AU professor just looking for some Modern Love

This week’s edition of Modern Love, the New York Times’ treacly Sunday Styles feature, comes from Randon Billings Noble, a literature professor at American University.  “War Weary From a Dangerous Liaison” is about a Valentine’s Day email from her most significant ex-boyfriend (the one she still thinks of as her “safety net”) that forces her to break the news to him that she’s married:

I had always carried him in the back pocket of my heart. He was my safety net. During my catastrophic breakups, he was always faintly in the background, ready to be called if needed. And he felt the same way about me. At 19 we decided that if we weren’t married to anyone else by 30, we would marry each other. But by our late 20s we had broken up, gotten back together, broken up again. Thirty came and went in silence. I had thought he was the love of my life.

There are some heavy-handed trapeze metaphors and presumptuous comparisons to Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, but it’s got some poignant insights into the painful process of getting over that person you never thought you could.  That said, from a student’s perspective it’s kind of TMI and would probably make taking a class with Professor Noble a little awkward–another reason to be glad you don’t go to AU!

11 Comments on “AU professor just looking for some Modern Love

  1. Hmm. In her defense, I think that her piece may have been the victim of heavy-handed editing, not writing.

    I have no doubt that earlier drafts included a portentous viewing of the film version of Dangerous Liaisons (the bombastic Frears-directed version, not the chamber-orchestra mope of the Milos Forman adaptation) while the two were charmingly pretentious teens. (Think Juno in bodices and bouffant hairpieces)

    In this light, the “treacle” and “presumptuous comparisons” begin to make a bit more sense–they never learned to move beyond adolescent infatuation to the workaday, sustainable platform of blissfully ordinary love.

    From that font flows the central irony: that, despite a vision of themselves as “equals to each other but above everyone else”, they failed in the courage required to do what everyone else does: allow each other to be plain, flawed…even…gasp…ordinary. Their long-distance liaisons were so short that they only ever shared the best of themselves–and the fear that the one would never accept the other’s whole self must have been a lonely thing.

    Look to the curiously brief graf addressing the relationship that is her Modern Love: “But then I met Jerry, and my heart emptied its pockets.” It’s as plain as a daisy, as a Sunday morning with nothing planned. It’s utterly out of character with the language used throughout the piece. It’s what they were never able to give each other, and what she found in Jerry.

    I agree that the middle section is misguided and gauzy: how could it not be? She seems to be more interested in telling his story than her own. Doing so requires what Jon Krakauer achieved in Into The Wild: the confidence of fully inhabiting a stranger, mistakes and misrepresentations be damned. She should have shown more confidence in her suppositions. She seems to have known him long enough to have that right.

    And–good lord–a writing instructor shouldn’t have to be reminded to show and not tell. Without more concrete anecdotes, it’s hard not to see all these catastrophes, ambushes, and fantasies as more than just hyperbole. I tell my students that secretions are the best way to illustrate secrets: blood for pain, salt water for sadness, etcetera. This piece is a touch bloodless. I can only surmise that earlier drafts were scrubbed of all raw textures in the interest of curdling the sort of smooth pablum that Sunday Styles seems partial to.

    In that, I disagree with your argument that the piece constitutes TMI. I’d say it’s Too Little Information. How is she supposed to teach a unit on memoir if she’s not willing to take the risks she demands of her students? Mind you, these are college students–they live in that godawful demilitarized zone between adolescent fantasy and adult accomplishment. Perhaps Georgetown leans more towards in loco parentis than American.

    I wonder what her safety net would say if given the chance. Modern Love would be a hell of a lot more interesting if it featured multiple viewpoints of the same affair, A Fauknerian sound and fury to rough up the age of eHarmony. Or simply a he said to go with the she said.

  2. Thanks for the long comment!

    First off, I’d have to say that while Modern Love as a feature does tend towards the sappy and self-indulgent (or as you much more elegantly put it, the “smooth pablum”), I thought this particular piece was actually pretty good. I think you’ve tackled the literary criticism way better than I possibly could. It’s interesting that the Times cut out such a central point with the Dangerous Liaisons viewing – it does seem like this piece suffered a bit from the space constraints and probably would have been better with a longer format.

    As for whether or not it qualifies as TMI, I guess that’s ultimately subjective. As a student, I think it would be a little strange to open up the paper and see the rather intimate details of my professor’s love life. Admittedly, I don’t take many – actually any – creative writing classes and I guess that might make the dynamic a bit different. Or maybe it’s just that as the child of two professors, I’ve got some extra squeamishness about professorial romances.

    Thanks again for your analysis. You seem to know a lot about the composition and history of the piece – are you a friend or colleague of the author?

  3. I can honestly say that I am neither.

    And–good lord–that was a long comment. I write in Word, and then cut and paste. I swear some algorithm in the transfer process must have interpolated an extra thousand letters. Apologies. I can only imagine what it’s like for students who find marginal notes continuing beyond the margins, swallowing a standard 5 graf reflection like a deranged kraken. If they weren’t required to take my course, I wouldn’t have a solitary volunteer.

    By the way, anyone interested in enjoying the most truthful film rendition of the novel should look to Cruel Intentions. Yes, the one with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Legal Blonde, and Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.

    The novel’s success breaks on the author’s ability to generate in the audience a sense of guilty compassion for the lead scoundrels. The generation of sympathy is one of the few notes that exceed John Malkovich’s range. Ryan Phillipe managed to take on the aspect of both a cherub and a gargoyle in varying light. Doing so elevates the ending to a tragedy from the plodding plot of mechanical inevitability.

  4. And the piece was pretty damn good. More marginal notes = an essay worth writing about.

    If your instructor gives you a “good” or “solid”, it simply means that he or she thinks it’s crap, and that you lack the potential to improve.

  5. TMI? Are you kidding?

    This was an emotional piece– it’s not like it was obscenely sexual. I guess AU students are mature enough to realize that our professors have lives outside of school.
    I won’t pretend that Georgetown professors aren’t just as talented and are often published in high profile ways, such as NY Times, but I’m sorry you wouldn’t be able to handle it if a professor was published in an honest and vulnerable way.

    But I assure you as one of her students we are proud and excited to see her succeed.

  6. I’d argue that sexing it up would make it stronger. Perhaps not sex…rather, sensuality.

    The oldest memory I have is that of the Passover seder. It’s not a story I’ve heard, a sequence of facts that can be studied. I experience it as a memory, a vivid recollection of lived experience. Why? Because I can smell the bitter root, hear the snap of unleavened bread, and taste the tears.

    I have a friend in Jersey. His father died when he was in junior high. His inheritance? A pair of season tickets for the Giants. The stomp, the cheers, the way the pungency of a hot dog with extra kraut cuts through the November air…this is where he lays his flowers and shows his respect.

    I’ll bet a roll of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens that she did throttle this piece back–substantially.

    Whether it was out of respect for the safety net, the husband, or out of professional concern for students or career, I’m not sure. We won’t know unless she tells us, and that would be inadvisable for at least six or seven reasons.

    Perhaps it’s simply that she targeted the Modern Love column, and wrote something to fit neatly within its strictures. Unless you’re a madman in a gulag, the first purpose of every piece is to be published, to be read. (With the exception, of course, of lit-school workshop pieces, which are invariably an indulgent cry for therapy or a fit of emotional exhibitionism–“Here…take a gander at my bloated sense of personal tragedy, my red-hot-need…”

    And it does seem like Georgetown students are a little prude. I had a prof who slept with a classmate of mine–and subsequently penned a piece for the the campus literary magazine about it. It was horrifyng, and it made the $29,000 a year worth it. Liberal arts colleges are much more fun. Transfer while you have the chance.

    One more note. As a teacher of language, I can tell the AU student that having a proud and excited is a far greater badge of success than a formula piece in Sunday Styles.

  7. proud and excited student is a…

    where did my copyeditor go?

  8. does an AU IP somehow lessen the validity of the comment?

  9. Pingback: Vox Populi » The Voice breaks to pass the gravy

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