Erica Harris
Erica Harris
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Room 222

FICTION: Four seasons in academic hell

Leslie Epstein
May 16, 2019
Erica Harris
Erica Harris

1. Spring: The Agent

The room in which I have taught for the last four decades is a haphazard polygon, none of whose seven walls is anything like the others. To the northwest, three unwashed bay windows: stretch your neck for a glimpse of the Charles, ice-encrusted in the coldest months, gay with sails in the summer. I always sit opposite, next to the door, and have to ask one of the agile students to lower the blinds; even the filtered sun dazzles and mixes their ten heads together. Behind my own head loom bookshelves filled with literary magazines dating back, some of them, to the 1950s, along with an incongruous collection of romance novels—how did they get there? Was it a joke?—that I am driven to resort to for counter-examples.

A lunge at Random:

The Devil’s Darling

She glanced swiftly at her jeweled wristwatch, yet another gift from the Don which she had been obliged to accept. “I really must fly, Mr. Howard. My husband isn’t the very patient type and he’ll be waiting for me. Goodbye—”

Au’voir, Persepha.” There was a wicked note of laughter in the warm and drawling voice. “I feel sure we’ll meet again, for you and I are strangers in this land, and we need each other—to talk to.”

I wouldn’t bother to tell my students that the which should be a that or mention the need for a comma after the word type. No, I’d be reaching for a counter-counter example. What have we here? Partisan Review, Fall, 1968. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a story by Doris Lessing, an article by Harold Bloom, and a piece by Leon Trotsky on the Russian intelligentsia. It, too, deals with gifts of jewelry. In the old days, the author says,

[Each] new idea appeared to us from the West as a product already prepared by foreign ideological evolution, as a finished formula—like corals slowly formed in the ocean by the power of some natural process but which women receive ready-made as necklaces for personal adornment.

Now, that, Omer, and Sophia, and all the rest of you, is how to write a simile! In deference to such skills, it’s only fair to allow the murdered man to finish his thought:

Later on, however, the ideas ceased being mere coral adornments; instead they became the intelligentsia’s sources of action, sometimes of an heroically sacrificial character.

Much as one is tempted to dwell in the these halls of sagacity, it is time to hurry back to the Rube Goldberg contraption in which I teach.

Three of the remaining walls are a foot or so wide and serve as little more than demure connectors. But the one to my right has a green blackboard covered in part by the marigold dust of yellow chalk and in part by the trochees and spondees left over from an industrious poetry workshop. Twin French doors, long since sealed, and with a curtain behind them, take up most of the wall to my left. But it’s what’s behind those doors that counts: the office of a great novelist. Rarely, the murmur of his voice. And what does he hear? Exclamations, sobs now and then, and the drone of the riffraff who sit in our literary circle.

Overhead, a torture machine: that is say, light bulbs that shine through a spinning fan. The stroboscopic effect gives the teacher an instant migraine; his students giggle behind their hands for the full minute that it takes the whirligig—I have reached half-blindly for the switch—to come to a halt.

“All right, guys, what do you think of this story?”

Simultaneously all ten heads bend like tulips deprived of water. Their eyes stare at the Persian rug that covers the floor. Absolute silence while the critics attempt to find not the flaw in the work they have just heard but the one I have assured them the master weaver has built into the weft and woof of his carpet. “Only Allah is perfect,” I eventually remind them. “So feel free to tell me what you think of Whit’s tale.”

There you have it, all nine surfaces of our pedagogical box. Never mind the radiator with a mind of its own. Never mind the gulping toilet just down the hall. The room has been sanctified by its ghosts. Here, in the late 1950s, Robert Lowell asked Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and George Starbuck what they thought of each other’s poems. The answers would come, often enough, at the Ritz Bar, to which the class would usually repair. Or else at McLean Hospital, where at one time or another the two ladies and their instructor would experience a different kind of shock treatment. Here, too, in the early ’90s a fiction class—Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Ho Davies—sat suffering in the steam heat and under my withering glare. Outside the windows the green leaves turned brown and departed like refugees in the fall; but in the spring they unfurled, green again, year after year after year.

Forty in all, exactly half my lifetime, in the same wooden chair and in the same lopsided room. To the horror of myriad deans and in defiance of every actuarial table, I’d be delighted to spend another 40 doing precisely the same thing. Inshallah! That is to say, I would, except for four events that occurred, one per season, over the course of the last 12 months.

I am writing in April of 2019. At the end of every spring semester we invite editors, publishers, agents, and others from what is mistakenly called the real world to our fiction workshop. One year ago, then, the head of a quite successful New York literary agency took the Acela up to Boston. He entered room 222 along with an attractive and quite pleasant young woman, who, I gathered, was fairly near the start of her career at his firm. Like all such visitors, both our guests had read the two stories to be discussed and were prepared to take full part in that day’s critique.

As it happened, the first story under review was excellent. The plot line concerned a woman whose first novel was about to be published in a big way: a nationwide tour, appearances on late-night television shows, articles in major magazines. In short, the works. Then, on the eve of her debut, she is confronted with a decade-old sexually explicit photograph of herself and a former lover. The rest of the tale followed her desperate attempts to keep the existence of the compromising image from her mother and her young son, not to mention from her publisher and the wider world. The first page was read. Then the last page. Next, the completion of the ritual: “Well, everybody, what did you think of Brian’s story? Who would like to go first?”

The tulips. The fascination with the wizards of Isfahan. Could it be this dropped stitch? That uneven fringe? Is the stem of that narcissus going the wrong way? Finally, a shy hand emerged and off to the races we went. Midway through the discussion, the young agent asked to speak. These, as I remember them, were her exact words: “I think Brian should be aware that we are having a discussion in our industry about whether a man should feel empowered to write about the suffering of a woman.”

Before I tell you who broke the profound silence and what he had to say, I think it best that you know my own position toward the #MeToo movement, both its exigencies and its embarrassments. Of course Time’s Up—and in many instances High Time. But on all too many other occasions the furies have descended in a way that would make the denazification of Germany look like the proceedings in juvenile court. On balance, I think it fair to say that I am a Deneuvian—if not, as my own family would put it, an antediluvian. “Quoi?” said the great actress. “Are there to be no more stolen kisses?” Exactement.

It is a misuse of history to judge one epoch by the standards of another—and then, like the authors of the Soviet Encyclopedia, to expunge or rewrite it. In my town the name of a school was changed from that of its good and God-fearing founder because, at the time of his death in 1744, he owned a single slave. (Nota bene: at the time of his death a half century later, George Washington had 317 slaves toiling at Mount Vernon; the eponymous thoroughfare that runs through the town has not had its name changed—yet.)

But let us return to the room in which we have just been told what a man might or might not write about a woman.

Quoi?” said I. “Are there to be no more Madame Bovaries or Anna Kareninas? Farewell, little Dorrit and little Nell? Close the book on Isabel Archer? Are we to read nothing but the sufferings of Persepha at the hands of the Don?” I paused, triumphant. No need to play the trump cards of Elektra or Desdemona or for that matter the wife of Lot, poor thing, turned to salt. Instead, I said, “Right, guys? Isn’t what our guest said absurd? Doesn’t it mean the death of literature?” No one answered. They weren’t staring at the threads of the rug, they were all glaring at me! And why? Because of the tear that now hung prominent and glistening in the young agent’s eye. I had committed the ultimate sin of hurting another human being’s feelings.

Soon, like Persepha herself (did she know how poorly her namesake was treated by uncle Hades?), the weeping agent departed the scene. I turned to face the ten students, locked grimly in group-think. Late that night, however, I got a message not from Brian but from the most soft-spoken young man in the workshop. I wanted to support you, he said. I wanted to cheer you on. But I didn’t have the courage. Well, if God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men, I ought to be able to return to the circle of conformity the following Thursday and, for the sake of one, carry on.

2. Summer: The Inquisitor

Came the summer. That was when all the faculty and staff and students were told that he or she must participate in “University-wide Sexual Misconduct Prevention Training,” which I suspect is an accurate translation from the original Chinese. I ought not joke. This was mandatory mass re-education and came with significant penalties: no staff or faculty member would receive a merit increase if the examination were not completed by a certain date. (A query: does staff include administrators? The provost as well as the porter? A trash-hauler but not a trustee?) I dared to think there would be a university-wide revolt. Instead, hardly a peep. The Faculty Council, essentially a company union, did not respond to inquiries or whatever weak protests they might have encountered. Almost a year later, the AAUP has not been heard from. And I? Like my fainthearted student, I remained mum. Thus I sat myself down in front of my computer to take instead of give an exam.

Again a pause to tell you a little more about myself. You should know that I have been teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level since 1965. My very first class was on contemporary fiction and took place in the borough of Queens. Something happened inside that mere rectangle that Sexual Misconduct Training would make impossible now. I encountered a pretty young woman.

This was not a quiz designed to discover what I knew but to tell me what to think—that is, not an examination but an indoctrination.

“You can’t say that about Saul Bellow!” were the first words she ever addressed to me. This might as well have been, in academic years, the Pleistocene Age: thus I invited her to a performance of Oedipus Rex at the Met. She did not complain about the way Jocasta was treated; instead she gave me a small book of Nabokov’s poems. Apparently she did not care about the way Lolita was treated, either. What can a man do with such a woman? Reader, I married her. Our 50th anniversary will arrive—should Allah be willing—this November.

So there I sat, not without a feeling of chastisement and a degree of humiliation, before my waiting machine. I am not good with these appliances. I fumbled about, trying to get into—is this also from the Chinese?—the Wellness and Prevention Services website. It came up thusly: “As a community of Terriers, we need to look out for one another.” Rather sweet, that, in spite of the hint of bestiality. Then: “Recognize that you may feel more comfortable completing the course alone or with a trusted person nearby.” What the hell? It seemed that I had stumbled onto the student site for the exam. Hence, “It may also be empowering or validating to see scenarios that reflect an experience of yours or a loved one.” Like holding hands during Stravinsky, for instance.

There was no such coddling at the faculty site, “Compliance Services.” The course I had no choice but to take was scheduled for roughly two hours. It took twice that long just to get into the system. Screen after screen of incomprehensible and quite forbidding gobbledygook, though the admonition to enable cookies seemed of interest, and enable pop-ups was not without promise as well. It took me not two hours but two days to complete just the first half of the exam, though once I discovered its hidden formula I breezed through the second half in something like 15 minutes. Because it is likely that everyone in America, save, perhaps, for trustees, will soon have to undergo a similar catechization, I am going to reveal my secret to you now:

Let us take, from my fractured memory and somewhat delirious fancy, what I believe to be not exact but typical questions and plausible answers:

Judy walks into the classroom and notices that the professor is staring at her. Should she:

A) Tell him that he is making her uncomfortable?
B) Give him a wink?
C) Check her bra strap?
D) Ignore his gaze?
E) Report the incident to human services or her advisor?
F) Let it be known that Oedipus Rex is playing at the Met?

I have already divulged what happened in real life; on the exam I checked A. WRONG! Could it be D? No need to make mountains of molehills. WRONG! I admit that B and C are cookies of my imagination. So it was only when, with some reluctance, that I pressed E that I got a congratulatory DING! and a message that explained that such a gaze constitutes a serious violation of personal space and that one should climb Mount Everest, after all. Who knew? I was learning how to Prevent Sexual Misconduct already!

One more example:

Judy is standing at the blackboard nervously hoping to complete a complex calculus equation. The professor comes up behind her, takes her shoulders in his hands and plants a kiss on top of her head. Should she:

A) Thank him for his wish to comfort and support her at a difficult moment and complete her work on compressor stalls and Möbius transformations?
B) Move away as quickly and safely as possible?
C) Slap the offender and inform him that he is violating her personal space?
D) Report the incident to human services or her advisor?
E) Declare, “Why, Vice President Biden, what are you doing in Calculus 505”?
F) Let it be known that Oedipus Rex is playing at the Met?

Fool me once, shame on you. I confidently filled in the blank for D. WRONG! Wrong? How could that be? Personal space, I remembered that; but it turned out that C was not the correct answer, either. Only after stumbling upon B was I rewarded with a DING!, and the warm feeling that comes from acquiring new knowledge—in this case that avoiding physical harm should always be paramount in any confrontational situation. I was allowed to go on to the next question.

There were something like a hundred more, not one of which came close to enticing a pop-up. Could I give myself the pleasure of deliberately failing? As it happened, no such insubordination would be permitted. Like a rat pressing its lever, I had no choice but to push the correct button and await my piece of cheese. It took me a day and half the night to realize what you have probably gathered already: This was not a quiz designed to discover what I knew but to tell me what to think—that is, not an examination but an indoctrination. All one had to do in order to be released from the grip of the inquisitor was systematically choose every one of the options, A through F, until, DING! DING! DING!, the machine pushed you through to the end of the maze. This I could do, and did do, with my eyes closed. No need to read the questions or the sage commentary that followed. The time zipped by while I merrily pressed away while listening to the Concerti Grossi of Corelli. Ultimately a final DONG! and I emerged blinking into the light, a thoroughly trained octogenarian. The mozzarella of a merit raise was in the professor’s pocket.

3. Fall: The Statistician

What follows summer? The fall—and a new academic year, a new workshop, and a new beginning with my fresh-faced students. One of them, Brendan, soon wrote a fine story about a teenager working in a pet shop who is attracted to its middle-aged owner, who in her turn is attracted to him. They almost have an affair. When he had read the last page, I asked the usual question. No answer. The cold winds of October whistled by the window. The radiator hissed in disapproval. Before the toilet could gasp, a hand went up. We all began to talk.

“I have something to say,” interrupted a bright, pleasant and often empathetic young woman. “No one should ever write about a relationship between a young man and an older woman.”


“Because it is always abusive.”

“Well, I guess we have to kiss half of French literature goodbye. What about Stendhal? In The Red and the Black, par exemple, Madam de Rênal—”

“Sten—who?” asked a student from Israel.

“Never mind French literature. What about The Graduate? Dustin Hoffman—”

“You don’t have to go on,” said the young woman. “I have the statistics.”

“Then why don’t you become an accountant, ha, ha, ha?”

I looked around the room to see who most appreciated my witty remark. Stone faces. Here and there a wrinkle of fury. Only then did I remember that, as part of the community of Terriers, they had taken the exam. Dong!

L’esprit d’escalier: What I should have said next was that statistics were irrelevant since art is always about the exception. What I did say was, “Are we back in the realm of hurt feelings?”

We were. I sat back and listened while the entire circle engaged in a disquisition on the horrors of aggressions and microaggressions, invasions of space, the Gaze, inappropriate touching, misappropriation, deliberate exclusions, and everything else on the menu.

“What are all of you?” I heard someone ask. They all turned toward the speaker. It turned out to be the elderly white gentleman who sat in the chair by the door. “I’ll tell you. You’re writers. And if at some level you aren’t offending somebody you aren’t doing your job. More important, you’re damned good writers. You know what that means? It means that at some point in your lives, and almost certainly quite early in your lives, you have been insulted and injured—and deeply so. Otherwise you would be accountants. Ever read Edmund Wilson? The Wound and the Bow? Silly question. Another silly question: Ever hear of Philoctetes? The wound on his foot, a wound that smelled to high heaven, never healed. Well, your wounds haven’t either. He won the Trojan War for the Greeks with the artistry of his bow. Your wounds haven’t healed, either, and only you know how much they stink. But what you do, dears, is turn them into the beautiful words you write on paper and that we discuss inside this room.”

Two months later, Amos Oz died in Jerusalem. I tore his obituary out of the Times. “Do you see that chair?” I planned to say to my class. “The one Pritha is sitting in now? Well, Amoz Oz, the famous Israeli writer, sat there when he taught this class back in the ’80s.” Flourish of newsprint: “His mother committed suicide when he was 12 years old. Affronts? Rudeness? Microaggressions? This is a hole ripped in the soul. And here is what Oz had to say about it: Without a wound, there is no author. Like it or not, guys, and wherever you were born, you are now part of Western Civilization—the same civilization that thousands of years ago figured out that suffering expands your own souls and fills them with light.”

I still carry the clipping but haven’t gotten around to uttering those words. But the same night that I was prevented from saying what a lot of fun Dustin Hoffman had with Anne Bancroft I got a message from a slight, shy member of the class who grew up in the high Himalayas. What he said was that he was on my side during our debate, but that “It is always difficult to put forward thoughts that are tentative against those that are absolute.” Déjà vu!

4. Winter: The Windsock

By the chill blasts of winter I had finished seven linked stories about an aged piano prodigy in Cambridge, known by his students as Mr. Barbershop. Five of those stories have been or are about to be published. The sixth cannot stand alone, but the last—really the first—I thought I would send to the well-regarded journal associated with my university. Before I tell you what happened, a word about that story, “Haiku.”

The idea came from a footnote in Mihail Sebastian’s superb diary of the war years in Bucharest. The footnote read, “Idea for a story,” and went on to muse about an elderly and dyspeptic teacher who wakes one morning in a cloud of his usual cigarette smoke and cynicism; but the day is so beautiful that he is charmed by loveliness into becoming a totally different man. Once in the classroom, however, the Katzenjammer kids, uproarious as ever, work their own magic on him; by the time he arrives home he is the same crabbed pedagogue who left it that sunshiny morning.

As you may have noted, I am not immune from a touch of dyspepsia myself; moreover I taught for a semester in a Boston pilot school for inner city students. Because Sebastian died young (the terrible irony for that Jewish writer was that while he had survived the war in one of the most anti-Semitic cities on earth, he was hit and killed by a truck the same month that war ended. Another nota bene: the KGB may have been driving that truck), I thought I might be the right person to attempt to complete his tale.

Off it went, this past January, to the editor. It was turned down for what—let us at least acknowledge his honesty—“PC issues,” namely “the complex issue these days of who can rightfully assume whose voice.” Autrement dit, I am white and my Katzenjammer kids were black. The editor went on to say that the journal had no choice but to appease its donors, “the measuring and counting” of the private and governmental entities that give the grants, and the all-seeing eye of the internet: one “racial cliché or an epithet that can be misconstrued—you’re dead.” To me, the following no-less-forthright statement was the most chilling: “Journals, like so many enterprises, survive by reflecting and responding to the climate of the day.”

I responded to the meteorologist by saying that his stance was “contrary to everything I’ve been taught and hope I believe about art. You are saying, basically, that for [the journal] to survive it must be a weather vane. But every magazine—or any work of art—that I know has stood, or tried to stand, against the storm. The storm: Sooner or later, when your finger is up to see which way the wind is blowing, you are bound to become, as every publication in Germany once did, Der Stürmer. I respect you for your bluntness. But I cannot respect what—correct me if I am wrong—you are saying.” I stood uncorrected.

Freedom is always the freedom for those who think differently: Rosa Luxemburg. That maxim is or ought to be the symbolic masthead of every publication with a modicum of belief in itself. In July of 1918, Luxemburg, deprived of her own freedom in a Breslau prison, wrote a book about Russian literature, a subject that Trotsky (“her style, tense brilliant, and merciless, will remain forever a true mirror of her thought”) said she knew profoundly. Six months later the proto-Fascist Freikorps threw her body into the Landwehr Canal.

She was profound in her thinking about literature, but she was not merciless. In that book [Life of Korolenko] she recognized and lamented that the greatest of all Russian novelists, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were neither revolutionary nor progressive. The latter, in particular, was “an outspoken reactionary, a religious mystic and hater of socialists.” And Tolstoy’s “mystic doctrines reflect reactionary tendencies, if not more.” How is it, she wondered, that the writing of both men have an “inspiring, arousing, and liberating effect upon us”? In a way, the answer has to do with mercy. For what both men possessed was “the warmest love for mankind and the deepest response to social injustice.”

My students, the agent who visited them, the editor who publishes two floors below room 222, and perhaps even the bureaucrats who administer the Compliance Services website have, I believe, good hearts. They, too, seek to respond to social injustice. And because motives matter, it remains possible, as a friend of mine once remarked, to shake the hand of an old Communist but not that of an old Fascist. Still, the young and sometimes not so young men and women in the hexagonal box are out of touch with the deepest part of themselves—the part that would allow them to create and foster the kind of art that, as Tolstoy once wrote, “grabs the reader by the back of his neck and forces him to love life.” That is why I force them each year not to love life, which is beyond my capacity, but to read these words of Luxemburg who gave her own life in pursuit of a better world: “With the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is a matter of secondary importance; the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.”

Thus my four seasons en enfer. This April, a few days ago in fact, we chose the ten students I shall greet in the fall. They’ll write, and I’ll read, and at one point I’ll say, “And what do you think of this story?” I know that no one will reply. They’ll study the carpet like botanists examining near-eastern flora. I’ll switch off the whirling blades of the fan. Down will come the Venetian blinds, blotting out the sun. It will be too warm for the radiator, but outside, in the hall, the American Standard will go about its appointed tasks. A minute and more than a minute will go by. At last a brave soul, perhaps Mr. Abir from Bangladesh or Ms. Prawdzik from Poland, will raise his or her hand. The discussion will begin.

Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. His three Leib Goldkorn books were recently published as The Goldkorn Variations: A Trilorgy (no typo). His play King of the Jews runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18 at the HERE Theater.