The intellectuals don’t get why their candidate John “Hari” Kerry tanked so badly a week ago at the ballot boxes. And now come the same bunch of smarter-than-thou folks who don’t get why Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, his 676-page new novel about college life, is now No. 2 on the Amazon best-seller list.
The reviewers, many of whom hail from the groves of academe that Wolfe satirizes, are nearly uniformly holding up their noses at the book–because its theme is the undergraduate “hooking up” culture of rampant, drink-addled casual sex, and they don’t understand why anyone would want to make fun of that. Yesterday, The Other Charlotte wrote about Michael Dirda’s incredulous review of Wolfe’s book for the Washington Post (see I Am Charlotte Stuffy, Nov. 7). Like TOC, I’m generally an awestruck admirer of Michael’s reviewing powers and writing talents, and he’s also a personal friend of Both Us Charlottes. But Michael is one of a number of reviewers who can’t believe that Wolfe or his heroine would have such a puritanical attitude toward sex. The Boston Globe’s Don Aucoin reports today:
“Some early reviews of Wolfe’s effort have been withering and have suggested that the writer known for cutting-edge social analysis is woefully behind the times. Michiko Kakutani, a reviewer for The New York Times, called the novel ‘peculiarly dated’ and ‘flat-footed,’ and wrote that it is full of ‘tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life.’ In the view of USA Today’s Bob Minzesheimer, it is ‘overwritten, uninspiring.’ David Gates opined in Newsweek that Wolfe’s title character ‘lacks that mysterious core’ and that his characters are ‘basically laboratory animals observed in complicated though not highly evolved behaviors.'”
Most withering of all is this review of “Charlotte Simmons” by Princeton professor Elaine Showalter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Showalter’s main beef is that Wolfe’s novel is about a college campus–the fictional “Dupont University” said to be modeled on oh-so-trendy Duke–but it’s not about the stuff that Showalter and her colleagues are interested in: faculty squabbles about turf and tenure. Or if it has to be about undergrads, why isn’t “Charlotte Simmons” a “bildungsroman” of the kind assigned in English classes, in which sensitive young Gunther from the boonies goes to the big university and there discovers that his destiny is to forge the uncreated consciousness of his race? And if it has to be about sex, why isn’t it about the kind of sex that interests faculty members: professors having affairs with their students?
Wolfe’s novel isn’t about any of these things, and is Showalter ever miffed! She not only disses the book but she can’t resist taking potshots at Wolfe’s age: How dare the old geez write a novel about young people! Here she goes:
“…[W]hat can be expected when a novelist in his 70s (Wolfe is 73) takes on the subject of undergraduate life? Mainly voyeurism. In his last book of essays, Hooking Up (2000), Wolfe gave a preview of what really interested him about the contemporary university: coed bathrooms and oral sex. We get plenty of both in Charlotte Simmons. In the past, Wolfe has been noted for his great ear for accent, dialect, slang, and idiolect. In Charlotte Simmons, however, he seems to have lost it….The two basic categories of contemporary undergraduate speech, according to the fastidious and sheltered Wolfe, are the F–k Patois and the Sh-t Patois. He also devotes a considerable amount of space to an exegesis of the term ‘cool,’ and Charlotte speaks in an exaggerated hillbilly accent he phonetically spells out.”
Since I teach at a university myself where I overhear quite a bit of both patoises, along with the word “cool” in nearly every sentence, I don’t understand what’s so “dated” about all this. And if it’s “fastidious” and “sheltered” to observe that parents are spending $30,000-plus a year in tuition to have their kids learn how to swear like sailors and rut like the rats in the biology lab, count me among the dainty. What really irritates Showalter, however, is that there aren’t enough female professors in the novel. (Here’s a new idea for a federal program: affirmative action in fiction.) Wolfe also implies–how dare he?–that what the sexual revolution has wrought on campus isn’t the joyful liberation for women that femnistas like Showalter have touted but a free-for-all of concupiscience that mainly benefits the good-looking jocks, who refer to freshman girls as “frostitutes” and “fresh meat” and have coined the word “sexiled” for being kicked out of your dorm room while your roommate is bedding someone. Showalter writes:
“…Wolfe’s latest novel is bitchy, status-seeking, and dissecting — and this time, unfortunately, numbingly juvenile. Titillated by the sexual revolution that has arrived on campus since his own student days, Wolfe totally misses the feminist revolution that has given us so many more women students, faculty members, deans, and presidents. Neither producing a professorroman nor a bildungsroman, he tells us little about the nature of the academy or anything about student life and thought that transcends the grossest of stereotypes.”
I’ll leave you to the professorromans and the bildungsromans, Dr. Showalter. Wolfe’s new book sounds like great fun to me, and dotard though he may be, it sounds as though he still hasn’t lost much of his touch. In his interview with the Globe’s Aucoin, he’s in top form:
“Wolfe said that while drinking is probably no more common on college campuses today than it was 50 years ago, the amount of casual sex, or ‘hookups’ in student parlance, has greatly increased. He said this is because building ‘character’ is no longer an essential component of a college education (‘You’ll never hear the subject’ during addresses by administrators, he said), and because attitudes have changed among the families of college students, which stems, in part, from ‘the decline of religion among the educated and well-to-do,’ where ‘the standard form of courtship is cohabitation.’
“In the wake of a presidential election in which religion and ‘values’ appear to have played a role in the reelection of President Bush — how big a role is the subject of dispute — Wolfe’s novel may resonate with some readers. Already, the author says, ‘lock-step intellectuals’ are disparaging Bush voters as ‘poor benighted numbskulls’ who don’t ’realize they’re voting against their own self-interest.’ But in focusing on ‘pocketbook terms,’ Wolfe says, that analysis overlooks the fact that to people of deep religious belief, ‘Those things are all secondary to their way of life.'”
Yes, the same folks who don’t get why G.W. Bush won the election don’t get why “I Am Charlotte Simmons” is No. 2.