Five Campus Novels I’ve Read

I’ve long enjoyed campus novels but much more so since my partner became an academic. They frequently have a satirical bent as if the author’s getting things of their chest which I’ve come to understand is quite often the case. Here, then, are five of many campus novels I’ve read, three with links to Cover image for The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury my reviews

I’ll start with Malcolm Bradbury’s very funny The History Man in which the Kirks who met as undergraduates, both from conservative backgrounds, reinvent themselves when Howard is appointed lecturer in sociology. Both have thrown fidelity to the winds but Barbara’s adventures have been stymied by pregnancy while Howard marches ahead, Marxist credentials loudly proclaimed, sleeping with both students and staff whenever the opportunity presents itself while indulging in Machiavellian departmental politics. It all comes to a head with a party. I chortled my way through Bradbury’s novel several times years ago but it’s the excellent BBC adaptation starring Anthony Sher as Howard and Geraldine James as Barbara, that I remember most vividly. Howard wouldn’t last five minutes in academia these days. Cover image for Straight Man by Richard Russo

Very different from his Maine-set books which remind me a little of John Irving, Straight Man was the first novel I read by Richard Russo. Russo was an academic for some time and this story of the temporary chair of a department tasked with drastically reducing its budget feels like a bit of catharsis as Hank, hit hard by a mid-life crisis, much to his wife’s despair, stumbles ineptly through difficulty after difficulty. There are some wonderfully slapstick scenes to enjoy not least a passage when Hank finds himself trapped in the roof space above an office where his colleagues are voting on his dismissal which very nearly did for me.

Julie Schumacher’s epistolatory Dear Committee Members is another entertaining slice of campus fiction written by an Coer image academic. The long-suffering Jason T. Fitger is working from his office in his crumbling English department. He spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation, occasionally interspersed with pleas for funding for his advisee. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the increasingly waspish letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his sojourn at the notorious Seminar writing workshop; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels. There are some nice little digs at IT – help desks who seem hell-bent on doing the opposite – and a particularly enjoyable incident involving the ‘reply all’ button.

Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation extends the campus theme, taking some satisfying swipes at academia while exploring Cover image for Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh-Chouracism and identity through Ingrid Yang, in the final year of her PhD, who stumbles across a note in the archives that might offer liberation from her dissertation on the poetic technique of the late Xiao-Wen Chou, a much-acclaimed Chinese American poet, one of the rare people of colour employed by Barnes University. After a great deal of sleuthing, helped by her best friend, Ingrid manages to narrow down the identity of the note’s signatory leading to an astonishing revelation which will eventually result in trashing a multitude of academic reputations. There are some very funny moments in Chou’s satire – she’s not afraid of a bit of farce – by it’s essentially an acerbic commentary on race and academia all wrapped up in an enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Cover image for Groundskeeping by Lee Cole No hint of satire in Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping which follows Owen, who’s working as groundskeeper in order to pay for his writing course. At a college party he meets Alma, the writer in residence, younger than him but with a short story collection already published. Owen’s days are spent pruning trees, his evenings writing or watching westerns with his grandfather, Pop, until his colleague invites him to a bar where he sees Alma again and slips into a relationship with her that grows into love despite the many obstacles in their way. Cole has a knack for sharp characterisation – Pop was my particular favourite with his hobo past and his quiet concern for the grandson he doesn’t entirely understand. I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly accomplished novel which offers an outsider’s view of university life.

Any campus novels you’d like to add to my list?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

That’s it from me for a few weeks. Tomorrow, H and I are off on our first real railway jaunt since Covid struck. No doubt there will be a little reading along the way.

42 thoughts on “Five Campus Novels I’ve Read”

  1. I’m such a sucker for a campus novel. Great selection Susan. I really enjoyed Dear Committee Members and have a copy of Groundskeeping which I keep meaning to read as I know you enjoyed it a lot.

  2. I used to love a campus novel but find them slightly too close to the bone at the moment as I’m studying part-time again! I did try Disorientation recently, and found the farcical scenes didn’t quite work for me. If prep school campuses count, I’m currently reading Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For You, which is superbly evocative.

    1. I think we can slip in a prep school novel, particularly the Makkai which I also enjoyed. I do know what you mean about being close to the bone but as a verteran of listening to H letting off steam, I’ve found them useful. Good luck with the studying!

  3. I don’t think I’ve read that particular Bradbury, but a different one; I’m more familiar with David Lodge, who I think took inspiration from him or at least was writing around the same time. I used to consider Lodge one of my favourite novelists, but I suspect would find him dated if I tried to reread.

    I remember Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis being hilarious.

    I loved Dear Committee Members and Groundskeeping, and have Straight Man and Disorientation on the shelf to read!

    Nowadays it mostly seems to be ‘dark academia’ — thrillers and bad behaviour from male teachers — but I probably prefer the type you’ve highlighted here. I think you’d enjoy Old School by Tobias Wolff if you don’t already know it.

    1. They’re both very much of that era. Very different from present day academia! I’m not so fond of dark academia, either, and you’re right – I enjoyed Old School very much and have a copy sitting on the shelves.

  4. I enjoy Russo but I’ve not read this one, it sounds great! And thank you for the reminder about Groundskeeping which I really want to read since your review.

    Have a lovely holiday Susan!

    1. I hope you enjoy Groundskeeping – a much gentler example of campus fiction than the usual satire. Thank you! We’re of quite early tomorrow, slightly nervous thanks to the overtime ban but I’m sure we’ll be fine.

  5. I’m collecting them and have a board on Pinterest..BUT haven’t read these!Started Groundskeeping but thought it was a bit four.Received The Art of Fielding and Changing Places plus Emily Donoghue’s new one in the mail yesterday.A feast for my birthday.

    1. That sounds like an excellent birthday haul. I enjoyed The Art of Fielding once I realised it wasn’t about baseball. I’m sure we can agree to differ about Groundskeeping!

  6. I read Groundskeeping a while back, but felt but felt 400+ pages was far too long to sustain the plot, and was mildly irritated by Owen’s self-absorption throughout. Apart from that, I’ve only read the Bradbury- but so long ago, I can’t remember what I felt!

    1. That’s a shame. I liked Owen although I’d have been happy to hear a bit more from Pop. I’ve not read the Bradbury for a while. Quite a period piece these days. Academia’s a very different place

  7. I like the sound of Groundskeeping, though I must confess to not being a fan of campus novels, though I really don’t know why. I remember disliking a David Lodge novel years ago, though I read a novel by Pamela Hansford Johnson the second in a trilogy it was set in an American college and I absolutely loved it.

  8. I remember thoroughly enjoying David Lodge’s campus trilogy – maybe because I was working in academia myself at the time so enjoyed the “in jokes”. Not sure they would be to my taste now though.

  9. Pingback: Five Campus Novels I’ve Read – L S Johnson Author

  10. As a former academic, I have a soft spot for campus novels myself, but haven’t read the last two on your list, so will look them up. Others have already mentioned Lucky Jim and David Lodge novels. I enjoy mostly the satirical ones, or else the crime novels set in that world, such as Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin’s novels or the Kate Fansler series by Carolyn Heilbrun. But there are some really good serious novels about the rivalries, deadly competition and stifling closed community, such as C.P. Snow, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Joanna Cannan’s High Table.

    1. Lots of suggestions of great crime suggestions here! Thank you. There’s a Henry Kissinger quote, which I’m sure you know, suggesting the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low. Not a Kissinger fan but I think he nailed it.

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