Warning: “Class Porn:” You May Be Offended

Molly Hite spent 32 years as a professor of English at Cornell University, teaching and writing about 20th-century fiction, feminist theory, and creative writing. In her bio, she does not admit to teaching what she calls in her novel, “Class Porn,” as “bonehead English.” That’s pretty much remedial composition for freshmen who can’t spell, can’t punctuate, and haven’t a clue on to put down words in a coherent sentence.
Hite now lives in Bellingham, and she’s just reissued “Class Porn,” which was first published in 1986. It’s set in a mid-Western college town, and a lot has changed since 1986, to say nothing of the 1960’s, the time-period of the novel.
She’ll talk about her book, which is about Eleanor’s ability to cope with being a smart woman in the “boys’ club” world of academia, at 7 p.m. Friday, April 5, at Village Books, 1200 11th St.
Be warned: one of Eleanor’s side projects is writing pornographic novels. And that “writing” is all in this novel.
After I read the book, I emailed her a few questions. Here’s our online “conversation.”
Margaret: As a librarian at Whatcom Community College, I took umbrage at the stereotypical librarian image that the main character, Eleanor, and her mother seem to perpetuate. Also “female teachers,” often called “schoolmarms” in the novel.
But, Hite says, “Note that ‘Class Porn’ takes place in 1964-65 (no gender studies at that point) and that the idiocies about librarians (and ‘schoolmarms’) come mostly from the misogynist senior faculty whom Eleanor sometimes calls the boys’ club, along with her mother’s pathetically genteel stereotypes.”
I wondered how Hite wants to talk about the #MeToo movement on Friday as it relates to her book.
“I hope we can all talk about it (for hours) at the end of my reading,” she says.
“The big difference in 1965 is the lack of feminist language. Words like sexism, sexual harassment, even sexual assault weren’t in general use—and of course neither were the concepts. The so-called sexual revolution was in full swing, but historically this is a very low point in the status of women in Western democracies. Lots of blaming (those librarians, along with mothers,  schoolmarms and adjunct female faculty whose abilities were supposed to involve nurture, not brilliance, not writing and publishing).”
“In 1986, when ‘Class Porn’ was first published, a lot had changed, but not enough. The words were there but a lot of people, female as well as male, still tried to make female status and power a matter of the woman’s good attitude. While a lot of editors and reviewers got that Eleanor’s job would vanish if she talked back to her condescending colleagues, I got the “Why doesn’t she just” question a lot: “Why doesn’t she just tell him off?, report him? (Where?), slap his face, etc.”
“#MeToo took on that question and revealed how naive it was. Why didn’t‘ any number of great actresses “just” tell off, report (where?) or slap the face of Harvey Weinstein? And all those others? It took masses of public testifying before the real effect of the power structure came clear. Or relatively clear?” I was curious how she thought students have changed over the years.
“I taught at Cornell for 32 years. In that time there were a lot of swings of opinion about feminism. When I began teaching there in 1982 I introduced a regular undergraduate class on 20-century women writers. Imagine—there had never been such a thing. The class was packed for several years, with mostly young women learning about garden variety feminism. They felt their lives were on the line, which made for terrific discussions, but that mode of thinking about feminism passed. After that we had a couple of go-rounds with young women who were terrified that someone would think they hated men. I asked them which men (I’m not fond of Hitler myself), but the point rarely got across. The there was feminism as Madonna, as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ as slut marches, and lo and behold, the spread of the male feminist. And then there were the ferocious grad student theorists who actually maintained that gender theory would be a serious discipline only when more men than women practiced it. Presumably because men do everything better than women do, including feminism.”
“What I love about #MeToo is that it’s about practice, not just saying the right things. I tend to think millennials are a lot more about practice than, say, genXers, Certainly more than my boomer generation. Although it’s a boomer, Rebecca Solnit, who gave us an impeccable account of the phenomenon we now call mansplaining. ‘Class Porn’ is all about mansplaining, only the word didn’t exist when I was writing the novel.”
I wanted to know about her own university experience.
“I didn’t go to college right after high school; I joined the Poverty Program and then worked for New York’s listener-sponsored radio station. When I started my undergraduate education I was six years older than the other freshmen and married. I loved college. It wasn’t just more school; it was a treat. I had worked professionally as a writer so I never took the  beginning-level courses. I learned about these courses by teaching them, as a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of Washington.”
And did she experience any indignities like Eleanor did?
“‘Class Porn’ is based on a lot of real situations and people, but it’s not autobiographical. I was lucky never to have gotten stuck in a dead-end academic job the way Eleanor did. But her situation was common.”
“And the state of people teaching humanities at the college level is much, much worse now. Of all the English courses taught in two-year and four-year colleges and universities, 80 per cent are taught by temporary, non-tenure-track faculty, paid by the course with no health care or other benefits.”

 

Share this post with your friends!