Dispatches | January 24, 2011

During a recent round of friendly drinks here in downtown Columbia, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that he didn’t finish college. Or, more accurately, he was upset about the way he is labeled and stereotyped by some people. This is the way he is identified: he is seen as a person that didn’t graduate from college. A dropout, a restless soul, indecisive, or some other dismissive way of viewing his life.

I said, that goes away. Once you get a little bit older, no one really cares how much education you have. Many people I know work in fields that have nothing to do with their college degree. Instead, when I meet someone for the first time, I eventually ask “What do you do?”

What someone does for a living is not, of course, the end all and be all of a person’s character. You don’t get into all the good stuff that makes a person unique in the first five minutes of a conversation (unless you’re talking with one of those people who asks far too personal questions the moment they meet you, but those people freak me out so why talk to them?). Asking about a job is polite. And, a person’s work can be quite revealing.

When you think about it, most of us spend a large chunk of our day working. Five days a week – and more for many of us (or less days but longer hours) – we go somewhere and work. Characters in most novels have jobs, but literature actually about work is not commonplace, though some examples like Joshua Ferris and Ed Park spring to mind. And yet, a large number of stories I’ve recently read coming into TMR make more than just a passing reference to the protagonist’s job, often in a way that seems to be ill-considered. The number one job for protagonists in these not-quite-fully-imagined stories is teacher. Specifically, English teacher at a university.

A quick glance through our archives or work published in many other good literary journals will show that we’ve published plenty of stories and essays about being a teacher. Giving a character such a job doesn’t inherently make the story bad. On the other hand, seeing lines like “Carol’s morning survey class was full of sleepy freshman” makes me stop every single time.

A few years ago, when I was still working at River Styx, we received a ton of stories about the Lazarus. Not the department store or some sort of symbolic narrative (though, this too, would be odd), but stories about the actual Lazarus. Not tons, ultimately – eight or nine at the most – but it came up so frequently that I wondered if I had missed a contemporary literary trend in ironic response to the recycled popularity of vampires and zombies.

These trends come and go; Lazarus didn’t come back the next year (sorry – couldn’t help it). But I still read enough manuscripts that certain choices writers made began to seem very familiar. And the number of stories with a main character working (unhappily, always) as a university English teacher seems to be increasing.

So too does my resistance to these stories.

Usually the professor-protagonist is bitter about his/her indifference to the job, and these are moments that are, I suppose, intended to be something the reader can relate to. I tend to roll my eyes. Everything here becomes familiar, banal, dull. The protagonist becomes paper-thin. A teaching job never makes the protagonist any richer, deeper. It seems to be a default, as if there is no other job that the writer can think of. Rarely do these classroom scenes or lonely office hours of grading bad essays have any true relevance in the story: it simply reinforces the idea that the character is unhappy, which the reader knew from the moment the protagonist’s job was told.

So the protagonist remains flat, lacking depth or complexity, and becoming a type, a wholly expected and overdone cliché. The assumption, it seems, is that this job is universally known to be miserable and unpromising. It is, then, exactly what the reader expects. No surprise or tension here: personally, I stop actively reading and struggle to not skim. This is a terrible feeling, one that I try to resist. But I’ve yet to come across a recent submission with the professor-protagonist that doesn’t make me cringe.

Here’s a leap. Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is many things: perfection of his minimalist style; an example of excellent dialogue; a snapshot of two people that reveals their entire lifetime; imagery that resonates in its depth and emotion; and of course, being a “teachable” story that often requires an explanation that the young couple is talking about an abortion. But the story’s staying power is in its tragedy: it’s a story about not being able to see the world in metaphor, a story about the crushing of a woman’s imagination.

The failure of imagination should deeply trouble all of us. Looking around the world, seeing the news, it’s hard not to feel as if the dullness of celebrity culture and fame has permeated all aspects of our lives. Lazy mimicry is the default mode not just for political discourse, but in our art as well. In fiction, something feels missing to me in the story of a professor-protagonist: a lack of insight, maturity, feeling, inspiration, I don’t know, something. Usually, as in most things in these stories that don’t quite work, there are still characters, moments, sentences, perhaps even just a clause, that are so striking and so good that I can’t imagine why the author defaulted to such a one-dimensional character like the professor-protagonist. There is something optimistic about creating art, writing stories. So the apparent laziness puzzles me to no end.

I’m sure that not every story needs to get into the protagonist’s job; in fact, I’m positive that isn’t the case. So when employment comes up, I expect it to do quite a bit. In fiction, an architect and a zoologist aren’t the same character; neither are the names Kathryn, Katherine, Kathy, or Kate. Small choices matter tremendously. Simple statements of a job – white collar, blue collar, corporate attorney, truck driver, auto mechanic, house painter, and so on – have meaning. There are no simple statements. There can be no missteps. The professor-protagonist often gets “proven” in these stories with characters and scenes that are so familiar and unimaginative that they become wholly meaningless.

This is not to say that it can’t be done, that the professor-protagonist might have a compelling story. My good friend, the poet Richard Newman, was in a classroom, being told a series of Do’s and Don’ts about writing. He wrote his poem “The Briefcase of Sorrow” (later anthologized in the Best American Poetry series) after coming across this quote from Frances Mayes:

Some writers get into the habit of letting of name a metaphor without really showing the image to the reader: sea of life, mattress of the soul, river of death … or (perhaps worst of all) briefcase of sorrow.

So, I’m playing the curmudgeon role here: no more professor-protagonist stories! Or maybe I’m asking aloud (sorta) for something else: a new, imaginative look at the professor-protagonist. Either way, readers and writers will resist any sort of Do and Don’t list from me. Which, in one way or the other, is exactly what we’re looking for in great fiction.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review