A short story writer, essayist, novelist, memoirist, editor, and writing workshop leader, Paulette Bates Alden has an impressive blog and web site. Her wise essays on writing technique and aspects of memoir are stimulating and useful. Lately I’ve been enjoying her short story archives.
“Enormously Valuable” is about Miriam, an adjunct writing teacher in Minneapolis at a middling state school and its branch campuses. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford (like Alden herself), Miriam has published a well-reviewed short story collection and teaches three courses a term. Low pay, no benefits. When a permanent job, with benefits, comes open at twice the pay, she’s passed over for a more recent MFA, a man, who has a hot new book out.
Was what happened to her sexist, as she claims? Yeah, probably, in effect.
But Rupert, a liberal, enlightened faculty member, Miriam’s direct supervisor as the head of creative writing, epitomizes the structural reason—academia’s caste system within America’s—why Miriam struggles financially and suffers emotionally. To her, a supporting player who teaches mostly introductory classes, he’s oblivious to his own relative privilege. Yet it’s easy to intuit his beef: he’s underpaid, too, and is burdened with committee work and advising on top of it; maybe he has a doctorate, not just an MFA; anyway, unlike her, he must publish or perish.
And beyond this, Miriam sees the crux of her case: she’s invisible and shopworn; her rival is fresh and sexy.
Dutiful Miriam, having accrued a pattern of success in the hiring committee’s own bailiwick, has earned the job—even if the other guy, largely untested as a teacher, might be a better writer, as she fears. As the committee views it (and none but Rupert even halfway sees this woman toiling in their vineyard), he’ll attract buzz and accrue fresh prestige to the department—and he seems more likely to publish another book, or at least to do so more quickly. Given the deal they’ve cut for him, that’s surely true.
But while “Enormously Valuable” arises from this arcane employment situation, it’s much more. The portrait of the sensitive but superficial Rupert, and Miriam’s reaction to him, is delicious. She reads him well and interestingly—such inner subjectivity is perhaps writing’s strongest draw—and the story is thus deeply layered.
Nuanced subjective truths emerge as she becomes the shocked witness to his—and to her own—human virtues and flaws. He’s no monster and is pained by her pain. Yet Miriam’s complaint becomes, to him, about his discomfort over her anger and what he sees as her ingratitude. He’s been so nice to her!
The other short story I’ve read from the archive (they’re linked stories about Miriam) is “The Student,” about one of her students who tries to kill himself. Inherently dramatic and gripping—what will happen to this kid?—the story’s exploration of Miriam’s confused feelings becomes equally compelling. A brilliant student, he’s her secret favorite in the class, and she’s horrified by what he’s done to himself. She also feels maternal, girlish, and old. Her welter of emotions rings true, and her surprising confusion is ultimately as mysterious as this gifted, lost kid.