Fiction Fiction Issue


“Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he told her. “You’ll just never be any good.”

Almost a decade earlier, on the morning of her first conference with the great Marcus Bellamy, Janet had parked in the dusty, unpaved X Lot on the farthest reaches of the university campus, the only place graduate students could afford to park in, and trekked across campus in the sweltering Southwest heat to Modern and Romance Languages. The Faculty Lot was right across the street. She saw Bellamy arrive in his vintage Mustang and then, in a breathtakingly confident move, stride off, leaving the convertible’s top down. She checked to see if anyone was around who knew her and might be watching, and then she altered her course so she could pass by the Mustang for a closer look. Amazing! The front passenger seat was littered with cassette tapes, jazz mostly, and she could see the corner of a box that likely contained a dozen or so others. Did the man have some reason to believe his music would not be stolen? Everyone knew Marcus Bellamy, of coursehe was the department’s one true academic superstarso maybe he felt protected by his reputation. Or perhaps the F Lots were monitored by cameras. She’d never noticed any, but it was possible. Even so, afternoon thunderstorms were predicted. Did Bellamy believe his status warded off not just music thieves but the elements themselves?

She had a full day before hera comp class to teach, her Henry James seminar to attend, a stack of essays to start grading if the entire weekend wasn’t to be ruinedbut she could think of little but her conference with Bellamy. At lunch Robbie had remarked on how preoccupied she was, and as the afternoon wore on she’d felt increasingly light-headed, at times almost ill. Robbie also had a conference with Bellamy that afternoon, and Janet was glad his and her own weren’t back to back. No doubt Bellamy had noticed she and Robbie were a couple, but she preferred he not think of her as part of anything. For this first conference she saw no need for context beyond the essay they would be discussing. She’d spent a long time on it, and they had a good deal to talk about. She’d signed up for the last conference slot of the afternoon, so they could run long if they needed to.

Bellamy’s office was the largest on the corridor, its most ostentatious feature a large, working fireplace. Janet’s first thought upon entering was that if things went well this semester, maybe by the holidays she’d be invited in forwhat?brandy and eggnog before a roaring fire? Probably it would never get cold enough in the desert to justify that, but the fantasy was pleasant enough. The rest of the office was crammed with books and periodicals on floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves. In the unlikely event she ever managed to snag an office like this one, she thought, she’d stay put. What possessed a man with such a cushy life to pack up all those books and move every couple of years, as Bellamy did? He’d no sooner arrived on this campus than the speculation had begun about how long he’d stay, where he’d go next, what would be needed in the way of salary and perks to lure him away. Brilliant black English professors were in demand, as Bellamy well knew, and some students whispered he was already receiving and weighing offers for the year after next. That was why Janet had wanted so desperately to study with him now, this term. His class in proletarian fiction was wildly oversubscribed. Even the linguistics and creative-writing majors wanted in. And so far, the course had been electrifying.

Bellamy greeted her at the door with a warm smile, but they were no sooner seated than he said, rather ominously, “Ms. Moore, in conference I always like to be forthright.”

To which she murmured something silly, pretty close to the exact opposite of the truth. She said that she assumed he would be forthright, or hoped he would be, orworsethat she was always grateful for any honest, rigorous appraisal of her work.

“Excellent,” he said, handing back her essay. “Because though it has much to recommend it, I have serious misgivings about your work.”

So it was true. Yesterday she’d overheard one of her classmates claiming that Bellamy was reading not only the papers they’d just turned in, but previous efforts from other courses as well, everything he could get his hands on. She hadn’t believed itwho but a madman would take on so much extra work?but there it was, on the desk between them, a big blue Graduate Office folder with her name on it, containing, by the look of it, a dozen or so of her essays from past semesters. When he said he had misgivings about her work, could he possibly mean all of it? Work that had already established her as perhaps the most promising scholar in the program?

She examined the essay he’d just handed her. She saw no letter grade on the cover page, and Janet had marked enough freshman compositions to know what this could portend. She herself always put a poor grade, along with her reasons for awarding it, on the back of the last page, safe from prying eyes. Though it was probably the wrong thing to do, she quickly turned the essay over to see if Bellamy handled weak efforts in the same fashion, only to discover that the back page was blank as well. As were all the others. If he had found “much to recommend” in the essay, weren’t those things worth mentioning? “ ‘Misgivings’?” she said finally, her voice sounding strange, distant, whiny, frightened.

Bellamy had risen and was now scanning his bookshelves, and he didn’t answer immediately. Turning his back on her had the effect of compounding her fears. “I’ll try to explain, but it’s going to be easier to show you ...”

“Actually, I thought my essay was good,” she ventured. “I spent a long time on it.” She couldn’t believe she was saying this. How many times had she told her own students that the amount of time you spent on something was immaterial?

“I’m sure you did, Janet. It’s meticulous. Flawless.” He stepped back for a better angle at the books and periodicals on the top shelves. “It’s just not really yours.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, swallowing hard. “Are you saying it’s plagiarized?”

“Good heavens, no. Relax.”

As if.

“Actually,” he went on, still not turning around, “theft would have been more revealing. Then at least I’d have known what you admired, whereas I can’t locate you in what you did write, anywhere. The same is true with your previous essays. It’s as if you don’t exist ... Ah, here we are!” The volume he’d been looking for was on the top shelf. Bellamy was a tall mana skilled basketball player, according to Robbie, who’d reported this fact half apologetically, as if he felt personally responsible for perpetuating a stereotypebut he still had to use a footstool to reach it. Stepping down again, he placed the journal, a twenty-year-old issue of American Literature, on the desk between them, then sat back down.

“But I do exist,” she offered, suddenly unsure that she was entitled to this opinion. Would he attempt to reason her out of it? Would he succeed?

“Indeed,” he said. “Here you are. In the flesh.”

The word flesh, spoken in such an intimate setting, in a room that contained a leather sofa in front of a fireplace, made her apprehensive. Earlier that morning, stepping from the shower, she’d imagined this meeting with pleasure. Nothing sexual, of course, or even terribly intimate. She’d imagined neither the fireplace nor the sofajust that their conversation, the first of many, would go well, and that Bellamy would admire her, as she admired him. He’d certainly seemed responsive to her in classthough, it was true, he was no more responsive to her than to her classmates. He obviously knew better than to display overt signs of favoritism. In conference was where you let your guard down a bit, showed your enthusiasm for good work. She’d felt confident that this was what would happen today. Maybe after they were done he’d suggest a beer at the Salty Dog, where grad students hung out and Robbie’s band played on Saturday nights.

“I thought,” she said carefully, rubbing her moist palms against the cushion of her chair, “that was the whole idea of literary criticism. Isn’t the ‘I’ supposed to disappear? Isn’t the argument itself what matters?”

“That’s what we teach,” he conceded. He’d taken his glasses off and was cleaning them with a handkerchiefunnecessarily, it occurred to her, an affectation. “It’s what I was taught, and I used to believe it. Now I’m not so sure. The first-person pronoun can be dispensed with, it’s true. But not the writer behind the pronoun.”

“I guess I don’t know what you mean, then,” she said, aware that this was the second time she’d resorted to those exact words. Oh Godshe “guessed” she didn’t understand? If one of her freshmen had written that, she’d have scratched “Can’t you be certain?” in the margin.

“It’s true the writer shouldn’t intrude upon the argument,” Bellamy admitted, “but that’s not the same as saying he should disappear, is it?”

She caught herself this time. A third “guess” would have been disastrous. “Isn’t it?”

“Okay, let’s back up. Why did you write about Dos Passos?”

“I was interested

“But why? Why were you interested?”

Now she was squirming, angry. Because he’d interrupted her? Not given her a chance to explain? Or was it the challenge implied in his question?

“Did you choose a topic you had a real connection to? Or just one you knew I was interested in?”

Well, sure, Bellamy’s enthusiasm for Dos Passos had been the main reason, but to her way of thinking that merely predicted a good starting point for their ongoing dialogue. Wasn’t the study of literature supposed to be a dialogue? a series of dialogues between writer and reader, reader and teacher? Why was he challenging a conversation so recently begun? Had he already concluded that it would go nowhere? What evidence might have led him to such a conclusion? She tried to concentrate on what he was saying, to not personalize, to not be overwhelmed by disappointment. But with each new questionWhat are you risking in this essay? From what passion in your life does it derive? Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Did you attend private school or public?she felt herself flushing. What had her life to do with anything? She’d come prepared to argue her essay’s nuances, to accept her professor’s suggestions for bolstering its thesis, even to hear him to question its validity, but here he was, wanting to talk about her, as if what she’d produced didn’t matter. It was as if he’d asked her to take off her clothes.

“Look, Janet,” he said, perhaps sensing her distress. “The truth is, I can teach you very little. You have a lively intellect and genuine curiosity, and you work hard. You read carefully, you synthesize well, and you know how to marshal evidence. If a scholar’s life is what you want, you’re well on your way. That’s the good news. But one last piece of the puzzle is missing. The bad news is that it’s a big one, and for some people it can be elusive.”

Still a big piece of the puzzle missing? She didn’t want to believe that. Her other professors all agreed that she was close, probably ready to start submitting her work to academic journals. (Bellamy knew the editors of these journals personally, and a word from him ... ) And if the piece she was missing was “big,” how could it be elusive? The charge didn’t make sense.

Then again, what if what he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Hadn’t she sometimes had the distinct feeling that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling them again? Was that what Bellamy was getting at? Had he seen something in her work, or the absence of something? He was arguingshe understood this muchfor some kind of passionate, personal connection, but what if that connection wasn’t there? What if what she possessedwhat her other professors admiredwas merely a facility? What if she was just doing what she was good at, and nothing deeper? “This elusive thing?” she heard herself say, in a frightened, childlike voice. “I won’t succeed until I find it?”

“Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he told her, waving that concern aside. “You’ll just never be any good.”

Presented by

Richard Russo is the author of a collection of short stories, five novels (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls), and several produced screenplays. He is currently at work on a new novel.

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