I Am Charlotte Simmons: Lost Potential


This book is meant to be both a character study (as the title suggests) and social commentary on the state of higher education. In both tasks it fails.

I read Tom Wolfe’s *I am Charlotte Simmons* because of a call-for-papers from a journal looking for articles about higher education written by humanities scholars. The scholarship of teaching and learning (my general academic field these days) is dominated by social scientists and their methodologies, and so I was excited by the call because it signaled a space for my training and as impetus for me to “investigate” novels about higher education. 

There are fewer such novels than I imagined (name some, if you can). I remember hearing about Wolfe’s novel when it first came out either in a print review of a radio interview, I can’t remember. What excited me at the time was the idea that the changing nature of higher education was being explored from “within” as Wolfe reported spending months of time *at* American institutions embedded in the student population to get a sense both of the language of students and of their motivations.

The portrait he paints is one of universities gone sour: spoiled by a neoliberal agenda out to make a profit from education, tainted by students more interested in employment outcomes and sex than lifelong learning and the continued social stratification (more pronounced in the American system) of students based on income (rather than, as our protagonist had hoped, based on scholastic ability or ambition).

While this portrait has all the promise of a rich expose, it falls apart as Wolfe seems utterly preoccupied with sex and its details. Scenes of lost virginity, oral sex in public places, lewd behaviour and dress could have contributed to a sense of disturbance or moral debauchery, but as these scenes are void of round characters – and characters are instead rendered as animals – the poignancy of the critique is lost as the characters, made caricatures, are so removed from the readers experience or the fullness of a human character as to be yet more tedious pornographic scenes rather than rich critique. 

Interesting stuff, sure, but so poorly executed *as a novel*. Charlotte, our protagonist, is insufferable. We’re meant (I suspect) to root for her as she overcomes social isolation and puritan prudishness and ambitiously climbs the social ladder at the expense of her prodigious genius and scholarly dedication. I didn’t root for her. Instead I much wished she’d return to late night studying and embracing her inner/outer geek/loser. Not for any reason of wishing her ill, in fact I don’t care about her as a character enough to wish her ill or otherwise, but rather because as a late night studier Wolfe seemed to have a much better sense of her thoughts, feelings and reactions. Which is to say, Wolfe utterly fails in developing this character – she doesn’t adjust her thinking/reactions/feelings as her outward experiences shift (as any character would, even if the adjustment was just a retrenchment of existing thoughts/feelings). Instead we’re left with the same character who began the book only we’re told in didactic moments of third person narration that she *has* changed, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Couple this mystifying inability to develop character in a book purportedly focused on character with a tedious 700 pages and you have a tiresome exploration of what could have been an insightful critique of the neoliberal university. Perhaps that’s my overall complaint – the lost potential in this book. Not the lost potential of Charlotte – because really *who cares* – but the lost potential of a novel exploring the state of higher education. I suppose I’ll just have to write one.


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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Worst Books

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