Turning personal failure into a big book

An academic memoirist cashes in on the current mania for hard-luck tales from the professional class.


Mark Lasswell
May 20, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

writing career stalled? Teaching career never really happened? No problem! Just tailor your first book in nearly a decade to two current media manias and, faster than you can say "Zeitgeist," you'll have the cover of Harper's magazine, a full-page photo in the New York Times Magazine, a favorable review in the Times Book Review this week, and a cross-country book tour -- with credulous interviewers parroting your message instead of prodding it. That's what's happening to Don J. Snyder and his new book, "The Cliff Walk," which has the devilish inspiration of tapping into both the hot memoir market and a pet project of the news media in the '90s: upsizing the myth of the downsizing of America.

The problem isn't that "The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Lost Job and a Found Life" sounds like focus-group fodder: it's that Snyder has created a persona for the book that bears only a faint resemblance to the guy who's living his life.

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Counting himself as "one of the millions of Americans to be laid off, passed over, down-sized, or just plain screwed out of a job," Snyder describes how his brilliant academic career suddenly and inexplicably went off the rails five years ago when he lost a comfortable post in the English department at Colgate University. He applied unsuccessfully for positions at 90 other colleges, and eventually conquered the resulting anger and depression by taking on construction work that taught him the joys of honest, blue-collar labor.

Harper's editor Lewis Lapham loves this tale. Lapham put an excerpt from Snyder's manuscript on the cover of his magazine two years ago, and he blurbs the book, published by Little, Brown, as "a moral commentary on the smiling lies behind which our society conceals its not-so-noble truths." The New York Times ran a recent Sunday Magazine article by Snyder, adapted from his book, headlined "Sorry, the Professional Class Is Full." Accompanying the story was a full-page color portrait of the writer, whom the Times has described as looking "like Steve McQueen in his prime." An author with movie-star looks exposing society's smiling lies with a job-lost/life-found memoir? You couldn't ask for more.

Actually, you could -- more accuracy. Snyder, memoirist, presents himself as a prototypical striver, "a member in good standing of the class of managerial mercenaries" in constant pursuit of "more money, more security, more status," etc., moving "from one promising job to the next." He likens his pre-firing self to Willy Loman: "a salesman my whole life, selling myself to whoever I thought might make me more of a success." Then the day of reckoning sails in on a pink slip. "I had lost my job and all my money and everything else that I'd always believed added up to the promise of a secure life ... bad things were finally starting to happen to people like me who had it so good for so long." And then on to his redemption among the sheet rock.

It's a mea culpa that will gladden many an editor, and has. Too bad Snyder isn't culpable. Far from having had it so good for so long, scampering up the rungs of academic achievement until he was shoved out an ivory-tower window, Snyder didn't so much have a university teaching career as land a few gigs in college classrooms while eking out a living as a writer. "I had quit a good job at the University of Maine," he writes in the book, "where I was completely happy, to take a job in the Department of English at Colgate University." Not exactly. The position in Maine consisted of teaching creative writing as an instructor under a one-year, non-renewable contract in 1988-89, says Ulrich Wicks, chair of the English department. Calling Snyder's account "a distortion," Wicks says the writer "makes it sound as though he had a continuing job here, but he didn't."

Snyder didn't have one in 1986-87, either. He filled in at his alma mater, Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, for a teacher who was on leave for a year, according to English Professor John Sweney, who was the department chair at the time. "He was here as a replacement," says Sweney, who recalls Snyder as a good instructor and regrets that "there wasn't any way that we could keep him on."

Colgate certainly could have kept Snyder on after he arrived in the fall of 1989, but he failed to make it past the university's third-year review process for tenure-track teachers. It's a fate suffered by countless adjunct professors clawing after the scarce tenure slots scattered across the country. His failed peers often go into university administration, try to snag a temporary teaching post elsewhere, head into secondary education -- anything, unlike Snyder's all-or-nothing approach -- to stay connected to the academic world. You don't learn this in "The Cliff Walk," though. Snyder presents his dismissal as a bolt out of the blue books, and says the regretful school offered to provide him with an official letter explaining that "the English department was already top-heavy with tenured professors." In other words, sorry, the professional class is full. Colgate faculty and administrators are chary of discussing personnel decisions, particularly any having to do with confidential tenure matters, but spokesman Jim Leach does carefully note that 90 percent of participants pass the third-year review and that tenured positions have been awarded in the English department since Snyder's departure. His firing, if you can call it that -- the school keeps third-year washouts on for another full year so they can look for work -- may have been a surprise to Snyder, but it couldn't have been the shock he describes.

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What stunned at least one of his former colleagues was Snyder's description in the Times article of the sweet deal teachers enjoy at Colgate, where summer, spring and Christmas breaks "amounted to roughly 18 weeks of paid vacation per year." "Part of the reason the man was fired was because he was thinking of it as 18 weeks of paid vacation instead of doing what the rest of us do, which is write," says the former colleague. Indeed, after having written two unsuccessful novels and a nonfiction title for small publishers in the late 1980s, Snyder hadn't published another book until "The Cliff Walk."

All this wouldn't be of much interest, of course, if it just amounted to yet another example of someone goosing a risumi and trying to put an attractive spin on getting fired. But something else seems to be at work here. "The Cliff Walk" wows media tastemakers because it has a plot that they never tire of retelling: a guy who bought into the American Dream is betrayed by the big bad Establishment and experiences an epiphany that opens his eyes to the country's iniquities. And it's the sort of story Snyder has wanted to tell for a long time. Describing himself to the compilers of "Contemporary Authors" (1989), he said: "My only aspiration as a writer is to drive a wedge against the world's greed and indifference."

That sentiment would be unthinkable for the character Snyder gives us in "The Cliff Walk," a go-go academic who barely has time for his kids -- somebody the real Snyder would find repellent, but a useful symbol when you're a writer on a mission. During the media flurry surrounding publication of the book, you're no more likely to hear the now-inconvenient "wedge" quote than you are to encounter the Snyder of just a couple of years ago, who was toting a couple of (still) unpublished novels around Manhattan and told the New York Times: "For a long time, friends of mine, other writers, kept telling me that I should write more cunningly, that I should pay attention to the market." Clearly, the faux-Loman has decided attention must be paid.

Snyder, who did not answer requests for interviews for this story, embarked on a cross-country book tour a few weeks ago, taking off time from his work as a self-employed "caretaker and house painter," as the book jacket describes him. He also had to take a break from his other job, a one-year position as an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Maine in Farmington. Turns out the professional class isn't entirely full after all.

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Mark Lasswell

Mark Lasswell is a consulting editor at Maxim, a new magazine for men.

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