July 18, 2007
I'm the professor who wrote to you last year to tell you how much I enjoyed your book, and I find that I've been quoting you to my friends in light of a recent interaction that I had with the outside examiner (from another college) for an honors exam of which I was the chair. My honors student, a very attractive young woman, wrote a collection of short stories for her honors project. This is a talented student who [personal information deleted] and her [health problems] have clearly informed her work.
The honors committee met for the exam, including me, two male colleagues, a female psychology professor who specializes in [the student's field] and the outside examiner, a male writer, acclaimed, hip and in his forties. He and I had previously discussed the student's work as well as her struggle with [with health problems]. I said, casually, that she was lucky to have had a wonderful and supportive boyfriend for almost four years now, and he said, "oh, no." I asked him what was wrong with having a boyfriend, and he said that the boyfriend in all the stories was clearly the same character. "Well, yes," I told him, "she needs to get more distance between her life and her characters, but her real boyfriend is a great guy. They'll probably get married after she finishes graduate school (she'd gotten a great deal from a respected M.F.A program.)" "Oh, no!" he said again.
We had the exam, after which, in his summation, he told the student that her work showed tremendous potential but that she needed more life experience to make it more interesting. He continued with the "Jack London perscription" to live life, delay graduate school for five years or more, do some of things your characters want to do. Like that story where she tries to sleep with the older writer, the jerk, the ape. (A story in which a girl is disgusted and humiliated by two different men). "Do that yourself, meet these people, sleep with them. Then those stories will really ring true." Everyone sat around and nodded. I finally made a joke and said to the student, "You might want to skip the sleeping around part." To which the female psych prof snapped, "Oh, don't be such a mother!" For the record, I am slim, fashionable, attractive and I have a good sense of humor. I was not sitting there in a sun bonnet with a pinched and disapproving expression. But I couldn't believe that this was the advice we giving to a young woman who was already so vulnerable in so many ways. Even if she were completely hail and hearty, why shouldn't she go to grad school and get paid to write? Why shouldn't she enjoy the respect and love of a devoted boyfriend? Why should she wait tables and sleep around? Later during dinner, at which the long suffering boyfriend sat and listened politely to similar "advice" to his girlfriend, I tried to whisper my concerns to the female psych professor but she was having none of it.