Matches for: “interviews” …

Number 23

I recently heard the saying, Hold on tightly, let go lightly, for the first timeIt’s true and it rhymes, which, in the world of aphorisms, is like being both valedictorian and prom queen.

I have never had a problem with holding on. I can grab things and pull them toward me by sheer force of will. It’s the letting go part that’s hard.

My two major accomplishments of 2011 came neatly twinned in December: a wedding and a PhD. My endings and beginnings were all muddled together until I couldn’t tell which was which.

“You’re almost done,” people had been telling me for years, “Don’t give up now.” Also, “Hang in there.” I did. “Hold on.” I did. “Someday this part of your life will be over.” It is.

In 2011 I held on tightly. In 2012 I had to relax my grip and let go.

I’m still working on the lightly part.

* * * * *

In 2012 I re-entered the world. That is in itself no small accomplishment.

At this time last year I had just climbed out of a hole and was still blinking my eyes in the Austin sunshine. I had no idea what was happening in contemporary fiction. I did not read or even know about literary blogs like The Rumpus and The Millions. I had no sense of Austin’s literary scene, a small pond, but one that is positively teeming with flora and fauna. I had just started reading for pleasure again, after a long period of time when just going into a bookstore caused my stomach to flip over in anxiety. I began with The Portrait of a Lady.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly.

In 2012, I let go of academia. It was hard letting go. It felt like letting go of more than just the life I had imagined at 26–teaching in a vibrant, bustling university, reading and discussing theory with my peers, writing sophisticated books on Henry James, or whatever I thought I was going to write on. The sign that I have let go is that I don’t remember how much more it meant to me than just that. I don’t remember why I thought that was the thing I needed. When I picture myself happy in academia, I picture certain moments in grad school: winning awards or grant money, delivering papers that people complimented me on, a handful of incandescent moments when I actually seemed to be helping a student learn something. Or the moment I got into the PhD program, which felt at the time like being proposed to on bended knee by a guy you’ve been in love with forever as fireworks explode overhead and a skywriter spells out your name.

My husband and I just fell in love and decided to get married. There were no bended knees involved.

* * * * *

In 2012 I picked things up and I let them go. I took improv classes, experimented with selling homemade cards and wedding cakes. I applied for jobs in publishing, marketing, and teaching. I proposed a women’s comedy night at a local theater. I started writing two novels and a nonfiction book. None of these things panned out, exactly.

But just because I have let them go doesn’t mean they’re gone.

I may not have a women’s comedy night, but I have a women’s comedy troupe. I don’t have a book of essays on female writers, but I have interviewed six of them (and one very nice dude as well). I don’t decorate wedding cakes for a living, but I did decorate one for a friend, and she loved it beyond all reason. I didn’t expand Dance Dance Party Party’s numbers greatly, but I did spend almost every single Sunday evening in 2012 dancing. I don’t mean to boast, but I have developed a few pretty sweet moves in that time, most of which are not appropriate for weddings.

I published 24 articles in CultureMap this year, and although the professional relationship ended on a sour note, I am still proud of my accomplishments there and grateful to them for giving me a place to learn. I published one cover article on Austin’s literary scene for the Austin Chronicle, and The Rumpus, a cool-kid literary blog out of San Francisco, linked to it. It showed up in my RSS feed.

I was going to write 24 posts on my blog this year.

This is number 23.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly. Happy New Year.

Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

In the eight months since I started interviewing people for CultureMap and for my own blog, I have spent a lot of time listening to myself on tape.

The very first stage of my development as an interviewer was simply accepting that my voice sounded like that. It is simply too awful to describe. Ordinary language quails at the task: Desperate concierge? Groaning escalator? Pubescent wombat? If you interact with me on a daily basis, I can only assume that it takes all your energy to refrain from shuddering, and that after we are done talking you immediately run off and buy yourself a box of petit fours to reward yourself for the effort. I apologize to all of you.

However, that phase passes fairly quickly. If the interview goes well, and I deliver my guttural wombat noises briefly and infrequently, I can ignore myself and focus on transcribing the interviewee’s answers. Perversely, I love transcribing. It feels like a Gillian Michaels tape for your carpal tunnels. You turn your brain down to a one and your fine motor skills up to a ten, and try to get the words into your ear and out of your fingertips as quickly and with as little interference from the command center as possible. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are so much jettisoned cargo. As long as I’m able to identify the phrase “wll thta’s a rayly goo quqqstin” using context clues, it’s good enough for the transcript.

With my fingers flying and my brain on vacay, it’s a lot easier to rise above the fact that I sound like a moron. Easier, but still not always possible. Because there are some interviews that just don’t go well. These are obviously the interviews with Big Shots, the writers I respect and admire most. I usually write a ton of questions for these authors, and yet mysteriously wind up sounding like I have no idea who they are or what they have done to deserve to be interviewed. That is because once the interview begins, I am in a survival situation. It is as if the interviewee has hijacked my subway car and is holding a gun to my head, and I have to give Christian Bale enough time to get into his Batman outfit. My one goal is to keep the interviewee talking so that I won’t start talking. Because that, to paraphrase Egon Spengler, would be bad.

Here are some telltale signs of a bad interview:

  • I say the phrase “That’s really fascinating!” between five and seven times.
  • I say the phrase “Let me just look through my notes” at least once.
  • I ask about a favorite movie or book. (Follow-up question? “Oh, I’ll have to check that out.”)
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee does not laugh.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee laughs nervously in response.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee begins to sound frightened.
  • I interrupt myself in the middle of a question to say, “You know what? This is a stupid question.”
  • I ask if I am keeping the interviewee from something important and perhaps should let her go, and when the interviewee replies in the negative, I say, “Are you sure?”

Listening to these interviews is excruciating, but instructive. I feel that I have learned from them a few basic things about the art of interviewing.

First and foremost, the key to getting what you want from an interview is letting go of what you want and just waiting. My wonderful, kind editor tried to tell me this right off the bat, but since I am a narcissist with the patience of a toddler, it was hard for me to swallow. I am not good with waiting. If they did the marshmallow experiment on me, I would spend 30 seconds staring desperately at the door, then I would eat the marshmallow, and then after 30 more seconds I would start pounding the one-way mirror and yelling that my blood sugar was dangerously low and I better get some more marshmallows in here stat.

And interviewing is all about waiting. First you have to wait through the silence after you ask the question and before they answer. This can take up whole fractions of seconds. As a result, I have had to dedicate a whole portion of my brain solely to yelling silently at myself during those pauses: Don’t follow up yet! They don’t need further elaboration! They’re just thinking! Shutupshutupshutup!

But there’s a second kind of pause that’s even more important: the halftime pause, when the interviewee’s subconscious comes out on the field and does an elaborate dance number and everybody switches channels to the Puppy Bowl. (That metaphor is probably not worth examining too closely.) Really what happens is the interviewee talks for a minute or two, finishes what she has to say, and falls silent.

At this point, the brain police have me tied to the mast, and the silence is my siren song, calling me out to sea. I am mentally writhing in agony, my brain screaming, Odysseus-like, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Please let me talk! I was born to fill silences! This is aaaaaawwwwkwaaaaarrrr. . . [trails off in a gasp of agony].

But the halftime pause is crucial. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been interviewed before, and they all have a basic idea of how they’ll respond to the same questions they’re always asked. They listen to the question, take a moment to register which answer is required, and go. But eventually they run out of script and they pause. And somewhere in that breath, having done their duty by the question, their brains are having a nice time free associating, and they are likely to have an actual new thought that seems worth mentioning. Or maybe they hate silence too. Either way, if and when they open their mouths again, the next thing that comes out will almost always be less rehearsed, less guarded, and more speculative. The first answer isn’t exactly a lie, but the second answer is almost always the truth.

By the same token, I have learned never to retract a stupid question, or apologize for asking it. It’s not that there are no stupid questions–I have asked a million of them. I usually know when I have asked one by the fact that I am silently clubbing myself on the head and mouthing the words “stupid stupid stupid” in the pause before the interviewee responds. The thing is, in golden instances, and not as rarely as you would think, the stupid question actually turns out to be the smartest question you could ask.

I’m not talking about a boring question–that’s different. I mean a truly out-there, stupid question like “Are you religious?” or “Why is there a pancake scene in all of your novels?” that just flies out of your mouth before you can stop it. The advantage to such a truly stupid question is that it is probably one that the interviewee has never heard before. Which means it may actually catch them off-guard, and they might go ahead and say out loud what they are thinking. They may even be prompted by pity to say more than they usually would.

“This poor wombat-girl sounds like she’s on the brink,” they might be thinking. “I’d better start talking before she decides to enter another graduate program.”

There’s always a slim chance that they will acknowledge the stupidity of the question by responding curtly, thereby setting into motion an hour of googling nearby masters programs in social work. But you know what? That’s just bad manners.

Early on, when I had just started doing this, I overheard one rather well-known writer make a crack about a journalist at a rival publication who had interviewed him earlier that day. It could not have been for my benefit, because although I was standing right there and he had been told I would be interviewing him, he had only the faintest idea who I was. The well-known writer made a few snarky comments about how “weird” the interview went–which, undoubtedly, it did, since the interviewer, I presume, was speaking to one of his literary heroes. He capped off his remarks with a huge eye-roll and the following statement: “Oh yeah, and he told me he’s a writer. I was like, great, good for you, dude.”

So this last lesson that I have learned from interviewing people turns out to be basically the same lesson I learned from waiting tables for years and year: It’s easy to tell when someone thinks of you as a human. And it’s just as easy to tell when they think of you as a talking appliance that produces comically human-like phrases from time to time.

It’s perfectly true that there’s only one crucial participant in the interview, and it isn’t me. But just because I could easily be replaced by another, better journalist doesn’t mean that I’m literally a fungible commodity, like silver or crude oil. Just because I try to be invisible for an hour doesn’t mean I have actually disappeared. And just because my job is to make you look good doesn’t mean that I’m actually a mirror. It turns out you can learn a lot about people when you really listen.

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The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

Last week I wrote a post about the ambivalence I felt as a PhD accepting a teaching job whose value would never be acknowledged by my graduate program. Three hours after posting, I was added to the University of Chicago English Department’s PhD Alumni listserv. (I graduated eleven months ago.)

The overworked department administrators were always kind to me, and I do appreciate being added to the list; however, the immediate result of the email was acute arrhythmia. The next day I got the cold sweats when the University of Chicago Alumni page retweeted my post, despite the bump in pageviews.

When I wrote the original post, I wasn’t actually thinking all that much about the university, honestly. I was thinking of, and writing for, my fellow in-betweeners, my colleagues in confusion, “the ones who left,” as I strangely think of us, even though not all of us did. We are the ones Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius euphemistically call “post-academics” in their terrific book about finding careers outside of academia–which is published, in a hilarious bit of irony, by the University of Chicago Press.

One of my post-academic compatriots had a therapist who had herself been through grad school hell. She had a sign posted in her office that read, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Anyone whose anxiety issues first appeared in grad school will tell you that this is literally the funniest joke in the world. And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.

* * * * *

Immediately after posting a couple of days ago, I realized with a jolt that I had failed to mention the many, many skilled and hardworking teachers in post-secondary education, professors working everywhere from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to Research I institutions. It’s not because I don’t know any great and humane teachers in the academy. I know tons. They are my former professors, my acquaintances and close friends, my family members, even. These professors care about their students. They struggle to improve their teaching. They work long hours and are usually underpaid. It was truly irresponsible of me to leave them out of the picture. Why had I done so?

I did it because I was treating the academy “monolithically,” a critique I heard second-hand from a professor who did not want to comment on the blog itself. It’s true that I treated the institutional stance toward non-academic life, specifically non-university teaching, as monolithic. It is not. However, to borrow one of the many useful terms I learned in the academy, I would make the case that it is hegemonic. I believe that although many, many individuals in the academy, maybe even the majority of them, do care about teaching, that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the way teaching is perceived in the academy. It just means that the problem is institutional in scale, not individual.

The same source suggested that my views had been unduly influenced by my own personal academic experience, to which I can only say, guilty as charged. However, she then went on to say that I had made “ridiculous assumptions” about how academics see colleagues who leave the academic world.

If this is a ridiculous assumption, I am not making it alone. I got far more responses to this post than anything else I’ve written for this blog–in the comments section, on my Facebook page, and in my personal inbox. I will cite a few of them here to illustrate my point. (None of the private or anonymous comments were used without permission.)

First things first. I started out complaining about the University of Chicago’s attitude toward non-academic jobs for its graduates. Here’s an unsolicited comment from someone I don’t know who graduated from the same department I did:

A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Another anonymous commenter confirms this view, saying that faculty response to her “other” jobs post-graduation” was “utterly shaming,” even when that job was working at an extremely prestigious academic journal.

And another:

I have a friend who decided to become a high school teacher and her advisor promptly dropped her–he has put off reading her completed dissertation and scheduling her defense for almost two years since she’s no longer pursuing “academic employment.” 

This is not a huge sample size, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, these stories are not very surprising. Moreover, I have never heard this type of story told about any high-status job other than academia–as a friend of mine remarked, no lawyer or doctor would ever look down on someone who decided to quit a massively demanding job to do something else that made them happier (with the possible exception, sadly, of raising a child). Maybe we’re all just trying to cover up our own academic failings, which I don’t believe is the case, or maybe the assumption that academics often look down on non-academic jobs isn’t so ridiculous after all. Unless we’re just being paranoid.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

* * * * *

If that’s the perceived value of teaching outside the academy, what about teaching within the academy? I heard stories about that, too:

when i did a campus visit at X earlier this year, one of the committee members told me that he had taught at Yale before moving to X. When he received a teaching award, his colleagues all sent their condolences — because no one who had received a teaching award had ever been tenured.

The most shocking part of stories like these is that if you have been a grad student, they are not really shocking at all.

But! Duh, you are thinking. Yale, you are thinking. All these examples, you could point out, come from Research I universities with English departments consistently ranked in the top 20 nationwide, by whoever ranks those things. What about all of those professors toiling away at liberal arts schools, at inner-city public universities, at community colleges? They’re not suffering from delusions that they are living the always-scare-quoted “life of the mind.” They are too busy grading, or endlessly meeting with kids in office hours to help them revise their papers, or staying up late to put together a terrific lesson plan. They teach, and they care, and many of them get tenure.

To this, I respond—I hate to burst your bubble, but in the rarefied heights of academia, in the top ten English graduate programs in the nation, those jobs are not valued very highly either. I have heard so many anecdotes from colleagues who were visibly and palpably snubbed by professors, often by their own advisors, for having taken jobs like these. I wish I could give the stories in more detail, but they are not my stories and I will not tell them without permission. People have their reasons for not talking about these things in public forums.

Yes, most (though not all) of my anecdotes come from departments renowned for this type of occluded elitism. Nonetheless, there is no denying that they are the top departments in their discipline, that their professors are the top academics in their fields, that a recommendation from one of these professors opens doors. They wrote the books we cite, they headline the conferences we travel to. They are the scholarly tastemakers, the critical vanguard, the leading lights who set the standard for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Students continue to fight to get into these universities because in a nearly non-existent job market, they continue to place students in academic jobs–“good” ones, though again, the definition of a “good” job is determined entirely by the people doing the placing.

As suggested by the former University of Chicago grad student cited above, professors want to maintain that prestige for the department, thereby continuing to attract the brightest students, and they know how to do it: promoting the importance of research, and, by extension, demoting teaching to secondary status. (Tertiary if you account for wearing cool clothes.)

Anyone who doubts this is invited to meditate on the phrase “icing on the cake.” It’s a phrase I heard a dozen times when I was applying for jobs, a phrase used to describe the value of teaching on the academic job market. Every professor in my department, even the ones who themselves value teaching, will use this phrase (or sometimes the less colorful “bonus”), meaning sure, talk about your teaching skills in an interview, it won’t count against you. But it won’t get you hired either, much less tenured. (Conversely, as many of us have seen, the lack of it won’t get you fired.) I assume that these professors, who are at the top of their field, and whose most pressing business is to get their students academic jobs after graduation, know of what they speak.

I have approximately a zillion anecdotes that demonstrate the undervaluation of teaching in my department, but again, I do not want to tell others’ stories without their permission. So instead I will directly quote another commenter, this one from a prestigious public university, who actually changed her focus from literature to rhetoric and composition out of frustration with the sexism of her lit professors. Although she had always loved 18th-century literature, the classes this student took in rhet/comp were more interesting, more humane, and more generally acknowledging of female existence than the lit classes:

The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important. . . . In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. . . If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

Rhet/comp is the study of writing and argumentation. Writing is a demonstrable skill with copious uses in non-academic jobs. Teaching someone to write is difficult, but progress in writing is relatively easy to assess, which is perhaps why the field tends to be more teaching-oriented than literary fields. So it’s no surprise to me that, with the exception of certain theoretically-oriented departments like Berkeley, rhet/comp doesn’t get a lot of respect in English departments. Anyone who’s seen an English professor’s nose wrinkle at the though of teaching freshman comp classes knows that it is considered “service work.”

And as the commenter pointed out, that makes it women’s work, and women’s work is undervalued. Is anyone really surprised that attitudes toward feminized work within the academy reflect attitudes toward feminized work in the outside world?

Well, yeah, I was kind of surprised, since I went into academia to teach. I thought that was what professors did! I entered grad school with the comically naive goal of standing in front of a classroom in an elbow-patched blazer, teaching the books I loved, and getting summers off to write my novel.

By the way, if I had a dime for every academic who got into it thinking they would write their novels in the summer, I would be the saddest millionaire in the world. Creative writing is seen as a quaint and slightly embarrassing hobby in  academia.

* * * * *

Is teaching, especially teaching writing, institutionally undervalued in academia? After all this, I confess it’s hard for me to say, given my own experiences, which some would call extreme. They may be, although, as I argued before, I believe those attitudes coming from on high affect the way teaching is valued (or not valued) at all levels. Still, they create a certain myopia, as another commenter from my department described:

. . . on the other hand, at one of my mla interviews, one of the questions they asked was, “why do you want to be a teacher?” — it’s hard to be very sure when most of the grad students you actually know were raised on the same wire mother.

If you are unfamiliar with the wire mother, it’s shorthand for a classic experiment in screwing monkeys over for life conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Basically, you isolate the baby rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and give them surrogate “mothers” made of wire and cloth instead, and watch what happens over time.

I don’t know whether any of those monkeys went on to finish their doctorates, but they exhibited intense, crippling anxiety and misdirected aggression throughout their lives. I had to laugh, juvenile as it was, upon learning that in these monkeys “[s]ex behavior was, for all practical purposes, destroyed,” as  “isolate females ignored approaching normal males, while isolate males made inaccurate attempts to copulate with normal females.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a boyfriend for six years!

Other bizarre behaviors exhibited by these children of cold, pointy, comfortless mothers included “clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth.”

Oh, rhesus monkey. I’ve been there.

* * * *  *

I feel deeply, deeply complicated about the wire mother that is University of Chicago. I don’t want this post to become an autobiographical list of all the cold, pointy, comfortless things I witnessed there, but it’s hard to stop once you start. It’s hard to communicate to people just how traumatizing those things were, so you just keep going, which is why, after all, I am still writing this at 4:30 in the morning when I have to get up at 7:00.

It’s been eight years since Thomas H. Benton asked (pseudonymously) “Is Graduate School a Cult?”; longer still since Margaret Newhouse wrote “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult“; and over ten years since Lisa Ruddick observed the dehumanizing influence of the academic hierarchy in her post-9/11 article “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” But if my recent experience and those of my peers is typical, not a whole lot has changed since then.

For a more recent example, see this humorous but dead-on comparison of grad school to a cult by a grad student who, by the way, was once literally in a cult:

1. On the first day you arrive, you’re reminded that you’re part of a small, elite subgroup with access to specialized knowledge that the average person can never hope to achieve. You’re congratulated for choosing to come to graduate school and leaving behind the shallow materialism of the world.

2. Despite what a great achievement it is to get into graduate school (or so they tell you), you start to notice that your only reward seems to be working harder than all your college friends.

The pride in suffering that keeps you in a place like this even when you have to be doped up on Klonopin to bear it, this cult-like tribalism that says you are being torn down for your own good, that you will emerge the better for your wounds, is everywhere on display at the University of Chicago. It is a mentality perfectly articulated, literally inscribed on the body, by the t-shirts worn proudly by undergraduates all over campus, bearing the legend: “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.”

* * * * *

The question of how this all pertains to sexism and the undervaluing of “women’s work” is something I can’t quite handle yet. It is at once a personal issue, a political issue, and a the-personal-is-political issue, all tangled up in a big, messy knot with my particular experiences of humiliation at the University of Chicago. I entered the university by way of an MA program whose students, despite being basically cash cows for the university, get treated very, very poorly within the English department. I fought hard for legitimacy and respect, and eventually I must have won it, because I was admitted into the PhD program the very next year. Having lived in two worlds, I am intimately, painfully familiar with the difference between being valued and being ignored, sometimes even openly despised, within the same intellectual community.

Did I get a huge rush every time a professor gave me the head-nod of approval in class, or liked my work, or treated me as an important person with good ideas? Absolutely. Did I feel giddy every time I won some department-wide competition for a scant resource, whether it was money, an award, or teaching (which, although the professors don’t care about it, acquires value among grad students precisely because it’s a scant resource at U of C)? Yes, yes, yes.

The first time I got the magic head-nod, I nearly hit the fucking ceiling. I trembled for hours. That’s approval addiction. Approval is not the same as support, not by a long shot. But in an environment where actual, steady, dependable support is hard to come by, you’ll take it. Any port in a storm, any mother in a monkey cage. I leapt for the gold ring again and again, transfixed by the moment of exhilarating warmth I felt, the knowledge that I was doing well.

Like all addictions, approval has diminishing returns. But that doesn’t make it any easier to give up. I wish I didn’t still want it. The job placement page is just a bookmark in the vast tome of not-giving-a-shit that I, paranoid, feel emanating from the university where I spent six years learning how to feel inadequate, even as I piled up successes within the department.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to forget you ever existed.

If this sounds crazy, you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I never felt this way before I attended the University of Chicago–not as a child with my parents, not in grade school or high school, certainly not in college. If it helps, I have plenty of witnesses from my pre-grad-school life who can attest to this. I’m married to one of them.

To make a long story short (too late!): No, I don’t believe non-academic careers are much valued in academia, and no, I don’t believe teaching, either in a university or elsewhere, is much valued in academia, and yes, I think this attitude disproportionately affects women, and no, the quantities of good, hardworking teachers in the academy do not really change the question of how much they are valued. The fact that I had it relatively easy in academia, the fact that I was a valued and respected member of my department who also avowedly loved teaching, does not change the question either. If anything, it’s even more damning to me. Even while I earned approval from the department again and again, I couldn’t help but absorb those attitudes, and eventually they became toxic to me. And that is why I left.

The Time I Humiliated Myself in Front of My Favorite Living Author, and Then Got Over It

Six months ago I called up my favorite living author, Jennifer Egan, who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

It was my second interview, ever.

I screwed it up, embarrassingly, horribly. I stuttered and stumbled and even managed to piss her off a little bit. My favorite living author.

After I was done quivering with self-hatred, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and wrote the article. Then I pitched it to the Hairpin, who accepted it, and then, two days later, rejected it.

Having failed to place the article anywhere, I decided to put the whole thing down the memory hole and NEVER THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN, except, of course, in the middle of the night, when turning over all the reasons I would never be a successful freelance writer, novelist, or human being.

And then, this evening, I interviewed bestselling YA writer Libba Bray, who is a warm, friendly, high-spirited, eclectic Texas girl raised by Presbyterians. And lo, it was as a cleansing balm poured o’er my soul. We laughed about funny stuff, we mulled over serious stuff. At the end of the interview, I somehow told her about my interview with Egan. She responded with a story of yammering at John Turturro in a subway. A shroud lifted.

So, here it is folks. Here is the article that gutted me. It turns out it’s not that bad after all.

The Invisible Woman

Jennifer Egan wants to be invisible.

“That’s my kind of ultra-fantasy.” She immediately clarifies: “It’s not a fantasy of self-effacement or self-erasure. It’s the desire to get to see things that I can’t see if people can see me.”

The irony of this wish for invisibility coming from a woman with one of the most recognizable faces in contemporary fiction is not lost on either of us. Egan admits that she is not entirely comfortable with the visibility that came with winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. But from what I can tell, Egan’s preoccupation with seeing and being seen did not begin last year.

Her first two novels, after all, were called The Invisible Circus and Look at Me.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Since we were speaking over the phone, Egan was, of course, invisible to me. Which served me well during an interview that was, shall we say, humbling.

I went into the interview hoping to ask her about gender in her work, in her life. However, starstruck by this woman whose prose I have been reading rapturously for a decade, I tripped over my fandom and started yammering. Listening to the tape, I hear myself self-describing as an “aspiring novelist” (ew), mentioning the “flash of recognition” I feel when reading her novels (double ew), and, in a desperate moment, revealing that I have written fan fiction in which she bests Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial battle to the death.

All things considered, I was probably better off not observing her responses. However, this also made it harder to gauge her reactions to my questions about gender. Ever since the notorious 2011 interview in which she appeared, in a passing comment, to disparage “chick lit,” Egan seems cagey about speaking directly to gender issues. I don’t blame her. The backlash against her, especially within feminist circles, seemed disproportionate to the crime, as if the fact that she was female made Egan’s remark—which she firmly calls “stupid”—even more offensive. One wonders: Had Franzen, my personal straw man, said it, would it even have shown up on the radar?

Questions about gender have dogged Egan throughout her career. Back when The Keep was published, a review by Donna Bowman expressed relief that Egan’s work could no longer be mistaken for “chick lit”: “[Egan’s] previous novels pigeonhole themselves in typical women’s-fiction categories by their synopses (model finds self, teenage girl finds self) and cover photos (youthful female faces).” Bowman even went so far as to recommend that Egan adopt a masculine nom de plume. Obviously, that measure proved unnecessary for Egan’s success. However, that horrible review has stuck with me over the years, and Egan’s “chick lit” comment brought it back to me in full force.

Moreover, women’s experience seems central to most of Egan’s novels, especially Look at Me. The main character of Look at Me—the character who grounds the novel in a way—is a model named Charlotte who becomes effectively invisible, in the modeling world at least, when reconstructive surgery renders her unrecognizable in the wake of a car accident.

I was curious about why Look at Me, which has enjoyed a recent vogue, never seemed to be discussed in terms of gender. When I suggested that female experience was at the center of the book’s symbolic language (well, something like that), she bridled.

“I didn’t exactly think of it as sort of emblematic of female experience per se. I mean go ahead and say it, it’s just that that’s not exactly how I framed it for myself. I was interested in looking at the image culture’s interaction with identity in the most extreme way I could devise. And so definitely it would be a woman, because I do think that these things—although men are catching up! But the construction of image, and the critical importance of it to some degree in one’s life, I think it is greater for women.”

This last part seemed like a small victory. But when I followed up with a question about the other major female character, a teenage girl also named Charlotte, I felt that Egan was losing patience with me. “You know, I feel like I don’t really do this kind of literary criticism on my own books. I feel like it’s for you to say. I mean you have every right to your opinion, but you can’t get me to say it for you.” I backpedaled. She continued. “You have to remember, this is really an old book. I don’t remember exactly how I thought of some of the stuff as I was working on it. I may not be able to match your level of scrutiny.”

“You mean you haven’t been sitting up reading and underlining passages in preparation for this interview?” I joked, uncomfortably aware of having done so the night before.

Trying to ease up on the scrutiny, I asked her to explain her frequent statement that Look at Me was her favorite of her novels, beating out the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Look at Me may be more flawed. In fact, I’m sure it is. Structurally, I felt the difficulty as I was working on Look at Me of keeping it from sinking under its own weight . . . . I mean, I felt like I was being buried alive.” And then she said the thing that made me happiest, because of course when you agree with something it makes you happy: “But all of that being said? I feel like, at its best, Look at Me is better.”

Look at Me contains perhaps my favorite scene in contemporary literature, and it’s one of Egan’s favorites, too. In the scene, Charlotte, the model whose face has been disfigured and reconstructed beyond recognition, gets one last chance for a comeback in the modeling world. The catch? She has to let the make-up artist cut her face, making tiny incisions that, as they bleed, will render the photographs more “real” and “authentic.” It is a simple but grotesque premise satirizing the obsession with “authenticity” that permeates image culture, an obsession that ends up destroying what it sets out to reveal. Set in the giddy, chaotic environs of a fashion shoot, the cutting scene crystallizes the novel’s most trenchant themes. For me, that scene is the razor blade that slices beneath the skin of the novel itself, revealing its purpose and defacing it at the same time.

Perhaps Egan’s biggest accomplishment is how believable it all seems, so believable that you almost feel as if you had heard about it somehow, or even seen it in the pages of Italian Vogue. Egan described it elegantly: “I love to get to the space in which things are completely crazy and yet also make sense. That’s my favorite place to be as a writer. It’s hard, because if you tip just a little too far in either direction you either have something that’s just like wacky and ridiculous, you know, or something that’s just not crazy at all. So you have to be in that realm where something is both. And in Look at Me, for sure, that scene of the cutting . . . .”

A dryer buzzed in the background, and Egan interrupted herself to apologize for doing her laundry while on the phone, leaving the sentence I most wanted to hear hanging in the air. It was clearly the middle of a busy day for her; she had to pick up her kids in fifteen minutes. She never returned to that scene, and I didn’t either. Instead, moving down my list of highlighted passages, I asked her about the two teenage girls who have sex in a swimming pool near the beginning of Look at Me. Occurring very early in the book, it seems to be largely forgotten in reviews and interviews—probably because the book itself seems to forget about it. The two girls, Charlotte (the model) and Ellen, encounter one another for a single instant at the very end of the book, and there is never any acknowledgment of their past relationship.

I tell her that as a reader I felt somewhat devastated by the way the interaction seems to disappear as soon as it happens.

Egan then explains what I take to be a central technique of her fiction: “walking away.” “I don’t want books to be about what you think they’re going to be about. I feel like—let’s just establish that and then toss it away. Let’s just move on. I’m not interested in a book about fleeting homosexual experience among teenagers. It’s not I can’t write that book. I don’t want to. I’m not interested enough. But that little facet of something bigger? Sure. Then I’ve gotta get on to the bigger thing. I was happy to leave it behind.”

She elucidates further as I reflect on how left behind I felt, and whether that was the point.

“I love if I can introduce a theme that you could build a whole book around, and then just walk away from it. I like doing that. I guess I feel like . . . it’s almost as if we can all imagine what that book would be. And because we can all imagine it, there’s really no need to write it. So let’s just let those intimations hang there and move on to something different that we haven’t thought of yet. . . . And the idea that it acts as a faint undertow, under all the very different things that go on to happen, is exciting to me. I like that.”

The use of the word “undertow” is suggestive. I picture the swimming pool, the bodies vanishing, submerged under glowing water.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Egan’s constant return to the technical problems she encounters and solves in her work reminds me of Henry James’s preoccupation with his process in the prefaces to his New York Edition. He, too, deliberately left central elements of the plot uncertain, the truth about them invisible to the naked eye. Egan praised this ambiguity in The Turn of the Screw, which she called “superb, flawless.”

Her discussion of the 2006 novel The Keep sounded especially Jamesian to me. She began, she explained, with an indispensable gothic trope: the castle. “And then I also really sensed that there would be a prison. And I thought, maybe the prison was near the castle? I’m thinking of The Invisible Man, where there’s the university, and then nearby this kind of asylum.” More invisibility! I took a note. “I thought, well maybe it’s kind of like that, and the action moves from the castle to the prison. Maybe someone escapes from the prison. I just wasn’t sure what kind of environment would contain both of them. . . .

“And at the same time I was also having this huge voice struggle. And so then one day as I was basically hammering away at this, I found myself writing the words, ‘I’m trying to write a book.’ And as I wrote those words, which were just a statement of fact, I realized that what I was dealing with was a third-person narrator who actually turns out to be a first-person narrator. And it was really critical, that moment, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my god, I get it.’ It all came to me that it wasn’t that the prison was near the castle, it was that the prison surrounded the castle. The castle was within the prison, so that actually there were sort of concentric circles of, kind of, world inclusion. It wasn’t that the structures all inhabited one landscape. It was that they surrounded one another.”

In other words, the third-person narrator, who you think is telling a story about a man, is actually revealed to be another man entirely—a first-person narrator who, like Egan, is “trying to write a book.” A man behind the scenes. An invisible man. “Was there any determining factor that caused you to realize that the main voices of the book were going to be male? Because we spend so much time inside of these two men’s heads, which is very different from the two books that came before.”

“The maleness of that world seemed to be inherent to the vision. I don’t quite know why, I mean there are plenty of women in gothic fiction. In fact, the fact that the person who gets lost in the gothic world and cut off is male is actually kind of a reversal of the most typical gothic story . . . it is often a woman who becomes helpless and lost in the gothic environment. I think I really liked not having it be a woman, actually having it be kind of a hipster . . . And yet, I felt like, this book can’t be quite as unrelentingly male as it seems. I felt, there’s a female element here that I’m not seeing.”

There is. Egan found that invisible woman in the last pages of the book. I won’t unveil her here.

“But it’s a very male-dominated book, and honestly I think men liked it better than women did on the whole. . . . I think most of the bad reviews were by women, and some of the really good ones were by men. Because I have a public email address, I do get mail, and it seemed like a lot of the most enthusiastic reactions came from men.”

As she said this, I recalled another male character in The Keep who gets lost underground, in the exposition. “So, is [The Keep] a book about lost men?”

She thought about it. “I guess in a sense the gothic is always about lost people. They’re never where they belong in gothic stories. Because the sense of . . . of . . . imminent disembodied communication which tends to infuse the gothic, it doesn’t really happen when people are just living their normal daily lives.”

I think to myself, I am having an imminent disembodied communication with my favorite living novelist right here, in my combination kitchen/living room, right in the middle of my normal daily life.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

At the end of our second 45-minute session, Egan, who seemed unsure what my interest in her amounted to, asked me what my project looked like. Having retreated from my main objective early on, all I could do was stammer something indeterminate about gender.

And now, just as we were wrapping up, Egan finally addressed the issue head-on for the first time. “I feel like the gender issue is so hard to—I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say about it, but I don’t have much of a synthesis of it. I find—in the end I find myself just wanting to forget about it. I feel like yes, there are definitely issues and things to be explored, but it feels somehow like my time is best spend just trying to write better books.” I asked her how she thinks her gender affects her experience as a writer. “I don’t think I’m a woman writing, I’m just writing. I don’t know what it would be like if I weren’t. And that’s true for all of it. There’s no way to know how things might have played out differently, but one thing is for sure: I can’t say that I haven’t been given a lot of rewards. In a way I’m the last person to be able to speak to the question of discrimination right now. I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and rewards.” There’s a pause. “I’ve been over-praised and over-rewarded.”

I, personally, do not think this is the case. Though possibly overexposed?

She continued. “That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

That seems reasonable, and after hanging up the phone, I tried to take the advice of my favorite living novelist: walk away, move on.

But it’s advice I’ll probably never be able to hear. My fantasy has never been invisibility. It’s flight.

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On Women’s Culture and Literary Cockblocking

Last week I dropped a flippant one-liner on Facebook about wanting to write a piece of novelist fan fic wherein Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial spectacle. People seemed to enjoy that comment, and someone told me I should write the story, and I did. Reveling in the silliness of the premise, I also tried to honor the sentiment behind my original comment. The actual beheading was more of a punchline than an event.

Immediately after posting it and sharing it on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by a mix of pride and terror. My first action was to hurriedly comment that it was written in the style of The Hunger Games. This was not true at all, though the books had undoubtedly been on my mind. It was my way of simultaneously disavowing the violence of the story and beating to the punch all the imaginary readers in my head who would think it was derivative. Like lots of women, I have a habit of prefacing my words with the phrase “I’m sure this isn’t very original, but . . .” and punctuating them with an apology for excessive feeling.

So I’ve been thinking about why I wrote the story, and the uncomfortable amount of rage I’ve been feeling lately—as in, my whole life—about women. Or specifically, being a woman in a patriarchy, with all the constant threat of violence and ridicule and just being ignored that it entails.

It’s wonderful of the Grand Old Party to wage a war on women right now, in a way. It seems to have kicked a lot of Americans in the gut, not to mention the womb. Now no one can pretend that misogyny is dead, that women are truly treated as equals to men, that the goals of the women’s movement were achieved long ago in the fuzzy past. It’s a mystery to me how anyone who’s been alive through the last four presidential administrations, which is about how long I’ve been noticing presidential administrations, could think that in the first place. But now that no one can deny that men in high places are trying to reassert control over women’s bodies and silence their voices, I feel a strange relief at the thought that now the battle is actually on.

The skills I bring to this fight are reading and writing and critical thinking. I’m not an activist, to my shame, or a lawyer, thankfully for everyone, or a policy maker, except in my nightmares, or a documentarian, which sounds hard. As a reader, writer, and former grad student, I’m fixated on the softer misogynies that create the climate in which the overt misogyny can thrive. To my mind, the relationship between creative production and structural inequality—between stories and legislation—is no less troubling for being indirect. It’s just harder to quantify, because it happens in our off-hours, when we read and watch movies for pleasure, during our playtime, as it were.

Here’s a story about playtime. My niece and her twin brother just turned eight years old. At the age of three my niece started refusing to wear pink. At six, she demanded a boy’s haircut. Without knowing the complicated thoughts that take place inside her intelligent little brain, I can only imagine what would compel a girl who has a twin brother to make these choices. Could it be that she noticed, as soon as she was old enough to notice things, that boy stuff was just valued more than girl stuff? That she was encouraged to play with trains, maps, and other stereotypically boyish toys, which we progressively think of as “unisex”; but that boys were not encouraged to play with dolls, kitchen sets, and other stereotypically girly toys? Can she really have noticed at the age of three that things associated with girls were not considered worthy of little boys’ attention? In case you don’t think that’s likely, here’s another story: when she was four or five years old, she announced during play time that she didn’t want to be a princess, because princesses just sat around waiting to be rescued. She wanted to be a knight instead.

A recent trip to Disneyworld acquainted her with the consequences of this attitude. In a land of princesses, my niece was mistaken for a boy more than once. She can only have felt deeply ambivalent, or whatever the 7-year-old version of that looks like, when the waitress dressed as Cinderella came back around with an embarrassed smile on her face to offer her a fairy wand instead of the sword she had been “mistakenly” given at the door. It’s not always easy being a knight.

The stories we tell affect our cultural beliefs about women. And, to get to the point, so do the stories we tell about those stories.

Because even after they’re all grown up, boys still don’t want to play with girls’ toys, which is what Jonathan Franzen fatally expressed in that decade-old gaffe on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. (Well, fatally for the Jonathan Franzen in my story, anyway). Franzen starts off by acknowledging the well-supported fact that women are the primary readers of novels in America:

 So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator . . . I continue to believe that . . .

It’s easy to misread this quote as Franzen denigrating a certain class of Americans. Elitist Author Knocks Beloved Talk Show, Calls Oprah Watchers Dumb. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the next sentence to be something about how great it is that someone is buying American novels at all, thereby keeping Franzen in tweed blazers. But in the next sentence, Franzen not only fails to acknowledge the value of his low-brow, Oprah-watching female audience, but actively reveals his craving for their low-brow, football-watching husbands:

. . . and now, I’m actually at the point with this book that I worry . . . I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.

Boys won’t play with girl’s toys, and this is “confusing” to Franzen. (It’s not confusing to me, but whatever.) He cites direct, anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. He is careful to point out that this is male readers speaking, not him. He cites the evidence.

He doesn’t mention whether women approached him at these book signings, or what they said if they did.  He expresses no interest in his potentially vast pool of female readers, in their potential reactions, in whether they will identify with his well-written female characters. He only expresses concern over the fact that their having bought the book will drive those men in line away. Not concern over the noxious sexism their comments revealed, but over the possibility of losing them altogether. The fact that women were reading Jonathan Franzen’s book wasn’t ever going to make them look more intelligent or perceptive. It made the book look like it was “for women,” and therefore unreadable by men. The role of female readers in this narrative can be summed up in one word: cockblockers.

In a really great 2001 interview in BOMB Magazine, Franzen told writer Donald Antrim that The Corrections was part of a general turn away from masculinist modes of fiction currently in fashion and toward the domestic fiction associated with—you guessed it—Edith Wharton. He said this to Donald Antrim, a highbrow postmodernist author who exemplified the style Franzen was rejecting. Franzen is a sensitive intellect despite that ludicrous Wharton article, and I believe he meant what he said. But that is what makes his other words, spoken in conversation with the most recognizable and respected female voice in National Public Radio, so disheartening. Somehow it’s always worse when a smart man says it. It’s more of a betrayal. It makes you feel so hopeless.

There are plenty of worse types of oppression for a woman than being told you’re not valuable as a reader of Jonathan Franzen. Like all women, I know women who’ve been raped by strangers and acquaintances, women who’ve been bullied and harassed at work and on the street, women who’ve been physically threatened on first dates and by live-in boyfriends, women who’ve been passed over for promotions or discovered their pay was not commensurate with their male peers. This is not any one man’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the fault of poor old Jonathan Franzen, who does not have an Oprah-like sphere of influence, no matter how many NPR interviews and New Yorker articles he botches.

But the crimes of misogyny are propped up by the culture of misogyny. And the culture of misogyny is perpetuated by literary fiction as much as by sitcoms and television ads, by The New Yorker as much as by Maxim. The culture of misogyny is perpetuated by smart, creative, well-intentioned, and fundamentally good people, as well as by Rush Limbaugh. I don’t really want to chop off Jonathan Franzen’s head, obviously. But as a woman watching the contemporary literary scene I was for a long time afraid even to be invested in (hence my retreat to dead authors in grad school), I confess I do want to see women get their comeuppance. When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had very complicated feelings about it, including delight, of course, but also sadness that her earlier, more female-centric novels had never pulled the critical attention that her novels that explored men’s experience did.

Franzen’s Freedom was published in 2010, and Goon Squad won in 2011so that particular gladiatorial spectacle was not to be. But a girl can dream.

The Custom of the Country

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Franzen and Egan hadn’t exactly been starved before the fight, but, as was the custom, they had been fed on a parsimonious diet of lean proteins, just enough to keep a corrosive hunger burning in their bellies without actually weakening them.

Or, so he explained to her over the murmur of the crowd. In the stands, a thousand men were quietly explaining the rules of the game to a thousand women sitting next to them. How the prisoners would be fed a single slice of bread just before the games began, spiking their blood sugar after the long fast. How they had been sequestered in soundproof cells for months, able to hear only the sounds of their own voices.

This was not as difficult for writers as it would be for other people, he explained. In fact, many writers expressed the opinion that their months in the cell had been very productive.

“Ian McEwan claims to have written most of Atonement in the cell. Or”—he grimaced—“claimed, I guess.”

“I think he wrote that book just to prove he read Clarissa.” The professor paused to consider her own statement. “Do you think he’s really read Clarissa?”

The man laughed. “Does it really matter? Has anyone actually read Clarissa? We still get what he’s doing, replacing the actual rape in Clarissa with a false accusation of rape that ruins a man’s life. Which is just as violent.”  The professor didn’t say anything, so he elucidated. “It’s subversive.”

The professor shifted on the hard bench and opened her program. “Why do they do the interviews right before the fight?”

“Well obviously they can’t do them afterward.” He grinned. “Not both of them, anyway.”

“No, I meant, I don’t understand why there are interviews at all.”

“Come on, it’s our one chance to see these guys be completely honest for once in their lives. Maybe for the last time. They haven’t been eating or sleeping much, they haven’t spoken to anyone in months, and they’re about to face the opponent for the first time. They forget there’s even going to be an audience. They say the craziest things, not realizing that any little slip up might cost them their fan base. Which could cost them everything. It’s so—raw.”

He sucked his lower lip a little in anticipation. She felt it too, but would have been embarrassed to show it so publicly. The more typical attitude was one of suppressed bloodlust—eyes darting nervously behind square-rimmed glasses, blazers creaking over shifting shoulder blades, throats fluttering under artistically draped scarves.

She had been avoiding the obvious topic of conversation, but since it was already being discussed in low voices all around them, she decided to bring it up first.

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Does it really matter?” he asked again. “I’m sorry, I know she’s your favorite author. But she’s pretty scrawny.”

It was true. In a boatneck t-shirt you could spot her clavicles a mile away. “So is Franzen.”

“Plus, she’s older than she looks,” he continued. “Did you know she’s 50?”

“Franzen is 53!”

“Sure, but you know what they say—women get older, men just get more distinguished.” He laughed. “No but seriously, it’s true. That face has helped her career a lot up until now, gotten her a lot of extra attention. But looks don’t last forever. And in the ring, she won’t have makeup artists to prepare her for her close-up.”

The professor didn’t feel like arguing the point, and besides, it did seem pretty hopeless. The two might be evenly matched physically—Franzen was not exactly a paragon of physical prowess. But he was demonstrably more aggressive than Egan. Just look at the way he went on the offensive in ’96, preparing the canon for The Corrections even before he had finished writing it. Taking back the tradition, the commentators called it. And his bold refusal to accept a marketing advantage that would have boosted his readership by millions, because those readers were women who watched daytime television—that was a masterstroke. People might not like him, but he had always generated the buzz he needed to stay alive. And he wasn’t here to make friends.

He did have glasses, she reminded herself, a definite handicap. The committee never allowed contestants to get fitted with contacts for the ring. The thought was that any author who had chosen to wear glasses instead of contacts their whole life had almost certainly done so in the hopes of benefitting from a more intellectual public image—a strategy whose efficacy had been proven time and again by the number of bespectacled contestants over the years. To let an author jettison the image that got him to the ring in the first place would be unfair, to his fans as well as his opponent. So if Egan could knock off his glasses early on, she might gain an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, there were rumors flying around that the glasses were an affectation, that Franzen had first donned them to appear more interesting to girls at Swarthmore. This rumor was unlikely to be true, and was probably originated by Egan supporters trying to undermine Franzen’s image. However, Franzen fans—or “frans,” as they called themselves—had spread the rumor with glee, gloating that if Egan got close enough to knock off the spectacles she’d be in for the surprise of her life. The professor couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that it might be true. She abruptly closed the program and tightened her jaw.

“Hey, you gonna be okay?” He put his hand on her elbow and leaned in. He really did love her a little bit, even years after their one unsuccessful date had shown that there was no hope of a romantic relationship between them. The concern in his voice touched a guilty place in her conscience, as she remembered his shattered look at the restaurant.

She reminded herself that he had been reluctant to read Jane Austen because the plots weren’t “universal” enough. “I’m fine. I think the interviews are starting.”

The Jumbotrons above the stadium came to life, lighting up the twilight with images of typewriters colliding in midair and leather-bound tomes bursting into flame. The crowd erupted into cheers as the loudspeakers began booming out chamber music laid over a heavy backbeat, then hushed as a face appeared on the screen: the master of ceremonies, with his long, literary face and his theatrically nerdy bow-tie. Opening the ceremony with a few tepid jokes, he directed the audience’s attention to previews of next year’s fight, introducing a montage of possible contestants that included the dapper Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, and Irish underdog Emma Donoghue. From the way the camera lingered on Donoghue’s fluffy red hair and childishly makeup-free face, the professor was willing to bet that she would make what they called “the shortlist.”

Just as the crowd began to stir restlessly, the announcer’s face appeared again, and the camera began the crosscutting of the two interviews. The interviews were supposed to be broadcast live from their cells, a fact the announcer enthusiastically repeated every thirty or forty seconds, but nobody really believed they weren’t edited down to the most sensational bits, perhaps even rearranged to appear more in sync with one another. Egan and Franzen were shot cinematically in director’s chairs against a black background, each turned slightly in toward the center of the screen, so that when the camera cut back and forth it looked like they were facing off.

Franzen, perched tensely on the canvas edge of his chair, was first. The interviewer asked him whether he had been writing anything in his cell.

“I’ve been working on a piece about Edith Wharton,” he answered, blinking owlishly.

Sounds of interest and surprise wafted up from the audience.

“You know, I’ve always thought that she’s very hard to sympathize with because of her wealth. She was probably the most privileged American writer ever.”

“Interesting,” said a female interviewer’s voice from offscreen. “Do you have any evidence to support that statement?”

Franzen shrugged impatiently. “Well no, Carrie, I’ve been locked in a cell for four months. I’m going off what I remember from a conversation I had with Gary Shteyngart at a cocktail party. But even if it’s not true, I’m sure it’s basically true.”

“So you’re saying she was a bad writer because she was rich?”

“Well I’m not really talking about her writing in detail. I’m more talking about her as a person, about how maybe if she had been prettier, and not so rich, she would have been more sympathetic. Or the rich thing doesn’t really matter, but prettier. Like Jackie O., or Grace Kelly. Or—” The audience held its breath. “Or Jennifer Egan.”

The camera cut immediately to Jennifer Egan gazing placidly toward the center of the screen from the other direction. She did indeed look beautiful, although the strong horizontal lines in her face were sagging a bit here in there with exhaustion, or possibly resignation. She wore the nautical striped top that she was so often photographed in. “Jennifer,” the offscreen interviewer’s voice asked, “what is your make-up routine like? Do you use a primer?”

Egan smiled graciously, her thin lips barely turning up at the ends. “I usually just wear some tinted moisturizer. They let me bring it in with me because it was already in my purse.”

“Wow, unbelievable. What a complexion. Okay, can you give us a sense of what your method is like? Do you think that it’s harder for you as a woman?”

“Well, writing isn’t easy for anyone. But I do work hard, yes.”

“I meant the competition. Will it be harder for you as a woman?”

Egan squinted her eyes a little bit in thought. Then she shook out her blond hair and said, “I don’t think so. I did track and field at UPenn.”

The camera cut back to Franzen, who had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “I don’t want to kill anyone. Christ, I can barely handle clearing the mouse traps in the attic.” The audience laughed sympathetically. He pulled his hand away, shook his head as if to clear it, and blinked his eyes open. The professor could feel her companion leaning forward, straining along with the rest of the audience members to discern some sign of imperfect eyesight. The glasses were on again in an instant, and a moan of frustration rippled through the crowd.

“Carrie, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. She is a human being, after all. And so gracious. She’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“Do you think she’s a good writer?”

There was a pause during which the only sound was that of audience members anxiously fiddling with their laptop bags.

“I think A Visit from the Goon Squad had universal themes.”

The camera cut back to Egan, who was staring somewhat blankly off into the distance. After a moment, she seemed to recover her sense of purpose, and her gaze refocused on her interlocutor offscreen. “That’s an interesting question. I think . . . I think he’ll be well read in his lifetime. None of us know, after that. None of us has any right to know. I write a lot about celebrity, not literary celebrity, but the kind of manufactured celebrity that we see in our culture. And I think . . . there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, or wanting to be the best.” She looked up, and then she smiled and laughed at the ceiling, and the crowd seemed collectively to catch its breath. A few audience members began weeping. The professor listened closely. “But will either of us be remembered? Not for me to say.”

Shortly thereafter, the screen went dark, and the audience, unable to pretend indifference anymore, began to stomp and chant for the tournament to begin. The contestants were given their slices of bread, or, as a few men in the know were telling the women next to them, their carbohydrate shots, which is how they were doing it this year for the first time. They were released into the arena, Franzen in a sweater vest over a maroon button-down, and Egan in her signature boatneck top with navy horizontal stripes.

The fight didn’t last long. Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen fairly quickly, and, after a brief glance around the crowded stadium, walked out of the arena with a fatigued look on her face. A thousand women cheered and went home with plans to apply to graduate school and write their dissertations on Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston. A thousand men remained very quiet on the car ride home. The professor resigned and became a writer. Her friend resigned as well, but for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton was published posthumously in the New Yorker, and when people read it, with tears in their eyes, they thought how much better it would have been if he had at least had access to Wikipedia.

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