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Jess Row on the Fetishization of Elite Schools

April 26, 2011

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Jess Row.JPGIt is rare to see writers offer a compelling one-sentence summary of their aesthetic philosophy. Guernica fiction writer Jess Row bucks that trend. For Row, author of The Train to Lo Wu and most recently Nobody Ever Gets Lost, writing should be “loud, discordant, angry, political, but also very beautifully and carefully formed and controlled.” Row upholds this credo in his story “Dear Yale,” featured recently in Guernica, which satirizes issues ranging from university fundraising to racial identity. Here he talks with Guernica about the origins of “Dear Yale,” as well as other current projects, the trajectory of his writing, and the place of politics in American literature.

—Sam Kerbel for Guernica

Guernica: Can you trace the genesis of your story “Dear Yale”? What inspired it, if anything?

Jess Row: “Dear Yale” started out, in my mind, as a very real letter to Yale, explaining why I will never, ever, donate money to a school whose economic operations embody the culture of relentless greed, the radical disparities of wealth and power, and the evisceration of effective financial regulation in America, and indeed everywhere in the world. I soon realized that it would be so much more fun, and perhaps more effective, to turn it into satire.

One of the perils of being an alumnus of a school like Yale is that no matter where you go—and through no effort of your own—you will receive the alumni magazine, and an endless stream of fundraising letters, in your mailbox. The eye of the school is always on you, whether or not you’ve given a cent. Yale, in addition to Harvard and Princeton, has an enormous endowment—it has fluctuated in size over the last three or four years, but it is still well above twenty billion dollars. That’s more than the GDP of many countries in the developing world. On top of all that accumulated capital, Yale regularly receives million-dollar gifts and bequests—for new buildings, endowed chairs, programs, and so on. Again: not news. Wealth begets wealth, success begets success.

I’m really wary of the term “political fiction,” because I think that often it’s the writers who appear superficially apolitical…whose work has the most substantive political impact.

It became clear to me at a certain point after I graduated from Yale (in 1997) that what I thought was a university that happened to have enormous financial resources could just as well be described as an engine for the accumulation of capital, which happens to have a university attached to it. In the 1990s the size of Yale’s endowment took on a kind of fetish quality, a hedonistic, euphoric quality: it became a rallying point, a point of identification that would have been unthinkably vulgar thirty or forty years before. By the time I graduated—this was in the middle of the Clinton economic expansion, the years immediately before the dot-com boom—Yale had found that new definition of elitism, under the dual signs of global capitalism and information technology. Yale’s endowment became a metaphor for the kind of training it offered its graduates, namely, how to exploit the global marketplace, and technology, for your own interests, while maintaining a smokescreen of virtuous intent.

Guernica: How did “Dear Yale” turn into a story about racial identity?

Jess Row: I don’t think it’s possible to tell this kind of story, or really any story at all about Yale’s history, without delving into the issue of racial identity, because they are so deeply intertwined. It’s become customary to think about the attitude of places like Yale before the 1970s as one of racial exclusion, but it’s just as accurate to say that—particularly in the twentieth century—institutions like Yale had a very clear, positive concept of racial identity that they were trying to preserve, one that intensified as it became more and more threatened. (Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is an important recent book on this subject). And one of the sources of that feeling of an embattled white identity, especially in the 1920s and 30s, was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the text the narrator’s father is so obsessed with in “Dear Yale. ”

When I started writing the story, the narrator’s personality just sort of popped into my head, fully formed, and it seemed to me quite natural that he would think these things and not be shy about saying them out loud. His attitude is perverse and extreme, but also in its own way quite lucid, and—I think—probably not that different from the way many old Elis see the current state of their alma mater.

Guernica: How did your time at Yale compare to your other collegiate experiences?

Jess Row: I’ve spent my entire adult life teaching at colleges of various kinds, all of them very different from Yale, and I have a fairly cynical perspective on what elite institutions—and the privileges they embody—represent in America.

Don’t get me wrong: I love universities. I loved my time in college. Before I went to Yale I had no idea what it meant to have an intellectual life. I tried, to the best of my abilities at the time, to make use of its immense, unbelievable resources. At the same time, I was deeply lazy and complacent. I took it for granted that because I was a Yalie certain things would come naturally to me—for example, that, without any training at all, I would be able to teach English grammar to speakers of Chinese. I lived under the sway of that immense collective narcissism until I graduated and it burst, and then I had, for all intents and purposes, a nervous breakdown. Which is not at all uncommon.

I think that the fetishization of elite schools in American culture, the way in which they cultivate an image as brands, as imprimaturs of some scarce resource called “excellence,” is sad and pathological, and profoundly anti-democratic. The truth (a truth I didn’t know, or at least didn’t want to admit, in college) is that an intellectual life is available to almost anyone, almost anywhere, if they work hard enough and are given some kind of access point. There are other models for organizing academic life so that resources are much more widely distributed—this is certainly true in Canada, for example, and I think in other more centralized economies as well. It doesn’t have to be based on a model of scarcity and socially-defined privilege. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece on college admissions in The New Yorker makes this case very clearly. The hierarchy of our universities mirrors our class structure. In this way—and this is the point the narrator is trying to make in “Dear Yale” —we have returned to the tribalism of the 1950s, though now the tribe is not racial but socioeconomic.

One of the perils of being an alumnus of a school like Yale is that no matter where you go…you will receive the alumni magazine, and an endless stream of fundraising letters, in your mailbox.

Guernica: You recently published a new book of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which has perhaps a wider scope than your first collection, The Train to Lo Wu. You talk on your website about the differences and similarities between the two collections, but regarding your writing in general do you see a certain trajectory in terms of interest or style?

Jess Row: I think (and perhaps this is obvious from the answers above) that my writing has gotten somewhat angrier over the last ten years, perhaps more pessimistic, too, in its outlook. I’m less concerned with carefully controlled surfaces now than I was in The Train to Lo Wu, and much more open to experimentation. The collection that “Dear Yale” will appear in (knock on wood) is titled Storyknife, and it’s essentially a group of stories that explore different kinds of metafiction, or self-consciously created texts, which is something I would never have imagined myself doing ten years ago.

Guernica: In addition to teaching at The College of New Jersey, what other projects are you working on?

Jess Row: I’m working on a novel, tentatively titled The Immigrant, which is about racial reassignment surgery. That’s my main focus right now. Storyknife is sort of on the back burner. Then there’s also an anthology project of short story criticism, and a group of translations of Chinese Zen Buddhist texts titled No Mind is True Mind: Teachings of the Ox-head School of Zen.

Guernica: Have you read anything recently that you’ve enjoyed in particular? Are there any relatively obscure writers who you’d recommend?

Jess Row:I can’t think of anyone I would recommend more than the late Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera, who appears in an essay I have coming out in Boston Review in May. I’m also a huge fan of the Swedish novelist Lars Gustaffson, who is almost entirely unknown in the US (his books are published by New Directions). And, though he’s certainly not obscure, I wish more Americans were familiar with the fiction of John Berger—his book Ways of Seeing is very well known, but his novel G. (which won the Booker Prize) is probably my favorite novel of the twentieth century.

Guernica: You said in an interview with The Rumpus that “it’s really a liability in contemporary American fiction that many of us are taught to avoid political or intellectual matters in our work.” Are there times when weaving fiction with political issues fails? Is there a formula toward making it work successfully?

Jess Row: I’m really wary of the term “political fiction,” because I think that often it’s the writers who appear superficially apolitical (say, for example, John Cheever) whose work has the most substantive political impact. Cheever (and I hate to pick on him, but he presents an appealing target) created an entire new psychic landscape for the American suburbs, a kind of lifestyle of low-key suburban neurosis, that made it possible, in the 1960s and 70s, to turn away from the cities and what was happening in the culture at large, and return to a kind of ersatz Wasp subjectivity that didn’t have to travel any farther than the boundaries of Greenwich or Darien. He created, in the American short story, a ground for suburban bourgeois self-absorption that was picked up by writers like Ann Beattie and Laurie Colwin in the 1980s, and is very much still with us today.

All of which is a long way of saying that the politics in American fiction is largely unconscious, and what I would like to do—what the writers I most admire tend to do—is make it conscious and explicit, to tell rather than show. Not out of some attack of conscience (although as a matter of principle I think it’s bad faith to refuse to acknowledge the obvious implications of a work of art, whatever they may be) but because I think it’s aesthetically interesting, and also because it makes a lot of people upset. It provokes interesting conversations.

I think it’s also important to say—and maybe I didn’t make this clear enough in the Rumpus interview—that of course American fiction is full of fearsomely intellectual and cerebral writers, David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann being two obvious examples. But I think some writing workshop instructors would like to pretend that those writers don’t exist, because they are relatively hard to teach, and their methods (and, to be frank, their interests and intellectual range) are so far beyond the reach of many beginning writers. As a writing teacher, I’ve been trying steadily to raise the bar for my students over the years—to expose them to the full range of possibilities in contemporary prose, and ask them to participate in that universe. But it’s not easy. There is such a thing as workshop-safe writing, and many students (and teachers) want to cleave to it and not let go.

Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine

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