Two weeks before the long anticipated campus visit of world-famous writer and all-around wonderful person, Margaret Atwood, the English department chair sent out an email blast to remind the professors to encourage students to go, quickly followed by one, two, then three curmudgeonly emails from tenured English professors and department fixtures pleading for an end to the common practice of giving students extra-credit to attend author appearances, because those who were only motivated by class credit wouldn’t be able to mask their disinterest and would behave in ways embarrassing to the university. This email was quickly followed by an email from an English major, who reminded the boo-hooing department fixtures of the difference between “reply” and “reply all,” and that the former was the better choice when disparaging students, since the department chair’s email blast also went out to English majors, and there were now a lot of students who had concrete evidence of the long-suspected negative attitudes of the fixtures toward their students.
On the night of the Margaret Atwood talk, I arrived on campus early enough to get something to eat at the student center that featured express versions of fast food restaurants where students worked, and where students stood in roped-off snaking lines. I rarely went to campus at night, and except for the restaurant managers who looked like graduates who had hung around, I was easily the oldest person out of hundreds in this large cafeteria. Despite my being employed by the university, this was their habitat, and I felt like I very much didn’t belong. I remembered being nineteen, thirty years ago, in a university dining hall not unlike this one, where we lingered after we’d eaten to joke around and put off studying, and I remembered a friend I often ate with who couldn’t sit still. He’d wad up napkins and shoot baskets into many of the drinking glasses at the table, so I’d learned to keep a hand over any glass I hoped to drink out of as I ate as best I could one-handed.
Behind me, as I waited in line for a veggie burger, I sensed a nineteen-year-old bursting with the same anxious energy, and I knew that time moved differently for him, that this waiting was excruciatingly tedious for him, and as most of us fiddled on our phones, he was practically doing jumping jacks to try and will the line to move forward. As I ordered, new to this particular burger chain, I asked questions, and the nineteen-year-old, who could no longer bother to stand behind me but was next to me and leaning on the counter, practically choked from having to listen to my circuitous navigation of the simple menu, hardly able to contain himself to not shout out his combo before his turn. I was as glad as he was when my food was paid for and I was given my receipt, so I could go stand among the loitering students with similar tickets instead of waiting with the nineteen-year-old one moment longer, our brains really quite different. Blessed as he was with youth, he was entirely unable to hide his discomfort with something so ordinary as waiting to be served a hamburger.
After eating alone in my office on another part of campus, I forewent my usual practice of showing up early to find a good seat in the front of the auditorium, in the near proximity of the famous writer, and instead I sat in the back, where the seats were just as rare, with hopes of witnessing firsthand the embarrassing behavior of students bribed into attending this event with class credit, to see if maybe the department fixtures were right, despite their rudeness and unfortunate attitudes. What I noticed was that a lot of people — students, professors, and readerly townies — had shown up early, just as I had, either to sit up front, or to sit all the way in the back, with a chasm of empty seats between the two groups. In back, the students talked about being sure they would receive the promised class credit by signing in on a sign-up sheet, and one of the professors who spotted one of her students reminded the student to be sure to do just that. While I don’t believe that extra-credit is a notion compatible with higher education, I won’t question the motives of my colleagues who may have understood better than I did the effects of reward and punishment, however ephemeral, because as the auditorium filled and I got a good look around, not one of my 100+ writing or literature students was in attendance. I also noticed that only one out of the three of the curmudgeonly professors who had unintentionally insulted the English majors was there. Many of the students around me had no idea what the event was even about, and while I was hopeful they’d be won over by Margaret Atwood, everyone was talking, and everyone had a phone out, and I suspected, skeptically, that she wouldn’t be reaching those of us in the back of the auditorium where the students were paid with class credit.
The M.C. appeared to introduce the honored guest and the conversations didn’t stop, but as the bow-tied smallish professor talked about dystopian literature, the gulf between the ways we talk, and the ways we talk about art was demonstrated, the smallish professor delighted and nervous to be smart about the work of Margaret Atwood, the author, in front of Margaret Atwood, the person. She stepped to the podium and as she spoke, the conversations in the back of the auditorium lowered to a simmer. Some of the students left very soon after she began, while most stayed to barely listen. If you’ve not seen Margaret Atwood, her dry wit hits repeatedly as she drones on, and up front there was twittering delight at all the right beats. Meanwhile, in back, about twenty minutes in, the paid audience settled in to quietly watch videos or to interact with faraway humans who were elsewhere and also on phones. Margaret Atwood explained how she was affected by The Feminine Mystique when it came out, like many women of her generation, and to try to demonstrate the sexist flavor of that time she quoted repeatedly from “The Good Wife’s Guide,” which she didn’t know was a hoax, probably a pre-Internet hoax, but a made-up document that purported to have come from a women’s magazine in 1957. “The Good Wife’s Guide” has circulated because of its exaggerated but believably sexist suggestions to housewives that they should prepare themselves, their children, and the home, to greet their husbands upon his return from work. It escalates his importance in listicle style as it advises her to make the best of her dependence, so that he’s godlike, and she’s nearly an insect, but a smiling one — because feminism is a joke to some people. Even if anyone up front caught her reference and knew “The Good Wife’s Guide” was a satire and a fake, there wasn’t a good way to tell Margaret Atwood. After all, her experience had been real. She was merely trying to present the flavor. Meanwhile, in back, the story of her feminist awakening was lost on everyone around me, where one young woman shopped for shoes, lots of young women played with strands of hair, and everyone else was on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and they shared with each other what they’d found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Siri was heard being activated with a bell tone, and Siri said, “I can help you with that.”
Thirty minutes in, the paid audience had grown tired of their phones but perked up when Margaret Atwood talked about the Bible. She suggested there would always be contradictory messages found in any book that was actually a diverse collection of books, and this Southern audience, many of whom thought of themselves as authorities on that very same quite unified and singlehandedly ghost-authored best-book-ever, edged forward in their seats to listen. I learned that some international students used different gestures than Americans to shush each other (by repeatedly cupping the chin), and that references to “real rape” from polite apologists invoked uncomfortable disquiet among even those who got her, as Margaret Atwood admitted by the end of her talk that The Handmaid’s Tale was more relevant thirty years later, at a time when women’s bodies were claimed as state property, just as young men’s bodies were once claimed as state property by the draft. She addressed everyone as “readers,” and screens flipped off as her talk wound down. The standing ovation rippled back from the front, with those around me clapping not for her speech but to acknowledge that it had ended, most of whom stayed because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that they needed to endure the whole talk to be able to get credit, and they bolted out of the auditorium before the applause died down, while those who cared about Margaret Atwood didn’t notice any of this, and Margaret Atwood could not have known either.
There are parallel societies in the university that will go out into the world separately, one whose members read and talk about books, and a second, whose members ignore the first when they do. Because of the nature of this event and the stature of the speaker, the representation of these parallel societies was skewed. Be assured: the readers are far outnumbered by those who see little value in time spent reading, and they were multiplied many times over by those elsewhere on campus that night. There were those who were waiting tables who liked to read, and those who were waiting tables who never did. There were those in the library working on calculus proofs who would rather have been reading, and those in the library working on calculus proofs who preferred anything over reading.
At the end of the question and answer period Margaret Atwood described a project in Norway she’d been asked to participate in called Future Library, where a forest of 1000 saplings will be pulped in one hundred years, to make an anthology from the 100 texts contributed, one per year, with each successive and exclusive contribution housed there in the Norwegian woods. Margaret Atwood was optimistic that there would still be readers in one hundred years, and why wouldn’t there be? Everyone on campus that night will have lived and died before the piece Margaret Atwood had given them will be printed up and distributed, and she was the only one who knew what she had said. The people up front were curious and buoyed by the idea, while the audience in back was dispersed and had already started in on what was left of the night. And I got up and walked out too. As I left, I heard a young person say, “I’m so glad I went to that,” and I didn’t know if she was coerced or if she came of her own accord, but I think I know.
I got in my car and drove the 1 ½ hours through the Tennessee night from the city where I was a professor to the city where I lived. I watched for deer along the highway as I listened to Mrs. Dalloway on the Audible app, and a semi with an L.E.D. Christian cross on its grill drove too closely behind me for most of the way home.