Smart, Satirical 'Devil And Webster' Takes On College Identity Politics

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 23, 2017 7:41 am

A few days ago, one of my students asked me what I was reading, so I told her about Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel, called The Devil and Webster. My student's eyes got wider as I finished lightly summarizing the plot, and she said, with some concern about Korelitz: "I hope she's ready for all the angry tweets and emails."

Yeah, I think she probably is.

Korelitz's new novel is a smart, semi-satire about the reign of identity politics on college campuses today. That, in itself, is a tricky subject for a white novelist to tackle, unless she or he is a far-right conservative, which Korelitz is not.

But then Korelitz makes matters even more complicated. Her heroine is a Jewish feminist college president named Naomi Roth. Facing off against her are an African-American professor and a Palestinian undergraduate; these two men turn out to be the most "duplicitous" characters in the story.

You see why my student's eyes widened at what sounds like a deliberately provocative set-up.

Recently, the novelist Lionel Shriver stirred up a lot of criticism on the left by publicly denouncing what she called "tippy-toe" fiction constrained by identity politics. Korelitz is not tippy-toeing here; rather, she's asserting the novelist's right to imagine a story that's messier than a homily, and characters who are more nuanced than mere emblems.

Korelitz's setting is the fictional Webster College. Webster is an elite liberal arts college in the mode of Amherst or Williams. It used to be a bastion of old boys and old money, but it remade itself in the 1970s; now Webster boasts a much more diverse student body, along with a dining hall that serves culturally sensitive cuisine of all nations and a college portfolio divested of all trace elements of nuclear energy and diamond dust. And Webster has its first female president in Naomi Roth.

Naomi is our moral center and she couldn't be more likable: a single mother, astute and beleaguered, wild haired and a tad frumpy. She still harbors a lingering case of "imposter syndrome" under her proper Eileen Fisher outfits.

When the story begins, Naomi has become aware of a growing band of students— her own daughter among them — camped out around "the Stump," the epicenter of campus and the traditional gathering place for protests.

But this group of protesters is maddeningly close-mouthed, refusing to meet with the administration to discuss their grievances. At one point, Naomi talks with her friend Francine, the director of admissions at Webster, and Francine shrewdly characterizes this new mutation of campus protest in the Internet age. Naomi says:

"My door's been open for months. ... What kind of protest declines dialogue with its opponent?"

"A modern one," Francine said dryly. "These kids are not like we were. ... Interaction across the battle lines isn't what they're after. ... They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents."

"Or accomplish anything," Naomi said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, they're accomplishing plenty. They're compiling influence. ... "

"Gaining 'likes.' Getting 'retweeted.' "

"That's part of it. No point denying it."

One of the causes of the protest turns out to be the fact that a popular anthropology professor has been denied tenure; because he's African-American, students accuse Webster of institutional racism.

Naomi and the tenure committee have to remain silent for legal reasons, even though they know that the professor is guilty of something more damning than suspiciously high "Rate My Professor" scores complimenting his astronomically inflated grades. When a young student, a Palestinian refugee named Omar Khayal, emerges as the professor's most eloquent defender, the situation becomes so heated that Naomi has real cause to fear that she'll be ousted from the presidency of Webster.

The Devil and Webster is wittily on target about, among other things, social class, privilege, silencing and old-school feminist ambivalence about power. It also takes on Korelitz's home subject, the insanity of the college admissions process. But its central dilemma — whether we can form a cosmopolitan community where we affirm our individual identities, yet remain connected to one another — is, in realistic fashion, no closer to being resolved by the time we get to the end of the book.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In her 2009 novel, "Admission," which was made into a movie starring Tina Fey, Jean Hanff Korelitz took readers on an insider's tour of the college admissions process at Princeton. Her new novel, "The Devil And Webster," surveys student life at a New England college in turmoil. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A few days ago, one of my students asked me what I was reading, so I told her about Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel called "The Devil And Webster." My student's eyes got wider as I finished lightly summarizing the plot. And she said, with some concern about Korelitz, I hope she's ready for all the angry tweets and emails. Yeah, I think she probably is.

Korelitz's his new novel is a smart, semi-satire about, the reign of identity politics on college campuses today. That in itself is a tricky subject for a white novelist to tackle, unless she or he is a far-right conservative, which Korelitz is not. But then Korelitz makes matters even more complicated. Her heroine is a Jewish, feminist college president named Naomi Roth. Facing off against her are an African-American professor and a Palestinian undergraduate. These two men turn out to be the most duplicitous characters in the story. You see why my student's eyes widened at what sounds like a deliberately provocative set-up.

Recently, the novelist Lionel Shriver stirred up a lot of criticism on the left by publicly denouncing what she called tippy-toe fiction constrained by identity politics. Korelitz is not tippy-toeing here. Rather, she's asserting the novelist's right to imagine a story that's messier than a homily and characters who are more nuanced than mere emblems.

Korelitz's setting is the fictional Webster College. Webster is an elite, liberal arts college in the mode of Amherst or Wiliams. It used to be a bastion of old boys and old money, but it remade itself in the 1970s. Now Webster boasts a much more diverse student body, along with a dining hall that serves culturally sensitive cuisine of all nations and a college portfolio divested of all trace elements of nuclear energy and diamond dust. And Webster has its first female president in Naomi Roth. Naomi is our moral center. And she couldn't be more likable, a single mother, astute and beleaguered, wild haired and a tad frumpy. She still harbors a lingering case of imposter syndrome under her proper Eileen Fisher outfits.

When the story begins, Naomi has become aware of a growing band of students, her own daughter among them, camped out around the stump, the epicenter of campus and the traditional gathering place for protests. But this group of protesters is maddeningly closed mouthed, refusing to meet with the administration to discuss their grievances. At one point, Naomi talks with her friend Francine, the director of admissions at Webster. And Francine shrewdly characterizes this new mutation of campus protest in the internet age.

Naomi says (reading), my door has been open for months. What kind of protest declines dialogue with its opponent? A modern one, Francine said dryly. These kids are not like we were. Interaction across the battle lines isn't what they're after. They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents. Or accomplish anything, Naomi said, rolling her eyes. Oh, said Francine, they're accomplishing plenty. They're compiling influence, gaining likes, getting retweeted. That's part of it, Francine replied, no point denying it.

One of the causes of the protest turns out to be the fact that a popular anthropology professor has been denied tenure. Because he's African-American, students accuse Webster of institutional racism. Naomi and the tenure committee have to remain silent for legal reasons, even though they know that the professor is guilty of something more damning than suspiciously high Rate-My-Professor scores, complementing his astronomically inflated grades. When a young student, a Palestinian refugee named Omar Khayal, emerges as the professor's most eloquent defender, the situation becomes so heated Naomi has real cause to fear that she'll be ousted from the presidency of Webster.

"The Devil And Webster" is wittily on target about, among other things, social class and privilege, silencing, old school feminist ambivalence about power and Korelitz's home subject, the insanity of the college admissions process. But its central dilemma, whether we can form a cosmopolitan community where we affirm our individual identities yet remain connected to one another, is, in realistic fashion, no closer to being resolved by the time we get to the end of the book.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Devil And Webster" by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.