I’m of two minds about James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have. I should confess right off that I didn’t hate it and I really suspected that I might. Creative writing teachers aren’t known for being particularly self-reflexive about their pedagogical practices. Let me rephrase that: on the college campuses I’ve worked over the past two decades, creative writing programs haven’t exactly been known for being friendly to women.
Plus, there’s the whole guy-gets-stalked motif which seemed like just another addition to the men’s rights subreddit mentality of contemporary culture. A white man getting stalked by an Iranian woman? Hmm, I thought — sounds kind of fishy.
But I was slightly more sympathetic to Lasdun over the course of the first half of the book. It’s a real crisis-in-masculinity narrative. Middle-aged creative writing professor, with students who clearly exist to serve some need in him (he doesn’t read their work outside of class because — sigh — it detracts from his own work), is flattered by the attentions of a young woman he has constructed as vaguely exotic and talented. There’s an implicit social contract here, with a clear understanding on his part of how this exchange is meant to proceed. They exchange vaguely titillating emails, have an awkward coffee date (and I’m not victim-blaming here, but why have coffee with someone merely to exchange a manuscript?), and then things go terribly wrong.
Lasdun is a man whose touchstones are D.H. Lawrence and Spenser — he longs for a world in which the codes of gender were clear and thus interactions were governed by a set of rules that make sense to him. Like many of his generation, he’s not particularly responsive to his students — only when pushed by this crisis does he begin to think about what his actions might mean to someone else: namely, Nasreen. Over the years I’ve seen far too many professors (most of them regrettably male) who seek gratification in the attentions of their female students. I was just at a conference this past weekend, where a middle-aged professor said that being an academic was the best gig ever, because young women “threw” themselves at him.
Lasdun is made to pay for his inattentiveness. Those of us who have dealt with students like Nasreen, however, will recognize the symptoms of mental illness as they play out in the halls of academic networked sociality. Mental illness manifests itself in specific ways in the contemporary academy and although Lasdun refuses to cede the possiblity that Nasreen isn’t well, her behaviors conform to many others I’ve seen before. The erratic 3 am emails, often lyrical in their rage and manic energy; the intense highs and lows of language and behavior (love and hate, often in the same paragraph); the racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic language of these often bipolar outpourings. Lasdun is right: it’s scary, unnerving, draining, and often personally devastating to be the recipient of this kind of vitriol. And unless the threat is immediate, there’s very little that universities can — or are willing t0 — do to protect employees from this problem.
What’s most troubling about Lasdun’s account is his refusal to describe Nasreen as mentally ill, mainly because to do so seemingly denies his own victimhood. Lasdun wants that victimhood. He wants Nasreen to be an anti-Semitic terrrorist, a bully who is totally in control of her emotions and behaviors. He doesn’t want to have been mistaken in his judgement, the victim mainly of his own poor assessment of the situation, his fundamental misreading of codes he believed to be master of.
Student-professor relationships are intense and complicated, especially those between older men and younger women in a world in which the power relations that drove those previously uncomplicated liaisons have been laid bare. Not so very long ago, members of a department known for faculty having relationships with their students were told to stop. “Why?” one faculty member complained. “That’s our demographic.”
In the end, what’s so enormously disturbing about Lasdun’s book isn’t the story of stalking it recounts, but the fact that the first such book about this contains a curious inversion of a situation much more familiar in the academy — stories about women being stalked by men and not the other way around.