An Interview with Jennifer Egan on Academia in Fiction
“The truth is, I’m not really qualified to teach literature,” remarked author Jennifer Egan in an interview following her appearance at LitFest, where she shared some stories of her process in writing her most recent novel “Manhattan Beach.” Egan’s fiction and journalism, including Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” has earned her wide acclaim in popular and academic circles alike.
Despite her immense success, Egan decided to trade in her pen for a laser pointer to try her hand in academia, teaching the lecture class “Self, Image and Community: Studies in Modern Fiction” at the University of Pennsylvania this spring. Marked by her modesty, Egan adds that “the jury’s kind of out on how well that’s going.”
As a society, we like to assign writers and academics the hermetic roles of “creator” and “analyzer.” The former exists in their “private creative space” — a desk, an apartment, a highly aesthetic armchair by a fire — while the latter inhabits the academic and public spaces of the university — classrooms, lecture halls, etc. — and there’s of course no room for crossover. Nevertheless, this societal assumption certainly hasn’t led to any shortage of writers at universities.
“The universities are lousy with us … teaching writing and writing workshops,” noted Egan. As anyone who’s ever applied to a notoriously selective Amherst College creative writing class might be aware, the phenomenon holds true at most colleges and universities. Today, plenty of writers choose to get Masters of Fine Arts, and furthermore, plenty of writers end up teaching in these programs. Take last year’s LitFest headliner Junot Díaz as an example. He’s a graduate of Cornell’s creative writing MFA program and now is a professor of creative writing at MIT.
Egan is certainly familiar with this world. She’s taught her fair share of creative writing workshops at MFA and undergraduate programs throughout her career. But what happens when the writer wants to occupy both the role of creator and analyzer, occupying private and public spaces?
“I can’t say it really suits me,” she remarked in reference to teaching these workshops. “Part of it may be that I myself didn’t get an MFA,” she added. Instead, Egan spent her undergraduate and graduate years reading and analyzing English literature — engaging in the work of the academic but at the student level, and, in the spirit of the liberal arts education, eschewing the goal of professional specialization and pursuing instead what was most fascinating to her. “I just loved the rigor of textual close-reading and analysis,” she reflected.
So why then choose the path of the writer as opposed to the academic? Contrary to the conception of the mutually exclusive creative and analytical spheres, Egan would argue that fiction writing doesn’t preclude the exercise of academic intellectual muscles. Consequently, while you won’t find her writing in academia, you’ll certainly find academia in her writing.
“I tend to have a lot of academics in my fiction,” she said. She provided the example of a period of time while writing “A Visit from the Goon Squad” where she was utterly fascinated by the pauses in rock songs — think, maybe, Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” or Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Clearly this was worthy of scholarly analysis. Naturally, Egan introduced an academic character whose research investigated these pauses — measuring them, categorizing them, expounding theories as to their meanings, etc. While she ultimately decided to reassign the role to a somewhat on-the-spectrum child rather than an adult woman, the investigative drive and analytical thought processes remained. “I love writing about people like that, because it gives me a chance to bring a rigor of thought and ideas into my work,” she added.
Coincidentally, real-life academic analysis of Egan’s work has also explored academic fascinations. At a conference on her work, a professor at the University of London presented on his analysis of the “disproportionately high number of, often unfulfilled, postgraduate researchers” in her novels. Instead of the creative invading the sphere of the academic, Egan has managed to pull the academic into the creative sphere.
Since then, however, Egan has actually further infiltrated the sphere and role of the academic with her class at the University of Pennsylvania. It is an English literature course; she’s picking readings, writing lectures, walking through powerpoints, grading essays — by her own admission, “these students are not there to write fiction.”
Still, this doesn’t mean she’s abandoned her creative inclination, as she continues to make use of writing activities to help develop analytical thought. She described one exercise which involved placing a chair in the middle of the room, splitting the 60+ person class into two groups and having them each describe the chair. The first group, however, would be told that the chair “is alive,” while the second group would only be told that it “can explode.” The results were drastically diverging assessments of this one mundane object. Egan said that “what [she] was trying to get them to do was triangulate back from the quality of description to the assumptions of the perspective from which the object is being described.” Creative writing then becomes a valuable pedagogical tool in the English professor’s arsenal.
Perhaps then Egan is not really demonstrating the creative “invading” the academic’s role; such a statement might just reinforce the creative-academic binary. Instead, maybe she has begun a syncretization of the two spheres, helping to accentuate their mutually reinforcing qualities, rather than their supposed mutual exclusivity.
Egan expressed interest in furthering her syncretic experiment in different iterations and at different institutions, particularly looking to teach in a city system like the City University of New York, where she believes emphasis is often placed on specialization over exploration.
Nevertheless, doubts about her own English professorship qualifications remain, as she confessed, “I’m just not sure … whether someone else couldn’t do this just as well or better than I’m doing it.” Part of this stems from not yet having even completed her first try at the experiment. After all, the semester isn’t over yet and course evaluations have yet to be completed.
She did make sure to give herself some credit. “It’s not going badly,” she added. “Nothing’s blown up.”
Well, except maybe the chair.