Rebecca Schuman’s new memoir is a fast read with a long title: Schadenfreude, A Love Story. Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For. The book offers an engrossing look at the author’s adventures in the liberal arts, graduate training, and much more. Schuman’s memoir takes us from the Pacific Northwest to college back East, and then on multiple excursions to Germany where she has a chance to be reminded that her literary love, Franz Kafka, wasn’t German even as she immerses herself in a language that bamboozles her in comic, yet thought-provoking, ways. The book grabbed this reader, and I was eager to return to it every chance I got. Toward the end the narrative moves to graduate school and the anguish of an extremely competitive academic job market where we know that well over a hundred applications can greet each new tenured slot, particularly in the humanities. Since completing her PhD and failing to land such a dream job, Rebecca Schuman has built a substantial online readership writing about academia for Slate. More recently, she has returned to Germany as a subject “in the accusative case” in spunky columns at The Awl. In the middle of Schadenfreude, it occurred to me that it would be fun to interview Rebecca Schuman, and the author was kind enough to respond to these questions.
AK: Your book has lots of humor, some cynical, some clever, some that allows us to commiserate with you. Were you consciously trying to establish a comic voice that would be different from your higher-education journalism?
RS: I don’t think too hard about the voice I’m using—it just sort of follows from the content. Something anger-inducing—like a ferkockte law mandating a 4-4 course load, or replacing tenure with some Yelp-like evaluation program—is going to call for an acerbic voice. Something more straight-newsworthy—like the future of for-profit education, now that we’ve got industry toadies in the government agency meant to regulate said industry—will have a straight-faced newscaster delivery where I try to let the rage-stroke-causing facts speak for themselves. I’ve also written a fair amount of personal narrative, and that’s all been in what I would consider just my regular-mood inner monologue, which I think is the “comic voice” you’re talking about.
AK: In academic circles, you are known for often, but not always, writing against higher education’s current practices, although in Schadenfreude we get some sense that you genuinely valued your experiences as an undergrad and grad student. Do you find yourself still in conflict in terms of how you feel about American colleges and universities?
RS: Not really. The things I feel protective of in the university—the wonderful course; the positive mentoring relationship; the opening of the mind or cultivation of the sympathetic imagination or whatever you want to call it—I’ve been very consistent about in my support of since the beginning, even in something as incendiary as “Thesis Hatement” or my other less-measured earlier work. So I DID genuinely value much of my educational experience, but that was in spite of the oligarchic nature of the academic structure, not because of it.
AK: What memoirs, if any, influenced you in how you decided to write your story? Two I thought of were The Cliff Walk by Don J. Snyder and The Possessed by Elif Batuman, but obviously these aren’t the only memoirs of grad school and academic careers that don’t lead to tenure. Were either of these on your radar?
RS: Sure, sure. In the years leading up to (and the time during) the composition of Schadenfreude, I was on a women-only or mostly-women kick. I’d just spent ten years in a canon that was still largely dominated by dudes, and my dissertation was on two dudes (and the critical canon around one of those dudes, Wittgenstein, is itself almost all dudes), so I was really desperate for women’s voices, and really still am. While I wrote Schadenfreude I absolutely binged on memoirs by women, including Elif Batuman’s of course, so that I wouldn’t accidentally co-opt any single voice. I am a notorious voice sponge when I write (again, it’s not intentional!), but one of my friends, Michael Greer, a wonderful writer of picaresque short stories, once told me that if there are enough other hands on your pen, it’ll revert back to you. So I burned through two or more female-authored memoirs or essay books a week: Sarah Hepola (genius), Felicia Day (geek hero), Shonda Rimes (general hero), Jowita Bydlowska (harrowing), Lindy West (rad), Roxane Gay (NATIONAL TREASURE), and then a bunch of other stuff I didn’t like as much so I won’t name. I have a general rule that I will only review (or even speak publicly about) a book if I liked it. Authors work so unbelievably hard on their books, often for very little money (especially those just starting out, and the novelists, bless them), and just because I don’t like their books personally doesn’t mean those books suck, so there’s no reason to dump all over their hard work.
AK: Do you have moments now when you hate Kafka? Do you ever blame Kafka for getting you mixed up in the liberal arts and graduate training?
RS: Not anymore, but at the peak of my graduate studies, I loathed him. I was so sick of him. Or rather, I was so sick of what I called “Pop Kafka,” the popular image of him as this lowly insurance clerk (lie; he was a high-powered lawyer) who had no friends (lie; he was super-popular) and who wrote only about personal alienation and how nobody understood him (oversimplification). After so many years studying him so hard and having what I thought, at the time, were some serious revelations, I was just so sick of other people thinking they knew what I thought, if that makes any sense. I was also really sick of people thinking that my dissertation work was fun because I “loved” Kafka. At the peak of my academic life, it wasn’t at all fun, and I didn’t at all love him. The whole book is, in a way, not a blame screed but rather a love letter to Kafka for inspiring me down such a twisted, cobbled maze (with a cat in one corner of the last room, and a trap in the other).
AK: I appreciated the theme of the “do-over” in Schadenfreude, a second chance we crave to show we can do something the proper or accepted way. When you return to Germany, you choose to stay with the host family, so you can show them your German has improved and that you wouldn’t be wasting their water with long showers. At another point in the memoir, you desire an authentic experience in Germany, living in the real Berlin, as opposed to any version manicured for American college students on study-abroad programs. Do you link either or both of these to Kafka’s writing? What do you think today about our desires to return or repeat as well as our desire for authentic experience?
RS: Ha! It’s funny that you mention “do-over,” because the current angsty controversy (that nobody cares about) that I’m embroiled in is that I just found out that the first edition has a huge mistake in it. There’s this well-known story about how Goethe used to keep Schiller’s skull on his desk for inspiration, and somehow I switched them in my retelling! So I would like nothing more than a “do-over” of the embarrassing gaffe in my book that itself details my “do-overs” of several embarrassing gaffes, a mistake that will engender real Schadenfreude in readers of a book called Schadenfreude. I feel like I maybe have opened a wormhole in the universe. But yes, this arc—a sort of terminal do-over where things actually get worse, in a way, instead of better—is an echo of Kafka’s The Trial for sure. One of the options of “exoneration” (that isn’t) that the lawyer presents to Josef K. is Verschleppung, which means “protraction” but literally means “to carry on [forever].” So K.’s option is just to file motion that delays the trial in perpetuity—to, in effect, do the trial over and over and over again, but never achieve innocence. This reappears in the “Before the Law” parable at the end, where the man from the country just tries to get in the door to the Law over and over again, and then finds out at the end that the door was put there to keep him out. Luckily, I do get a “do-over” of sorts with my own problem; the eBook text and the paperback will both be corrected. But the hardcover will have that mistake in it forever—as if the shame of it (as Kafka would say) would outlive me.
AK: Do you continue to read the Germans, or do you tend to read widely? What are you reading these days?
RS: Not as many Germans as I should! I do read the German news constantly for my column “Deutschland über US” on The Awl, and that is terrific fun, but I spent about a decade reading Germans at the expense of everyone else (I stopped enjoying reading when I did it for a living), and I am still, in a way, making up for lost time. The first thing I did when I quit academia was read all of the English-language literary fiction bestsellers I’d missed out on. Just the Zadie Smith back alone—and she’s not even that prolific (because genius can’t be rushed). Then I got on my female-memoir kick and that’s pretty much all I read right now. Right this second I’m reading a way-too-close-to-home book by Jancee Dunn called HOW NOT TO HATE YOUR HUSBAND AFTER KIDS. I don’t hate my husband; he’s great—it’s not really about that; it’s about all the ways in which mothers’ care work turns them into resentful screaming shells of their former selves, and after half a page I was like IT ME. Also I remember Jancee Dunn from MTV in the 90s, and I was like LOOK A SMART YOUNG LADY WOMAN CAN DO THE MTV NEWS!!!!
AK: If you’re not writing about failure, you’re not writing about America. Schadenfreude in some sense continues one of the great American literary traditions–from Moby Dick to The Awakening to The Great Gatsby to Revolutionary Road. Do you have any favorite American novels or memoirs that focus on the theme of failure?
RS: If I say Philip Roth do I get my membership in the Big Pissed-Off Feminist Club taken away? Because I really am a Big Pissed-Off Feminist but also Portnoy’s Complaint was very important to me in my 20s.
AK: Do you feel Schadenfreude does enough to communicate the significant advantages you’ve had? I know of tenured creative writers who were in the armed service, grew up as “hill people,” or had a father who drove a truck, although I also know many tenured professors whose parents were tenured professors, sometimes in the exact same field. When I think of the tragedy of American higher education, I tend to think more of the person, often but not invariably a woman, who does not come from a home where parents have PhDs and has the weight of significant student debt after years of trying to “get ahead.” Do you ever think of it this way, that you came from enough affluence to experiment with graduate training? In your journalism, do you see yourself as standing up for women, and men, who have no idea of what a burden their total debt will be if they choose graduate school, and how, obviously, it might not lead to any stable employment at all.
RS: I am so aware of what a privileged little twit I am, I promise. I easily could have (and probably should have) called the book I’M WHITE AND HAVE NO REAL PROBLEMS, THE BOOK. The thing is, though, that if you write defensiveness into a story (“I know this story doesn’t really matter, but…”) then that undermines the whole thing. I didn’t feel it AS necessary to justify my existence as a totally unremarkable privileged a-hole (WHICH I AM!), since this is a humor book and not some sort of harrowing I-had-an-important-experience memoir, and not the other kind of memoir, the I’m-an-important-person-and-here’s-my-autobiography one (I am NOT an important person, and Schadenfreude is NOT my autobiography; I left all sorts of stuff out for the sake of the narrative arc, and composited and exaggerated all sorts of other stuff). I do feel like I was, at very least, open about the incredible advantages I was given, and also open about how my parents really thought I was extraordinary and I really was (and am) mediocre.
AK: You certainly are an extremely talented writer, a far cry from mediocre, but forgive me for following up on the question of privilege. I was rereading Nickle and Dimed concurrently as I was reading Schadenfreude, so I was constantly reminded of this other world of backbreaking work performed by women. I tend to see it as much better to be a funded grad student, adjunct, or lecturer, but it seems as if these two groups–underpaid shift workers and relatively underpaid academics–could become an unstoppable force if they ever unified under one candidate. For whatever reason, Trump, Clinton, and Sanders all failed to unify us. Do you see any hope for America coming in the form of a politician?
RS: I’ll quote Kafka: There’s hope. An infinite amount of hope. Just not for us.
AK: Are you teaching at all right now? If not, do you miss being in the classroom? Have you considered running writing workshops or trying to get creative-writing classes?
RS: I’m still at home with my daughter right now. Until she can go to a public Pre-K or low-cost day care (ha ha ha ha ha ha sob)—or, for that matter, manage to be away from me for more than three hours without having a breakdown—I can’t teach. When she’s in school and I have eight hours of child-free time a day again that I don’t have to pay dearly for, I’ll teach again, and I can’t wait. I really miss the classroom. I miss the electricity of being in there with all those interesting young people with their flexible new young minds, and being able to get them excited about things they didn’t think they could ever be interested in, much less excited about. I miss assigning my special anti-essay essays that helped them learn to write without forcing them to write five-paragraph nightmares. I miss everything but the 11 p.m. student-concierge emails (“I have no wifi in my dorm so I can’t do my homework,” etc).
AK: You have two published books now, an academic text and Schadenfreude, a memoir. Do you know what you next book will be about?
RS: I do have a next book planned, but it’s a secret for now.