With the tightening of budgets, faculty allocations, classroom space, and intellectual perspectives generally, it seems to me that there's more pressure to justify why we teach what we do -- especially for those of us who teach literature. This kind of self-justification takes place both officially and unofficially. One needs to "pitch" courses to convince department heads, deans, and curriculum overseers generally that the offerings will fit snugly enough into college requirements to draw a sufficient number of students. But there are also more informal pressures, as in casual conversations that might start, "I see that you include so-and-so on your reading list. Curious choice. Why do you teach her?"
In 25 years of full-time faculty life, I don't remember hearing these questions as often as I've heard them in the past two or three years. More unnervingly, I've found myself asking colleagues questions like, "Seriously? You include the Twilight series on your reading list?" I feel as if I am showing not only my age but also my prejudices when I blurt out such a question over a cup of coffee at work or a drink at a conference. Yet the very fact that I'm throwing down that particular professional gauntlet has me wondering: Are those kinds of nit-picky questions useful? Do they lead to a real exchange of ideas or simply entrench us in our academic bunkers?
Of course, I've been justifying a couple of my own reading-list choices for almost the whole time I've been teaching. From 1984 onward, some colleague or another has asked me, "Fay Weldon? Why on earth do you teach her?" As the reputation of this author has changed over the years, so has my answer. To celebrate the publication this month of her book The New Countess (Habits of the House), I decided to write about why I love Fay Weldon.
In the early 1980s, when I discovered her, Weldon was stigmatized in academic circles as "too commercial" to be taken seriously. Her frequent appearances on television and radio, in print magazines and even tabloids, were apparently at odds with her increasingly respected literary work. A laudatory review by James Wilcox of her 1988 novel, The Hearts and Lives of Men, taking up the entire front page of The New York Times Book Review, would still leave her defending herself against critics who saw her as someone "who writes as if she is skateboarding -- in a whirling rush and clatter, always, it seems, in imminent danger of coming adrift from the narrative that is her unstable vehicle, sustained only by her own speed." (The Times of London, 2004).
This accusation -- of being slapdash, frivolous, unworthy -- stuck with certain readers because Weldon also wrote for Vogue about the cheerful implications of her plastic surgery.
The perception that she was lightweight persisted, especially among American readers, despite the fact that soon after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, in 1989, it was Weldon who was asked by publisher Chatto & Windus to write for its CounterBlasts series, in which "Britain's finest writers and thinkers confront the crucial issues of the day."
She had no hesitation in taking up the politically charged challenge. Weldon defiantly, playfully, and -- many thought -- bravely called her long essay about Rushdie "Sacred Cows." Critical of the fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran (and the Bible and any other "books that take the words of men who claim to have spoken to God" ), Weldon defended Rushdie's work as explaining "the nature of one culture in terms of ... the other; it exalts one and humbles another in unexpected places: the language of the mandarin and colloquial collide as do mortal and immortal; archangel and whole; good and evil; the sacred and the profane. The collision strikes sparks; the sparks take fire: it is an advancement of the old theology: of course the world reels: it doesn't happen for no reason: this is the stuff of revelation, inspiration, the muse, call it what you like."
Throughout it all, Weldon has been widely taught since her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, hit the shelves, in 1967. Her short stories became standard in anthologies and textbooks for introduction-to-literature classes and gender studies, and in England her novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was even assigned as a central text to sixth-form students sitting for their university entrance exams.
Weldon's incisive, funny truth-telling places her alongside Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen, and Spark. Yet she is not referred to as a "great writer" as casually as is, say, Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis, or Rushdie.
Weldon never glamorized the process of putting one word after the other; one should avoid the temptation of regarding oneself as too much of an artiste, she has warned. Having written everything from advertising copy to text for the Foreign Service -- "writing lies," as she's called it -- Weldon continues to be mercurial. She moves from dramatist to short-story writer to television scriptwriter, then back to novelist. Her prose, too, shuttles easily among domestic comedy, melodrama, history, and autobiography.
What gives a writer a reputation as "teachable" but not "great"? In Weldon's case, is it because her writing is forever associated with her successful television work that we're suspicious of her? (Her TV fame began in 1971, when she wrote the first episode of the British series Upstairs, Downstairs.) Or because her visibility in glossy magazines has eclipsed her literary reputation?
More likely it's that the academy prefers writers who are perversely obscure and aggressively contemptuous toward their readers. We often value authors who write wisely but, in fact, not terribly well. Authors who write well and achieve popularity are therefore not as consistently rewarded by the faint praise of scholarly focus.Even as Weldon manages to question the nature of fate and individual will, desire and imagination, as well as the relationship between the political and the personal, her most complex novels remain her cautionary tales. She writes about taking responsibility for one's actions and understanding the essentially interconnected nature of events, whether invented wholesale or based on the lives of people she knew. In her 2009 novel, Chalcot Crescent, she writes:
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath ... were down in Devon, around the time Assia Wevill and her husband David were visiting for the weekend. Sylvia asked Assia to peel the potatoes and Assia felt herself misused and treated like the maid and went down the garden path to where Ted was, and flirted with him and kissed him just to be revenged on Sylvia, and see where that led, two dead women and one dead child later.
Students remember not only lines but also whole passages of her prose; mine quote her back to me years after they've graduated. They don't sell Weldon's books back at the end of the semester, either. They keep them because they know they'll want to read them again -- or pass them along. Recently a student who graduated in 1994 repeated back to me, without stumbling once, the passage I ask them to write in their notebooks during the first class meeting: "One must be careful with words. Words turn probabilities into facts and, by sheer force of definition, translate tendencies into habits." That's from The Fat Woman's Joke, and even before they understand it, they get it.
Weldon's writing lingers and lasts, and remains open to interpretation and debate, but never at the cost of obscurity or ostentation. That's why she's great; and it's because she's great that I teach her.
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The original version of this appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.