Archive for July, 2012
So, I’ve been thinking about this thing of my needing fiction to present me with a possible, actual existing world, and not one that is entirely of the imagination.
And it occurs to me that this is what I demand of almost everything, and not just of fiction.
One of the things I used to like to do quite a lot back in the early nineties was to look at house plan magazines.
There are some house plan magazines that are just catalogues of stock plans available for sale, but the ones I liked were full-color stories of actual built houses, with all the pictures and articles about how the house was built.
In these magazines, some of the houses came with plans that were for sale so that you could build your own versions, and some of them were not.
And I was never interested in the stories about houses whose plans were not for sale.
If I couldn’t actually purchase the plan and build the house, I just wasn’t interested in reading about it.
This would not be very odd, except for this: I had no intention of building a house.
I was not going to take one of these plans and build something from it.
I’d watch my father build three houses over the course of my growing up, and I’d been myself involved in the building of just one, and every single one of those experiences was just plain awful.
If I ever decide to move from where I am and go off to another place, I will buy an already built house, or I will rent something. But I will not build it myself.
And yet, I really do have no interest in the stories of houses whose plans are not for sale. If I really have no possibility of ever building it, everything inside me rebels against the idea of fantasizing about it.
Looking into all this, part of me thinks that it may have to do with the absolute revulsion I felt, as a child, at the idea of “false hope.”
False hope always seemed to me to be the most grindingly humiliating of all occupations, a situation in which you not only made yourself ridiculous, but made yourself ridiculous in the worst possible way.
You opened yourself to justified contempt and ridicule. If you were mooning after something you could have no hope of bringing to realization, then not only would people laugh at you, they would have the right to laugh at you.
Thinking it over, though, I’m not sure this is the reason. I am sure that this is the way my mind operates.
I think I am more than a little afraid of compltely unrealistic daydreaming.
Part of me says that there are a lot of people out there who never do anything because they’re too busy getting lost in futile fantasies of things that could never happen, on any level at all.
I can fantasize my way through A Moveable Feast because although I can’t go to Hemingway’s Paris, I can go to Paris–and I did, more than once. I even lived there for nearly a year, and had my morning tea at the Cafe Deux Maggots, where Hemingway spent the afternoons writing short stories.
I have, in fact, managed to do most of what I dreamed of doing when I was reading books–lived in Paris, lived in London, lived in Greece, to to Asia, be a writer in New York, publish my novels.
But I cannot bring myself to imagine myself doing things that are not possible for me to do.
And that holds true in things other than fiction.
Lymaree asks why the moon couldn’t be just as good a destination as Paris, and all I can say is this–
For me, it can’t.
I’m NOT putting down science fiction.
I’m just saying that, FOR ME, trips to the moon, interstellar travel and all the rest of it bore me silly.
I accept the fact that other people can get really wrapped up in that kind of thing.
I just can’t.
I’ve read, by now, several dozen short stories and a few novels in sf and fantasy recommended to me or sent to me by various people, and some of them have been very well done and some of them have been a lot of fun.
And yes, of course, one can “learn things” about being human from what is not–but in the first place, no such thing is happening (the stories are written by humans for humans, the alien races are actually just human products of human imagination) and in the second place, I just don’t care.
No matter how well done they are, or how congenial the message to me (and some science fiction writers are flat out libertarians of the old school)–
I can’t take them seriously. They just do not engage my emotions, because they’re not about the real world.
If you can, well, good for you.
But I did NOT know I was capable (me, myself, in actuality) of moving to New York and living on my own. I did NOT know how one would go about doing that.
Books like Burning Questions showed me.
I don’t understand why so many of you are so relentlessly insistant that I change my mind about this.
It’s not going to happen.
If these stories work for you–good, go for them.
But I’ve never found the wholly imaginary very interesting.
Real people doing real things in real places–THAT interests me, even when I’m not looking for a dress rehearsal for something I want to do.
You know that dog with the head cocked feeling?
It’s the feeling I get whenever people start talking about how they get really into stories about going to outer space or full of aliens from other planets.
Good for you. Go on and have fun.
But I just don’t get it.
Most of the time, when I get angry or upset with things that happen on this blog, I just go away for a while until I calm down, and then start in on another topic.
This time, I’m disinclined to do that.
Yesterday, I wrote about a book that I truly love, and that was once enormously important in my life.
Without it, there would have been no Gregor Demarkian, and no Patience Campbell McKenna, and no blog.
What I got in response was a cascade of sneering contempt from people who have not read the book and know nothing about it, confidently assuring me that the reason there are no “conservative” books like it is that conservatives are too busy actually doing things, they don’t indulge in “angst,” and they’re not interested in “whining.”
I also got told that maybe it’s just that they’re not involved in “theorizing.”
I want to defend this book for a moment, because it deserves defending. It’s a good one.
There is no angst.
There is no whining.
There is no theorizing about “women’s issues.”
It’s the story of a young woman who works up the courage to leave home and move to New York, and then of her adventures there until she has established a place for herself.
I know the narrator is coming from a left wing perspective only because the women she admires (except for Joan of Arc), are largely left wing women, although she seems to admire them more for their rebelliousness than for their left wing ideas. Emma Goldman. La Passionara. Rosa Luxembourg.
If you know nothing about the content of left wing politics, you will not learn it from this book.
It is not a tract, and it is not an exercise in sociology.
It is about real people, doing real things. And that’s always what I want in fiction.
Robert, assuming he knows all about this book in spite of never having read it, compares it to stories he was forced to read where the heroine decided to stay in a math class or leave it.
I know the kind of story he is referring to. I can’t stand them, either. This book is nothing like that.
I admit I don’t understand the fascination of reading about places that don’t exist and things that could not possibly be real–but I have never sneered at any of you for reading it.
I mentioned entertainment and escape because several people commenting on this blog have said that that is what they read for, and explained their interest in fantasy and science fiction as being those particular things.
This is not a sneer, nor does it in any way indicate that I think that is the ONLY reason anybody reads it.
It’s just what people here have in fact said.
But there is one thing I do know.
I have been sneered at, derided and treated with contempt all my life for liking the things I like to read, and I have seen those things dismissed and stereotyped by people who have not read them.
I don’t need to write a blog to get more of that.
One of the things I do when I’m writing–and yes, I’m writing something, that’s why I haven’t been around as much as usual–is to try to restrict myself to reading what helps me write and not what hurts.
I have, for reasons I don’t understand, very definite writing responses to many books.
Not all, mind you. There are plenty of books out there that are neutral. I can read them and write, but they don’t spur the writing on in any particular way.
The books that make it nearly impossible to write are not necessarily badly written, although books that are really, really badly written will stop me dead in my tracks.
Others, though, are simple examples of narrative voices so strong that I can’t get them out of my head. Stephen King is one of those writers. I love nearly everything he does, but if I’m reading him, I start to unconsciously imitate him when I write.
And since my style and his are not completely compatable, this does not work out too well.
There are other books, however, that are a positive help. It’s like they give me a little push in the right direction, and I’m suddenly able to do more, faster and better, than I can on a normal day.
One of the books in this last category is a novel by Alix Kates Shulman called Burning Questions, a first person book-within-a-book, first published in 1975, that purports to be the autobiography of a women’s rights movement pioneer.
I have read this book several times, but it’s been a good ten years since the last time. I picked it up knowing that it would be a spur-me-on book, because it always has been in the past.
And it is now, in terms of getting me to work well in the mornings. There are other things involved with it, however, that are making me a little disconcerted.
Burning Questions is among a small collection of books that I think of as my escape module. They were books that helped me find a way–envision a way, may be the better way to put it–to get out of the life I grew up in and into the life I wanted to live in.
Other people may have imaginations so active that they can do this without help, but I have never been one of them. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge–books provided the places I could escape to and some idea of how life was lived there.
A subset of these books provided something else: a way to think my way out of what were then the prevailing requirements for the behavior of women.
This was no small thing in my family then, and it isn’t now. I am not sure what it is that makes some women feel they must police and restrict other women’s behavior, but I have known a lot of these women, and I’ve been related to them.
The men I was surrounded by did not seem to have this same need to box me in, or to box in the women in their lives, either.
The one exception to that that I remember, very strongly, was my mother’s demand that my mother not take a job because to do that would be to signal to the world that he was not making enough money to support her, which would not be good for his practice.
The incident is interesting to me on a number of levels, but first and foremost in its complete contradiction to everything my father ever said to me.
When it came to my life and my future, my father was determined that I get into the best college, get into the best graduate schools or law school, and never let a husband tell me I couldn’t go as far as I wanted. I think he thought, when I was a teenager, that I was going to end up running for office. He would have been fine with it.
The first book I ever found that put a chink into the expectations of what a woman could do and how she could behave was a minor novel by Maugham called Theater. It really is a minor novel, concerned with theatrical celebrities and their adulteries, but at the very end of it there is a scene that struck me forcibly from the very first time I read it.
In that scene, our heroine has washed her hands of her philandering husband and taken herself out to dinner. She orders herself a steak and some wine. She eats and enjoys herself. And then she goes home.
If this doesn’t sound like much in the way of a scene, I agree–it isn’t.
And I didn’t understand, at first, why it struck me so heavily.
I kept reading the thing and coming around to it and reading the thing and coming around to it, but it wasn’t until I’d read some of the standard works of Seventies feminism that I figured it out.
That was the first scene I had ever read where a woman went out at night all on her own, ate at a public restaurant all on her own, and never for a moment waited for somebody else or wished that somebody else was there.
It was a scene of independence. And I loved imagining myself doing the same.
It took Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to define the problem for me–another indication that I lack a certain amount of imagination.
I know the problems some of you have with Friedan and with the Seventies feminists in general, but the simple fact of the matter is that they were the only game in town. If you were a girl in that era and you wanted out of what felt like a completely airless world, you had no place to go to find people engaging in ideas about the roles of women or analyzing the way society responded to women and what it valued in them.
I grew up, as I’ve said here before, in a world in which there were two kinds of women–women with men, or women without them. A woman with a PhD and a stellar career who did not also marry was “compensating.” And every woman was assumed to care first and foremost about whether she was legally hooked up, even if she was Marie Curie.
This is not to say that all women in the Fifties stayed home and did not have careers. Of course some of them did. If they hadn’t, we couldn’t have gotten here from there.
But this is also the era in which you can find Della Street turning down Perry Mason’s repeated offers of marriage by saying that she doesn’t want to have to leave her job. He keeps telling her she wouldn’t have to, but she’s got a host of reasons why she would.
So I was looking for ways out, and these were the book that were presented to me–and Burning Questions was even better, because it was a fictionalized account of just that same thing.
It is, of course–written when it was written, and by the woman whom it was written by–a very political book, and a very left wing political book. The women’s movement of the Seventies was in large part (although not totally) left wing.
Most of the times I read and reread this thing, I passed over all the expected cliches of left wing writing without paying much attention to them–the quotes from Mao, the automatic assumption of the innocense of the Rosenbergs.
This time, these things are stopping me much more often, mostly because they irritate the hell out of me.
But it brings me to a quesiton, which I think needs to be asked.
Why aren’t there other books, not-left-wing books, about women fighting for their independence,and getting it?
Why aren’t there other books, not-left-wing books, about women fighting to define themselves in their own terms, and making that work?
There is nothing inherently left wing about believing that women are the intellectual and moral equals of men and should be their social equals as well.
There’s nothing about believing that women can be competent doctors, lawyers and even Presidents of the United States that requires you also to believe that there should be a widespread social welfare state or that Mao was a political saint.
There are plenty of women out there as we speak who hold no left wing ideas at all who still believe without question that basic tenet about feminism, that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men.
If you look at women, rather than at activists, what you find is a lot of basic feminism and a lot of political disagreement. Women who are feminists in the basic sense do and do not support legal abortion, do and do not support affirmative action, do and do not support the welfare state.
Why is it that it is only women on one side of that divide who write novels like Burning Questions?
Where, exactly, are those other books?
So, the first set of papers came in for my Lit and Comp course, and I have been walking around them ever since, nearly astounded.
You’ve got to note this: this is not a remedial class.
And my students are NOT adolescents.
They’re adults with jobs and families coming back to get a degree.
Lit and Comp is a distribution requirement for these people, and it’s got all the drawbacks in design that I’ve noted before.
But what I want to note here is this: on the very first day of the course, and then again on the day I made the paper assignment, I was very clear to give them the following instructions:
1) You NEVER EVER tell me, in an English paper, that something was “interesting.”
2) You NEVER EVER tell me that something was “good.”
3) You NEVER EVER tell me that you “liked” what you’re reading.
4) You write on a theme–the concept of evil in “Young Goodman Brown,” the extended metaphor of “A Rose for Emily.”
And, to make this even clearer, I included on our Blackboard page a sample of the kind of essay I was looking for.
What I got was book reports, liberally laced with “interesting” and “like” and all the rest of us.
And a lot of incredulity and indignation that they couldn’t tell me what they found “interesting.”
I also discovered something else.
In spite of my ALSO explaining this several times, they think that in any work of fiction or poetry using the first person, the narrator MUST be the author.
I discovered this last last night, when I found that they universally assumed that Robert Browning was writing about the death of his own wife in “My Last Duchess.”
Which made it at least understandable that they didn’t figure out that the narrator was talking about murdering the woman in the poem. After all, they’ll all Googled Robert Browning, and found that he and Elizabeth Barrett were love birds all their lives.
I know I’ve said some of this before, but bear with me.
These are not esoteric literary constructions I’m talking about here. The fact that the first person narrator of a story or poem is NOT the author but a character created by the author is about as basic an understanding of how fiction works as you can get.
On top of it, unlike my remedial students, most of the students in this class read. They read a lot.
They read things like the Twilight series and the 50 Shades of Grey stuff, but they read. They tell me they don’t want to think when they read, but they read.
It had never occurred to me, before now, that people who read on a regular basis would not know something as simple and basic as the fact that fiction in the first person is being told by a character and not by the author.
There is a lot of discussion here about whether or not we should include this kind of literature or that kind of literature in English classes, but that is much less important than this:
No matter what kind of literature you assign, you should be getting the basics of literary conventions across to the class.
I should not find myself in the position of having to explain this kind of thing to people over the age of 30.
On the writing of English papers as being about what they found “interesting” and what they “liked,” I have a little more sympathy.
But only a little.
In that case, I know what happened.
That was the kind of English paper they remember having written in high school, and that most students still write in high school. There’s no analysis. There’s no working through ideas or technical structures.
There’s just a recap of the story and comments about how this was interesting and that was interesting and they liked this other thing.
And, because they remember doing well enough in high school, they never read the sample essay.
They thought they already knew what they would see.
I find myself, once again, stuck at a place I don’t know how to negotiate.
On the one hand, these are people majoring in things like finance and human resources management.
What they’re looking for is not an education but certification that they’ve been trained in their field and are therefore good prospects for employers looking to hire.
They’re never going to need to write another English paper in their lives after they leave my classroom.
I’m not sure what good I’m doing them to insist that they hand in standard college English literature papers. I’m not sure if it matters if they know how to write them.
I am sure it matters that they understand things like the nature of narration, and that they understand that there are other ways of reading than skimming through the literal level and thinking whatever they want to think.
Yes, this is the same class that said writers write to “express themselves.”
And midway through the class last night, once we had figured out that Browning was not talking about himself in “My Last Duchess,” I listened to them conduct an amazed discussion of why anybody would want to do that.
Why would a writer want to write a story in somebody else’s voice? Why would he want to present a character’s ideas that were not his own–that he might even disagree with entirely?
It’s not just that they think writers are all writing to “express themselves.”
It’s that they have no idea why writers actually write at all.
I don’t care if they read Hemingway or Twilight.
I care that they understand what’s going on with the things they read, why the writers write, what the reader can get from the writing that isn’t just a lot of subjectivist mush.
Because, right now, it’s a very cramped and airless little world they live in.
So, over the last few days, I’ve been working a lot, and I haven’t been paying much attention to the news. For one thing, we’re in the run-up to a Presidential election, and that means that most of the news is of the “shock! horror! the grass is green!” genre of journalism.
This is when the people on Side A expressed their complete astonishment that their opponent on Side B believes some perfectly obvious and well known tenet of his own side.
Shock! Horror! The Republican thinks we should get the federal government out of education! Shock! Horror! The Democrat thinks we should actually raise taxes on some people!
This kind of thing gets to be fairly boring fairly quickly, so during Presidential election season, I tend to take less notice of the news than I usually do.
That explains how I missed the biggest news to hit this town in over a decade.
You have to understand something.
I live in a very, very small town. We do not have violent crime here, pretty much ever. Once a week, our little town newspaper comes out and produces a “police blotter” article that lists the local arrests. The arrests always consist of one or two domestic arguments, a little sprinkling of “failure to appear,” and a whole load of DUI and low-grade drug arrests. Somebody was getting tanked and weaving around on Sabbaday Lane. A bunch of teenagers smoked enough weed to get stupid and tried to swim naked in the Shepaug River at midnight.
It’s important to remember that this is what we usually get, because the news we’ve been getting this week has been nothing like it.
It hasn’t even been like the news of the last murder in this town, which happened over a decade ago, and was an ugly but unpremeditated end to a domestic argument.
In this case, what happened is almost certainly going to make the true crime shows I like so much, and it went like this:
A mother and her grown son lived together in a small house on the a residential street close to the police department.
They were a little short on funds, so they decided to rent out their basement as an apartment.
The people they found for tenants were a mixed race couple. The woman was an immigrant from Poland. The man was African-American.
What the mother and son didn’t realize was that this couple had criminal records, the woman for fraud and theft, the man for a whole string of violent crimes.
The trouble started almost immediatly, when the mother and son began to object to people coming and going at all hours and to the filthiness of the basement apartment, which got trashed in record time.
There then started a whole series of loud arguments, almost all of them at night, which appeared to be the only time the tenants were ever home.
Neighbors complained. The police were called on several occasions. Everything started up again the next night.
Then, about a week ago, it all stopped. There were no more violent arguments. There were no more cars and people coming and going in the middle of the night. The tenants appeared to have moved away. Nobody was surprised, because the mother and son landlords had been talking about evicting them for weeks.
Four or five days went by, and one of the neighbors began to detect a really awful, overpowering smell. She thought about knocking on the door, but given what had been going on in that house for the last several months, didn’t want to get herself into anything.
She therefore called 911, and the police came out, and what they found was–well, you can guess.
There were the bodies of the mother and her adult son, both clearly murdered, and both clearly left to rot for close to a week.
Everything else of value in the house was gone, include the landlords’ car, their couch, and their television.
The car was picked up two days later, in Rhode Island, driven by the poor guy who’d bought it, completely innocently, from the tenants.
The tenants had disappeared.
Now, as murder mysteries go, this isn’t much of one.
It’s almost entirely certain that the murderers will turn out to be the tenants, and the pictures of the tenants they’ve been flashing around on the new makes you wonder how the landlords ever agreed to rent to them in the first place.
I think most of us would like to believe that we’d have more sense, or at least more of a sense of self-preservation, than to have anything to do with these people.
But as a phenomenon in this place, this is rather interesting.
We are sort of out of the way here. The tenants were neither of them local people, which brings up the issue of how they found this particular apartment to rent in the first place.
If you’re living in Danbury or Waterbury or New Britain, your first choice would not be to get yourself an apartment that is not close enough to any of them for comfortable commuting.
That is assuming that you ever saw the ad for the rental to begin with. A lot of people are saying now that the landlords must have put an ad in one of the major local papers, like the Waterbury Republican-American or the Danbury News-Times.
And there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was why what happened, happened–the landlords b\put their ad in a paper that was going to draw in people from Away, and thereby got tenants they didn’t know anything about.
In fact, there has been a lot of discussion, period, and what I notice is that it is all discussion meant to reassure people that this would never happen to them. The landlords made mistakes the rest of us wouldn’t make. The landlords put themselves in harm’s way unnecesarily. The landlords did something that they shouldn’t have done, even if they had the best intentions.
It always astonishes me how frequently we in this country respond to other people’s tragedies by trying to find some way in which they brought it on themselves–or, if that doesn’t work, some way in which they deserved it.
We even have a cute little catch phrase for it–blaming the victim!–that is supposed to make us feel guilty that we’re not being more sympathetic to the people involved.
Unfortunately, the catch phrase tends to come out in circumstances in which the victim did indeed do something to bring on the mess he’s in.
In cases that are just random blind chance, we quickly go looking for an “explanation.”
Are you dying of cancer at thirty-six? You must be a smoker or a drinker or morbidly obese. Did you lose your job at Winkle Corporation and find yourself unable to get another? You must have a reputation for being slipshod and behind schedule, or your work must never have been very good.
When we can’t find an explanation of that kind, we do something worse.
We decide that the victims must have deserved it. Somehow, in some cosmic sense, their own behavior got the universe mad at them, and the universe has taken its revenge.
I heard a story last week on CNN about two brothers in Colorado, young children, who, a couple of years ago, lost both their parents. I came in on the story too late to find out why the parents died, if it was illness or accident or suicide or a combination of things.
But the parents died, leaving the two young children on their own. They were taken in by their grandmother, whom they loved and who loved them, so it worked out better than it often does in cases like theirs.
They settled into their grandmother’s house. The started to build new lives for themselves.
And then the Colorado wild fires came along, and burned their grandmother’s house to the ground.
I don’t know what kind of convoluted logic it’s going to take to convince these kids–and each other–that they did something to “deserve” all this.
But I do know it’s coming.
So, the other day, while I was talking about expressing ourselves, I mentioned that the textbook I am required to use for my Literature and Composition course is, as all such textbooks are, composed largely of the obvious and the second rate.
Since then, I’ve gotten a flurry of e-mails from a number of people expressing astonishment–surely such an anthology would include a lot that I liked?
I’ll give up, for the moment, the fact that, three years into this blog, most of you have no idea what it is I “like” in fiction, and apparently even less what I respect.
Let’s just go with what’s wrong with Lit and Comp textbooks.
Back when I was in college, the standard textbook for Freshman English at my place was The Norton Anthology of American Literature. We were also required to buy two novels in paperback. I don’t remember what those were for my year, because although I got an A in Freshman English, I never actually took the course.
My professor seemed to think I was (possibly deliberately) screwing with his grading curve, and after I’d handed in the second paper, he threw me out.
I do remember The Norton Anthology of American Literature, though, fairly well. It was an enormous trade paperback, nearly thick enough to be used as an endtable, and its mission in life seemed to be to include as much American literature as could possibly be stuck between two covers.
It had Jonathan Edwards and Phyllis Wheatley, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickenson, Poe, you name it, right up to the twenties and thirties and people like Hemingway and Faulkner.
I’m pretty sure it also had Dorothy Parker.
It had so much in it, even a teacher who was required to use it against her will could ususally find something she wanted to work with. Since it predated our attempts at “inclusion,” it lacked the ritual examples of Latino fiction, gay fiction, feminist fiction,whatever.
There was, however, quite a lot of African American stuff, starting, as I said, with Phyllis Wheatley.
I’ll admit, I really liked that anthology. I kept it for years after I graduated from college. In the world before the Internet, it was one of my best sources of what was out there to find written by Americans.
The anthologies we get these days are nothing like that was.
For one thing, they’re almost always a lot shorter.
In spite of the fact that everybody is obsessed with inclusion these days, the obsession does not seem to carry over into actually including stuff.
Instead, what you get is a highly foreshortened list of “classics” and “quality” fiction, and a whole slew of work by the memebers of various groups, whether it makes sense or not.
What’s more, what’s included is bizarrely monotonal. Apparently, whether you’re a Latino writer, and Asian writer, a gay writer, a feminist writer, a transgender writer, a Native American writer, or an African American writer, your narrative voice is thoughtful, considered and a little bit sad.
The mania for inclusion would actually be worthwhile if the compilers of these anthologies would actually include truly diverse voices, instead of handing us a long list of people who went to all the right colleges and picked up all the right attitudes and produced exactly the same kind of fiction everybody else at the Iowa Writers Workship did.
You can almost see how good this could be if you look at some of the African-American work that was out there before the Great Inclusion began–Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison.
You get some of this, but not nearly enough. Instead, the compilers seem to seek out anything they can find that has that same tone, and then congratulate themselves endless in the introduction on having “included diverse voices.”
It’s the Rainbow Sprinkles vision of diversity–we all look different, but we all think and talk and sound exactly the same.
I want to hasten to add, here, that not everything done in this tone is bad, or boring. Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is a brilliant piece of work, and so is just about anything by Amy Tan.
After a while, though, you just begin to wish you could find anything else. A different tone. A different approach to life. Anything.
And that brings us to the “old” stuff.
The first problem is that there’s no rhyme or reason for why what is included and what is excluded. The Norton Anthology of American Literature at least started at the beginning and brought the works forward chronologically. It had some kind of order. You got some sense of where everything was going and why it was going there.
With what we have now, the “old” stuff is largely scattershot, and if there’s a rationale to picking what they’ve picked, it’s beyond me.
If I get very, very lucky, I sometimes get “Bartleby the Scrivener,” by Melville–but it’s long, and it’s difficult, so I don’t usually.
Instead, I can usually guarantee a small list of things–Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” something by Hawthorne (usually “The Birthmark”), Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” some John Donne poetry (usually “Death Be Not Proud”), sometimes Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” something by James Joyce from Dubliners (usually “Araby”), something by Hemingway (usually “Hills Like White Elephants”). Whatever.
The problem is not that all this stuff is bad. Some of it is and some of it isn’t. The problem is that it’s all out of context. You can’t understand Donne without knowing a lot about Christian theology and, yes, the history of the Reformation in England. You can’t understand Yeats’ “The Second Coming” without knowing a lot more than that.
The plays, in the meantime, usually include something Oedipus Rex, A Doll’s House and either Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Then there will be a little cluster of modern plays like Fences along with some truly bewildering surrealist stuff most likely chosen for being one-acts.
If I had a choice, what I would do is construct each Lit and Comp course as an actual English course–“Victorian Literature,” for instance, or “The Literature of the American Flowering.”
I’d make them buy not a textbook but a little bunch of paperbacks–at least one novel, some short story and poetry collections, a couple of plays.
Then I’d go to work teaching them both the coherent literary history of the period and how to read closely and analytically at the same time.
And in the end, I think, I’d be able to get across not just the material itself, but the point of studying literature at all.
As it is, the best I ever get is a student or two who finds an author she “likes,” and many more students who feel (with some reason) that they’ve been forced through an exercise in futility.
Those students think the only reason they have to study literature is because the college wants an excuse to charge them more money, and they may not be entirely wrong.
Last week I started teaching a course that will run from 6 to 9 on Tuesday nights for eight weeks, part of an accelerated degree program for adults.
Teaching adults has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that they’re serious about what they do, and this term what I’m teaching is “comp and lit.” This is what the whole world called “Freshman English” before the advent of “composition” courses. We’ve got a text book full of short stories, poems and plays chosen by somebody whose tastes are largely limited to the obvious and the mediocre and eight weeks to get across things like narrative voice, unreliable narrators and extended metaphors.
The downside to this is that it’s something of a haul out to the site, and it’s late. I get home late, I get to bed later, and then I either oversleep in the morning or get up on time and feel catatonic all day.
This morning I needed to get up, because it’s the Fourth of July, and even in a year when I’m not doing anything special, I have my younger son to think about. HIS idea for the day was to walk up to Main Street and watch the parade, so I got up early and puttered around to make sure he took a bottle of water and all that kind of thing.
Then I put on Haydn and tried to read.
I’m still reading the Perry Miller first volume, so that didn’t work out so well. You have to be awake to read that thing.
In th emeantime, I feel nearly obsessed with a conversation that went on in class yesterday.
At one point in a convoluted discussion of James Joyce’s “Araby” and Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” and after trying an experiment where I had them read Hemingway’s very short story “Hills Like White Elephants” and explain it to me–okay, that was interesting–I asked them why they thought Hemingway had written that story.
Then I broadened it to: why does any writer write any story?
Looking back on it, I think I was expecting them to give me practical answers: writers write to make money, for instance, or to get famous, or that kind of thing.
What I got instead was a near universal insistance on: writers write to express themselves.
The one exception was a woman from South America, and she was only half an exception. Writers write, she said because some people have so much imagination in them, they have to get it out.
That is, actually, a pretty good answer now that I look at it. I certainly know that feeling, that the fiction never stops, that it becomes part of your head.
Unfortunately, when I probed further, she, too, though the point was “expressing your personality.”
No, I am, I will admit, something of an old fogey, but I found this absolutely astonishing.
In the first place, I have no idea what “express yourself” actually means, and I’m not sure if my students do.
The idea seems to be that you have a self–so far, so good–and that one of its imperatives is to make itself public and known to the world.
They confidently feel that all people at all times feel this, and that this is an impulse natural to human beings.
And, of course, on one level, I can see this myself, sort of.
We can see around us, as I speak, a lot of concerted and sometimes frantic attempts at what I’d call “individuation,” meaning attempts to show that we are different from the people around us, that we are not part of the mass.
Some of these are actually attempts at defining our group memberships, to say that we are part of THIS group and NOT THAT one.
In those cases, though, I’m not sure that whatever is being express is really a self.
It’s also unclear to me where it is this self is coming from, or where it is its impulses are coming from.
The discussion made it sound as if we are all born with a set of desires and impulses that are just there, unaffected by culture or upbringing or anything else at all.
I’m sure if I’d gotten into that particular discussion, they would have denied that these impulses were entirely causeless–or maybe not. It was hard to tell where they were trying to go with this.
The idea–that people need to “express themselves”–was so thoroughly taken as a given, so completely perceived as impossible to challenge, that they had a hard time thinking of it as anything but just obviously and unquestionably true.
But the fact is that the idea that we all need to “express ourselves” is a very new one. It was not a part of the Medieval world, or the ancient one. The Victorians would have recognized it, but they would have dismissed it as the delusions of the romantics.
There were some questions I could have asked last night but didn’t, and wished I had.
One would have been just why they thought a self would need to be “expressed.” Why would a self want to do that? What would a self get from such a process that it would find worthwhile?
I suppose it’s too late in the history of this particular culture to ask if it wouldn’t be more of a negative for a self to express itself–if it wouldn’t be better to keep itself private and intact rather than send the secrets of its soul into the public world to be mashed about by anybody who wanted to.
In the last several years, most of my students–adult, remedial, regular–have had very little comprehension of a sense of privacy or why anybody would have one.
Life is, for them, a public event, and a life lived outside such publicity is like not really living at all.
Still, I think I can say with some certainty that most of the writers I have known, or have read about, have not been interested in “expressing themselves.”
In fact, most of the writers I’ve known who have declared that their principle interest is in self-expression have been very bad writers, and my guess is that they’d probably also be very bad composers and very bad painters.
Maybe that’s the explanation for the mountains of really bad art that we see all around us these days.
The writers I’ve known have been motivated by a lot of things–politics, pain, love, ideas, ideals, history–but almost never by a squishy subjective need to “express themselves.”
Expressing themselves is what children do–and even they don’t do it if they’re not being encouraged by their kindergarten teachers.
The Haydn is done. I’d better go find something for lunch before Greg gets back home from the parade.
A little something for the fourth of July: