She told our class that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. She told us that if we couldn’t take rejection, if we couldn’t be told no, then we couldn’t be writers. ‘I’d rather shoot myself than read that again,’ she often said. The fact that writing could not be taught was clear from the way she shrugged and lifted her eyes after this or that student effort. ‘I don’t know why it is we can read Dostoyevsky and then go back and write like idiots.’ But a passion for reading could be shared. She said that the only way to learn to write was to read. Week after week, she read something new to us: Pasternak, Rilke, Baudelaire, Gogol.
What a nightmare of a teacher.
There’s a grift at work in Hardwickian teaching (unfair to name it after her, as she wasn’t the first creative writing teacher to inspire and teach from idolatry, and won’t be the last). It’s a lot like the lies of the GOP. Hating the way good governance gets in the way of profit-growth and white supremacy, the GOP needs to convince folks not only that government itself is bad, but (here’s the grift) that the best way to fix the problem is to elect people with open disdain for good governance.
Hire termites to build your deck. Hire the Beastie Boys to chaperone the school dance. Hire a teacher who doesn’t believe writing can be taught to teach writing. What feels like Outside The Box thinking will soon lead to your ruin.
In Pinckney’s case, his bad teacher happened to (a) have direct ties to the New York Review of Books, and (b) take him under her proverbial wing, inviting him to her apartment every week to talk about writing and books. So the actual damage Hardwick was doing to him and his classmates is glossed over in this piece that focuses instead on their intimate friendship.
Would that Pinckney found some classmates to interview. How many would-be writers never came to be because of Hardwick’s characteristic shrugging?
Teaching like this drives me up a fucking wall. I want to get to the bottom of why, and to start we’ll need to look more closely at what ‘teaching like this’ is, and what’s so bad about it.
People who don’t love comedy like to claim that there are certain things you can’t make jokes about—rape, the Holocaust, child abuse, etc.—and then expert comics come along and write very good jokes about those things. (And inexpert comics come along and write very bad jokes that seem to prove the claim.)
People who don’t know—or, more importantly, care—about teaching like to claim there are certain things you can’t teach. It’s another kind of lie that reminds me of GOP grift. To believe that Some Things Can’t Be Taught is like believing that Some Billionaires Are Self-Made. It seems deeply unreasonable to suspect that people come up with their ideas, knowledge, ability (or, in this analogy, money) out of thin air. What’s known, what’s practiced, has to be learned, and if you believe in learning you can’t not believe in teaching.
Teaching is the art and science of getting somebody to learn something.
If you don’t think writing can be taught, you don’t believe in teaching. Or, you believe that writing is in some special category outside of all other forms of knowledge and ability.
Either way, you shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom.
Later in the piece, Pinckney paraphrases mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: ‘You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning.’
I want to think closely about this line, because it points to acts of seduction, and there’s something so seductive about Hardwickian teaching—for the student, as we see in Pinckney’s piece, but also for the teacher.
I would love, LOVE to teach this way. It’s what I imagine the job of food competition show judge being like: waltz in, get fed food you neither prepared nor paid for, talk about what you like and dislike, and get paid. Claim your authority and let it make you charming by how scrupulously you hand out favor. (Paul Hollywood, I’m looking in your handshake’s direction.) My job would be so goddamn easy.
If there’s a hard part of this job it seems to be the Falling In Love part: being the right sort of selfish teacher that makes students swoon. Likely this is easy, too, in that the institutional setting has engineered much of the romance for you. Students arrive vulnerable and needing, open to new ideas. Maybe your class has been tough to get into, a line of applicants you get to pick from like chocolates in a box. Thus your students feel chosen, special. Each of them secretly hoping they’re your favorite.
I mean what could go wrong?
One more example, and then I’m going to try to play some devil’s advocate. In grad school, a teacher I swooned for was the writer Robert Olen Butler, who came a couple of years to the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. I didn’t know his work, I only knew his accolades. (The Pulitzer Prize!) I didn’t get to take a workshop with him, because they filled up with paying members quickly, and I was a lowly volunteer. But I did take time to attend a panel at another conference that I recall being Butler and four of his former students, all talking about what they learned from him in grad school, and how it fed into their fiction.
At any rate, the key word with Butlerian teaching is ‘yearning’. Butler has decided that ‘fiction is the art form of human yearning’, and the student panelists talked about how, in class, he’d ask them to read from their story and stop them the moment he couldn’t hear any yearning on the page. That’s when they knew they had some revision work to do, and they knew exactly what to revise for.
Call it Theory Of Everything teaching. Marilynn Robinson at Iowa reportedly used to allow only realism in her workshops, because it was the only fiction she found worthwhile. In TOE teaching, the teacher—the authority in the room—demands that art stay continuous with what they have read and known and believed in. The teacher approves only what’s familiar to them. In such a rubric, what chance does any art have to move forward?
What art has ever moved forward in a classroom? It does seem foolish to assume that students’ growth and breakthroughs happen from what’s learned in the classroom instead of against it, outside that space, in students’ own time and minds. Which brings to mind another story I’ve collected about bad teaching, this one from David Foster Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Plurum’ (which I imagine Butler et al had never read, or had and found ways to dismiss its arguments that TV has changed literary fiction in ways the latter better soon catch up with):
In one of the graduate workshops I suffered through, an earnest gray eminence kept trying to convince our class that a literary story or novel always eschews ‘any feature which serves to date it,’ because ‘serious fiction must be timeless.’ When we finally protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the frivolous ‘Now.’ When pressed for just what stuff evoked this f.N., he said of course he meant the ‘trendy mass-popular-media’ reference. And here, at just this point, transgenerational discourse broke down. We looked at him blankly. We scratched our little heads. We didn’t get it. This guy and his students just didn’t imagine the ‘serious’ world the same way. His automobiled timeless and our FCC’d own were different.
Before I started teaching, I feared ever being such a clueless teacher. But after I started teaching, I eventually became okay with being such a teacher. If something I say or insist on in the classroom annoys or even reviles a student, leading them to write something against my teachings (there’s Hardwick’s revenge motive for you), haven’t I still taught them something? I don’t ever want to write like Dave Madden is, in its way, a useful thing to learn about yourself.
There’s a different kind of arrogance behind the teaching I favor—i.e., meeting each student where they are, assessing their knowledge and goals, and giving them applicable tools to achieve those goals. It’s an arrogance about how I’m not only able to be the best teacher they have, but the sole teacher they have. Put another way, I’m playing out a fantasy where my course is some kind of culmination of my students’ learning, rather than one class amid a long education, one that begins before and continues after they enroll in our program. I’m likely deluding myself about the influence I can have on one student in 15 weeks.
Another point worth making: I’m teaching from my insecurities as a writer. I have publications, sure, and I’ve won a tiny amount of awards here and there, but I don’t have the kind of career others notice and discuss, like Butler and Hardwick did. What I Think Writing Should Be And Do has not been publicly sanctioned in the same way.
Without the literary success that could enable me to become a Hardwickian inspirer, with hard-and-fast opinions delivered openly (I am tenured after all), I hold onto teaching know-how. My dilettanteish reading into how learning happens in the brain. (And my publications on the same.) If I feel I can’t be an inspiration to students, then I’ll try to be the smartest guy in the room.
Which brings me back to Pinckney’s luck and privilege. He was enrolled at Columbia after all. No discussion in the piece about the costs of that education, or who paid for it, or what kind of student loans he graduated with. Hardwickian teaching is a dream for students whose lives are fully committed to learning and scholarliness.
When your students are spending tens of thousands of dollars for a writing education, and working hard to fit that learning in amid their full-time jobs, their family obligations, etc., Hardwickian teaching isn’t just bad, it feels like a kind of abuse. Imagine admitting someone to your class, then telling them their writing isn’t very good.
Then again, I might also imagine a student more resilient to bad teaching. From Pinckney’s piece:
[Hardwick] didn’t think I needed to burden myself with trying to be a gay novelist.
‘Sex is comic and love is tragic,’ she told me. ‘Queers know this.’
She said that I didn’t yet have the experience for what I was writing about, and that the writing itself was immature, because I was imitating her, which, she could assure me, was a dead end.
‘Better stay away from gay lit, honey.’
As much as he learned from Hardwick, kudos to Pinckney for knowing when not to learn from her, too.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
In classic New Yorker fashion, turns out this isn’t a magazine piece or essay he’s written, but rather a publicist/agent–landed excerpt from a forthcoming book.↵
These are the kinds of panels conference organizers used to approve. God, I hope they’re not still doing it, just with more inclusive faculty.↵
The night before the election, N & I watched another episode of that Lord of the Rings series. I was in a rotten mood, having been earlier at happy hour drinks with a friend, where the bar gave my card to another customer who’d left long before I did. The episode was about humans and elves gearing up for another big battle with orcs. Solemn faces. Oaths of solidarity. Heaps of longbows getting handed out. I hate this, I kept repeating in my head. Then: why do I hate this?
A bad habit of mine when I ask that question is to assume something heterosexual’s afoot, to ascribe badness or myopic thinking or rehashed triteness to the heterosexual. To be clear going forward: queerness has all kinds of this stuff too. One useful example might be Bros, which we’ll return to, delicately, as I haven’t even seen it.
Talk about myopic thinking.
As I’ve written before, what makes a story heterosexual might be its being a story. ‘Story chauvinism’ is what I call the belief that storytelling isn’t just another aesthetic pleasure, another way of thinking about the world, but rather something essential to humanity. Its cri de coeur is Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,’ but you can findthemythrepeatedeverywhere.[*]
In that post linked above, I had trouble making the argument story = heteronormativity. This post might be another attempt. To what end? Why am I trying to make this argument? I’m by profession someone who writes stories at times, and I’m feeling a hunger for stories that feel truer to me than those I, a queer person, am often told.
That’s the smartypants version. The rotten-mood version from the other night? ‘This Lord of the Rings show isn’t half as good as any episode of Golden Girls,’ I told myself. I still believe this with all of my heart. How is it true? And what does it mean?
So what’s an ‘important story’? Here’s just as good a definition as any, coming as it does in the middle of one:
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
This little speech has choked me up more than once at the end of The Two Towers, and half of that emotion is coming from Sean Astin’s big, thick, kissable face as he speaks it.
But we can extract a few key elements of ‘great stories’:
They present something about the fixity of good and evil, shadow and light.
Perseverance (i.e., ‘lots of chances of turning back’) takes the form of a fight/battle against evil.
They point to or are set in times of yore, and see ‘us’ as a continuation of the people therein.
This last one is the thing I feel most frustrated by. (Though the others present problems I’ll get to in a bit.) When you grow up queer in a straight family, you learn early on that stories/histories/the past can’t tell you who you are, because the story of every consanguineous family is the story of heterosexual generation. When you’re in the closet, or in denial about yourself, this truth hits you very painfully—I don’t fit in the story everyone’s telling—but later you begin to see how the story is wrong, or at least incomplete.
A queer person’s queerness begins at the moment of intractable separation from the birth family, which is a separation from history. What makes a story queer is how it thus begins with the actuality of loss or isolation.
Loss isn’t a threat, as it often is in Important Stories. The loss (of self, family, tradition, safety, values, etc.) that’s feared by the coming of evil can’t be fought against. For the queer person, it’s always already happened.
The important story then becomes: how to move on?
Which brings us back to The Golden Girls, as great an epic as any on how to move on after tremendous loss: of husbands, of careers, of self-sufficiency, of one’s purportedly ‘fuckable years’. And what’s evil look like in the Golden Girls Universe? Who are the villains? It’s been a while since I’ve rewatched the series, but we can find an easy analogue in the Designing Women universe, where evil takes the form of people (straight men) who don’t even listen to, much less respect, the underrepresented:
If ‘evil’ in every story is shorthand for the forces that seek to destroy the lives and values of the protagonist(s), then ‘evil’ in a queer story involves a return to the pre-splintered family. Evil means retying the thread to the past. What characters embody that, or enforce it? What do they look like? How are they not-us or not-like-us?
Probably the biggest lie heterosexual stories tell is that evil will always stand out as different, making itself so clearly known that all the people who are not-different will band together to fight it.
Lone heroes have little place in queer stories, because it turns out that How To Move On From Great Loss involves coalition-building, chosen families. I’m inspired a lot here by Kevin Brazil’s thinking in Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?, which posits a kind of Bechdel Test for queer stories: ‘Is there a scene where two queer friends appear without, and without discussing, their family trauma or their fucked-up lovers?’
Likely Bros passes this test, given the run time. And likely the elements of greatness in a romcom (so heterosexual genre) differ enough from those of the fantasy epic to warrant a separate post. But I count myself among the millions who didn’t go see Bros during its failed opening weekend. Representation matters, but from the $30 million advertising budget, it was clear that Bros had a very old story to tell. Letting gays avatar themselves inside hetero archetypes does not a queer movie make.
If, again, that’s what Bros does. Like I said, I haven’t seen it.
A few years back, I was walking past the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange downtown, a neo-classical building that had, by that time, become a luxury gym, and I noticed this large image hanging between columns:
I imagined what it would be like to be seen or ‘read’ by this ad, feeling like I had nothing to commit to other than $200 a month to have a body shaped aesthetically. Fuck off, Equinox I said to myself. I’ve committed to lots.
But had I?
I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately, likely prompted by a post by Zohar Atkins, a rabbi, theologist, and philosopher whose substack, What Is Called Thinking?, asks questions I often find myself surprised to care deeply about, and I appreciate his means of thinking through them. This post is about the difficulties of desire, knowing not only how to get what you want, but what, even, to want:
[M]odern liberty means we have choice but not all choices are equally good or good for us, so if we worship liberty alone, we’ll have nothing to help us know what to choose. We have more choice than ever yet the overwhelm from it can lead to fatigue or even despair, a life of constantly weighing options.
Leo Strauss might say that the ancients were aware of the modern tendency to excess and so curtailed our options intentionally. But the more interesting question to ask is whether we can celebrate choice itself without cheapening the importance of a counter-veiling weight in life, commitment.
Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm.
A reckoning of accounts was the idea, every pleasure of the hedonist—whether it’s being fed grapes in your divan, spending all night at a sex club, or even reading for hours and hours—having a cost, and the hedonist being sure to ‘cover’ those costs in some way. Pay the people feeding you grapes a living wage. Vote for policies that value and protect the laborers in the vineyards. Etc.
Atkins’s notion of commitment gives me a more interesting idea for a kind of check on hedonism and gluttony and such: What are you remaining committed to other than yourself and your pleasure?
When I talked before about the hedonist being, traditionally, a gross figure in the stories in which they appear, I think that disgust comes from the image they cast: here’s a person who uses their unimaginable privilege only for their own benefit. The hedonist’s commitments turn always back to themselves.
This idea also helps me understand what bothered me and my friend about the sober conference-goer. To recap:
We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S.
Ascetic pleasures are the other side of the same coin as hedonistic pleasures—both commit the self to the self. When it comes to sobriety specifically, that commitment is to be honored, after a history of the sober person abandoning and betraying their selves and their bodies. Perhaps this is one of the allures of 12-step programs: your newfound commitment to yourself is always also a commitment to others, through sponsoring, through sharing at meetings, etc.
So: what am I committed to?
My partner, and the parts of my job that involve other people (students, colleagues). My newsletter, which while others have told me doesn’t need to come out every other week I’ve committed to writing and releasing it every other week. This is chiefly a commitment to myself, but people have told me they enjoy Shenny, so it’s also a (small) service.
But I’ll confess here to feeling very non-committal. I don’t volunteer. I don’t have a group or club I meet with regularly. I have 2 sets of friends with whom I still hangout on Zoom, every other week, like clockwork, all these many years after shelter-in-place orders. In wanting to catalogue my commitments, I’m returned to the question What for?
Why is commitment so important? Isn’t hedonism about achieving a freedom from commitments? Atkins sees in this approach a deadening of the mind, not by being spoilt through excess, but by being dried up inside the self, atrophied in the absence of external motivators.
This I agree with, particularly as a teacher. Commitment to others or something outside the self is a virtue because, in opening ourselves up to others, we learn more about them. This world can’t move forward with all of us living with, acting for, or believing solely in ourselves.
Hedonism teaches us to value pleasure as a moral good. Its check need not be a balance of pain or drudgery. Commitment—of course its the ending I’ve been aiming for—can in this regard become a pleasure in itself.
In sixth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, which is about a young boy in the Ozarks with two dogs. In the story, he gets in a fight with a neighbor, who falls on an axe and is killed on the spot. Later he watches a mountain lion kill one of his dogs. The other dog dies of grief. I remember WTRFG as being a Good and Important book, and I think I felt this because it was one of the first books that led me through grim deaths and how it felt to grieve somebody.
It was also the first violent book I remember reading. I was 11 years old, the sort of kid who avoided any fight I saw coming on the horizon. You could say, then, that WTRFG violentized me—if, that is, we had a word for such a process. But we don’t, because we don’t believe such a process exists, because we understand that since Cain slew Abel, the capacity for violence lives in every human body.
We don’t believe the same about sex, and children are worse off for it.
As you may know, I’m on Substack now. The platform has an app for reading-on-the-go-toilet, and in looking for good Substackers I browsed last night around the Faith & Spirituality category, because I wanted some new ideas and there’s only so much I can read about books and literature. There, I found ‘Unashamed with Phil Robertson’, with a pic of one of the guys very carefully groomed a decade ago to make a lot of money on TV as part of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ franchise.
The post I tapped on had an irresistible title: ‘There’s Nothing Progressive About Sexualizing Children’. Phil talks about a public school teacher fired for showing her students ways to access books online which had been banned by their school district:
[F]rom what I’ve been able to determine, some of the e-books she made available for her high school kids to read were far from harmless. For example, a book entitled “Gender Queer” graphically depicts a character performing oral sex on what I will politely call a prosthetic male sex organ. […] Truthfully, I’m not shocked that we’re talking about some public-school teachers encouraging our kids to fill their pliable minds with moral filth. But I am saddened by it. I can’t think of a single good thing that could come out of hypersexualizing people who are only just beginning to blindly navigate their own sexuality.
My emphasis there. Gender Queer is a memoir-in-comics about a nonbinary adolescent. Phil is correct about there being a scene of a teenager going down on another’s strap-on dildo. What’s fun about the Gender Queer controversy is that it began in my home county of Fairfax County Public Schools, which initially banned the book after one mother got enraged in a meeting, but then reinstated it after reviewing the book’s contents.
To break down Phil’s argument, children are born asexual, and then in adolescence they begin—blindly, note—to become sexual (like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I guess is the metaphor). This is a ‘natural’ process that happens booklessly, on their own. If a child reads a book that depicts other children ‘navigating their own sexuality’, that book has somehow adulterated this natural process of a child finding their own sexuality. The book has, thus, ‘sexualized’ what was not yet (ready to be) sexual.
Of course the argument can’t stand on its own, specious at every point. But the counterargument I need to stress here is that when Phil imagines children blindly navigating their own sexuality, he’s only imagining cis-hetero kids. Those kids are never blind to what has surrounded them: a culture of stories that repeat and affirm cis-hetero sexuality.
When Cinderella or Star Wars or Genesis fail to tell you stories about who you are, when even the story of your family is false to your lived experience, you grow up feeling shitty, wrong, and suicidal. Phil and the millions of parents caught in these false moral crusades have no fucking clue what this kind of adolescence feels like. If you can survive that adolescence, and if you’re a creative person, you feel impelled to make art that might fill the void you grew up in and help others feel less shitty, wrong, and suicidal.
That’s the progressive identitarian argument for queer books in schools. But I’m here to write about ‘hypersexualization’. You can’t sexualize a child anymore than you can sterilize rubbing alcohol. It’s already done.
Not by porn, that is. A counterargument you hear often is that porn / the internet are sexualizing children far earlier than library books can. It’s (a) not necessarily the case with all kids and (b) just providing additional fodder for Puritans on censorship crusades. And it leads me to want to make a distinction between two notions of ‘sexualization’:
Sexualizing1 = turning a child into a sexual object legible as such by an adult Sexualizing2 = initiating in a child a desire for sexual activity (i.e., ‘turning them into’ a sexual subject)
S1 is what right-wing folks are talking about when they use the word ‘grooming’—though as manyhavepointedout, what is posing as a warning about pedophilia and child trafficking is actually just old-fashioned anti-queer hate. I’d argue that more grooming goes on in the apparel industry with the advent of the child-size bikini, or in the fashion photography industry. Shutterstock.com has 14,917 photos of ‘young child bikini royalty free images’ you would not want to be caught scrolling through at work.
S2 is what, I imagine, Phil et al. believe happens ‘naturally’ around the time that children start to discover masturbating to orgasm. Or maybe it’s even as specific as when cis-male children start to want to put their penises inside vaginas. Or likely it’s more innocent, as when cis-children want to hold hands and go on a date and maybe kiss a child of the ‘opposite’ sex.
S2 is hormonal and biological, goes I think the argument and the fact. But two things happen when we take a narrow view of what constitutes ‘sexual activity’:
We fuck up the health and well-being of queer and trans kids.
We blind ourselves to sex enough to create the ‘blind navigation’ Phil et al. understand.
If that’s what ‘sexualizing’ means, then what does ‘hypersexualizing’ mean? It means queer sex practices. That’s all. Queer sex in the duck-dynastic imagination is not another form of sex—with its own values, shapes, procedures, and paraphernalia—but something beyond sex, something outside it. A perversion. ‘Hypersexualizing’ is anti-gay bigotry as old as the fucking hills.
Which brings me back to violentizing kids. It becomes a foolish concept the moment you see a 2-year-old push another kid out of the way to get what they want. We can see that violence as being not just different in degree from shooting an AR-15 into a crowd, but different in kind and still categorize it as violence. Violence inheres in us, and we do our best to teach its proper place and time.
Sex inheres in us exactly the same way. When I played doctor with little girls, or dared boys to show their wieners, or rubbed the cup of my athletic supporter for a while before pulling up my baseball pants, or humped my dick on the mattress, or put little objects up my butthole and pulled them back out again—all before the age of 13—I was doing things with my body solely to make my body feel good, while also making my heart feel good about how my body felt good.
That’s being sexual. Your kids are doing it the way you did it. The fear of sexualizing kids is a Puritan ignorance of what sex is. If we don’t want our kids to enter adulthood blindly, learning what sex is from porn, let them have the tools they need to see.