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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

One More for James Salter

June 29, 2015 | by

Photo: Lan Rys

We’re concluding our week of James Salter remembrances with this interview by Kate Peterson from 2010. She recalls the experience fondly:

Among writers, James Salter was my first hero. Maybe it’s outmoded in 2015 to call someone your hero, but then, if any recent American writer took the idea of heroism seriously, it was Salter. I found his story collection Last Night ten years ago on my own, by chance—no friend or teacher had recommended it, and no social media list of must-reads existed then, at least on my radar. As discoveries go, it was a deliciously private one. The authority of his sentences and paragraphs came from their music, but not only from that. His descriptions seemed to draw power from what had been relinquished. I was dazzled, puzzled. Discipleship is fueled, in part, by mystery; at least mine was.

We met for this interview at the University of Minnesota in October 2010. I turned on my tape recorder and flipped to a fresh sheet of notebook paper, but before I could ask my first question, Salter asked one of his own: Bob Dylan had played near here, hadn’t he? I said he had. Did I know his songs? Not well, I admitted. He asked, could I sing any? Though I crossed Fourth Street every day, I confessed I couldn’t; I had been raised on show tunes. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein? Yes, I said. And so, before I knew what was happening, I was singing James Salter a few bars of “Oklahoma.”

That evening, Salter read from what became All That Is, his last novel. Then the working title was To Live It Again. It’s a promise at once retrospective and infinitive, and one, Salter often argued, that only books could honor.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

Tell me about your new novel.

I’ve been working on it for some years. I’d had the idea for a long time, but I was unconsciously waiting for a line from Christopher Hitchens. He wrote somewhere that “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” That struck me, and I began with that.

I haven’t followed it through. Poverty doesn’t play much of a part. Betrayal does, and it’s a book that has a little more plot than other books of mine. It’s about an editor, a book editor, it’s the story of his life. Read More »

A Perfect Baby

May 18, 2015 | by


Bertrand Russell in 1916.

A letter from D. H. Lawrence to Bertrand Russell, February 1916. When the two men had met the previous year, they became fast friends, and had even planned to give a lecture series together—but their friendship quickly soured. “Gradually I discovered that he had no real wish to make the world better, but only to indulge in eloquent soliloquy about how bad it was,” Russell later wrote of Lawrence. “If anybody overheard the soliloquies so much the better, but they were designed at most to produce a little faithful band of disciples who could sit in the deserts of New Mexico and feel holy. All this was conveyed to me in the language of a fascist dictator.”
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M.F.A. vs Donleavy

April 23, 2015 | by

John Deakin’s portrait of J. P. Donleavy in London, 1950s.

An exchange between J. P. Donleavy—who’s eighty-nine today—and John Irving, from our Spring 1988 issue. Some two years previous, in his Art of Fiction interview, Irving had disparaged Donleavy at length, speaking of their meeting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Irving taught in the seventies:

I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too.

But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review [a complimentary subscription—Ed.]; this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.

Donleavy wrote the following response; the editors also published a riposte from Irving. Read More »

Teaching Twin Peaks at Sweet Briar

April 8, 2015 | by

Remembering a momentous semester as Twin Peaks turns twenty-five and Sweet Briar closes its doors.


The Sweet Briar House.

In 2012, I taught a freshman comp class called Myths About Women. The primary texts were Antigone and Twin Peaks. This was at Sweet Briar College, and as it happens, the students from that class will be among the last to graduate from the 114-year-old women’s college this May. Last month, the school’s board of directors voted to close it at the end of this academic year because of “insurmountable financial challenges.”

I’d been trying for a few semesters to arrive at a reading list that would help the students think critically about gender—this was a women’s college, after all. But Sweet Briar, in Virginia, is not like its northern counterparts Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke. Sweet Briar’s official mascot is the vixen; its official colors are pink and green, a color scheme long synonymous with preppy fashion. And everywhere there are the trappings of wealthy, white Southern culture: among the student body, pearls are imbued with an almost totemic power. The campus bookstore sells Lilly Pulitzer handbags. Read More »

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson

January 6, 2015 | by

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week. Read More »