What’s in a campus novel? As the school year begins, a few of our English professors recommend the best

September 15, 2023 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

Like ice cream, fiction is a delectable form of escape that comes in a variety of flavours: there are mysteries, romances, thrillers, beach reads, spy capers and science fiction tales.

And then there are campus novels. Are they literature’s answer to vanilla — or to rocky road?

Randy Boyagoda headshot beside the cover of his bookIn a 2019 essay, author Randy Boyagoda summed them up this way: “the campus novel is a genre that makes a distinct promise to readers. It offers a hothouse evocation of highly educated individuals in close orbit and in frequent collision, who uniquely combine intense personal interests with abstruse professional pursuits — all while surrounded by young people making uneven transitions to autonomous adult living.”

Boyagoda knows whereof he speaks: in addition to being a professor in the Department of English and vice-dean, undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts & Science, he’s also written four acclaimed novels: Original Prin, published in 2019, is a modern campus-based classic.

As the academic year gets underway, A&S News thought it would be a good time to ask a few of Boyagoda’s departmental colleagues for some of their favourite recommendations.

a row of campus novels

Associate Professor Thom Dancer

My favorite campus novel is probably Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because it is about how the university is one of the few institutions that protects and cultivates a love of beauty and knowledge for its own sake! I also love Elif Batuman’s more recent novel The Idiot, not just because it captures the experience of going to university in the late 1990s (as I did) but because it’s about how much we need stories to help orient our lives and relationships!

Professor Robert McGill

In Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher produces a fresh, hilarious take on the campus novel by wedding it to a very old novelistic convention: telling the story through letters. In Schumacher's case, they're letters of recommendation, all written by a professor of literature and creative writing named Jason Fitger. His acerbic, outrageously candid, frequently petty approach to the genre is comic gold, while Schumacher does impressive work in making her protagonist an unreliable narrator and unlikeable blowhard who nevertheless manages to gain our sympathy, if only as someone who, in his life of thwarted ambitions, is often his own worst enemy.

Associate Professor Adam Hammond

My favourite campus novel has to be Marta Balcewicz’s recently published Big Shadow — and not just because Marta is my partner, I swear 😉. It’s a novel about a young woman who is desperate to escape her family and make a new life for herself. To effect her escape, she gravitates to a university campus — and to the books, music, and films she discovers in the classes she takes and from the friends she makes.

For me, so much of the miracle of a university campus is that it really represents a different way of living, is like a separate parallel universe, often (depending upon the subjects you choose to study!) with completely different values to the ones we’ve encountered in our childhood. Even though things don’t quite turn out as planned for the narrator of Big Shadow, the magic parallel society of campus nonetheless gives her the distance she needs to gain some perspective and start to lead her own life.