Campus Novels Off the Beaten Path
There’s something seductive about the campus novel. Even those of us who have made careers of academia are attracted to the esoteric, cabalistic worlds contained between its pages. There are the obvious examples—A Separate Peace, The Secret History, even Harry Potter—but the genre is much broader than most people realize. You might call me a connoisseur; I’ve been devouring campus novels for fifteen years, and in that time I’ve wandered well off the beaten path. So, next time you feel that autumn longing for bricks and ivy, for old books and elbow patches, for the (precarious) camaraderie and (inevitable) rivalries of academia, consider one of the following, lesser-known campus novels:
Gentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris A surprising, sensuous twist on the classic boys’-school drama by the author of Chocolat. Recommended for anyone looking for Dead Poets Society with a razor edge.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach Don’t let the flap copy deceive you—this book is about so much more than baseball. Harbach’s college athletes and aesthetes plumb the very depths of the human heart, turning the bottom of the ninth and the final draft of the dissertation into the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut One part campus novel and one part satire, featuring a prison uprising, academic espionage, and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Vietnam War, Hocus Pocus is one of the funniest, cleverest, craziest, and most important books you will ever read.
The Paper Chase, John Jay Osborn, Jr. This 1970s bestseller has been largely forgotten in recent years, but it’s a must-read for fans of legal drama and the campus novel alike. Set at Harvard Law School, The Paper Chase chronicles the ideological clash of the aptly-named young Hart and the flinty, impenetrable Professor Kingsfield. Short, strange, and intense, it’s a great read for a dark, stormy day.
Sleepwalking, Meg Wolitzer An antidote to the far too common feeling that campus novels are a bit of an old boys’ club, Wolitzer’s tender first novel is often overlooked but well worth reading. It follows the emotional and scholastic trials of the “death girls”: three young women with three suicidal poetic muses—Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and the enigmatic Lucy Asher.
The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton Another oft-overlooked debut (by the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries), this book is also a great option if you’re tired of campus novels that feel like an old-fashioned sausage-fest. Dividing its time between a girls’ high school and a nearby performing arts academy, The Rehearsal immerses the reader in the fallout of a forbidden student-teacher romance and its impact on the whole community.
Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson Like The Rehearsal, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman foregrounds women and bends the rules of reality just enough to keep a reader reeling. Based on the mysterious disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946, Jackson’s Natalie Waite struggles to navigate the perplexing world of academia and terrifyingly dark hallucinations at the very same time.
M. L. Rio is a writer, reader, thespian, and melomaniac. She holds a master's degree in Shakespeare Studies from King's College London and Shakespeare's Globe, and is currently pursuing her PhD in early modern English at the University of Maryland. Her first novel, If We Were Villains, was published in April 2017 by Flatiron Books, and she is hard at work on the second and third.
The Attic on Eighth ran a series on her novel earlier this summer, here.