College literature for those who read too much for college already

Clare Greeman – Avid Succession Watcher

This isn’t about dark academia, so don’t get excited. Off the back of my DWMs article (*see last issue- Clare) I will now show you the many wonders of the campus novel, despite the fact that I’m sure all of us read too many “campus novels” to begin with. I assure you that these are not homework assignments or untruths about the novelties about college or college life. I rather see these books as an ode to academia. A love letter to higher education.
The premise of these novels are very classist within themselves, as all of us are privileged to have access to higher education at all, and on the flipside, don’t necessarily want to sing the praises of our thousands in dollars of debt, or constantly being buried under a pile of assignments, extracurriculars, and job(s). Only those that can afford “free rides” and don’t take any pride in their education have the freedom to lose themselves in books, day in and day out. In this way I see campus novels as an artifact of a lost time, or even a utopian society wherein there are no downsides or outside sources of stress in academia for those who truly love it–– the protagonists we see are moored in a space where everywhere they turn they are face with their great love and passion: academia.
Some or most of you might not see the merit in this, but if we can’t romanticise some aspect of our lives, what do we really have going for us at the present moment?
Stoner by John Williams was my first introduction to the genre and the most exemplary example I will be discussing. Stoner is a man who is born on a rural farm and discovers his love of literature at college. He loves it so much that he becomes a professor. He marries an unstable woman who turns his daughter against him and has a fallout with this colleague that puts his career in jeopardy. The only bright spots in his life are his affair and his love of learning. Stoner, though surrounded by sadness, has a love for literature and academia that transcends the page and leaves the reader in rapture. John William’s masterpiece was recently rediscovered by scholars and hasn’t faded from view since. It’s a beautiful endearing book and since reading it, campus novels have never left my heart.
Campus novels, as seen through the eyes of people who worship academia, can provide us with an even deeper love of the things that we are surrounded by at Gustavus. Reading academia through the eyes of Stoner, a man to whom knowledge was his one true love, makes the reader find little dapples of light in their own academic pursuits. Everytime I treat myself to a reread or a new campus novel, I find a renewed sense of wonder with the work I’m surrounded by as well as the things that make college life a privilege.
I also think that for that reason, its a good reminder to the privileges that allow us to be in higher education. Rather than taking them for granted, which I can’t blame any of us for, we can find ways to truly count ourselves lucky.
Campus novels can be a little less intense than Stoner by way of truly being a campus novel, but all allow the reader to live the lives of people who are immersed in academia and revel in it. The Idiot by Elif Bautman (which is also a great DWM) shows a coming of age in the first year of college. Real Life by Brandon Taylor shows our protagonist healing, grieving, and fostering meaningful relationships in grad school.
I love The Secret History despite its faults, and perhaps more for them. Our protagonist is a slave to school like Stoner is, and his academic pursuits lead him down a dark path along with the other students in his classics class. However, unlike Stoner I felt hatred for the protagonist rather than a slightly begrudging sympathy. All the characters’ relationships are wildly flawed, along with the logic that allows the sinister events in the book to unfold. Donna Tartt shows us the underlying evil in elitism, which is why I find it so ironic that people love this novel for its “dark academia vibes”. It’s a deliciously misogynistic and wild crapshoot that’s a good hate-read or just a read-read.
So go out and pick yourself up a campus novel if you’re feeling a little disillusioned with college life, or better yet, pick one up if you miss it over break.


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