In a socio-political climate in which it can feel like everyone from your grandmother to the toddler next door has become radicalized, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new book seems tailor-made to push some buttons. The Devil and Webster (Korelitz’s latest after Admission, which became a 2013 film starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and a Manhattan-set thriller called You Should Have Known in 2014) follows the trials and tribulations of the first female president of an elite liberal college as she squares off against an African American professor, his favorite student (a former Palestinian refugee), and a rising tide of unrest. The professor has been denied tenure for very legitimate (and legally secret) reasons; the student body, led by his magnetic protégé, cry racism. A particularly 2017 brand of hashtag activism (with dashes of the Occupy movement) ensues, deeply confusing the formerly radical activist protagonist, who all of a sudden finds herself to be nothing less horrifying than The Man.

It’s a juicy idea, especially when one considers what’s playing out in the political realm at present, as the GOP endeavors to pivot from the “party of no” to the party in power: what happens when, as one recent podcast put it, the dog actually catches the car? “One of the things that fascinated me endlessly is the journey through the politics of the 1960s to wherever we are now, the transition of youthful radicalism to whatever happens when you actually grow up and have kids and have a mortgage and want to live in the world,” Korelitz said during a phone call earlier this week, amidst a conversation which ranged in scope from the real world to the reader analysis she’s found scattered across the Internet. Below, an excerpt from that conversation.

Well, this book is certainly very timely!

You know what’s interesting is that literally the day after I finished the manuscript and sent it to my editor I opened The New York Times and—I didn’t even have to open it, it was on the front page—my book was on the front page. The protests at Yale, at the University of Missouri, there was even an incident [that mimics one in the book] I believe from the University of Missouri where someone had written a slur in shit somewhere. I mean, it was incredible! And my first thought was, god, this is amazing, and then my second, totally selfish thought was Oh shit. Because it was going to be at least a year and a half before my book was going to come out and everyone who doesn’t know how publishing works is going to think, Oh, she rushed this book out in a kind of cynical reshuffling ripped-from-the-headlines regurgitations of actual facts when in fact, the book was already done. Publishing is such a 19th-century industry in that it actually does take at least 18 months, unless you’re a Kim Kardashian slamming it out to hit the next news cycle. I was quite miffed!

But now, in the fullness of the madness of our political moment, it seems more relevant than ever. But it’s been so interesting, just in the week since this book came out, I have learned so much about this book from reading the reviews. For example! I have learned that this novel is a satire. I have learned that it is not a satire. I have learned that it is a semi-satire and that it’s taking on something called “identity politics,” which to be brutally honest, I had never even investigated that term until a couple of days ago. It’s not that the ideas are alien to me, it’s that supposedly I’ve written this book as some sort of indictment of an –ism that I didn’t even know existed until a few days ago. It’s not the reason we write, but it is certainly a fascinating after-effect of having written that the world kind of comes together and explains you to yourself. I’m enjoying that. I don’t think of myself as a satirist, I certainly like to laugh at the . . . foibles and eccentricities and absurdities of my fellow man as much as my own absurdities. Isn’t that what Jane Austen said, that we’re here to make sport for our neighbors?


And to that point, there was a story just this last weekend about how white supremacists have apparently claimed Jane Austen . . .

But that’s the wages of being as awesome as Jane Austen, that there’s something in you for everybody. There was a zombie novel in Jane Austen, who knew? Anyway, so that’s been a really interesting experience of the last week or so, to sort of read all these rationales to why I wrote the book. None of them are wrong, except none of them are right either. To me, it’s just always about the story, and this was just such a great story that I couldn’t keep away from it.

A running theme in some of your work is this sort of fixation on the inherent fallibility of the admission process. The idea being, I guess, that there’s always going to be a human aspect that’s at least a little unfair. Why do you think you keep returning to that?

Well, you’re making that point at a very tender moment, because we’re sitting here on tenterhooks waiting to find out about our son—by the end of this week we’re going to find out maybe where he’s going to college. We don’t yet know. But one of the things that really is interesting about our crazy admissions process in America is that every single constituency believes that their constituency is being unfairly disadvantaged, and that another constituency is being unfairly advantaged—it’s exhaustively discussed in the other novel [Admission], not quite so much in this one. But isn’t that amazing? Let’s say you walked into a party, and everyone at the party felt suspicion and resentment for everybody else at the party, and you know, multiply that by not even a national scale but an international scale, and you have all of these people trying to get through the eye of the needle, and it’s just not going to let everybody through.

If it’s any comfort, I think these things always work out, kids usually end up where they’re supposed to be.

That’s true . . . that’s true. [laughs] Actually that’s not true at all; I would like that to be true. Not only am I not a religious person, I’m not even an alternate for religious person, one of those people who think that everything happens for a reason. I completely reject that. It would be very comforting right now to believe that. Anyways! Let’s not talk about my poor kid anymore. He’s off on his spring break and hopefully not thinking at all about it.

Do you see yourself writing more about universities?

I think one of the reasons that I like college-set novels is that people can talk about ideas in them without it being discordant. I’ve been a faculty spouse at Princeton for 30 years now, and when you have a dinner party in an academic environment it's completely natural for people to talk about their work and for there to be academic discussions, and I like that. And I think to try and create that environment in a nonacademic context might challenge people’s ideas of what conversation really is. So maybe it’s a cheat—maybe I’m cheating. But I like universities, because I like to write about ideas, and I’m fascinated by people who get angry about ideas, who can use a disagreement about Shakespeare as a perfectly rational reason to end a friendship. So I might, again, but I’m one of those writers who when I finish a book, there’s nothing. There’s no half-formed idea for the next book, there’s no first chapter in the can. I’m done. i feel like I could never ever write another sentence, let alone another novel, but history teaches me that I will feel like this for another 18 months or so and then one day I will get an idea that is so good I cannot ignore it and it is actually harder to ignore it than it is to write another 400 page book. So that’s the cue that I have come to wait for, and the fortitude and the kind of discipline that people speak of so much when they speak of writers, that’s when that comes. But right now, I wait, I read, I have this whole theater life now [Dot Dot Productions, which Korelitz cocreated with her sister, Nina Korelitz Matza], which seems to use different muscles, and I’m okay.


I was fascinated by these sort of bureaucratic limits that are put on the protagonist by her position as the president of this school. She could say one thing and make it all go away, but she can’t, or else the school will get sued.

You know, this morning I was reading about Devin Nunes, and thinking: did he in one sentence just send himself to federal prison? That’s the kind of stakes that are [in the book]. I mean if she had said it, he would have sued the university, and he would have won—and by the way, I checked that with an attorney before I even wrote it, and that is absolutely the case. It’s something that you need to remember the next time that you hear about an apparently outrageous event that has taken place, a kind of disciplinary event or a tenure event, there may be information that you do not have.

I think people—especially, probably, young people—have a hard time imagining that they don’t have all the information.

It goes back to our very human need for a narrative. And I’m sure that as a writer you’re aware of this. But whenever there’s a crime—you know, the crime that took place the other day, where the man traveled from Baltimore to New York to kill a black person. That is somebody’s idea about what happened. It may be partly true, largely true, completely true, or not at all true, but that is the established narrative about what happened with those two men. And it’s going to take a whole lot of reprogramming to correct that, no matter what comes to light. And part of it is our need to distance ourselves from something terrible, to create these narratives to say, Well, that wouldn’t affect me because—you know, I’m not a black man, I’m not from Baltimore, I don’t collect cans on the street. But it is a very human response to anything, especially a bad thing, to create this kind of cloak of fiction to wrap it up in. That’s where all the misunderstandings come from. I don’t think there’s a solution to that.

I suppose creating a narrative is easier than not knowing, right?

Well, not knowing is a big challenge, because we have to work to suspend judgment, and to have an open mind, and all of these things that we don’t like to do! We like to say, you know, I’m the hero of this story, you’re the victim, he’s the enemy. And done! What’s next? That’s why fiction gets to a deeper kind of truth even than CNN. We look to CNN and other real news outlets for facts, but to get to a deeper layer of truth, you—it’s almost illogical, but you need fiction to access a more nuanced idea of what human behavior is, and to get to a deeper kind of truth.

This interview has been condensed and edited.