As yet he knew nothing. Education had not begun. (The Education of Henry Adams, Ch. 4)
Those are the last lines of the chapter titled “Harvard College.” Henry Adams has just graduated. No offense meant to Harvard, but I did better than Adams at the University of Kansas. I have long wanted to write about a couple of professors I had in college who led me to where I am, and now seems to be the time.
Tom Lorenz taught creative writing and was a novelist. His two books are Guys Like Us, a comedy about amateur softball in Chicago, and Serious Living, which goes somewhere deeper. They are both excellent. I do not believe he has published a third. While finishing the second, he was thinking about the third, wondering if he should try something more, let’s say, innovative; thus, in the spring 1988 semester he taught a freshman honors seminar titled “Innovative Fiction” which changed my life.
Like I knew any of this. I signed up for a class with an interesting title.
The syllabus (caveat to everything here – “as I remember it”) was: Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Metamorphosis, The Sound and the Fury, Ficciones, Pale Fire, and Cosmicomics. I suppose I had read Faulkner before, maybe “Barn Burning,” but nobody else. I had not heard of several of the authors, or their names had no associations at all.
Later Lorenz told me that he had picked The Sound and the Fury because someone had told him (or he had read?) that it was unteachable. I cannot imagine a better motive.
My responses to the texts were something like, in order: “I don’t get it,” “wait, what is this?,” “wait, what is this?,” “this is awesome,” “awesome,” “awesome,” “awesome.” Look, "awesome" was a popular word among young people at the time.
Perhaps because Lorenz was a novelist, we rarely interpreted the book or came up with a “reading,” so much as we asked and answered, again and again, for a book or passage or detail, the “What is this?” question. “What is this?” can be a hard question, worth a lot of work. And these are books where the answer to that question is directly tied to style, so much of the discussion was less about meaning than style, or about how style can be made inseparable from meaning. Why tell the story like this?
Honestly, I had had no idea that the body of work labeled “literature” contained such things as these books. I could barely believe it. Why had no one told me before? Well, never mind, Tom Lorenz told me.
Within a couple of years, I had read much of what was available by all of these writers, including Flaubert, who was upgraded to “awesome.” These writers led me to all sorts of precursors, disciples, and fellow let’s still call them innovators. Education had begun.
I was not so interested in older books, not yet. That’s tomorrow’s professor.
Thank you, Professor Lorenz.