25 March 2004

Art, Fear, and Violence

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a college professor who lost her job after one of her writing students submitted a story filled with "sex and violence, incest, pedophilia ... no character development -- just hacking up bodies". The student was expelled immediately, and soon after the teacher herself was fired because she had given the class an "unauthorized" story to read: "Girl with Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace, the title story of his first collection.
According to Richman [the professor], no one in the administration was familiar with the author, and Rowley and Stephens [vice president and president of the school] were none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace's story. "Nobody had ever heard of him," she said. "In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.''
Wallace is one of the more prominent literary writers in the U.S., and it says something about the school that they would fire a teacher for teaching a short story by a contemporary writer.

What about the student? In what everybody seems intent on calling "these post-Columbine days", schools err on the side of overreaction to any expression which might somehow perhaps lead possibly to something resembling violence. Hence, the student writes what sounds like an homage to American Psycho and gets an interview with the police and an expulsion from school.

The instructor of the class seemed to handle it all professionally, and had a good plan: she was going to use the story as a way to discuss the use and misuse of violence in fiction. This is a discussion her entire class could have benefitted from, and the young writer, who sounds like he might even have something resembling talent, would have seen that there really are ways to make effective use of violence in fiction. (I'd have had him read some Paul Bowles.)

"Girl with Curious Hair" is a wonderful piece of work, by the way, and there's not a lot of Wallace that I like. It's a hilariously funny, deeply disturbing story, and the teacher's decision to use it as an example of an unreliable narrator was a good one.

The student may, indeed, have been disturbed. For the teacher and then perhaps someone else to have a conversation with him would have been appropriate and even necessary. But to call the police and to expell him, and then to fire the instructor of the class ... that is more disturbing to me than a gratuitously violent short story.