10 Great Contemporary Campus Novels: Proof the Genre Is Still Kicking

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This week, we read an article over at the Guardian calling for the “retirement” of the campus novel, citing its apparent rite-of-passage status and prevalence, but sniffing, “the standard of the campus club’s productions, however, increasingly makes you wonder why they bother.” Well, we disagree. We love campus novels, and though the classics — Lucky Jim, Pnin — hold extra-special places in the bookshelf of our heart, we think contemporary versions are continuing the tradition in fine form. To prove our point, we’ve selected ten of our favorites, written in the last 20-odd years (our cutoff is 1990), that prove the genre is still relevant. Page through our picks after the jump, and let us know what you think of the modern campus novel in the comments.

The Art of Fielding , Chad Harbach

Harbach’s 2011 debut is a meaty, satisfying novel of school and sports — but really, it’s a book about relationships, sea change, dearly held fantasies and hard realities. You will bring this novel everywhere, read it under the table and walking down the street until you’re done.

On Beauty , Zadie Smith

Smith’s luminous campus novel is an insightful investigation into the stuff of life: adultery, religion, identity crises, racial tension, classism, and all the tiny, nebulous connections we have to one another. Intellectual and narratively compelling, it’s also a kind of academic study on its own, a tribute to Howard’s End. As Smith writes, “My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could.” The frame is well upholstered here.

Possession , A.S. Byatt

A mystery, a romance, and a romance within a romance, this is a genre-bending, complex, unbearably gripping masterpiece by a contemporary great. If you’ve ever fallen in love — no, really fallen in love — with a book, this one might make it two.

Moo , Jane Smiley

Ah, the hallowed halls of “cow college,” where everyone has an agenda and a (chicken) bone to pick. Smiley’s deft, scathing satire will make you howl out loud. Probably like some kind of animal.

Straight Man , Richard Russo

Here’s another campus novel that doubles as an exquisite farce (it does seem like academic situations invite satire and tomfoolery). Here, William Henry Devereaux, chair of a woefully underfunded English department, gets into all sorts of trouble — we’re talking, threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets the budget he’s requested. It’s hilarious, but like all of Russo’s work, it’s also empathetic and true — a tough road to hoe, and done here masterfully.

Wonder Boys , Michael Chabon

If you’re a writer (or a reader, for that matter), reading Chabon’s novel will feel like the equivalent of sinking into a particularly well-loved leather chair — you know this territory, you recognize its folds, and yet, you can’t bring yourself to leave. You’ll also find a gold coin (that’s the gold coin of Chabon’s narrative brilliance) in the cushions.

Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain , Jeffrey Moore

In Moore’s hilarious and sophisticated first novel, which won the the 2000 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the 1999 QSpell Award for Best First Book, a young, hedonistic Shakespeare professor falls in love — nay, obsession — with his own personal “dark lady.” Chaos, as you might imagine, ensues.

Galatea 2.2 , Richard Powers

In Powers’s wonderfully cerebral novel, the protagonist (Richard Powers) is the Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, where he seeks to teach a neural net the secrets of literature. Elegant and mind-blowing, this novel will stick with you for years.

The Accursed , Joyce Carol Oates

The piece in the Guardian hates on Joyce Carol Oates’s newest novel, but we’re with Stephen King, who wrote of it in the Times , “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.” We count that as a point for the contemporary campus novel, not against.

The Secret History , Donna Tartt

Did you think we would forget? How foolish. Best campus novel ever written.