Back to School: Literature and Life

Older generations of writers who had come up through the ranks of journalism (and who had often been to war) used to complain about the academic colonization of literature, particularly of the novel, that ostensibly most democratic of forms. In “American Plastic,” for instance, his survey of postmodern fiction, Gore Vidal lamented a context so rarefied and intellectual as to produce the works of Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, and others, which he saw as reaching a professoriate but not a public. William Styron once told Harold Bloom, “Your opinion is irrelevant because you are only a schoolteacher” (Bloom later remarked that he did not remember a sentence as memorable as that anywhere in Styron’s oeuvre).

Whatever one thinks of this trend, it has now reached its apogee or nadir, and I speak wholly from within its context. Here, then, are the fall semester’s books for my literature classes (syllabi here):


Bet you’re envious! Now, whether you are a student who has to write a paper or a professor who has to grade a stack of them, you will certainly need something to read while you procrastinate this fall. Let me recommend a novel by someone who may be a (para)academic but who is at least a relative outsider to the MFA/NYC nexus of today’s mainstream literary establishment: Portraits and Ashes by your humble correspondent, which is to say, moi, or in other words, me. For your delectation, a passage on the topic of education and its relation to a life:

The price they made you pay for the life of the mind was exile. Because you had the hubris to claim that thought could be adequate to your deepest needs, they punished you by forcing you to go wherever they sent you. They dared your self-admired consciousness to build a house anywhere, on alien or hostile ground.

So Alice found herself in this lonely eastern city. To find oneself in a city at all was lucky enough: people she knew in graduate school who had come from cosmopolitan world capitals now spent their days staring at cows or mesas, and while it was possible that these new visions carved irreplaceable grottoes into their minds, she still felt fortunate it had happened to them and not to her. This city, though, had its four strong seasons: its winter so icebound the ice seemed like stone; the summers so burning she thought the sidewalks would melt; the fall with its apple-crisp air and ankle-deep leaves; and the spring, when everything, including the concrete, smelled green and wet like new shoots of wood. This city, small and old and to this day identified with the hard men who had built it and their steel virtues and vices, startled and jarred her senses. It made her feel the deep isolation that comes from losing a land, from learning that your place in the whole intricated reticulation of things was fragile enough to be lost forever with only the passage of a few years or miles. Someone else, someone stronger, might have imagined this mobility to be a form of power, the power to be at home everywhere, as some wise man or other had once said. To Alice, however, it had come with a great and diffuse sorrow, not enough to lay her out flat but sufficient to tint her every glance gray, because she thought of the move from her city to this city as her first death.

Alice came from a place in the desert hills above the ocean. A vast city in the basin between the mountains and the coastal hills spread out its lights beneath her town. There the sun always shone in the clear blue sky, temperately enough, though even the foliage appeared dusty and parched. Whatever steel or iron men had erected the city were long gone, it seemed, leaving only the contented or the desperate. But the whole flawlessly desiccated scene was crowned by the drama of the landscape, the reddish mountains to the east, the western ocean that at evening washed the sun. This landscape with its moderate weather and severe topography moved Alice to poetry because it had the power to shrivel the merely human, to make all our arrangements seem meager and indifferent. Maybe the landscape’s inhumanity explained why the scandalously inequitable city’s affairs were so poorly and cruelly managed, she mused, but it nevertheless gave her, the privileged and ambitious girl, a broad expanse for her mind, or she might even say her soul, to grow in. And anyway, she lived not in the city proper, but in the hills that looked out over the beaches, far from the centers of commerce and entertainment and poverty to the east of her town. She very much needed the breadth the beach vista allowed her, because all her parents ever had or ever knew was money. Money meant love to the professional and progressive couple, Mr. Strand and Ms. Nicchio, so they spent their time earning it, both to love her and to show her that they loved her, and she didn’t, then or now, lack gratitude for their efforts. Only a fool refuses money, after all, even if the person who pursues it to the exclusion of all else is every bit as foolish. Without the distance, observable from her bedroom window when she was a child, where the blue of the ocean vanished into the blue of the sky in a common indigo haze, she didn’t think she could have developed an imagination.

Back in the cursed days when she used to have to teach, even though she knew that she knew nothing, she always observed the failure to form imaginations in her students from the suburbs. They’d also had tenderly money-minded parents when young but nothing compensatory to look at except treated lawns and beige bricks. Therefore, they never had the opportunity to extend their souls to the horizon. They shamelessly tried to cover up their lack for as long as they could with their mere intelligence, but Alice knew this was a poor substitute, however tempting.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!