About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
« previous entry | return home | next entry »

November 16, 2004 [feather]
The sociology of amorals

Tom Wolfe's latest, a campus novel entitled I am Charlotte Simmons, has received some witheringly dismissive reviews, perhaps most notably by Princeton English professor and former MLA president Elaine Showalter, who sniffs and grimaces her way through a catalogue of the novel's inadequacies in a review whose title says it all: "Peeping Tom's Juvenile Jaunt." Showalter has some points--it's hardly news that college students today drink, do drugs, and have sex, and a novelist who wants to do something new with the worn material of campus life is going to have to find more to talk about than frat parties and the sociology of hooking up. At the same time, the sheer venom of Showalter's review ("Wolfe's latest novel is bitchy, status-seeking, and dissecting --Ưand this time, unfortunately, numbingly juvenile") leaves one to wonder whether she is not defensively obfuscating some of the novel's deeper, perhaps more threatening points.

So it's nice to see that David Brooks has written what appears to be a necessary corrective to blanket dismissals such as Showalter's, acknowledging the novel's shortcomings while insisting on the essential importance of its message:

I don't agree with all of Wolfe's depiction of campus life. He overestimates the lingering self-confidence and prestige of the prep school elite. He undervalues the independence of collegiate women, and underplays the great yearning to do good that surges out of most college students. Life on campus isn't really as nasty as Wolfe describes it. Most students are responsible and prudential and thus not as ribald as Wolfe makes them out to be.

But he's located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, where it's not clear if you're going out with the person you're having sex with, where it's not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.

In other words, we have constructed this great apparatus to fill their minds - with thousands of Ph.D.'s ready to serve. But when it comes to courage, which is the pre-eminent virtue since without it nothing else lasts, we often leave them with the gnawing sense that they really should develop it, though God knows how.

I have not read Wolfe's new novel, but I am heartened to see Brooks arguing that the point of I am Charlotte Simmons is not to perform a self-importantly farcical takeoff on campus manners, or the lack thereof (we have enough of those sorts of novels already), but rather to consider the personal consequences for young adults of a morally unmoored, profoundly unprincipled educational climate. That's something that has occupied me, as readers well know, for some time.

Ironically, one of the ways universities work to ensure that students' capacities for moral reasoning are stunted is by trying to regulate them in all the wrong places--through, for instance, ideologically loaded, personally invasive sensitivity training; or through speech codes that forbid students to say anything that might offend anyone who belongs to a historically oppressed group; or through a tenure system that has become a means of political gatekeeping that in turn ensures that some ideas get a lot more credence than others among faculty and students and that therefore the intellectual life of the campus--at least in the humanities and social sciences--tends to be constrained, even strangulated, by the demands of a devastatingly anti-intellectual conformity.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers who have read, or are reading, I am Charlotte Simmons. What is the nature of Wolfe's critique of campus culture? Does he have anything new to say? If so, what is it? Do reviews like Showalter's ring more true to you than Brooks'? Or is it the other way around?

posted on November 16, 2004 8:31 AM


Haven't read the book, but I was aware that Wolfe is unhealthily obsessed with the fact that students are sexually active.

Posted by: chris at November 16, 2004 9:28 AM

Haven't read it yet, but certainly will. I'm betting on Brooks being closer to the mark.

I don't think Wolfe is sex-obsessed: there were plenty of opportunities in "A Man in Full" for further developing this theme, if he had been so minded.

Posted by: David Foster at November 16, 2004 10:18 AM

This isn't an answer to precisely the question you're asking, but...

The key to books and movies like this is that the author needs to convince you that he has substantial inside knowledge about the society he is describing. I'd say Wolfe mostly accomplished that with Bonfire of the Vanities but after a hundred or so pages of Charlotte Simmons, it doesn't come off nearly as well. There are places where you notice him having done his homework (the basketball coach's office, for example, is one where you can just feel that it's right) but the overall description of college life has too many clunkers to maintain its credibility.

Posted by: JSinger at November 16, 2004 2:49 PM

Haven't read it (though it is next on my list once Chuck Klosterman's drivel is fully digested). However, from what I hear, I think Wolfe is a lot more on the mark than older people would like to admit. Let's call it willful ignorance, but, having recently graduated college, I don't think people realize how morally, ethically and intellectually depraved a large swath of college students (and, coincidentally, the faculty) really are. Wolfe may be focusing just on one part of the population, but that population may be a plurality on most campuses (even the most respected ones). I knew plenty of people who never went to class, didn't do any work, drank had sex and did drugs in excess.....everything that runs counter to the "noble academic institution" most people believe college is and should be.

Like I said, I haven't read the book, so it may be as over the top as people claim. But I'd be willing to bet that Wolfe's version is a lot closer to reality than that of Brooks or Showalter.

Posted by: Eric at November 16, 2004 3:04 PM

Zaniness! You mean, some kids go to college and slack off? And do it? Again and again? And drink booze?

Wolfe's novel is ultimately a missed opportunity. Charlotte should give in to the excess totally; she could then be "born again" after a drunk-driving arrest and win two terms as American president.

From every description of the novel I've read, whether favorable or not, it sounds like Wolfe has nothing new to offer that *Animal House* didn't already cover, with the exception of some typical campus-novel complaints about the excesses of political correctness. He fails to present Charlotte with any space on campus free of rampant sex, drugs, booze, and potty-mouths. But anyone who's been on any big college campus would know that there are huge groups of self-consciously "square" or "straight-edge" students who confront this culture of excess with a punky, tho Puritan, edge. Charlotte could just buy up the Dischord Records catalogue, go to Fugazi shows, and Eskimo kiss some pretty and sensitive punk-rock boy (or girl -- why not!).

I hear that Wolfe has started rolling with P-Diddy for his next novel -- an expose of rap culture. The whole thing is going to be written in Snoop Dogg's "z-talk" -- for shizzo!

Posted by: Luther Blissett at November 16, 2004 4:24 PM

"I am heartened to see Brooks arguing that the point of I am Charlotte Simmons is... to consider the personal consequences for young adults of a morally unmoored, profoundly unprincipled educational climate."

Not young adults, but a young woman. There is nothing new about preaching the consequences of "morally unmoored" behavior to women.

Not that I have a problem with morals. I think morals (including sexual morals) are a wonderful thing to preach. However, I would argue that the average college guy today is far more in need of moral guidance and education about consequences than the average college girl. Almost all women already feel at least some guilt and/or anxiety about casual sex, even those who have it. Single guys rarely if ever see an opportunity for sex as a moral dillemma, and nobody even encourages them to.

This book would've been a lot more original, not to mention "morally" helpful if the main character facing "moral suicide" and "consequences" had actually been a guy.

Posted by: Lisa at November 16, 2004 9:04 PM

Lisa's point is well put. It seems like I'm the only one who's reading it so far. I'm about midway through, and it's definitely entertaining. I have quite a bit to say about it, but I'm not sure where to go with it. The heroine is so overwhelming naive it seems hard to view her as anything but a construct, a vehicle for the plot. It's definitely funny. The one thing I could say so far is that Brooks does seems to be off on one point. Brooks ends his column by stating "But when it comes to courage, which is the pre-eminent virtue since without it nothing else lasts". The character in the novel who seems to have the most of that quality (at least in the sense of bravery), Hoyt (the frat boy), is otherwise a miserable human being. I can't tell where moral north is in this work (so far). Perhaps it's Charlotte's parents, who may be the only decent human beings? Charlotte herself is a bit of a wreck. Perhaps it's her moral courage we're meant to applaud? But even from the beginning, that quality in her is compromised by a desire for acceptance and popularity. I'm also uncomfortable with the call for feminine purity (Charlotte's desire for sex may be her most genuine). Both these posts raise good points: http://whatwouldphoebedo.blogspot.com/2004/11/world-of-unprecedented-ambiguity-david.html

Posted by: Paul at November 16, 2004 10:21 PM

OK, I have not read the novel either. However, I was also taken with Brooks's column. I am an English professor, and I actually do think my courses attempt to provide a forum for moral reflection. In fact, though it may not be the kind of moral "guidance" that Brooks has in mind, I actually think that many-to-most of us in the humanities think that humanistic education is valuable for precisely this reason: it offers the chance to think about matters of morality, justice, and so on. I teach nineteenth century novels because I think they provide (among other things) a narrative vocabulary for considering these things.

One thing I find disturbing, though, about Brooks's column is this. In the past, he has denigrated the career intellectual in favor of the "practical professor" -- the teacher with real-world experience as opposed to book-learning and elbow patches. My sense is that it is the bookworm, not the board room veteran, who is more likely to consider the moral matters he has in mind. If universities are going to take their moral mission seriously then they need to step away from the "culture of achievement" exemplified by the high school careers of the characters in Wolfe's novel -- and by undergraduate business majors.

Posted by: Michael at November 17, 2004 8:47 PM

I have read about three-quarters of the book now, and I have this overwhelming desire to remind Showalter and her fellow humorless reviewers that it is a NOVEL, dammit! Charlotte Simmons is no more - or less - the typical coed than Tom Jones was the typical bumpkin Englishman. And, pace Brooks, "most students" are not characters in this novel.

Brooks's review gets closer than Showalter's, but better than either is Jody Bottoms's review on The Weekly Standard's website.

Finally, I praise Wolfe's gimlet eye and dead-on feel for the piece of campus culture that is bigtime Division 1A basketball. Jojo, who wants to move out of the jock-course ghetto against the wishes of his $5MM a year coach, is finely drawn indeed.

Posted by: Virginius at November 17, 2004 10:05 PM

I'm about a 1/3 of the way through IACS:it's nothing profound,but it is fun,unlike his last novel.I'm curious as to whether TW based Dupont on a particular school(Duke,maybe).I don't think he did,though.

Posted by: scott at November 20, 2004 9:52 AM

I haven't read the book yet; I'm finishing off pieces by Saul Bellow and David Frum. But in all the interviews I've read with Wolfe, I think he's very much on to something. I'm a 23 year old graduate of the University of Alabama, and I can say that college campuses are indeed sex crazed in a way that my parent's generation doesn't understand. They're shocked by it.

Posted by: Matt at November 21, 2004 10:04 AM

I've spent the last couple of hours looking everywhere on the internet for some kind of discussion of this book. I finished it last night, and in my opinion, it's plain terrific.

Although my college days (at one of the schools Wolfe used in his research) are more than a decade in the past now, this novel resonates with my experience very deeply. There are some things I could nitpick here and there, but he more or less gets college culture exactly right.

This is an unsentimental comparison of what our "best" universites are and the contrast with what they ought to be. Those who act as if Wolfe is some kind of fuddy-duddy that can't handle the notion that college students have sex have missed the point altogether. This is a portrait of the rotting of universities from within, in no small part because ideas they incubated and nurtured, and a chilling examination of the effect of that deterioration upon a student. I've never read anything quite like it.

If anyone knows of a good online discussion of the book, I'd love to join it.

Posted by: Jay at December 5, 2004 9:09 PM

I have read the novel and found it very humourous even though the characters are largely archetypes. The thrust of Mr Wolfe's novel is that there are moral consequences to our thoughts and actions and that, in our darkest hour help can arrive (and often does so in unexpected ways). Wolfe's depictions seem, at times, a little over the 'top' but the message that, when you find someone who makes you want to be a better person, then you have truly found something worthwhile is very affirming.

Posted by: Tansu at December 8, 2004 10:27 PM

punuz poiuyt http://ghjklqaeifeln/

Posted by: Paschall at January 14, 2005 1:19 PM