Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

The Task of the Novelist at the University

Like last year, I am going to teach two courses in the Netherlands this fall. One course is on two books by Coetzee, at the University of Leiden, and one is on genetic modification from a literary point of view at the University of Wageningen.
According to its website, Wageningen is "the leading European University in Life Sciences," but not too long ago it was a known as an "agricultural university."
I guess that an agricultural university wanted to have the pleasure—if it's actually going to be a pleasure remains to be seen—of an author teaching a class. For some fresh air, so to speak. Of course, there needs to be a connection between said author and the university, hence genetic modification from a literary point of view.
Needless to say, I'm not an expert on genetic modification, but I invited some experienced guest speakers to counterbalance the fact that I'm a layman.
Actually, I never finished high school. I'm a dropout. I refuse to be ashamed of it. For that reason, I still put it on my CV.
The dropout-part of my CV sometimes raises eyebrows in academic circles. But lately the estimation of the literary author is so low that most people in these circles are not at all surprised that the novelist who is asked to teach a course at their university could not bring himself to finish high school.
I guess they see novelists as most soldiers see the chaplain: a symbolic presence at best, a curiosity at worst.
Not that I mind being a symbolic presence. Any novelist who believes he or she is more than that in contemporary society suffers from myopia.
Last spring, I got a tour of the university of Wageingen. I saw a restaurant where the guests were being filmed. They were weighed before and after dinner and photographed, because food science is important at Wageningen.
íWhen you teach here, you should definitely eat there. It's cheap and you'll help our research,ë my tour leader said.
Perhaps that's another task of the novelist at the university, to fulfill his duty as guinea pig.
To be perfectly honest, my original proposal was to teach a course on the definition of masculinity.
My trips to Afghanistan and Iraq had taught me that the current definition of masculinity is mostly an atavism.
I thought that masculinity and an agricultural university would make a nice couple.
The university itself was less enthusiastic.
I got an e-mail back: "More than half of our students are girls."
Gender is a hotter topic in academia than genetic modification, so much was clear.
It was also clear that the novelist may be a symbolic presence with symbolic power, but even this symbolic power is strictly limited.