Kate Weinberg on her Favourite Campus Novels
A masterful mix of campus drama and psychological thriller, Kate Weinberg's The Truants follows in a long line of university-based novels. In this exclusive piece, Kate selects five of her favourite examples of the genre.
I guess it was inevitable that I would bomb at University. I arrived as an undergraduate so drunk on the heightened passions of my favourite campus novels, so excessively ready for a perilous journey of self-discovery, via morally ambiguous mentors and damaging yet enlightening relationships, that I was doomed to disappointment. The reality was three years waiting for something to happen and quite a lot of spaghetti a la canned tuna in between. Luckily for me, I got a second bite. I did a post-grad and one teacher gave me a dose of the epiphany-drug I had been chasing: I ended up writing about her in my novel, The Truants. There is something about college, when everything is keenly felt and still to play for. It is life, with the heat turned up.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I know, I know. It’s hardly an original or offbeat recommendation. But The Secret History is the perfect campus novel. I’ve read it and reread it. All told, I’d say I’ve read it more than fifty times. And the reason it’s the campus novel you have to read is because it’s a why-dunit combined with a coming-of-age story told by Richard Papen, who is the Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby’s narrator) of campus novel narrators. I could tell you more about it, line by line, but let me just say this: I once met Donna Tartt and, having read the book so many times, I presumed we were friends and asked her what drugs she’d taken at college. She blanked me.
The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
This was the first campus novel I fell in love with. It is E.M. Forster’s least known, but most autobiographical novel. It begins at Cambridge and charts Rickie Elliot’s fading away from the person – the true artist – he was at university. It’s about the depth of the relationships we forge on campus, but then the shallowness, conventionality and compromises of the relationships that follow. The Longest Journey is not as depressing as I make it sound; in fact, it shows the way back in later life to our truer selves. (And, yes, I would agree, it’s more flawed than that other classic Oxbridge novel – Brideshead Revisited. But I have a softer spot for it.)
Stoner by John Williams
There are two things about Stoner. One is the book itself. It’s the finest piece of character writing of any campus novel I’ve ever read. When you put it down, William Stoner never leaves you. But the other thing about it is the story of the book itself; it was a lost masterpiece, a novel that sold barely a couple of thousand copies on publication in 1965, then was ‘discovered’ nearly half a century later (hats off to Waterstones, who made it Book of the Year in 2014) and, since then, it has sold millions. For every campus student and wannabe novelist who thinks their genius is overlooked, John Williams’ Stoner is an unflinching account of the grinding disappointment of academic life – as well as an example of the world blowing the dust off a failed novel and discovering a masterpiece.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Hardbach
More often than not, a great writer has you in the palm of their hand by the end of the first paragraph, first page, first chapter. Chad Hardbach had me in his mitt. This is no small compliment as the book starts with baseball, a subject I don’t understand – or want to. But The Art of Fielding begins with the perfectly named Henry Skrimshander and his perfect record in the field. He arrives at college as a baseball prodigy, set to be schooled in the lesson of what it is to come up short. The Art of Fielding has a particular grip on you, as one character is more oddly-sized and out of shape than the next, but all somehow bear a resemblance to someone you actually knew at school or college.
The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
I’m very partial to a socially-awkward but defiant protagonist, and Ariel Manto had me from the first angry page. A PHD student who knows her literary criticism, she gets caught up in the discovery of a cursed Victorian book which whirls her off campus into a fantasy world that is more X-box than Derrida. It shouldn’t work – there’s a whole episode when she gets trapped in the body of a speaking mouse - but somehow it does. Thomas is one of those Marmite cultish writers. Some people don’t get her; they’re wrong. When I meet someone who tells me they like Scarlett Thomas, I like them already.
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