“Why don’t you write a novel?” People ask me this all the time. I have a number of standard answers, all of which are lies.
I say I’m too busy with the columns, or with teaching and speaking, or I explain that humor doesn’t lend itself easily to the long-form narrative.
The reason I don’t actually write fiction is this: I could never invent – either in my most frenzied or in my most felicitous imaginings – a character as original, rare or intriguing as the stranger from whom I just received an email.
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A woman I’d never heard from before sent me one of those emails we all get by the dozens. Laboriously crafted missives written by people with a slim mastery of what reads like stilted 18th-century syntax swarm our in-boxes daily. Sent by strangers who want to deposit millions of dollars directly into our bank accounts, such billet-doux arrive with the kind of regularity matched only by wish lists sent to Santa and hate mail sent to Congress.
We’ve all heard from this lady, right? She’s part of an archetype. She (or her male counterpart) announces that we’ve been chosen to receive sacks of cash from foreign nationals because they’ve heard through the electronic grapevine that we are precisely the “good, honest, God-fearing” individuals who have been deemed “trustworthy” enough to “keep the risk-free information … absolutely confidential.”
Sure, close friends and family might refer to us as unreliable spendthrift atheists who have never returned so much as a borrowed dime and who can’t keep a secret for more than 12 minutes (and that’s how we’d be described by people who love us, remember) but somehow the gleaming purity of our character has sent its shining beacon over continents and oceans.
Doesn’t that make us feel special? Well, my new benefactor made me feel very special. Not only is she an individual; she is so unrelentingly sui generis that I realized I could never make her up.
“I am Mrs. Allena Yero George an aging widow suffering from long-time illness, I am an Associate Professor of Narcolepsy, this is my pessimistic condition.” (sic)
See why don’t I write fiction? I can’t compete with “Associate Professor of Narcolepsy.” I couldn’t come up with that.
Narcolepsy is a real disease, of course, which plagues people by putting them into unanticipated periods of sleep. But it’s a condition, not an academic discipline. If conditions were disciplines, I’d be chairwoman of the Department of Occasional Dread and Dean of the School of Wariness.
So what enthralls me about Mrs. George? For one, I’m impressed that she was modest enough not to make herself a full professor. (And, no, the terms “full professor” and “narcoleptic” are not redundant.)
Curiously enough, however, Professor George apparently awarded herself the rank and condition of tenure. Tenure is not easy to secure; she must have a certain scholarly credibility.
At the very least it’s reassuring to know that the narcolepsy position will remain undisturbed, no doubt her administrators having decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
So how does a person get tenure in the Department of Narcolepsy? Does your published work cause time-lapses during which its readers cannot account for their actions? If so, how does that differ from certain kinds of other scholarly writing? Are one’s teaching capabilities assessed by invidious comparisons made to one’s colleagues in the Department of Insomnia, where classes, however boring, keep everyone wide-eyed and breathing raggedly?
Are Professor George’s graduate students devoted to narcolepsy, or are they merely drowsy? Perhaps she can be accused of having under-theorized the underpinnings of the narcoleptic perspective. Perhaps, as a friend suggested, to make full professor she would have needed to demonstrate an ability to nap harder and provide a bibliography.
No wonder my correspondent is in a “pessimistic condition.” I’m not in such an optimistic condition myself having read her note.
And yet “The Pessimistic Condition” would make an ideal title for a Philip Roth book or a previously undiscovered manuscript by Iris Murdoch.
You see, although I can’t write fiction, I know it when I read it – and Professor George’s dream of benevolence is a doozy. Her message is a wake-up call: Life is full of stories, lies and solid-gold material.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her website at www.ginabarreca.com.