Why do novelists love affairs between professors and students?

Teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of many writers, among them David Mamet, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Christopher Isherwood, J M Coetzee, Zoë Heller, and Susan Choi. What is the fascination?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Earlier this year, Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami with a reputation for erudition and arrogance, resigned in disgrace. Accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his twentysomething grad students, he became the latest poster child for the hoary professor who makes advances on his young charges. A few voices – including the deliberately provocative but independent writer Katie Roiphe, and a colleague of McGinn’s who claimed he didn’t even like the guy –  came to his defense. According to McGinn’s defenders, e-mails and text messages exchanged between professor and student showed that the relationship (never consummated) had been affectionate and mutual until shortly before the end.

In other words, McGinn and his student were operating in a gray area – gray areas being anathema to college disciplinary committees, self-righteous commentators, and (naturally) parents everywhere. But they’re the very stuff of fiction. Because the dynamic of power and desire is so difficult to parse, teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of writers, among them David Mamet (Oleanna), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Philip Roth (The Dying Animal), Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man), J M Coetzee (Disgrace), Zoë Heller (Notes on a Scandal), and Susan Choi (My Education). The prospect of Robert Stone, winner of a National Book Award and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, adding his name to this list is appealing. What fearless take will the author of such muscularly bleak novels as Dog Soldiers and Damascus Gate, now a sage at 76, offer on our modern response to the intellectual/erotic dichotomy of the teacher and the prize student?

And yet Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a puzzling, dispiriting book. The relationship between student Maud Stack and English professor Steven Brookman is peripheral much of the time. The germination of the affair, which Brookman is attempting to end as the book starts, is never fully sketched. Instead, Maud’s and Brookman’s scenes are interspersed with passages from the perspectives of Maud’s counselor, her glamorous roommate, her aging father, a homicide police detective, and even Maud’s roommate’s Bible-thumping ex-husband. Halfway through, Maud dies, an event that is more dreary than devastating. (I give nothing away here, since it’s obvious from the first pages that she is the titular girl.) The rest of the novel concerns the investigation into her death, her father’s attempts to lay her to rest in a Catholic church that is ambivalent about accepting her remains, and the fate of Brookman, a compromised man who, despite some mental handwringing and a couple uncomfortable conversations with his wife, isn’t troubled enough by all that’s happened to be deeply interesting.

The character who does engender interest is, unlikely enough, Maud’s father, an alcoholic widower whiling away his last days in Queens. Eddie Stack once worked as a policeman but now spends his time trying to resist having a drink. He suffers from severe emphysema as well as the recognition that the women on whom he once turned a philandering eye now see him as a man who needs help getting up the stairs. He has largely failed the two women he cared most about: Maud and her late mother. In interviews, Stone has described his own affliction with emphysema, a humbling and debilitating disease, and the sections devoted to Eddie stand out. This broken man, determined to do something right after all he has done wrong, hobbles through the book gradually ennobled through his successive humiliations.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl is, at heart, a campus novel. That campus resembles Yale, at which Stone taught creative writing for a number of years. (In 1998, a Yale senior was stabbed to death and her thesis advisor fell under suspicion, an event that perhaps helped to inspire Stone’s tale.) As an alum, I can say that his descriptions of town-gown relations are incisively accurate. In a single paragraph, for example, he offers a history of physical access to the college from colonial years to the 1960s, when the college inaugurated a “Throwing Open of the Gates,” buoyed by the free spirit of the times. “What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by the locking up, down and sideways . . . and now there were three or four doors for everything – even clerks’ offices were secured, and elderly dons retired because they spent half their working days trying to distinguish in a dour economy of light which of the cards or keys on their chains opened their outermost office door, which the second, which the third and so on.”

Unfortunately, Stone doesn’t confine Death of the Black-Haired Girl to campus. His book is also, sporadically, a thriller, a meditation on aging, and a social novel. A key plot point is the publication of a school newspaper column in which Maud attacks abortion demonstrators. It’s regarded by everyone who knows her as dangerous, but the quoted excerpts are more silly than incendiary. Maud, observing that some babies are born hideously deformed, writes that they “are made in the image and likeness of the Great Imaginary Paperweight in the Vast Eternal Blue. It’s true that the Great Paperweight is also the Great Abortionist – a freeze-chilling twenty percent of the sparkly tykes he generates abort – but he don’t like some girl doin’ it.” The abortion controversy is old news that stays news, but the Catholic-tinted lens through which Maud’s ostensible transgressions are presented is dated. Though the book is set in the present day, I frequently had to remind myself that it didn’t take place decades ago.

That’s not only because of its political and religious overtones, but also because of the relationship between Maud and Brookman. Despite other characters’ assertions that she’s brilliant and possesses a power over men that leaves even the “alpha boys” on campus swooning at her feet, Maud comes off as damaged, habitually drunk, and occasionally deluded, a girl so lost that it’s difficult to absorb her absence as a loss. Whatever the nature of their relationship once was, by the time the book opens, the power between Maud and Brookman only flows one way. There can be none of the ambiguity of Oleanna or, perhaps, former philosophy professor McGinn’s case. Given Maud’s volatility, Brookman’s urge to extricate himself seems natural.

Reading Death of the Black-Haired Girl, I found it impossible not to think of James Salter’s latest novel, All That Is, about a World War II vet who becomes a book editor and takes up with a succession of women. Salter, one of the great prose stylists of the English language,  has always been a nostalgia artist, but, at age 88, he is obsessed with evoking  a time when men and women understood their respective places. In one scene, two men drinking at a private club discuss the women’s movement. Though presumably Salter means us to understand that they are speaking as men of their time, he leaves the impression that they’re speaking as some of the men of ours:

“They’re going to let them be members here, what’s your position on that? Probably not the good-looking ones, just the ones you avoid at parties. We’re in the middle of the woman thing. They want equality, in work, marriage, everywhere. They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it.”

“Outrageous.”

“The thing is, they want a life like ours. We both can’t have a life like ours.”

To really break open Death of a Black-Haired Girl, Stone would have had to give Maud a more confident and intelligent voice than that of the girl who writes hysterical diatribes in the school newspaper. Perhaps a lot has changed on campus, but those dons fumbling with their keys still don’t seem prepared to confront, on truly equal terms, the women who streamed into their classrooms during the great Throwing Open of the Gates.

Sarah L Courteau is a writer living in the South Bronx. Her work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. Follow @slcourteau.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Simpson in the 2006 film adaptation of Zoë Heller's novel "Notes from a Scandal".
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Nicholas Serota's Diary

The Arts Council England chair on tea with Lord Sainsbury, solving problems with cake, and opening up the industry.

On Saturday, I head to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Tommy, an extra­ordinary production of The Who’s musical that has emerged from a collaboration between the Ipswich-based New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium taking work with deaf and disabled performers into the mainstream. Preconceptions about what we understand by “disabled” are blown away. The cast dazzles with talent and brings to the work a bold perspective that leaves the mind fizzing with challenges. How important it is to make this kind of work central to what we do.

Sunday

A chance amid a busy transitional time to enjoy a private party at home, with a collective celebration for daughters’ and grand-daughters’ birthdays. Lots of cake-eating, which is good practice for my new job at the Arts Council, where any difficulty can be surmounted with the help of a slice of lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.

Monday

My first full day in my new office at Arts Council England in Bloomsbury. A massive in-box to clear. Bent double over this most of the day, I manage somehow to do my back in again, thus proving that the burden of the abstract is no less weighty than that of the real. There are also emails from former museum colleagues at the Art Basel fair, where Maria Balshaw is the centre of attention.

Tuesday

A day of meetings with wonderful benefactors: including tea with Lord Sainsbury and his wife, who have done a huge amount to improve access to the arts. Their support for the Ashmolean, the Holburne in Bath and London-based galleries is well known. They have also been involved with a wholesale redesign of public areas at the Royal Opera House, which will lead to greater access and use for education and events during the day, as well as a complete makeover of the important Linbury Studio.

I finish the day by hopping on the Tube to the Tate to attend a farewell party for a long-serving member of the building projects team. We joined and left at the same time and, in between, we have built a lot together. So it was poignant.

Wednesday

I head to the national council of the Arts Council, and we sign off on the new national portfolio for 2018 to 2o22. It ends an exhaustive process that began 18 months ago.

This is where the Arts Council will spend the bulk of its funds over the next four years, some £1.6bn in total, across 831 organisations that determine the future direction of the arts sector. It has been fascinating. The Arts Council remains a custodian of standards and aesthetics, but it is also increasingly working with partners across government, local authorities, higher education and communities as a developer of social environments, giving people a voice and helping them to articulate what is culturally relevant to their lives. There are evolving expectations. People now look to the arts to increase well-being and regenerate local economies. Fortunately, despite the cuts in recent years, the Arts Council still has excellent knowledge and networks to help it deliver national policy at a local level.

There are two important headlines to the investment we agreed. First, that it delivers a substantial increase in funding outside London – roughly £170m over the four years, supporting a geographically wider and a more genuinely diverse range of organisations. We have held nothing back. The time is right to invest for lasting change. As the success of Hull as the UK City of Culture this year has shown, there is an appetite and a need for the arts. We can and will do more for people everywhere.

Second, we have done this without any overall reduction in investment in London, where we have refreshed the portfolio, bringing in from the margins some brilliant and challenging companies. That has been made possible by the selfless way that leading organisations based in London have taken a small cut so our funds can go further. They understand that everyone benefits from a more diverse arts world – not least London. The strength of this wonderful city comes from the breadth of the cultural conversation it has. It is an inspiration, even in the darkest moments.

Thursday

To a BBC board meeting, where we touch on the progress of Culture UK, the partnership that brings together the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland. There is funding for organisations to make content that can be shown on the BBC and plans so far to put theatre, opera, ballet and the spoken word into broadcasting, while the BBC’s online platform can widen public access to such events as the Manchester International Festival.

Friday

Another full day at the Arts Council, reviewing plans for the announcement of the national portfolio, discussing the nuance of particular decisions, prepping with a huge amount of detail. I’m also thinking ahead to events in July, when I’ll be talking about the international work of arts organisations at the Creative Industries Federation conference. There is a strong awareness of the “soft power” of the arts, while we often overlook the obvious – that international exchange, collaboration and experience are crucial to the standard of practice we enjoy in Britain, and that they are also a valuable and potentially huge source of income.

Again, the Arts Council has expertise in this area. It takes time and investment to acquire this knowledge. Over the next few years, we will need – as an arts sector and as a nation – to make the most of all the expertise we possess. I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

Nicholas Serota was the director of Tate between 1988 and 2017. He is now the chair of Arts Council England

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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