Writer Jeffrey Eugenides returns to college in latest novel

Courtesy of Picador Press

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Marriage Plot,” “Middlesex” talks love and the liberal arts

Critically-acclaimed novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, author of “The Virgin Suicides” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” revisits the prestigious halls of Brown University, the writer’s own alma mater, in his most recent work of fiction, “The Marriage Plot.” Eugenides, currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton Univeristy, speaks below of the value of a liberal arts education – both inside and out of the classroom.

Q: Do you see a significant difference between your students today [at Princeton] and you and your classmates at that age?

The key difference has to do with self-promotion and materialism. We grew up at the very tail end of the ‘60s generation. We missed Woodstock, but received its message that life wasn’t about making money or promoting personal success. Now, the younger generation often has no qualms about self-promotion, networking or branding themselves. These things are in fact to be desired. There’s a comfort level with turning oneself into a commodity that we were suspicious of, or at least pretended to be suspicious of, for the truth was that many of us secretly wanted to be rich and famous too. But we at least knew there was a Faustian bargain to be made or refused. Sometimes it seems as though students today don’t even know they’re making a bargain. All of this goes along with the general rightward tilt of the country’s politics. What was once considered selling out is today just playing the game. And playing the game is good, right? I’m sure this will change because things always change. Maybe it’s happening already. Maybe the fiscal crisis is giving birth to this new generation right now.

Q: Much is made of “sex on campus.” Do you think the college campus lifestyle enhances, diminishes or changes at all the thrill of a sexual experience?

The signal event of my first-year orientation was the showing of an X-rated film called “Debbie Does Dallas.” This was long before porn had gone mainstream on the internet. Most of my fellow eighteen-year-olds had never seen anything like it before and if we had, we’d certainly never watched it with members of the opposite sex around. But now we were in college. We were, by universal agreement, all grown up. And so we sat there watching the acts being performed on the screen, acting as though it was funny to us or reason to cheer or holler. I remember one jock shouting, “Why doesn’t my girlfriend do it like that?” In actuality, we were all extremely uncomfortable. College, we’d been told, was going to feature a lot of sex. But we weren’t quite ready for the rules to change so quickly. We had to pretend to be more seasoned and blasé about the whole thing than we actually were. I don’t remember a single thing about that movie. All I remember was how everyone was trying to pretend to be someone they weren’t yet and maybe never would be.

In my own case, the “college campus lifestyle” didn’t enhance the thrill of sexual experience, certainly not my first year. That was because I was having no sexual experience. As I say in “The Marriage Plot,” “In the sexual hierarchy of college, freshman males ranked at the very bottom.” The freedom was there, the dorm room was ready, but the opportunities were not forthcoming. As the years passed, things got better. The explorations, physical, emotional and intellectual, began. It turned out to be nothing like “Debbie Does Dallas.” It was much better than that because the women were real.

Q: If you were a freshman today, what would you study?

I would study most of the same things I studied—literature, religious studies, theater—but would fill in my gaps more. I’d take more history and I’d take more science, biology particularly, because biology is the only discipline I sort of got, whereas I lost my way with physics and chemistry after a certain point. But I’d try to keep my hand into the sciences a bit more and not to be so exclusively literary and bohemian.

Q: What was the best piece of college-related advice you were ever given?

The best advice I ever heard was from my Princeton colleague, P. Adams Sitney, who likes to tell incoming students––likes to scream at them, actually––Stop worrying! You’re in! The hardest thing you ever had to do was high school and it’s over. Now you’re in college and you should take what you want, try different things, stop being programmed. College is the reward for hard labor so enjoy yourself––but work hard.

Q: Where was your favorite place to study while an undergrad?

I lived off campus after my first year, so I tended to study in my apartment. The library was too distracting:  “the reading-room eye contact, the beckoning stacks.” To avoid them I retreated to the monk cell of my bedroom, where I could think in peace.

Q: Is there something in particular that draws you to writing about the lives of young people?

To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of being asked this question. Is there something so different, or deficient, about the lives of young people? Are they so different from everybody else? Does what they’re going through have no universal significance? I don’t think so. The impressions of life I had when I was young are among the strongest and most acute I’ve ever had. If you need to be reminded of that, go read some Proust. The young are fun to write about because they’re passionate and mutable. You never know what they’re going to do. With the characters in “The Marriage Plot,” I was dealing with fully adult, intellectually mature people of 22 years of age, so there was no need to dumb down the material or to compensate for a lack of understanding about the world. I’ve written about older characters, too, all along, and will continue to. But I suppose I do possess a vital connection to my own childhood and adolescence. I remember what I felt then and it’s not hard for me to recall it when I’m writing from the point of view of someone young. That said, I haven’t written a [young adult] novel so far and probably never will.

Q: Which philosopher or literary theorist mentioned in “The Marriage Plot” had the biggest influence on your life and writing?

As I turned out to be a novelist, it would have to be novelist, not a philosopher or literary theorist. Henry James influenced me more than Plato or Nietzsche and James Joyce gave me an idea of how to live my life, whether or not I really understood what I was getting into. Roland Barthes was my favorite of the semiotic literary theorists I read, and that’s why he plays such a big role in “The Marriage Plot.” But I like to get my influences straight from the source, which means the poets and novelists themselves rather than their explicators.

Q: What is your biggest regret from college?

Ever graduating.

Q: What is one thing you would advise a first-year student to not do in his or her first semester?

There is literally nothing I would advise against. Welcome to college.

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