I have always believed that the novelist's job is to be able to judge the whole by the part. While I think this is true, it is probably a good idea to expand the job description a little bit to say that a novelist should also be able to distinguish the importance of atmosphere. Or what the atmosphere is between groups of human beings. Such as the current tension between college-age men and women.
Recently I read a couple of books, both academic farces --The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes (Picador, 400 pages, $14) and Francine Prose's The Blue Angel (Harper Perennial, 336 pages, $14) -- that seem to shed some light on this fact of, ah, life. Or they shed light on this sad fact by invoking the atmosphere of modern academic life, particularly where romance is concerned, if this word is not too hopelessly outdated.
High-school boys and girls and college-age men and women really do seem to be having trouble. This is not an abstract consideration for me, since I have two daughters, now 18 and 23. I have watched their experience and been privy to a lot of it over the last 10 years. I should also say that I have been in touch with many young people of what can only be called "dating age," if only because over the last few years I have taught a couple of classes at Dartmouth College. In this same period, when my girls were beginning to date, I was a writer in residence at an American university. Mostly, this job involved hanging around with students and more or less listening to the things that were bothering them. So, while my experience is by no means universal, it is not insignificant, either.
Academic life is a good place to begin trying to explain what is wrong, particularly as it is invoked in Francine Prose's The Blue Angel.
Mostly, this is an account of what happens when a middle-aged man, a kind of bumbler who is not too different from a lot of men who teach at a university these days, allows himself to be seduced by a student. In fact, the book describes two parallel and antagonistic universes.
One is the odd and compelling world of an affair between a young woman and an older man, particularly in the sincerity of it from the older man's point of view. Prose's older lover is so sincere and serious about it all as to be funny, but then the character sees this attachment as a matter of life and death, or at least a weapon against the certainty of mortality.
The other universe the book invokes is the official one and its version of romance, replete with speech and sex codes, bureaucratic procedures and investigations, and a puritanical disapproval of sex, not to mention the almost erotic impulse to punish those who have allowed themselves to become entangled in a forbidden affair. In this world sex has become a kind of biological racism.
The Lecturer's Tale, of course, is a gothic and very funny account of academic politics and the endless struggles over tenure, and while the center of the book is not so much sexual intrigue, it does invoke that same sense of sex as trouble so toxic as to make men and women tremble before its very existence, or, at least to tremble before its presence as an academic "issue."
Of course, in the modern age, this attitude is encouraged not only by cultural and feminist perspectives but by legal ones, too. High schools and colleges, which are more afraid of a lawsuit than anything else, want to make sure that they could never be proved negligent in failing these "issues."
The difficulty is that in raising awareness (quite necessary, by the way) of rape and date rape, another message is sent, too, which adds to the sense of sex as a threatening bogey. Hiding in the heart of every man, the message seems to go, lies the impulse of the potential rapist (which, of course, is utter nonsense). So, right away, the schools send a message of fear and danger to ordinary young people, who, like most human beings who have been warned, tend to exaggerate what the warning means.
And then there is the school's bureaucratic apparatus for sexual harassment. Now, I am not saying that the apparatus shouldn't be there or that young women or men should be pushed around sexually, but I am saying that it sends an extra-textual message (to use a little modern academic hokum): Sex is dangerous and brings out the worst in people.
You've got to be on your guard. And this, of course, segues into a matter of power. Young women have not escaped the human condition, although many academics would have you believe so, and the sexual harassment procedures give women power. Power can corrupt, and the use of sexual harassment complaints for other than legitimate purposes is not unheard of (to get a better grade, a better job, or any of the other almost infinite possibilities of human desire). I am not quarreling with these procedures. I am only saying that, as an unintended consequence, they add another murky and fear-inducing element to the atmosphere in which young men and women live.
Everything the academy does in sexual matters, at least heterosexual ones, is either a warning or a method of retribution.
Nowhere is there any official vision of happy, romantically and sexually fulfilled human beings. Or, to put it another way, how can you have an ordinary, garden-variety romance in a place where a riot would break out if you wanted to teach a course titled "Visions of Beauty: Men and Women in Love."
You would think that the academy alone would be enough to keep men and women suspicious and worried and more or less at arm's length, but there is another problem. In the modern era, where a romantic attachment is not close to the center of one's life, sex is reduced to mere recreation. I don't profess to know much about sex, but I do know that it is too powerful and large to be perceived as something like surfing without causing trouble.
And then, there is the popular-culture vision of romance, which as nearly as I can tell comes from a steady diet of romantic comedies, and from them young men and women seem to absorb, by osmosis, an impossibly high standard for appearance, social position and wealth of perspective mates.
Or, as a 17-year-old girl of my acquaintance once said of a boy, "He's not attractive enough to be so dumb." And then there is the further difficulty of young men who find young women who are only too happy to have some sexual fun and to let it go at that, and these young men are impatient that all young women are not that way.
So, in modern America, we have arrived at a suspicious, anxious standoff.
Now, recently I spent a couple of weeks in Italy, both in Rome and in Umbria, and when I was there, I had a shock of shocks. Young Italian women seemed wholly untroubled by fear, and quite happy to be women and to have the attentions of men, and I don't mean the offensive behavior of Roman men. The sense of romantic life without fear, if not terror, left me, well, almost dizzy with surprise and delight. And when I came back, the atmosphere of fear seemed all the stronger.
Of course, it is easy to call attention to a problem, but very hard to know what to do about it. I guess the solution is for every one to calm down, realize that men and women really do need one another, and to let nature, ah, take its course.
Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware, which was published last January. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of The Good Son.