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Book nook: Campus novels and what we might learn from them

What might we learn from the themes present in the genre of the Campus Novel?

Annelies Geneyn / Unsplash

By Ella Carroll, Arts Co-Deputy Editor

The ‘campus novel’ is an iconic genre of fiction that chiefly focuses on university campuses and the events that occur on them. Loaded with satire, the campus novel is possibly the genre of fiction that is most relevant for students beginning or returning to university and I have curated a list of ones which are certainly worth a read. What’s more, a true English student at heart, I have also taken it upon myself to outline what these novels quintessentially say about universities and what we might learn from them going into a new academic year.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (2017)

Not the Dostoyevsky novel but an ode to it, The Idiot by Elif Batuman follows the comically clueless but incredibly intelligent Selin and her arrival at Harvard University as she navigates complex interpersonal relationships, both romantic and platonic. Selin’s uniquely cynical view of her peers and professors speaks to the often-found pessimism in overwhelmed university students but Batuman makes no move to condone her cynicism. Her journey into the world of adulthood is turbulent and one which I found incredibly relatable and it left me feeling truly impassioned.

Bunny by Mona Awad (2019)

This novel is certainly far more absurd than others on the list but I recommend it nonetheless. Repulsed by the other members of her creative writing seminar, a scholarship student and recluse Samantha ends up sucked into their coquette, cupcake-filled world of wealth and saccharine femininity. Bunny is, if I may say so quite bluntly, insane and it is cynical about campus life in the same way that all of the novels on this list are. However, it addresses it addresses important issues of privilege within university life and does so in a darkly comedic, high entertaining way.

The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen (2021)

The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen / Ella Carroll

While some have labelled this novel potentially a bit inaccessible, in that to read it one must possess certain prerequisites, whether or not you have a broad knowledge of Judaism I would unquestionably recommend Cohen’s masterpiece The Netanyahus. A classic Campus novel, fact and fiction are blended in the retelling of the time that famous literary figure Harold Bloom hosted the (as characterised by Cohen) abrasive and strange Netanyahus. The novel’s sentiments about the university are undoubtedly relevant to students as it ridicules both students and lecturers alike and while it possesses that characteristic cynicism, we may undoubtedly learn something from its satire.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)

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Now I could not recommend novels about university without mentioning Sally Rooney – it would simply be impossible. While Normal People, her most popular novel, certainly fits into this list of recommendations, I instead want to recommend Conversations With Friends. By far one of my favourite books, it is such an authentic, true retelling of what it is like to be a young adult in university. As her protagonist Francis navigates her sexuality, affairs, and relationships with those older than her she is constantly shrouded in self-doubt. But her intelligent, perceptive words on youth and sexuality are invaluable and make for an extremely cathartic read.

Though satire is the one feature that links all of these campus novels, this satire does not overwhelm them. As such, the main idea that we can take away from them, going into a new academic year, is that it is important not to get caught up in the negative aspects of campus life. Though the imposter syndrome and frustration towards that overly opinionated, arrogant student in your seminar can sometimes feel all-consuming, it is important to remember to not get caught up in it. University has the potential to be incredibly shaping but too much cynicism can stunt growth and there is certainly much good to be found, but one must first be willing to look.

Featured image: Unsplash / Annelies Geneyn

What type of books do you find you enjoy at the start of a new academic year?