Semester grades were due yesterday. I submitted them on time, and then fell into a deep and untroubled sleep. I was suffering from the exhaustion of undergraduate prose.
This morning a student in my Philip Roth seminar wrote to protest his B. “I did not get any indication through out the semester that my performance in class was less than adiquit,” he wrote. (Since when is a B “less than adiquit”?) True enough, he had followed me into my office one day after class to complain that he disliked the class, disliked Roth, disliked me personally. He had intended to sign up for a different seminar, he said, and regretted his mistake. He disapproved of my teaching style: I firmly directed the conversation rather than letting the students lead the way; I took class time to enunciate my own views and did not scruple to correct a student’s approximations and blunders.
For the rest of the semester he publicly acted out his dislike. He repeatedly yawned in class, loudly and dramatically, dropping his head to the seminar table with a thud, as if to say, “This is sooo boring.” He dismissed Roth’s ideas, after a careful exposition of them on my part, as “stupid.” He would not explain further, when pressed. He laughed aloud when I momentarily lost the thread of the discussion.
Most importantly, he seemed to think that his role as a student was, on slim literary qualifications, to agitate for the opinion that Philip Roth is not a great writer, with little or nothing worth saying. Even if he had had the critical talents commensurate to it, the undertaking would have been beside the question. My purpose in teaching the seminar was neatly set out by Leon Kass in the inaugural issue of National Affairs last fall. It was an “old-fashioned purpose” and it was pursued in an “old-fashioned way”:
But even if this approach is flawed, something like it is a necessary precondition to attention. If I decide in advance that you are “stupid,” I am not likely to listen to you very closely. And by conversion: if I decide in advance (for whatever reason) that I am not going to listen to you, I will have small difficulty in concluding that you are stupid. In literature there is an obvious corollary. “Poetic faith” may or may not require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but critical reason demands a willing suspension of disapproval. Right now there is probably no writer I dislike more intensely than the Anglo-Irish novelist John Banville. In replying to a spasmodic expression of my dislike, Richard Crary reminded me of the critic’s first responsibility—before rejecting a writer out of hand, always read more of him, and especially his best. Thus I have assigned myself, as punishment for my irresponsibility, the chore of reviewing Banville’s latest novel The Infinities when it is released in the States next year. (In the mean time, here is Tom Cunliffe’s pleased review over at A Common Reader. Tom Deveson in the Times was decidedly more ambivalent, and in the Guardian Christopher Tayler was even more so, but I am trying not to let them prejudice me in advance.)
My B student, however, went in a different direction. When he had informed me of his dislike for Roth and the seminar, I had urged him to judge them by their own standards. Here is what he thought that I meant. Since I had argued in class (as I also wrote on this blog) that “the worst thing” ever done by Alexander Portnoy was the sexual degradation of his lover the Monkey—he had earlier held out for the dissenting view that Portnoy’s real sin was to be an unreliable narrator—my student claimed that Roth is to be weighed by the same measure.
After all, what is the “Zuckerman device” but the degradation of other human beings, by taking over their stories and determining their meaning, and merely to “fit his needs as a storyteller”? “It is the height of arrogance to think that you are better suited [to tell their stories] than the people who live through them,” he concluded. That these people do not even exist outside Zuckerman’s narratives—that their stories would not have been told at all without Zuckerman’s “presumptuous inventions” and dreamed-up “realistic chronicles”—was not even a possibility to my B student.
In short, he rejected the premise, not only of Roth’s nine Zuckerman novels, but of narrative fiction as such. If he had enrolled in a history seminar with a similar attitude (“I don’t take no stock in dead people,” he might have grumbled), or if he had told his chemistry professor that he disapproved of classifying substances and developing techniques for their transformation into other substances, how would he have fared? Would a B have even been a generous grade?