Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Genres and Other Things

with 6 comments

Right now, I’m really grateful that I’m not dead, because I’m so tired I can barely see straight, and I keep having to drive places.  Long distance places.

Of course, the day before yesterday, this ninetten year old kid killed his brother in a town near here and then took off in a panic.  He was the subject of one of those “routine traffic stops” a couple of towns further north and he responded to that by assaulting a police officer and running off into the woods.  All of which resulted in a manhunt that first locked down all the schools in the area, then sent state police helocopters buzzing a bunch of state land trusts, then closed schools in three towns the next day, all to find this one kid who was more of a danger to himself than anybody else.

They did catch him, but it was exciting.  Or, you know, annoying.  Like that.

Anyway, Cheryl says that she thought intellectuals had always found their homes in universities, and all I can say to that is that they didn’t.  Writers and artists, especially, until my generation, stayed about as far away from “schools” as they could, and if you’d told Hemingway about the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, he’d have laughed himself silly.

Until my generation, intellectuals did all kinds of things–during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties they tended to work for magazines, of which there were several.  Nobody made much money, but it was considered better to be poor than suffocated by pedants and the conformity university life was supposed to impose.  There’s a very famous and really odd short story, called The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, that is an extended metaphor on the horrors of her life stuck in Bennington, Vermont, afer her husband decided to take up college teaching full time.

As for who should decide what children should read–I don’t know why we keep coming back to that, as if the only point of reading deeply and widely is to mesh a book list into a curriculum and then assign it to somebody, but I’ve got a few suggestions, even for that.

First, I don’t see why schools should assign any contemporary fiction at all.  Contemporary writing always has and always will suffer from the fact that it either does or does not suit contemporary tastes, which are not a good long term guide for what is going to be important in literature or anything else.  Every once in a while you might want to include some contemporary texts in a modern course–I taught a course in the history of the mystery novel in England and America, and in the last month we looked at contemporary writers in order to give everybody a feel for where the field was going–but in general, I’d say that a book should have been in print for at least fifty years before we let anybody teach it to anybody else.

After that, we have the distinction between the purpose of high school and the purpose of college, which are not the same, or even entirely related, and, in college, the difference between what it makes sense to teach to majors and what to non-majors.  Robert is quite right that Jane Austen wrote a number of minor novels, that are not bad but not particularly good, and that the only reason anybody bothers to read them at all any more is that they were written by the same person who wrote Sense and Sensibility.  There’s some point in reading them in a course if you’re specializing in English literature and especially if you’re specializing in the English nineteenth century novel, but there’s no point in foisting Northanger Abbey on John the Physics Major.

As to John’s comments this past time–I agree, genres can be used as structures, much the way sonnets are structures, and such a structure may make it possible to write about a subject that wouldn’t ordinarlyhave any sales appeal.  The subject of the girls bullied at school by more popular classmates is not such a subject, however.  Several years before I wrote a Somebody Else’s Music, a woman named Sue Miller wrote a book called For Love, pretty much on the same thing, and it made the NYT bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback in spite of it being “literary fiction.”  It’s one of the very few modern books I wish I’d written.

That said, I’ll stick by my other two points.  First, that the writer’s intention is not and cannot be the standard by which we judge a novel.  For one thing, we can’t always know that intention.  For another, it’s entirely subjective.  What we can know is what the writer actually produced, and once we know that, we can go for there.

My guess is that almost all really good writing is doing more than half of what it’s doing unwittingly.  If you remember the post about characters that write themselves, all I can tell you is that thre are also books that write themselves, and they do what they want. 

But I’ll also stick to my guns about entertainment–I’m not decrying it at all.  I’m perfectly happy to let you have all the entertainment you want.  I’m just saying that a novel that does that and only that isn’t a very good novel.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read it.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you for enjoying it.  It just means it’s not a very good novel.

And the real problem of entertainment for me remains the fact that it presents what is false deliberately in order to allow us to live in the falsehood.  That is the great difference between Gone With The Wind  and Vanity Fair, which are otherwise so incredibly similar.  GWTW presents a sentimentalized, romanticized, meretricious view of life in the South under slavery.  VF presents a very clearsighted view of life in England both at the time it is set and the time it was written.

Because, of course, novelists do indeed write fantasies, science fiction and historicals as a way to comment on the present day by removing themselves to another vantage point in time.  And yes, Tolkein certainly did this, as did Stanislaw Lem, as did Jorge Luis Borges.  But that is not what most romance writers, or science fiction writers, or mystery writers, are doing.

It’s not even close.

If I don’t get sme caffeine into me, I’m going to go completely crazy.

Written by janeh

November 19th, 2008 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Genres and Other Things'

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  1. I mentioned that there had been exceptions to the intellectuals at university idea, and I certainly wasn’t thinking of the MFA people. I was trying to think of who could and did spend a lot of time on intellectual pursuits, and except for a few who managed to make a living at something outside a university, and that fairly recently (which is what Jane is describing) and the rich amateurs, I can’t think of many examples of intellectuals outside the universities – and the further back I think, the fewer exceptions I can come up with. And where else do you find people with the time and money to learn classical Greek or Middle English or the influences on George Elliott? Amateurs can do something, but they’re limited by their other obligations.

    I keep coming back to what we teach children as a kind of shorthand for what’s Literature – surely we should give our children the tools to tackle what’s best in our society! And John, I don’t think not having or knowing children means you can’t have an opinion – what’s of such value to your culture that you think everyone should at least have the chance to pick up the skills needed to experience it?

    Obviously, there’s more latitude and variety in university programs than high school, since some university students will be studying science and others maybe will be reading the Bronte juvenilia, if that’s the word.


    19 Nov 08 at 1:23 pm

  2. There is something to be said for being retired and not having a family. I don’t have to drive when tired!

    OK, I’ll make allowances for Jane being tired but I still find this paragraph infuriating.

    “Anyway, Cheryl says that she thought intellectuals had always found their homes in universities, and all I can say to that is that they didn’t. Writers and artists, especially, until my generation, stayed about as far away from “schools” as they could, and if you’d told Hemingway about the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, he’d have laughed himself silly.”

    Jane, I’ve never considered Heemingway to be an intellectual. But I do consider historians, archeologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, biologists and even engineers to be intellectuals and they did have their homes in Universities! Oh, I left out Philosophy! Perhaps we need to define “intellectual”?

    As to reading lists and contemporary literature, Australian high schools seem to have to include some contemporary Australian novel and it almost always has to include Aborigines!

    Given that the US has 300 million people and Australia has 20 million, ignoring US literature in favor of Australian results in leaving out a lot of good contemporary writing.


    19 Nov 08 at 1:32 pm

  3. I missed Cheryl’s comment. We seem to have posted within a few minutes of each other.

    “And John, I don’t think not having or knowing children means you can’t have an opinion – what’s of such value to your culture that you think everyone should at least have the chance to pick up the skills needed to experience it?”

    The basic skills are the 3 Rs, Reading, Writing and arithmetic. The question is what do we force high school students to do with those skills once they’ve learned them. And the problem is that word “force”. The old saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” remains true. You can force students to read Hamlet, you can’t make them enjoy the play.

    I think history is important but then I enjoy reading history books on my own and thinking about what I read. It doesn’t follow that we gain anything by shoving history down the throats of a captive audience in high school. I really don’t know what we can do as long as we insist that all children must attend high school until they are 18.


    19 Nov 08 at 3:39 pm

  4. Yeah, but we don’t have a problem with trying to force all children to at least attempt to learn some things. Basic literacy and numeracy are seen as so essential that everyone is forced to the trough even if they refuse to drink. If a more advanced kind of literacy; the kind needed to spot basic literary devices like the one mentioned earlier where an author puts a point of view he doesn’t support in the mouths of a character, is of sufficient importance, it should be part of the basic education all children should have a chance at. I think it is that important.

    But the devil’s in the details, and the next question is, which bit of literary education is the most crucial? Should ‘Paradise Lost’ be reserved for professionals, experts and enthusiastic amateurs, or should it be taught in senior high school? Jane doesn’t think contemporary fiction should be taught; I’m inclined to think it should be, as a small part of the whole.

    The thing is, we’re dancing around a lot of highly inter-related issues. What constitutes our culture? What *should* constitute our culture? Is L(l)iterature an important tool for understanding and transmitting our culture, our understanding of what it means to be humans? If it is, which bits are so absolutely essential to our culture that we are justified in teaching them in school and expecting anyone to know them? Who decides which bits?

    No, shoving lists of dates or Hamlet at captive schoolchildren isn’t necessarily going to make them like history or Hamlet. But at the very least, it shows that we (the adults who decide what to try to teach children) think history and literature are important, and should give the children some basis on which to build should they later decide they are interested in history or literature.

    Or, of course, turn them off forever. There’s always that risk. But if you don’t decide that literature and history are so important that you must at least try to teach them to everyone, your captive children will never even know that there’s something to miss.


    19 Nov 08 at 3:57 pm

  5. I like the 50 year rule, and for a reason Jane doesn’t mention. That “purpose” she writes about may take some time to surface. Apart from the time needed to develop a critical literature, we may need 50 years to develop some perspective, and to sort out the chaff.
    I understand astronomers photograph exactly the same piece of sky at exactly the same time of day, but at intervals. This lets them locate comets and planets moving against a background of unchanging stars. It has long been my observation that some books change over time, and some do not. The book which changes with my life experience may be a pretty good first approximation of a great book.
    We’ve all seen novels written to blow the lid off something, and by and large they’re pretty sorry lot, though mercifully short-lived. Perhaps the way to write a great novel is to write the best novel one can regardless of genre–a romance, a war epic with a cast of thousands or even an adventure story about whaling–and wait a bit.


    19 Nov 08 at 5:55 pm

  6. perhaps 25 years instead of 50. That allows the parents to explain the “contemporary” references to their kids!


    19 Nov 08 at 8:07 pm

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