University is a separate societal microcosm, with its own set of rules and regulations, its own hierarchies, and its own culture and traditions. It’s no wonder then that university has been a source of interest for authors, and has even produced its own genre, the campus novel, studied at Durham. It’s a genre we students understand well, which is why we’ve come up with the five best university novels:
1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim puts provincial universities like Durham on the map by being one of the first campus novels not set in Oxford or Cambridge. Not only does it distance itself from Oxbridge, but it ruthlessly mocks the upper class pretensions that stereotype the two universities. Amis is the Evelyn Waugh of the 1950s, creating a farcical academic world where his protagonist, Jim, a tutor, meets a whole cast of colourful characters, from Professor Welch who has cats called Ego, Superego, and Id, and his son Bertram, a wannabe artist who believes he is an urbanite upholding the torch of culture for the uneducated provincials. Not only does it take a poke at the upper class, but the university system in general: Jim is only an expert in his subject because it was the easiest module as an undergraduate, and he only signs up the prettiest girls to his tutorials.
2. Starter for Ten by David Nicholls
Perhaps one of the best loved novel on the list, David Nicholls’ Starter for Ten is also the only one exclusively from a student’s point of view. After the on screen adaptation, it’s impossible to imagine hapless Brian Jackson as anyone apart from floppy haired James McAvoy, and both the novel and the film accurately depict every awkward encounter and situation that comes with starting university. Coping with odd housemates, reinventing yourself, going on DOA dates, living in run down housing, joining societies that we have no idea about… we’ve all been Brian at times apart from, perhaps, ending up on the University Challenge Team.
3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, loosely based on EM Forster’s Howards End, questions the link between race and education in a university setting. Howard is a white professor at Harvard and his wife, Kiki, feels isolated from this world because she is black: ‘my whole world is white. I don’t see any black people unless they are cleaning.’ When Howard has an affair with a fellow white professor and then a beautiful young student, Kiki is pushed even further away. On Beauty discusses the differing ideals of the female appearance, and the pressures for other races to conform to the Eurocentric body type.
4. Disgrace by JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee’s Disgrace depicts a similar situation to that in On Beauty. It’s a novel that follows the trajectory of a traditional tragedy: David Lurie, a professor of English at Cape Town University, falls from grace and loses everything after he has sexual relations with one of his students. Having previously failed in two clichéd relationships, one with a prostitute and the other with the university’s secretary, Lurie then targets the more vulnerable Melanie, plying her with alcohol and changing her grades. The theme of exploitation mirrors the context of the novel: this is post-Apartheid Africa and is still feeling the effects of a white man’s control, and Coetzee shows that it is not only the black Africans that are the victims.
5. Stoner by John Williams
John Williams’ stoner is a quieter novel than the others, but none the less impactful. Its history is as humble as its style. It was initially published in 1965 and, after only selling 2,000 copies, went out of print a year later. However, in the early 2000s it was rediscovered and in 2012 it became Waterstones’ Book of the Year whilst the New Yorker called it ‘the greatest American book you’ve never heard of.’ The novel follows the undistinguished life and career of Professor William Stoner at a Midwestern university. Although there’s no pivotal narrative action, no gasp-producing plot twists or exciting drama. It’s simply an inward-looking novel about the subtleties of one man’s private life, about the small things with individual importance, and the touching and tragic aspects of survival.
Photograph: Durham University