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?