In the dog days of August, two books about the Ivy League landed comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list. One was William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep. The other was Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. Despite their disparate genres, the nonfiction tract ends up in fantasy, while the escapist entertainment roots itself in reality—and both are invested in the drama of gifted children.
Heavily quoting emails and essays from his former students at Yale, Deresiewicz’s higher-ed polemic takes down elite colleges and the adults they produce—zombies with status anxiety where their curiosity and humanity used to be. Rather than challenge students with a rigorous education, Deresiewicz argues, the Ivy League and other elite colleges now promote a narrow notion of success. It begins with admissions offices, which have become inhumanly ruthless sorting machines further stratifying the upper class. Having selected for a certain breed of strivers, the schools then encourage their students to become a conformist herd, seeking meaning in credentials. Failing to find that meaning, the hunger only intensifies.
By contrast, the Magicians trilogy is a fantasy series about young wizards. Its protagonist, Quentin Clearwater, attends a magical college and later discovers a land he’d thought was only imaginary: Fillory, a magic kingdom from his favorite childhood book. Over three books, Quentin gains and abdicates a throne, meets a dragon, learns how to wield a sword and brings his first love back from a fate worse than death. But he is also the ur-sheep: a standard-issue, passably polymathic high schooler who does nothing more or less extraordinary than gain admission to an exclusive college. Amidst all the defensive noise made by Ivy Leaguers rebutting Deresiewicz with their personal stories, the Magicians trilogy furnishes him with a kind of confirming anecdote. It may be pure coincidence that the two were published within a week of each other, but they are symbiotically linked—and so are their fates.
It’d be easy to think that Grossman draws on the Ivy League merely for a stock of familiar references; in fact, his dependence on elite college culture runs much deeper. After a grueling exam and interview process, Quentin wins a spot at Brakebills, the only wizarding school in North America. Like so many teenagers elated by receiving fat letters in the mail, the Quentin of The Magicians believes that Brakebills has given his life meaning: he is “Pinocchio, a wooden boy who was made real.” Once matriculated, he becomes addicted to this feeling. In the tradition of frats and eating clubs and societies convening in tony schools everywhere, the members of his selective major, the Physical kids, call themselves “the best of the best.” Invited to their dinner table, Quentin thinks that finally, he has reached “the warm secret heart of the secret world.”
But the initial surge of self-satisfaction depreciates quickly. His four years there yield an above-par academic career: he skips a grade level, places into a selective major, fudges his senior thesis a little—and yet depression sets in on the eve of graduation: “Who would ever have thought he could do and have and be all those things and still feel nothing at all?” With no plans—but with help from a secret alumni slush fund—Quentin lives high in Manhattan, feeling nothing but weaponized malaise and “lofty pity” for the unchosen millions around him. At a low point, he leverages his school connections to get a cushy job in finance, which is “as close to nothing at all as he could get and still be alive.” In his late twenties, his alma mater’s infinite largesse offers safe harbor: Quentin goes into academia, gratefully teaching gen ed lectures and doing administrative grunt work.
To Quentin, it feels less like a succession of freewheeling adventures than like a hall of narrowing doors: Princeton, Brakebills, the Physical Kids, Fillory. The sequel doubles down, revealing that even Fillory is not the end of the line. There’s an even more unattainable realm, the Far Side—“A greener place. A realer, more magical place”—and it’s one of The Magician King’s cruel jokes that, for the first time in his life, Quentin is barred access.
When the New Republic excerpted Excellent Sheep as its cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” the ensuing clamor in all the usual public squares—the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Slate—moved Salon’s Laura Miller to ask, “Why can’t the media talk about the Ivy League without freaking out?” But the most intense vitriol over Deresiewicz’s argument seemed to be motivated less by its content than by the suspicion that he argued in bad faith. Maureen O’Connor derided what she called “The New Privilege: Loudly Denouncing Your Privilege.” Besides being “an excuse for navel-gazing and the airing of guilt,” she argued for New York, Deresiewicz’s elite populism amounts to nothing more than “a how-to guide for elitism.” It doesn’t help that, on his book tour, Deresiewicz will set up his soapbox almost exclusively in the gated pastures he condemns: Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton top the list.
The Magicians trilogy finds itself in a parallel bind, but with an altogether different effect. As with Excellent Sheep, the reader can never be sure of the author’s relation to his material. The characters’ wisecracking and the novels’ many in-jokes furnish Grossman with his bona fides, but they also hold magic at an arch distance. If low fantasy distinguishes itself from high fantasy by keeping a foot in reality, this series sinks its shoes in concrete. It grafts our enmeshed class and education hierarchies onto imaginary realms, reproducing our present inequalities with a literalism that seems less like satire and more like stenography.
This approach may cauterize fantasy’s most tantalizing possibilities: to reinvent reality, upend the familiar, create a more unruly elsewhere. Yet it sparked a jolt of recognition in its readers that bolstered the trilogy’s claim to citizenship in literary fiction: to Grossman’s audience, Quentin’s growing pains are more familiar than fantastic. What could easily have been read as unsatisfying ambivalence was instead received as an elevation—a welcome gentrification—of the genre. Excellent Sheep might have launched a thousand think-pieces, but The Magician’s Land can measure its commercial and critical success with an entirely different metric: it’s a rare breed of book that is welcomed as warmly at the New Yorker as it is at the A.V. Club.
It’s hard to imagine a satisfying ending for a bildungsroman structured by dissatisfaction. Funnily enough, Grossman starts by sending his hero sheep-hunting. Before he leaves Fillory for the last time, Quentin must sacrifice its deities—two rams named Ember and Umber—in order to save the realm. He does the bloody deed, and all is well.
By the end of Deresiewicz’s book, it’s hard to say if anyone’s gotten hurt, or if any world has been shaken up at all. He tells Ivy Leaguers to transfer to state school, or to wait tables; he encourages high-schoolers to apply elsewhere. But Excellent Sheep stops very short of proposing that we, say, nationalize the Ivy League. Instead, the author retreats, waxing lyrical on the pleasures of studying in a small, curated cohort of bright and motivated peers, in the small liberal-arts college setting. Deresiewicz has argued that the Ivy League is anti-democratic and that it is not meritocratic, but he glosses over the possibility that these are different—and perhaps even conflicting—values. Without an explanation of what a true meritocracy might look like—and therefore, without a real case for why his alternative is more just or more progressive—Deresiewicz’s ideal looks pretty similar to what he’s spent hundreds of pages decrying. The walls that shelter the cloister he dreams of will also, by design, shut others out.
The Magician’s Land can offer some insight about how Deresiewicz wound up back at square one. Its own conclusion, at first blush, also seems a dull recapitulation of a move made earlier: just as it seems Quentin is back on earth to stay, the final pages introduce yet another new land. The key difference this time is that it does not come ready-made. Rather, Quentin discovers the spell that creates it, and with this act becomes an author. His friend reminds him that once he had been a curious child, a “tremendous dreamer” who experienced books with a rare intensity: “You opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and hope and joy and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly.” The wonder he feels as he makes this new world is as close as he can get to a return to that hopeful state. The world is “a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland,” Quentin realizes, but he remains exceptionally positioned to live well in it: “to be a magician was to be a secret spring—a moving oasis.”
We learn to look for Deresiewicz’s true resolution far earlier in Excellent Sheep, in a chapter that seems to detour from his attack on the Ivy League into a defense of the humanities. “The crucial thing is to study, not the Great Books, but simply, great books,” he tells students—a whole set of Kafka’s axes for their internally frozen seas. Whatever the flaws of their surroundings, they can find salvation in the act of reading itself. His words of consolation echo Quentin’s:
Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all. And it’s going to be bad for a while. You will wander; you will blunder; you will lose heart. … But you can get through it. You can get past it. You can find a way to invent your life.
After all, the first half of Excellent Sheep’s twofer subtitle may indict “The Miseducation of the American Elite,” but the second promises “The Way to a Meaningful Life,” nothing more. In lieu of sweeping reform, Deresiewicz offers his reader the emotional satisfaction of personal progress. Like The Magician’s Land, Excellent Sheep tells a story of individual growth, centered in a love of literature—the secret spring, not systematic change.
The old gods have died; another myth takes their place. And so twinned, these books welcome us back to school.