In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, James Sullivan revealed that the administration of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco was so horrified by a student’s violent and explicit short story that it expelled the student and fired his writing instructor.
Sullivan reports that the instructor, Jan Richman, sought advice from her department coordinator on how to deal with the student’s story, which was filled with sex, violence, incest, and pedophilia. Accustomed to reading students’ stories that were designed to shock, the instructor claimed this one was different: “There was no character development — just hacking up bodies.”
Higher-ups in the administration became aware of the situation, and the director of security called in the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide division. Although the police say there was never a homicide case or any evidence that the piece was “anything other than a story,” the university expelled the student and sent him home. His parents called the school the following day,
alleging that their son had been encouraged to write about violence after reading a short story assigned in Richman’s Narrative Storytelling class….
The story was “Girl With Curious Hair,” the title piece of a 1988 collection by David Foster Wallace, author of “Infinite Jest,” one of the most widely acclaimed novel of the 1990s. “Girl With Curious Hair” features a character called Sick Puppy, a yuppie who hangs out with a crowd of punk rockers for cheap thrills. One of the young women lets him extinguish matches on her skin.
Richman assigned the story, she said last week, as an example of “an unsympathetic narrator, a guy who is sadistic and sexist.” But the story was not part of the class’s authorized textbook, and fellow instructors say administration officials were angry that Richman had not offered the information sooner.
According to Richman, no one in the administration was familiar with the author, and Rowley and Stephens were none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” she said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.”
When alerted to the situation, Wallace reportedly said, “If this college is taking it upon itself to protect kids, there are going to be a whole lot more books other than mine that they would not want them reading.”
“You don’t punish a kid for doing a story that’s all (gratuitous content), because they’re beginners,” Wallace went on, characterizing the university’s reaction as “a combination of moral spasms and legal terror.” (Many thanks to Martha O’Connor for the link.)