10 College Novels for People Who Graduated This Century

The campus novel is alive, well, and no longer the refuge of lecherous old white men

All it takes is a quick once-over of a current college campus to notice the drastic changes these academic havens have undergone in the last 50 years. Long gone are the days of almost exclusively male professors and submissive female students trying to get their M.R.S. degrees. In today’s higher-education institutional showdowns, diversity and open dialogue reign supreme. Thankfully, the campus novel genre has existed to document the vast transitions in both student body and campus atmosphere that have taken place in the last half-century.

In its most basic form, a campus novel is a book whose main setting is in and around a university. The genre’s heyday dates back to the 1950s with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. Later, authors like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Barth honed in on the campus as the setting for their erotic anxieties of intellectual misadventures. While some argue that the genre was (thankfully) retired sometime after Roth’s The Human Stain, the contemporary campus novel appears to be alive and well, encapsulating the ever-turbulent issues, emotional and political, that today’s students have to deal with.

Now, without having to bring up anyone’s graduating class, we can all agree that back-to-school season is an exciting time if you’re participating in it, reminiscing about it, or experiencing it at a distance via your children. Either way, these ten contemporary campus novels will transport you to college grounds teaming with academia, school spirit, and more than a fair share of scandal. And rest assured — this is not your father’s campus novel.

1. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee Members perfectly illustrates the eternal struggles between liberal arts departments and…what feels like the rest of the world. A frustrated professor of creative writing at a small midwestern liberal arts school must deal with budget cuts and grubby accommodations for his department while the Econ staff is living the life of luxury in their remodeled offices. Written as a series of recommendation letters the protagonist is often called upon to produce for his students, Schumacher takes a hilariously new take on both the campus and epistolary novel genres.

2. Cow Country by Adrian Jones Pearson

Finally, a novel willing to look at academia in the often-overlooked world of community colleges. Loaded with mayhem and drama, the novel dishes the gossip about the ins-and-outs of educational administration. At Cow Eye Community College, a school on the brink of ruin, Charlie arrives to unite the quarrelsome faculty members. Cow Country drew a lot of attention when it was purported to be written by American novelist Thomas Pynchon —the jury is still out on that one.

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3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith adds some much needed diversity to the often homogenous campus novel genre. On Beauty centers around an interracial British- American family living in the university town of Wellington, Massachusetts. The main characters are academics, same as their spouses and children. Smith takes a page out of Amis’ book by combining comedy and intellect, all the while mingling high and low culture to give readers some refreshing variety.

4. Loner by Teddy Wayne

Loner begins on teenager David Federman’s first day at Harvard. Hailing from New Jersey, where he was overlooked and dissatisfied with his lot, he arrives in Cambridge for orientation thinking he will be surrounded by a fresh clique of upscale academics. Disappointed by his social prospects once again, he determines to infiltrate the glamorous world of Manhattanite Veronica Morgan Wells. Wayne explores issues of gender politics and privilege as it unfolds on a prestigious university campus.

5. My Education by Susan Choi

A young impressionable student falls for her sophisticated older professor — sound familiar? A scandalous relationship of this sort seems to have reached its saturation point in literature and film, so how does one make a unique novel out of it? Have said young impressionable student fall for the wife of the professor instead. Now that’s a plot twist, and Choi does just that in My Education as she explores intimacy, aging, and obsession.

6. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Taking place at Brown University circa 1982, The Marriage Plot, offers insight into contemporary relationships juxtaposed against those found in classic literature. The first portion of the novel features an old English professor asking his students, “What would it matter whom Emma [Bovary] married if she could file for separation later?” And so continues an exploration of the maladies that trouble relationships, including looming post-graduate life and mental illness.

7. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Harbach offers insight into the world of sports at Westish College, nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan. An ode to small liberal arts schools, The Art of Fielding explores the tale of not only the star baseball player, but also his gay roommate, his best friend, as well as the college president and his daughter. All in all, the novel transports readers to the intimate settings of any college campus: dorm-rooms, dining halls, and sports fields.

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8. Harvard Square by André Aciman

Yes, another book about Harvard. Wait wait, this one’s different, I promise. Harvard Square is about a Jew from Egypt who longs to be an acculturated American and a distinguished professor of literature. When he becomes close friends with a brash, rebellious Arab cab driver, he begins to lead a double life as an academic and an exile. That’s certainly one way to make Harvard interesting.

9. Higher Ed by Tessa McWatt

Imagine a world of brutal job cuts, unemployment, and the decreasing assurance of tenure — oh wait…On a 21st century East London campus, Higher Ed hones in on the lives of five Londoners worried about their job security.

10. The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Devil and Webster is an accurate reflection of the hot issues on college campuses as of late. Naomi Roth is the first female president of Webster College, which has abandoned its conservative background and begun to breed progressive grads. Naomi’s administration is affected when student protests about a popular professor’s denial of tenure fire up the campus.

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