Fish Tales

Scott McLemee reviews a new biography on the scholar Stanley Fish, who, if he wrote a book of career advice, could title it The Art of the Deal.

March 23, 2016

A celebrity has been defined as somebody who is well-known for being well-known. And by that measure, Gary A. Olson’s Stanley Fish, America's Enfant Terrible: The Authorized Biography (Southern Illinois University Press) is a celebrity biography of sorts. At no point does the subject go into rehab, but other than that, the book hits most of the tabloid marks: humble origins, plucky self-fashioning, innovative and controversial work, exorbitant earnings (for a Milton scholar), and illicit romance (leading to marital bliss). Much of this was once English department gossip, but now posterity is the richer for it.

Olson, president of Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., even reveals a brush with Hollywood. When plans were underway to film one of David Lodge’s novels about academe, the producer wanted to cast Walter Matthau as Morris Zapp, a character clearly based on Fish. Matthau wasn't interested, and the movie languished in development hell, but in Olson’s words, “Stanley let it be known that he would love the opportunity to play the role himself.” (Another trait of the celeb bio: subject called by first name.)

If Fish wrote a book of career advice, a suitable title might be The Art of the Deal. Describing his career in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Olson writes:

“Stanley’s annual schedule was unimaginably grueling to many faculty. He would jet from university to university, giving workshops, papers and presentations, both in the United States and abroad. He was in great demand and he knew it, so he pushed the boundaries of what universities would pay to bring in a humanities professor to speak. Whatever he was offered by a university, he would demand more -- and he usually got it. The host who invited him would scramble to meet his fee, asking various campus departments and entities to contribute to the event until the requisite fee had been collected. Throughout his career he must have visited almost every notable university in every state of the union.”

Then again, a book of career advice from Stanley Fish would be virtually useless to anyone else today, like a tourist guide to a city that's been hit by an earthquake. This fall will be the 50th anniversary of Fish receiving tenure at the University of California at Berkeley. He was 28 years old and had been teaching for four years. Berkeley was his first position; he turned down two previous offers before accepting it. Given the circumstances, Stanley Fish, America’s Enfant Terrible will pose a challenge to many readers that rarely comes up with a nonfiction book: that of suspending disbelief. The chapter I just quoted is called “Academic Utopia” -- and as with other utopias, you can’t really get there from here.

“From my point of view,” Olson reports Fish saying, “there are a lot of people out there making mistakes, and I’m just going to tell them they’re making mistakes.” As if to authenticate that statement, the title of Fish’s most recent book is Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education (Princeton University Press) while his next, due this summer, is called Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper).

Originally the “people out there” so targeted were his fellow scholars of 16th- and 17th-century English literature. The range of his corrective efforts grew to include leading figures in literary theory, followed by the legal profession and finally -- with his New York Times column, which ran from 1995 to 2013 -- the entire public sphere. Olson wrote about the theoretical and rhetorical force of Fish’s work in two earlier volumes. Here the author largely underplays Fish’s intellectual biography beyond a few references to professors who influenced him as a student. Instead, Olson emphasizes the tangible institutional power that Fish acquired and learned to wield in his route to becoming a university administrator of national prominence.

Starting in 1985, when he was chair of the English department at Johns Hopkins University, Fish made a series of unexpected and much-discussed moves -- first to Duke University, where he reshaped the respectable but inconspicuous English department into high-theory powerhouse of the early 1990s, and later to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. There, the biographer says, Fish’s “hiring of celebrity academics and the generating of positive publicity” were steps meant “to lift the miasma of an inferiority complex, to help faculty collectively feel that they were part of an enterprise that was known and admired by others.” (There were other appointments and stints and high professional honors along the way; the chronology at the back of the book is overstuffed with them.)

Like Morris Zapp, Stanley Fish has an appealing side, as Olson portrays him: he works hard (as a graduate student, he read Paradise Lost five times in one summer), he sounds like a good teacher and the qualities that read as brash and arrogant in some circumstances are probably gruff but lovable, like a Muppets character, in others. That said, letting decisions and values be determined by the need to feel “known and admired by others” is the very definition of what sociologists used to call “other-directedness.” More recently, and fittingly enough, it’s associated with the culture of celebrity.

No celebrity biography is complete without a catastrophe or two, mixed in with the triumphs -- and in the case of Fish’s role as a “developer” of intellectual and institutional real estate, there is not such a bright line between success and disaster. He enhanced the reputation of Duke’s humanities programs (and that of the university press), but most of the stars he hired relocated within a few years. And Fish’s efforts at UIC are remembered for running at a deficit that lasted beyond his deanship.

In an email note to Olson, I asked about various things that had caused a knot to form in my stomach while reading his book. We learn that Fish arranged a summer stipend of $58,000 for one of his cronies. Olson says he once responded to the challenge of an audience member to explain why anyone should believe him by saying, “Because I am Stanley Fish. I teach at Johns Hopkins University, and I make $75,000 a year.” (I recall hearing that one in the early 1980s; the equivalent now would be around $200,000.)

I've benefited from reading Fish in the past, but I find it hard to imagine anyone racking up student debt that will take decades to pay off regarding the figure Olson presents as anything but a monster. To be fair, the final pages of the book depict Fish in more recent times as a less grandiose figure, even as touched with regret or disappointment. (Being a septuagenarian enfant terrible seems like a pretty melancholy prospect.)

Anyway, Olson replied to my question as follows: “Well, some do think of him as a monster, although probably not for those reasons. I don’t argue in the book that he should be admired -- or reviled. That’s an individual choice. You have to remember: Fish is from an older generation of academics, when higher education was growing exponentially and exuberantly. Fish represents the rise of high theory. Despite his passion for teaching, he is known most as an intellectual and a scholar; that’s what drew the high pay and the high praise. You don’t hire someone like Fish to enhance your teaching as much as you do to bring a certain prestige to your institution. That’s why Duke, UIC and other institutions wanted him. And, generally, these proved to be good institutional decisions.”

Perhaps. It seems to be a question of short-term versus long-term benefit. But it’s hard to understand how giving large barrels of money to a few transient scholarly A-listers “to help faculty collectively feel that they were part of an enterprise that was known and admired by others” was ever a good idea -- much less a sustainable one. After Fish, the deluge?


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