October 28, 2008

Princeton's on probation, but U of C gets high marks from Kirn

As Walter Kirn tells it, spending a few years in the ivory tower might teach you to smarm up to professors and con people with florid turns of phrase, but it’s unlikely to impart to you any real learning—whatever that means. That’s how it went for Kirn as an undergraduate at Princeton. But as shown by Lost in the Meritocracy, his essay-cum-bildungsroman and soon-to-be book, college turned out to be more about substances than substance; moreover, it was a bewildering game of building up one’s legitimacy in classes with the moneyed future lords of America.

Given the subject matter of his forthcoming book, Kirn might seem out of place at a university like this one. But alumnus and Atlantic Monthly editor Robert Vare created the Vare Writer-in-Residence position at the University, which is given solely for nonfiction writing, to bring in people just like Kirn, whose challenging and engaging work appears regularly in periodicals such as The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. “My professional life is devoted to nonfiction,” Vare said. “So the program was a chance to bring together two things that I really cared about—the U of C and ambitious nonfiction writing. I try to get people whom I really respect and who can communicate the nuances and challenges of what it means to be a nonfiction writer.”

I sat down with Kirn to talk about Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, before his reading from the book on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 28.

Jingru Yang: Did you have any reservations about accepting the writer-in-residence position at Chicago, which is, after all, like Princeton and Oxford [where Kirn attended graduate school], a university associated with ivory tower privilege and meritocratic ideals?

Walter Kirn: I had none, actually, because I knew Chicago, mostly from literature by everyone from Philip Roth to Saul Bellow. The University of Chicago strikes me as a congenial, open, questioning place that doesn’t require people to be happy and satisfied all the time in the way that Princeton did, for example.

JY: Did you plan on teaching, after leaving school?

WK: Coming out of Princeton, I had no ambition to teach at all. I came to Chicago because Robert asked me, and Robert is one of the great editors in American periodic journalism. Also, I’ve had enough professional experience now that I think I have something to teach. I decided to expose my students to a range of writing assignments that resembled those which I’ve been given over the years. I’m kind of running an accelerated laboratory based on my life experiences.

JY: What motivated you to write Lost in the Meritocracy?

WK: It was a good story. I got to Princeton not being prepared for it culturally or academically, and had a very bewildering journey. I’m not a policy-maker or a sociologist, but I am alert to the kind of conflict that makes a good narrative—and I was in conflict, with myself and with the institution.

JY: Have you ever revisited Princeton?

WK: Once last spring. The piece that I wrote [in the Atlantic Monthly] had been passed around and assigned in a class or two. I went to see my old creative writing advisor—I had some good teachers there, something that doesn’t come out much in the book. Another one of my teachers there, Seth Lerer, who’s published by the University of Chicago Press and is now at Stanford, I met on the street by the Medici the day I was writing about him in the book, after not having seen him for 25 years.

JY: The “Lost in the Meritocracy” essay mostly talks about your time at Princeton, not at Oxford. What about the book?

WK: The book doesn’t really go to Oxford. It was a happier experience, for me. At Princeton I was alienated among the indoctrinated—and that’s a very lonely feeling. One thing I like about the University of Chicago is that a lot of people seem alienated, very few indoctrinated. It’s a very skeptical place.

JY: Are there any other differences between the book and the essay?

WK: What the book demonstrates that the essay doesn’t is the role of contingency, fortune, fate, in a college career.

JY: You majored in English, in college....

WK: Because I thought it might be something that I knew about. I found out I didn’t. The shocking news to me was that I would pass so many years at Princeton and emerge perhaps more ignorant than when I came in. When I think about what I really majored in—it was survival. Intellectual, emotional, social survival. And really, the book is dedicated in my mind to people who feel very lonesome in these institutions and sometimes don’t make it. People who crash. Some come back, some don’t. I think the intensity of the experience for—let’s face it—teenagers at these institutions is underappreciated, in literature at least.

JY: In one part of the essay, you describe all of your pursuits since childhood as part of a strategy to get you to the next level of success and to college. Once you got there, you weren’t sure what do to next.

WK: Doing well on the various tests that get you into these places requires a set of skills that aren’t that useful once you get into a place. I always thought of college, as a kid, as a kind of park, populated by polite students, wise teachers...fuzzy squirrels. Once I got to that park, I found out that it included one thing I hadn’t counted on—me. My subjectivity. My prejudices, habits, strengths, and failings. I felt a little like they said Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Why is it that we have everything, but aren’t completely satisfied?

JY: What do you plan to do after finishing Lost in the Meritocracy?

WK: I don’t know. This has been a difficult book for me. When you write a memoir, you’re not really writing about yourself. You’re writing about a character who shares your name and history. You think you should know this character, but in fact, he’s someone you have to get to know.

JY: So did you learn anything about him that you didn’t know until now?

WK: Yes, I did. I learned that he was not as alone as he felt. That, on reflection, I was surrounded by people going through the same thing, and that in fact, though it didn’t appear that way at the time, the institution was keeping an eye on me, trying to help me. I learned that what seemed like a tragedy at the time was more of a comedy. At the time, I felt like Hamlet. Looking back, I think I was more like Don Quixote. Because I was writing this book, it seemed very appropriate that I would get an invitation to teach at a university. Sometimes your life and your work come together, and in this case, I’m glad that they have.