The Stern Lesson
By KEN GORDON
May 9, I asked novelist Steve Stern to write for JBooks.com. Stern, in case you
haven't heard, is a professor at Skidmore College. He's also what you call a
"writer's writer" or, perhaps more appropriately, a critic's writer.
Sanford Pinsker describes his fan base well: "I’m a card-carrying member
of the Stern gang—not the Zionist
paramilitary group that fought the British during the days before
Israel became a state but, rather, a member of the band of literary critics who
have been following Steve Stern wherever his wacky, altogether wonderful
imagination would take him." I introduced myself via email and invited
Steve to contribute. He replied, "Thanks, Ken. I will definitely keep your
offer in mind."
Would you, I asked Stern four days later, write a short essay about the piece
Peter Edidin had published in The New
York Times? (The story, in short, talked about how critics adore Stern but
that off-campus readers hadn't quite caught on.) Stern responded: "Let me
think about responding to the Times
piece. I'm still a week a way from finishing grading, and truth is, I have such
a savage desire to get back to my desk that I wish all the students asking for recommendations
would stand in my way so I could tear out their genitals and smear the gory
mess in their faces." Whoa! I thought. "Sorry, but that's how
desperate I feel." The apology was good, and his candor was better. What a
fascinating writer! "But give me some time to clear a little space in my
head, and again, thanks for asking."
In June I wrote, "I hope that Skidmore's May 21 graduation help[ed]
dispose of your various academic headaches, and that you're now back at the
writing desk." Stern, however, wasn't quite ready for the essay.
"Yes, I'm done with the semester and clinging to my desk like Ishmael
clinging to Queequeg's floating casket, while sharks keep carrying pieces of me
He asked how I was and I reported that my wife and I had just bought a house
and that I was busy and tired from being a writer and editor and dad. Then I
added "But I can't complain. Thanks to JBooks I spend much of my time
thinking about literature—and I even get to correspond with terrific writers
such as yourself."
Stern had a response in mind but was just "looking for the time to jot it
down. I too am on the verge of buying a house, and while I have no children,
the prospect still makes my heart palpitate like a speedbag."
Nice simile, I thought. And took a break until the next round. In July. July! I
thought. Summertime. "Okay, Stern, I've got you now. It's the middle of
summer. Let's have the essay." Stern, however, had other ideas.
"The summer so far has proven nearly as crowded as the spring, and between
a host of commitments and obligations I won't bore you with, I continue to
fight for time. It is literally the story of my life—and probably yours and everyone
else we know."
He said he hadn't forgotten about the piece and hoped some day to find "a tranquil
evening (if such a thing ever occurs) when I can sit down and write a sad but
funny response to Peter's article."
Fair enough. But then, at the end of the month, I had a sudden editorial
crisis. I needed one more article to finish off an issue of JBooks. Would Stern
step up to the proverbial plate?
You know the answer.
"Sorry to be such a disappointment, Ken, but this has turned into the
summer of my discontent," he wrote, adding: "Your bee remains in my
bonnet, but it may be a while before I find the wherewithal to extract the
Then I got a 50-watt idea. Maybe he could write the essay for one of our two
October High Holidays issues. I imagined that his essay would touch on the
theme of forgiveness. In the middle of September, I asked about the essay, adding
that if the answer was no, "I promise never to bug you again about
The muse of misery liked this and pushed the beleaguered novelist to write:
"Ach, Ken, I feel guilt guilt guilt on many fronts, yours being not the
least of them. But I just moved into an old house and my life has become one of
those predictable old house comedies. Where once I was devoted to literature, I
seem now to be all about caulk, spackle, and weather-stripping. I hate the
house and hate my girlfriend for pressuring me into buying it, and I miss the
life I knew. I have become a pathetic bourgeois cockroach and no longer
anticipate enough peace of mind to ever write a lucid sentence again. Write me
off as both author and human being." He signed off with "profound
Profound self-loarthing? The man was
clearly in trouble, so I threw in the editorial towel. Though I loved getting
his funny, brilliantly phrased responses, I couldn't bear to continue
increasing Stern's misery index. I wanted to put a stop to his kafkan
exercise in self-torture. I wanted him to, well, forgive himself.
And so now, in the spirit of the High Holidays, I say to him—I say this to you,
Steve—"Forget about the essay. Forget about the Times. Teach your classes, write your letters, turn to your novel
when you can, love your girlfriend, and enjoy being a homeowner. Life is short
and art is long. Chag sameach."