.

Is it good. I bought it as a student because I found his work on metaphor very interesting, but never dared to read it. Maybe it’s time now.


Ralph Giles 08.07.23 at 6:47 am

I think no one’s mentioned “The Lecturer’s Tale,” James Hynes, 2001.


David in Tokyo 08.07.23 at 12:06 pm

To let Wikipedia do my work (and spelling) for me:
“The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies is a collection of short stories written by Joyce Carol Oates. It was published in 1974 by Black Sparrow Press.”

One of the seven exactly mapped a clusterf@ck that was happening in, of all places, the MIT Humanities department at the time I read it (probably late ’70s or maybe early ’80s.) Whatever, I found the stories superb at the time I read them.

Again, Mr. Wiki: “The reception of this collection is very mixed. Josephine Hendin states that “the satire and self-satire in these stories is sour, personal, grim,” and that the stories “invariably expose … Joyce Carol Oates’s raw spleen,””

Dunno how that counts as part of a “mixed” response: that sounds like high praise to me…


Chris Armstrong 08.07.23 at 1:14 pm

@Paul Segal. Anti-semitism may not be a constant, but older academics lusting after younger women pretty much is, at least in Lodge’s campus novels. They do feel dated in that way, even if there are some very funny moments.


Dave 08.07.23 at 2:40 pm

Strongly recommend Lars Iyer’s Spurious / Dogma / Exodus trilogy.


David in Tokyo 08.08.23 at 3:45 pm


Ouch. I read that in high school and seem to have misunderstood it something fierce. I didn’t like it, it seemed to be RF’s twatty side on steroids. And I was not amused since he died in a bike accident the night of a book-signing party: he was one of the best Folkies on the Folkie scene. The duo with Mimi was perfeect. The Reflections in a Crystal Wind album is just amazingly wonderful from start to finish. Great lyrics, great singing, great instrumental work. Powerful songs, beautiful songs, haunting songs. It had it all.


John Q 08.12.23 at 4:23 am

Just bought, read and enjoyed Dear Committee Members. Thanks to commenters who recommended it and to Chris for the idea of the post.


John Q 08.12.23 at 4:28 am

I just remembered The Deagon Deviation, set in Brisbane. I contributed a blurb


Alan White 08.12.23 at 5:22 am

John Q @ 53 Please read the sequels. I’m on The Shakespeare Requirement and it is spot on in tone and subject entirely!

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