Princeton students are curiously conservative and surprisingly celibate, in fiction and in fact, says Edmund White
After 16 years of living in Paris I came back to the US six years ago to a job teaching creative writing to undergraduates at Princeton University. I was 59, the age of my students' grandfathers, an unmarried and childless man who had become so Europeanised that I found everything in my own country foreign. As a novelist, the idea of a homecoming being exotic was appealing. "Defamiliarisation" is a classic novelistic strategy (Tolstoy describes a first opera through the eyes of Natasha, who might as well be Martian, so little does she understand its conventions); in my case, everything was at once familiar and alien. Moreover, in my fiction workshops I was getting a glimpse into the surprising fantasies and realities of my young writers.
In my day, men's and women's dorms had been segregated by gender. Now at Princeton, and in most other US universities, they were co-ed. By and large, the sexes seemed to give each other a wide if friendly berth despite this proximity, but one of the first stories I read suggested that co-ed dorms were fostering new forms of erotic torment. A plain girl submitted a story about a plain girl in love with her dashing, athletic male suite mate. She would have to hear the giggles and squeaking springs in the next room as he bedded yet another beauty. Then, when he had shown the girl of the night out, he would flop down beside the plain girl and drift off with a brotherly arm flung across her as she wept her way to sleep yet again.
Sleeping together is often just that. One extremely popular and attractive young man last year wrote a novella about a blonde beauty to whom he was endlessly text-messaging sweet or silly nothings. Finally, he began to spend the night with her, week after week. Imagine my surprise when after a month of sharing a pillow they discussed the possibility of having sex with each other! None of my students found this situation unusual. In fact, an anonymous survey in the student paper two years ago revealed that a surprisingly high percentage of the graduating class were still virgins.
The students' stories I read reveal that courtship no longer exists among the young. Perhaps three decades of feminism have succeeded in making pursuit look like harassment and tender glances appear to be dangerous leering. If anyone makes a first move, it is usually the woman, though most women are too timid to act. Virtually the only way to "hook up" is to get blind drunk at a party on Saturday night and fall in a big pile, thrash around and see what happens in the melee.
That might also sound like a formula for indiscriminate bisexuality, but at Princeton gay rights are solemnly espoused by everyone and a part of the immense school budget is assigned to the awkwardly designated activities of the "lesbian gay bisexual transvestite and transgendered community" - though no one seems to know a single member of such a group. A few modest young women might fend off boys by declaring themselves to be Lugs (lesbians until graduation), but that usually indicates more a preference for chastity than for same-sex adventures. As in the Princeton past of the F. Scott Fitzgerald days and the Woodrow Wilson or Edmund Wilson era, queers are definitely not acceptable - though gay identity is a perfectly viable feature of the school's political makeup. One of the eating clubs, Terrace, sometimes flies a gay flag, but only out of provocation. I've never met an actual gay member during my visits there.
Nearly half of Princeton undergraduates are scholarship students, and to my drooling gay contemporaries who ask me to describe a typical "hot" student and expect to hear about a golden boy, I invariably say: "First of all, she's Korean, very hip, she's making a movie about Asian skateboarders and she wears nothing but Comme des Garcons."
This democratisation of the school might indicate that its preppy image is dying, but unfortunately the prep school look and style is so powerful that few can resist it. Bohemians go to Yale University to dye their hair green, take drugs and paint all night; at Princeton, kids prepare to work at Goldman Sachs or to attend law school. Their conservative values, especially with regard to what Americans call "morality" (by which they mean sexual morality, never ethics) are reflected in their short fiction. Infidelity always comes a cropper and lack of ambition is invariably treated as a deep character flaw.
One feature of American middle-class educated life that unexpectedly comes through in their short stories is how decent and companionable their parents are. These men and women in their forties appear to be reasonable and undogmatic people who spend lots of time skiing with their kids or pursuing shared hobbies - or just talking things over. Whereas my parents and the parents of most of my contemporaries were heavy-drinking, remote, authoritarian figures who had little capacity for understanding their children, my students' parents (who came of age in the 1970s) are usually slightly more liberal versions of their offspring and wonderfully sympathetic friends.
The great American blind spot is class - and a lack of class awareness is nearly universal in my students' writing. A whole story will pretend to dissect a particular suburb of Los Angeles, but if I ask in the seminar discussion if Ridgeway is rich or poor, old money or nouveau riche, professional or entrepreneurial, the students stare at me as if I were mad. Whereas English writers are obsessed to an unhealthy degree by minuscule class differences and nuances of behaviour and accent, young American writers seem oblivious to this entire submerged code. Sometimes they will sheepishly admit that they are aware of such distinctions but that they have been pressured by their education and their parents - by their entire milieu - never to mention them. Just as anti-Semitism seems to have been successfully uprooted from American liberal consciousness, class has been abolished as a topic - but with disastrous results. Anguish - whether portrayed in a story or experienced in real life - is always assigned a psychological motive and its actual sociological origins are never referred to. Most young people in America are incapable of seeing that their lack of ease or their conflicting feelings can be ascribed to their social marginality; for them, confusion is always a personal failure in will or "motivation", never a result of social mobility.
Accordingly, creative writing is not, in their eyes, a branch of literature or an aspiration towards strictly artistic excellence. No, in the lives of the hyper-ambitious and disciplined students of Ivy League America, a fiction seminar is their one "folly" - their one moment of expressing inner and even hidden feelings before they embrace a life of hard work, relentless competition and the suppression of distracting conflicts.
Edmund White is professor of creative writing at Princeton University and author of A Boy's Own Story and My Lives , to be published by Bloomsbury next month. He will speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 26. For tickets, call 0131 624 5050 or visit www.edbookfest.co.uk