When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?
Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.
That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.
Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).
Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.
That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.
The context is David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and the great mathematician G. H. Hardy’s hatred for the “tripos,” a now-defunct series of math tests at Cambridge that served as a sort of hazing ritual something like modern-day dissertations (Hardy despises them for “The tedium. The sense of energy diverted, imagination stifled”). To pass, many candidates received encouragement and expert tutoring. In this exchange a character named Gaye speaks first, after learning that Hardy, despite his feelings about the Tripos as an institution, will tutor someone about to undergo them:
“Coaching an undergraduate for the tripos. The tripos, of all things! And after all the screeds I’ve heard you deliver against the damned—”
“He won’t make it otherwise,” [Hardy said.]
“Is it your job to save him?”
“Someone saved me.”
“But Love didn’t coach you. He just sent you back to Webb. [. . .] Yours is a more specialized erotic thrill, that of rescuing the fair damsel from the jaws of the dragon.”
There is a perpetual tension discussed here: how much, if any, obligation do we have to others and do they have to us? The question can never be satisfactorily resolved, only explored, and for that reason it is likely to be of interest to novelists (or anyone creating narrative art). Gaye and Hardy are both in their own ways right. Two or more people or viewpoints who both have reasonable claims to rightness is a fertile place for intelligent drama.
One joy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the conflict between Marina and Dr. Swenson: when one speaks I agree with her; when the other speaks I agree with her. It’s not easy to sustain this level of conflict without giving one character the upper-hand, the right answer. Novels that do so often descend to the level of propaganda rather than art.
To return to Hardy and Gaye: Relatively few of us go through life completely, callously indifferent to the suffering and travails of others but equally so very few of us devote everything we can to “saving” others (for one thing, they often don’t want to be saved, and can’t be saved from themselves). Somewhere between those poles of total indifference and utter devotion we wander erratically, with no consistent reason, helping some—even making it our “job”—and ignoring others.
Often, however, in helping others we are also helping ourselves in some sense. Hence Gaye’s reference to the erotic thrill: it’s easier to innocently “help” someone attractive, or who is likely to be in a position to pay back a favor, but very easy to deny mixed motivations—until someone else, or some other character, points them out.
Caitlin Flanagan’s well-researched and -argued “The Dark Power of Fraternities: A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame” does everything an article of its nature should do except for one important thing: talk to the women who go to frats.
The minute women stop going to frat parties, frats are going to either cease existing or shrink enormously in size and importance.
I however taught at the University of Arizona for four and a half years and consequently have talked to lots of college women about frat parties, and very few of them have any illusions about what happens at frat parties. Many sororities apparently tell women not to get drunk, since being drunk makes them easy victims, and to go in groups. Women would sometimes say—including in class—that they wouldn’t go to frat parties except in groups. Why? To protect themselves.
I’d then ask why they would go to places they felt were sufficiently dangerous to require a group. Usually they wouldn’t really answer. It was as if I’d broached a new, un-analyzed subject for the first time. One woman did answer, however, and said simply that “It’s where the party’s at.”
Ten points for honesty, but I think that if I were a woman I wouldn’t go to frat parties. Yet they keep going, despite apparently being aware of the dangers. Flanagan mentions “the issue of sexual assault of female undergraduates by their male peers” but doesn’t note that most women seem to know someone who had something unfortunate happen to them at frat houses. This doesn’t seem to deter many of them.
Flanagan never writes as much. It’s a huge, obvious blank spot in her otherwise fascinating article. Women are not stupid—at least I don’t think they’re stupid—and most know what they’re doing when they get drunk and/or go to frat parties. I’ve written as much here and here (“It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.”)*
Men are interested in frats because they offer a way of forming a cartel that in turn attracts women. I remember talking to a student in a frat, who was giving me the usual bullshit about frats when I stopped him and said: “Let’s conduct a thought experiment: if instead of increasing the probability of a guy getting laid, joining a frat decreased the probability by 1%, do you think anyone would?” There was a long pause. He wanted to respond but he also knew that his intellectual credibility was on the line (he was a bright guy).
There’s another important flaw in Flanagan’s article: while she does cite a horrific rape of a woman identified only as “Jane Doe,” in Doe’s case justice does happen: the perpetrator is caught, arrested, and convicted. The system worked in this instance! The frat helped the cops get the guy. As such it’s a curious example in an anti-frat article.
She does note one thing that deserves more frequent mention:
Furthermore, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses—an ideal situation for fraternities.
A lot of 18-year-olds like to drink and regardless of whether legislators and/or lobbyists like MADD think they have the capacity to make that decision, many do make it anyway. To my mind their making of the decision indicates that they have the capacity… to make the decision. One way to chip away at the appeal of frats, for both men and women, would be to legalize drinking; based on what I’ve heard a lot of frat boys and sorority girls drift away from their Greek affiliation when they turn 21. Some of that probably comes from the dawning realization that real life is en route but some probably also comes from the opening of different avenues for drinking and mating rituals.
College presidents have realized as much and launched the Amethyst Initiative, which is a plea to drag reality back into law and politics.
Anyway, the minute the Flanagans and college presidents and parents of the world can convince women not to show up at frat parties is the minute we’ll see the end of frats. Based on America’s bipolar feelings about drinking and sexuality in general, however, I doubt we’re going to see it.
EDIT: I should add that I’m not pro-frat, as one of two people suggested; I’m also not anti-frat, although years ago I wrote this snarky letter to the editor of the New York Times (“Although the fraternity system as it exists is flawed, it does serve one important purpose: it voluntarily segregates a large number of drunken fools from the rest of the student population — some of whom may be interested in novel concepts like learning and academics”). Today I mostly think that frats serve an evident need or want, and although I myself wouldn’t want to join one—I don’t have the right personality—I see why many others do.
* A sorority girl once told me that her sorority cohort didn’t want to attend sober events with frats because the other girls didn’t know how to talk to boys, or talk to boys without the aid of booze.