There actually exists an entire subgenre of literature known as “campus fiction.” In fact, while I was at Princeton, they were offering a course for incoming freshman called “Student Life: The University in Film and Fiction.” While any book that involves a professor or a college student, even to a small degree, can get somewhat unfairly lumped into the category, “campus fiction,” generally takes place on a University campus and contains academia-centered plots in one way or another. And though these books are merely fiction, and (hopefully in some cases) not indicators of what you should expect on campus, they are still worth a read to get an idea of the setting. Below is just a short list of a few of the best books in the “campus fiction,” genre.
An extremely humorous book (albeit darkly humorous), Lucky Jim centers around a professor in a small college in Rural England who is in actuality, not so lucky at all. Attempting to secure his reputation as a scholar and lecturer, the somewhat unambitious Professor James Dixon encounters several mishaps and setbacks in the academic world. On the cover of the book’s 1954 first edition, the tale is aptly described as a “frolicking misadventure.”
Part campus fiction, part academic thriller (if such a thing exists), The Secret History focuses on a group of six friends studying Classics at a small college in Vermont. At the outset of the book, you learn about the murder of one of the friends while at the college, as well as which one of them did it. The remainder of the novel is a rather twisted, suspenseful account of the events leading up to the murder, as well as its long term affects on the group of students.
Named one of the best novels written in English 1923-2005 by Time Magazine, Possession does not take place on a traditional campus, but instead follows the journey of two graduate students in England as they become increasingly involved with the project of uncovering a hidden romance between two fictional, celebrated Victorian poets. Jumping between the present and the Victorian era, Possession is an inventive, addictive, and at-times metafictional story of intellectual obsession and scholarly devotion.
On Beauty takes place in a fictional college town in Massachusetts that bears a resemblance to Harvard, where Smith was living at the time she wrote the book. The novel primarily concerns the lives of a British professor and his family who have moved to the university for the father’s academic career. Inspired by E.M. Forester’s novel, “Howard’s End,” Smith addresses themes such as the cultural differences between England in the United States, specifically in terms of attitudes toward race, class, and the value of beauty. As the title would suggest, the book deals in particular with the theme of aesthetics, both in an artistic context and in the context of human appearance and standards of beauty.
Though overshadowed by The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise is nonetheless a beautifully written, mostly autobiographical account of Fitzgerald’s time at Princeton as a young man from the Midwest. Though he ultimately left Princeton after a year, This Side of Paradise includes a glimpse into the ups and downs of his freshman year, and contains many critiques about the culture of social competition at elite universities. Fitzgerald wrote book, as the story goes, in an attempt to impress his future wife, Zelda Sayre, as a published author.