The Best Campus Novels That Make the Grade

These books will bring you right back to the quad.

campus novels

Stories of university life have long fascinated us. There is something about the liminal space of a campus—not quite the real world but not the cloistered confines of childhood—that makes for ripe speculation for readers and authors. 

What is a campus novel?

A campus novel, also known as an academic novel, is a book where the narrative is primarily set in and around the boundaries of a university campus. The genre rose to prominence in the 1950s as stories of college life and its ensuing drama became popular with readers and writers alike. 

The campus proved to be an ideal setting for stories of social hierarchies, professor's personal lives, the subtle tensions of academia, and students' ascendance to adulthood while still within the relatively safe confines of a university. 

Here are nine novels about campus life and all their drama that you should read right now.

The Professor's House

The Professor's House

By Willa Cather

On the eve of his move to his dream home after striking it rich with his masterwork, history professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself lurking in his old study. Sitting in this shabby and cramped room, he reflects on his past, including his family, academic work, and failings. Soon, he cannot bring himself to move out, and he is struck with the realization that he's not as happy as he thought he was. 

Fearful of his future, he retreats into his past, including his fond memories of Tom Outland, his favorite student and once soon-to-be son-in-law who was killed in the Great War. This midlife crisis consumes him, but is the future really so bleak for Godfrey? 

The Groves of Academe

The Groves of Academe

By Mary McCarthy

Henry Mulcahy is a celebrated literature instructor at the progressive Jocelyn College, but one day his life is turned upside down when he is informed that his position is coming to an end. It doesn't make sense, and soon he is positive that he has been singled out by the college's president because of his skills as a teacher and political stances. 

Mulcahy is soon convinced that he is the victim of a witch hunt, and he must fight back against this unfair system. Doing so, however, will reveal his true beliefs.

The Headmaster's Wife

The Headmaster's Wife

By Stephen Birmingham

Published posthumously in 2024, The Headmaster's Wife follows Clarissa Spotswood as she is thrown headfirst into a world of faculty and student dramas. While Clarissa has spent the prior three decades doing little more in the public eye than stand dutifully beside her husband, the façade is broken when she discovers unspeakable events happening within the campus community.

Stepping Westward

Stepping Westward

By Malcolm Bradbury

It's the 1960s, the height of social change across the globe, and English author James Walker has just accepted an academic post at The Benedict Arnold University as its writer in residence. There, he is a minor celebrity thanks to the trio of books he wrote that received only middling reviews back home. 

But he's also a far more buttoned-up academic than his freewheeling American colleagues, and the culture clash is intense. Flower power is around the corner, free love is taking over the campus, and a fussy Englishman who is too stoic for his own good will have to learn to loosen up if he's to survive his year abroad.

The Rebel Angels

The Rebel Angels

By Robertson Davies

When he retired from academic life, Canadian writer Robertson Davies penned his own take on campus life with the Deptford Trilogy, the first of which is 1981's Rebel Angels. The drama follows several faculty and staff of the fictional College of St. John and Holy Ghost, affectionately nicknamed "Spook" by its quirky residents. 

This includes a defrocked monk with a taste for the salacious, a manipulative confidence man, and an Anglican priest trying to teach New Testament Greek. After the death of the eccentric art collector Francis Cornish, the faculty of Spook are declared the executors of his will. His collection includes several unconventional paintings and long-standing connections to Medievalism that intrigue and engulf them all. And that's before the murders start...

Zuleika Dobson

Zuleika Dobson

By Max Beerbohm

In this hilarious satire of undergrad life at Oxford, Zuleika Dobson arrives at the prestigious university to visit her grandfather, the college warden. Formerly a governess, Zuleika has always had an incredible power to charm virtually every man around her. So when she meets the Duke of Dorset and he seems uninterested in her, naturally, she falls in love with him. 

But when Zuleika learns that the Duke is not in fact immune to her charms and has fallen in love with her in return, she is immediately turned off. To prove his love for her, the Duke decides to do something drastic—and almost every single man at Oxford decides to follow suit.

decline and fall, a campus novel

Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh

Paul Pennyfeather was expelled from Oxford University for indecent behavior, so he's surprised to find himself appointed to the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are misfits like himself, often drunk or unqualified or just plain bored, and nobody seems to care much if they cause havoc on the school grounds. 

Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the beautiful Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a wealthy widow who hires her to be her son's tutor. What follows is a cavalcade of sex, drugs, brothels, and worldwide scandal.

the red word, a campus novel

The Red Word

By Sarah Henstra

As her sophomore year begins, Karen joins her fellow students in the back-to-school parties and revelry that permeates campus. One night, she goes to an event at the GBC fraternity. The next morning, she wakes up on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed "Gang Bang Central" and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. 

Karen finds herself drawn to these ferocious sisters who want to tear rape culture to pieces. Even as she continues going to GBC parties and dating one of the brothers there, she cannot help but become enthralled by Raghurst's plans. How long can she be caught between these two polar opposites, and how long before the war among the houses sparks into something truly dangerous?

The Foreign Student

The Foreign Student

By Susan Choi

Chuck is a young Korean man and war veteran struggling with the pain of PTSD following the Korean War. He's sent to a university in Tennessee to study, although his grasp of English isn't strong and the ghosts of his past are everywhere. 

Then he meets Katherine, a beautiful and solitary young woman who, like Chuck, has a number of skeletons in her closet. These outsiders are drawn together and find solace through their burgeoning love. But it's still the 1950s and society's cruel demands have both of them in a stranglehold.