Did Janette pen “world’s haughtiest e-mail?”

Many of you know Janette Turner Hospital, the novelist who for years has run the “Caught in the Creative Act” seminar at USC.

Yesterday, a reader called my attention to a piece over at Gawker, but when I got there I didn’t read the thing I was being directed to, because I got distracted by this item claiming that the Australian writer had written the “world’s haughtiest e-mail” back to her former students here in Colatown:

Janette Turner Hospital is the author of Orpheus Lost and other books, and a professor at Columbia. She sent MFA students at her old school, the University of South Carolina, the following note about their inferiority. It is amazing.

Hospital sent this note to all of the MFA students on the University of South Carolina listserv. More than one of them forwarded it to us. “We’re all enraged,” one MFA grad from USC tells us. “She is nuts!” says another. Indeed. What’s your favorite part? The personal revelations? The breathtaking undertone of insult towards those in South Carolina? Her special pet name for the Upper West Side? This is fertile ground…

After that build-up, I actually found the e-mail to be not quite as bad as advertised. After all, she says nothing BAD about USC, she just … gushes… to a rather odd extent about NYC. But she would not be the first to have her head turned a bit by the tall buildings, or the Starbucks on every corner. I’m rather fond of the city myself — as a place to visit. Follow the link and see what you think. Or if you’re too lazy to click, here’s an excerpt:

As for news from this very different MFA planet, I’m in seventh heaven teaching here, and not only because I have Orhan Pamuk (whom I hope to bring to USC for Caught in the Creative Act), Oliver Sacks, Simon Schama, Richard Howard, Margo Jefferson, etc., etc., as colleagues, though that is obviously part of it.

My students also live and move and write in seventh heaven and in a fever of creative excitement. Columbia’s MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don’t just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.

This program is huge, the largest in the country. It’s a 3-year degree, with 300 students enrolled at a given time. Each year, 100 are admitted (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with fiction by far the largest segment. But 600+ apply, so the 100 who get in are the cream of the cream…

And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan.” ) We love it.

What do you think? I mean, I’m glad Janette’s having a good time, and maybe she’s a bit carried away. But I guess I’m too used to the excessive rhetoric of political e-mails to be too appalled.

Or maybe my self-esteem as a South Carolinian has been so battered by the attention we’ve garnered because of the Confederate flag, Mark Sanford, Alvin Greene and Nikki Haley that I’m too numb to be insulted further.

Oh, in case you’re wondering if I’m giving her a break unduly — Ms. Hospital is an acquaintance, but we don’t know each other well. A couple of years back when Salman Rushdie was in town for her program, she asked me to moderate a panel discussion in connection with his appearance (which was flattering, but a little scary, since I hadn’t read any of his books), and I met Mr. Rushdie at a reception afterward. That’s about all I can think of to disclose.

13 thoughts on “Did Janette pen “world’s haughtiest e-mail?”

  1. Daniel

    It’s great that that’s her opinion. More power to her.

    What I take issue with is the fact that she felt compelled to write an email to her former students and institution to gush about where she is now.

    Quotes such as the below, which can only be construed as “looking down her nose” at USC students, evidence either an entirely condescending attitude toward USC students or tone-deafness to what is socially acceptable.:

    “But I think what thrills me most of all is the sheer intellectual intensity of the students. Although I have taught at a number of the most highly regarded MFA programs in this country and in England, there’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years. At both places the crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire.”

    Either way, USC (and SC) will be better off without her.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    She has a point that the “air” is different around the very top notch schools–you have a lot greater concentration of geniuses, which can be good and bad. I went to my husband’s reunion at Harvard–panel moderated by classmate and NPR host Melissa Block, for example.

    On the other hand, my MIT alum friend assures me that Doonesbury isn’t exaggerating about the hygiene issues at MIT–apparently between the cost of living in Boston added to tuition, and the pressure to excel, there are plenty of students who actually live at the library–they installed showers there.

    Would I wish USC were more about hanging out at the library than in Five Points bars? Sure
    Do I recognize that as Anne sagely points out, USC serves a different population?

    Janette hit the jackpot with her Columbia gig. Good for her. One would think that a second-tier author would be more humble and realize that but for some fluke of fortune, she’d still be only at USC, a job she was grateful to get when she got it, but hey!

  3. Anne

    Haven’t read the email. I met her; she’s a friend of my mother in law’s. She did seem a bit clueless about our culture, like she had chosen to see a small part of it that fit her pre-conceived notion of what we were. But I’m no famous writer and stuff, so what do I know?

    OK – Clicked on the link to read it and couldn’t read the whole thing. She’s too long-winded. I did catch one part where she insisted it would be easy to carpool up to NYC and stay in “youth hostels.” I have a feeling it’s not so simple. What about food? And taking time off work? And finding someone willing to put the miles on their car? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not as easy as she imagines.

    Blegh. Her tone did leave me with a bad taste.


  4. Mark Stewart

    If one has ever sat on the Low Library steps above College Walk, one would know and understand the rush she is trying to convey. Not that that excuses the tone-deaf enthusiasm of the report. To be fair, such gushing is a typical side effect of those who make the move and find success in The City.

    I think the English would use the word “daft”.

  5. Brad

    Actually, Daniel, as for that “better off with out her” thing… She’s not actually gone.

    If you follow that link up in my first paragraph, you’ll see that she’s scheduled to run “Caught in the Creative Act” here again in the spring. She alludes to it in her e-mail…

  6. Doug Ross

    How many of those Columbia MFA’s are working as baristas at Starbucks while paying off $120K in student loans?

    Anne’s got it right. Blegh!

  7. Jesse S.

    A poster at Gawker put it best: Her email is like the graduate writing program version of “I’m on a Boat.”

    Well put.

  8. Brad

    FYI, I shared this with one of her fellow academics at USC (someone who knows Janette well, and likes her a lot, so keep that in mind) and his reaction was pretty much like mine. While he didn’t want to comment publicly, he said it was OK to share his observations without his name attached:

    I read the mail she sent and, like you, don’t see any explicit insults aimed at USC creative writing students.  I suppose they might be outraged by the implicit comparison with the excellence of the Columbia program, and given enough of an inferiority complex, it probably wouldn’t be hard for them to do that. The comparisons are probably fair though (I’m sure many of our own MFA students *would* love to go to Columbia if they could), even if they are painful to hear and contemplate.

    If it were my call, I would counsel the “good riddance” crowd not to waste their energy taking umbrage at Janette’s love affair with the Columbia program, and focus on finishing their own degrees.  Success is [after all] the sweetest revenge (Vanessa Williams).

  9. Lynn

    This confirms my original impression of Ms. Hospital’s writing. I have tried on several occasions to read her fiction in support of locally connected authors and it didn’t pass my 50 page test. So I’m not surprised a mediocre fiction writer loves NY. I’m so glad Delta was ready when she was. Good riddance.

  10. Darien

    I think to truly appreciate the tone of the e-mail you have to know Janette and have worked with her. I’m a former MFA student at USC, and am still a PhD student in the English department there. I can say this: I cannot think of one person who likes her. Not a graduate student or a faculty member. I’m sure there are people who like her, as the quote in one of the other comments suggests, but they are in a very small minority. I honestly cannot name one person, out of several hundred people I’ve met over the past few years in the department, that I’ve heard speak positively of her. Wait, I did just think of one—one—but even he qualifies his fondness for her by claiming it’s based, at least in part, on getting a kick out of her behavior. On the other hand, I could provide a roster of people who cannot stand her and who tell a seemingly endless succession of stories of being viciously and vindictively mistreated by her (read some of the comments on Gawker from her former students). I have seen her break the spirit of several people who came into the program full of inspiration and vision only to leave it being totally disillusioned with academia and writing. Personally, I think she cares more about success than art, and is petty and spiteful and bizarrely arrogant. She wielded her power as director of the program as if it actually meant something outside of the Humanities Office Building, and I can’t understand how she fails to realize that no one regards her or her work anywhere nearly as highly as she does. It would be like MC Hammer taking himself seriously as a musician. Hell, maybe he can start teaching music at Julliard. Either way, let Columbia have JTH. We’ve got a pool going on how long it takes her to drive that program into the ground.

  11. Phillip

    I don’t know Ms. Hospital, but as somebody who’s been in and out of academia myself, it seems to me the email is a little classless and insensitive towards her former students, strange characteristics for a fiction writer to have considering they are supposed to be able to project themselves into the feelings and mindsets of other characters—maybe that only applies to fictional characters, not flesh-and-blood living human beings. The giveaway line is the name-dropping: not as resources that the Columbia students (and visiting USC students) could draw on, but as in: “I have (so-and-so) as colleagues.” Altogether too first-person, a little TOO “thrilled” (to use her word), a little too self-congratulatory to be taken as a sincere invitation to USC students to come partake of a rich literary resource available to them. Clearly it’s all about her. Even if I were lucky enough to be in her position (and to have had her six-figure salary from USC) I would never dream of writing an email like that.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    My take on the JTH popularity is that she seems to be “liked” in the often self-congratulatory club that is Carolina Distinguished Professors and other Endowed Chairs, including those with radio shows. Those in the community who have taken her Caught In the Creative Act course are fans–groupies, almost. The rest of the English/Humanities community–not so much.

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