A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist
Valerie Vogrin, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
SIUE Spring Colloquium 2008: Thinking About the University

Figure 1. Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys

In coming up with a topic for my paper, I decided to follow the lead of the panel title I devised – “Staring Back at the Mirror” – directly.  I am focusing on novels that wander into the neighborhood of my own experience in the University, specifically Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose. These novels have strikingly similar protagonists—substance-abusing novelists in their late forties, long married with wandering eyes, who are severely handicapped in their writing. Chabon’s hero, dope-smoking Grady Tripp, having long ago spent a sizable advance for his fourth novel, has amassed 2511 pages, in various states of polish, a project of which he says, “I was nowhere near the end.” As the novel begins, Grady learns he has impregnated his lover, the chancellor. Russo’s William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr. hasn’t written one whit of fiction in the 20 years since the publication of his first book. Russo highlights Hank’s condition by bestowing him a blatantly parallel physical malady – an undiagnosed blockage that makes it increasingly difficult for him to urinate. Devereaux imagines his wife is having an affair and at the same time imagines himself to be half in love with a number of women. Prose’s Ted Swenson has nearly given up on his latest novel, dead on the page.  Through his mind runs a near-constant pep talk regarding how much he loves his wife, though he’s not above considering himself something of a patsy for never having strayed.

Clearly, in each of these, a middle-aged man is struggling with fidelity, and with fears regarding his own creative and sexual virility. Yet neither the characters nor their stories can be seen to be taking this dilemma exactly seriously.  “Apparently I’m not the only one who no longer considers me a writer,” Devereaux says. “Last Christmas was the first since Off the Road’s publication that I did not get a holiday greeting from Wendy, my agent, though my fall from her good graces may have been a result of a note I sent her the previous year. She’d informed all her clients that due to increased costs of doing business in New York she was going to have to go from a 10 to 15 percent commission. She may not have seen the humor in my sarcastic refusal to pay her an additional 5 percent of nothing.” A faint-to-murky pall of ludicrousness hangs over their tales. Enough said. At this level, obviously, the reflection isn’t telling me much about myself, a woman of similar age, true, but one who has taken a vastly different personal and professional path, and one who though frequently enough plagued with self-doubt, prefers to think of herself as one whose creative powers are in ascendance.

All I can really muster is a heavy sigh regarding the formulaic familiarity of these books. Surely the academic novel can do more than simply reenact the tired trope of the male midlife crisis. Professors do appear to be irresistible targets for satire. Each novel contains a half-dozen or more brilliant and apt comic set pieces. Prose’s dinner at the dean’s house, where “the all-too-familiar bodies perched on the edges of sofas and chairs, balancing drinks and nibbling Triscuits smeared with some sort of fecal material … they regard each other in the unflattering light of their most cherished resentments.” Chabon’s “elfin old novelist’s” keynote address on the Writer as Doppelganger at WordFest—the weekend-long cash cow conference for aspiring writers organized by the striving and cuckholded (by our hero) chair of the English Department, and Russo’s faculty meeting in which subtextual jibes feel as though they could result in violence. In fact, Devereaux – acting chair of his embattled department – is semi-accidentally skewered through the nose when his colleague hits him in the face with her wire-bound spiral notebook for refusing to acknowledge her status as a poet.

Surely, though, Chabon, Russo, and Prose are guilty of shooting fish in a barrel. While there were moments I chortled and moments I winced, mostly I was rather bored. Yes, we academics, we humans, are absurd, particularly when we gather in our finery and drink someone else’s wine, to excess. What else you got?

Many critics have discussed the evolution of the academic novel over the 20th century as an arc of increased pessimism aligned with the increased commodification of higher education. To write a non-tongue-in-cheek depiction of a creative writing professor may be seen as too risky. Perhaps this is – I am – a figure too vulnerable to ridicule. You get paid to do what? Even among my colleagues at the university I’ve seen comments regarding my fiction writing to the effect of  “that’s research?” But at a certain point, to not be able to resist taking these easy satirical potshots seems cowardly and small. Prose, it seems, has the most to offer. And it is her book that caused the greatest stir—it was a bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and one difficult for the academic to ignore, as it considerably raises the stakes by marching into the fray of professorial sexual malfeasance.

Swenson as writing professor has appreciably more actual interaction with students than the other protagonists. Hank and Grady are like sitcom professionals, whose work life, in this regard, takes place largely off camera. Blue Angel opens in the classroom, with the student writers gathered in a circle to discuss mild-mannered Danny Liebman’s story, in which “a teenager, drunk and frustrated after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.”

Ah yes. This is the special territory of the creative writing professor. The place where the student’s life experience and creativity and perversity and surging hormones and screwed-upped-ness and desire to shock and insistence on self-expression comprise the powder keg of the writing workshop. Psyche and ego laid bare—vulnerability and pomposity, fear and towering adolescent self-regard. I think immediately of the smartly dressed young woman, writer of tame romances throughout the semester, who shocked us on the final day of class by reading from a blessedly not-too-graphic depiction of a well-to-do high school student who goes into prostitution as a form of rebellion, only to find herself via awkward author contrivance to be “in the act” with her stepfather-john. Oh my. Or the young man who defiantly handed over his story in which a sexually confused young man has an X-rated encounter with an overly endowed male stripper dwarf. Diffuse that, oh wise and sensitive ethics-certified professor! Of course you laugh. I laugh. But here, too, there’s more to it than that. Once again, I find myself troubled by the flattening affect of humor.

As Swenson discovers, among the students looking for a fun elective are those for whom writing is almost everything: the 19-year-old who has already penned a novel, the 50-year-old with a rare talent and burning desire to tell her story. The person for whom my words of praise and criticism may weigh disproportionately heavily, may be compulsively parsed for hidden meanings. Prose, the writer who has spent the least time in the classroom, seems to have the most insight and interest in the professor-student dynamic. At the same time, she needs to get her story going.  As written, Swenson’s workshops appear to last about 20 minutes tops. But after all, he has a middle-aged crisis that needs to be pushed toward its climax.

Here’s what happens. Angela Argo is a student in an otherwise lackluster writing class. She is taciturn and armored with piercings. She’s been so reserved that when she first shares her writing with Swenson he questions whether it’s actually her work. But it is and it’s good and they begin an odd and insubstantial dialogue about her fiction that amounts to him telling her to “keep up the good work.” Still, she has captured his imagination. She does tell him, after all, that his novel Phoenix Time, is “like my favorite book in the universe.” He asks a colleague about her and is told she’s “major trouble,” a habitual liar. From the school library, he checks out her book of self-published poems, Angela 911, which take the form of transcriptions of phone-sex workers on the job. Big trouble. Swenson, the novel makes clear, is infatuated by her talent (more noble, presumably, than to be undone by her smooth skin or bosom). He waits eagerly for each new installment of her novel-in-progress, in which a high school student is infatuated with her music teacher. In the manner of negligeed heroines who venture outside when they hear a noise in the night, Swenson ignores the warning signs and steps into the darkness. He and Angela exchange phone calls from his home to hers. He lies to his wife and a friend. She tells him that his reaction is all she can think of while she’s waiting to hear what he has to say about her pages. He calls the phone sex line referred to in Angela’s poems from his office at school. He’s disappointed when his estranged daughter leaves a message on his home phone instead of Angela. He agrees to give Angela a ride to Burlington, an hour away, so she can buy a new computer when hers blows up.  And he says yes when she asks him to keep her company and give her “moral support” while she sets up the new computer in her dorm room.

Because, along with the intellectual sparring and interpersonal psychodrama of the creative writing classroom there is, of course, eros. Australian writer Helen Garner puts it like this: the erotic will always dance between people who teach and learn, and our attempts to manage its shocking charge are often flat-footed, literal, destructive, rigid with fear and the need to control. For good or ill, Eros is always two steps ahead of us, exploding the constraints of dogma, turning back on us our carefully worked out positions and lines, showing us that the world is richer and scarier and more fluid and many-fold than we dare to think. Prose acknowledges this. Yet, as the book emphasizes in a scene in which the dean reminds the faculty of the university’s policies, there is zero toleration for a student-professor sexual liaison. Swenson’s complete capitulation to Angela is implausible. My own feeling is that as a novelist Prose missteps here. Once the erotic urge is sexually consummated, the story becomes far less interesting. All the intriguing ambiguities of their exchanges, the possibility that she is using him and he is using her, that she is talented, but not perhaps as talented as he thinks she is, that he is trying to parent her and suck the life blood from her – all this is rendered moot.

Prose also paints herself into a corner in terms of where she can go with her ending. In their next meeting in his office, Angela asks Swenson to have his editor take a look at her work and when she thinks he hasn’t kept his word, she reports him to the dean, a quasi-judicial hearing is held, and he is publicly humiliated. Yet, you may be surprised to learn, the book ends with the college “bells tolling, joyously raucous…” and as “soft curls of mist rise above the snow,” Swenson has a mystical moment with a doe on the quad and he heads off campus eager to face the future. Improbable as it is, Prose must suggest that Swenson is going to rise from the ashes (despite the fact that he has lost everything—job, wife, daughter, and friend—and hasn’t shown even the slightest ability to take care of himself or to connect honestly with another human being). To leave him flailing and miserable in the soot isn’t a possibility, because, first, and most obviously, Prose has cast the story as a comedy and the form requires some variety of a happy ending.

Second, I propose that Prose won’t give him the ending the events of the story logically requires because she doesn’t believe he morally deserves it. To leave him bereft would suggest a Puritanical urge to crucify him for sexual misconduct. Nevertheless, she doesn’t quite have the nerve to let Swenson get away with breaking this taboo. Instead, she employs tactics of distraction. She humbles Swenson in the moment of his transgression; Angela climbs on him unceremoniously and he almost immediately cracks a molar and his head feels like its going to explode in pain. The mood is gone and Angela is done with him. As Swenson “moves his tongue to the back of his mouth and probes the jagged ruin” Prose makes it difficult for us to see him as a dominating abuser of power. And Angela is, unsurprisingly, revealed to be a dubious victim—astutely manipulating, mentally unstable, and psychotically ambitious. (We learn, for example, that she was wearing a wire when she and Swenson held their last conversation about her manuscript and his editor.) Whereas Swenson is shown to be a man of his word; Angela jumps to the wrong conclusion–he really had tried to interest his editor in her work.

Moreover, the denouement suggests that Swenson’s punishment, while not completely unjust, is drastically out of proportion, grotesque. The novel shifts into high satirical gear. The hearing unfolds like a particularly bad episode of Court TV, as his hypocritical, boot-licking colleagues are called to testify against him, including a man who “used to have affairs with every handsome kid in the Gay Students Alliance…before it was wrong, before anyone thought twice about it.” On and on it goes. The college librarian is called in to describe his suspicious behavior, the Department’s phone records are received into evidence, a student testifies that there were a lot of stories in class about people having sex with animals. Angela, re-costumed as a demure coed, offers up her version of events, and at the last minute a surprise witness charges in to accuse Swenson of abusing his daughter as a girl.

I’m not suggesting that fictional sexual relationships between student and professor should be rendered with increased moral ambiguity. As a person, woman, professor, and former student I have no problem with that particular line in the sand. What I do believe is that contending that the erotic charge of the student-professor relationship can lead to no more complex plot development than seduction is a gross and titillating oversimplification. Is a flirtatious remark by a student or the admiring covert glance of a professor the equivalent of the gun being revealed in act one? Is the only satisfying ending the one in which the professor violates the trust of the student and the rules of his (or presumably her) institution? What about the varieties and vagaries of mentorship, the anxiety of influence? The numerous judgment calls a professor is called upon to make every day. When is kind encouragement setting a student up for disappointment? When is honest criticism of a student’s writing cruel and when is warranted? Who are we to judge when a student has “it” or whether a student can take “it’? When does a writing mentor’s influence and direction impinge on a student writer’s vision? What about the heartache of self-doubt, the professor’s fear that her creative powers have waned as she observes the waxing of a student writer’s powers? The envy of the old for the young, the impulse to eat our young? Not to mention the complications rippling outward from the taboo attraction, such as the students who are neglected when their mentor favors a woman he’s besotted with in class.

In these three novels, these complications – the consequences to the students – are barely awarded subplots and, when present at all, tend to trivialize the students’ position, i.e. Grady Tripp’s star student embarks on an ill-advised affair with his drug-addled editor. I’m calling for a cease and desist order on novels that flatten the complex relationships of teaching into the predictable playing out of seduction, one that doesn’t give in to its insecurity by poking fun at higher education in the most obvious and familiar ways. And, if the professor must fall, then give us a flat-out tragedy. Swenson’s real story: the tragedy of losing his life’s work and the trust of people who had admired and loved him. Then again, maybe there isn't an audience for that book. Perhaps the reading public wants only to see us at our most ridiculous, ranting at our colleagues, drunk at the department chair's house, or caught with our pants down.