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Archive for November, 2008

Fan Mail

with one comment

Yesterday,  I did something I almost never do.  I answered a negative e-mail from a reader, and I answered it in a way that left no doubt whatsoever about what I thought about it.

Normally,  I don’t answer negative reader mail of any kind, even the ones that tell me that they really love my books but have to point out the 307 typos they came across in the paperback.   The really negative reader mail, the kind that tells me what a piece of scum I am and why they’ll never read anything of mine again, I normally won’t touch with a ten foot pole.  I’m too tempted to write the kind of response I did yesterday.

First, here’s the e-mail:

>>> When I read a book especially a mystery ( and I can relate to this book  I happen to teach at a similar private school) I want to forget the my troubles and read stress free. So why ….; why do you have to throw in insulting political references especially that are not true? Everyone knows that headmasters and the majority of faculty are democrats . Why insinuate that the despicable people at this school are republicans? And nothing against Wa-l mart but I live in a lovely community on Staten Island NY that does not have one Wal-mart on the whole island! As I try to ignore these references that ruin the story I have to stop and write you about your pompous and ignorant assumption that Catholics are to dumb ( P. 254). Well I cannot finish reading this book because to me literary license doesn’t include your right to attack what you don’t understand. And once again these references are only made to make a fellow liberal snicker and reveal that it is the liberals that are mean spirited and not the republicans. I  whole heartily respect others view points and as a fellow ( hope to publish soon my own novel) author I am very considerate and respectful of a my audience and my story line and would never put in any insulting references concerning political or religious beliefs, among other things. Well I have zero desire to finish this book so back to Barnes and Noble it goes for a full dissatisfied refund. I am assuming your other novels are the same so that is that . My favorite [pastime in the world is reading and I will not subject myself to this type of trash again. I guess it is true what they say liberalism is a mental disorder.<<<<<<<<

Even those of you–and I know there are a few–who don’t read my novels must have picked up a few of our recent themes in that, and I want to get to that–that paranoia that the “liberals” are all laughing at “us,” for instance–but let me outline some of the more basic problems.

The book this e-mail concerns in The Heademaster’s Wife, which takes place at an upscale, heavily left-wing co-educational boarding school in Massachusetts. 

There are no “Republicans” at this school that I remember.  The intellectual range goes from very, very, very lunatic left to left-leaning liberal.  The only student we learn anything about is the son of a liberal Democrat writer and television pundit. 

The whole point of this book is to show up the people I call “tourists at the revolution,” upper middle and upper class people–usually female–who attached themselves to “revolutionary movements” in order to…well, I don’t know in order to be what.  There’s that thing by Eliot again, about the most trouble in the world being caused by people trying to be important, so there’s definitely that.

But I’m not the only writer to have come upon this phenomenon and sort of stopped dead in front of it.   There’s V.S. Naipaul, who’s made a career out of chronicling the stupidities of these people.  And, of course, there’s Henry Janes, whose The Princess Casamassima was probably the first novel ever to focus on such a character.   The Princess may be the first such character.

The Headmaster’s Wife was my attempt to do in modern dress in a mystery novel what James did in The Princess Casamassima.  And, okay, I failed.  Henry James was a genius, and I am not.  But I didn’t fail utterly.  Enough liberals got the point to get angry at me about it, and enough non-liberals (not necessarily conservatives) got the point to have a good time with it.

That this writer did not is the result of exactly one thing:  she’s unable to understand what “third person multiple viewpoint” is.  When she reads a passage from Alice’s point of view, she doesn’t understand that it’s Alice’s point of view, not mine.   When Peter misunderstands Catholicism, she thinks it’s me  misunderstanding Catholicism, not Peter.

Now, what we’re dealing with here is not an esoteric literary device.  Practically everybody who writes in third person these days uses it.  Certainly any decent high school course in literature–or even in composition–would deal with “point of view” and how to read and write it.  

And it’s difficult to see in what sense we could say this writer is actually able to read if she cannot understand this, because it’s not only in fiction that people use it.   Nonfiction writers frequently present the ideas of their opponents as passages written in the opponents’ point of view.  

Not to be able to distinguish when this is happening is to be continually misunderstanding what you read–to be continually not simply getting things wrong, but getting them backwards.   And I’ve seen people do this.  One of my favorite books of all time is  Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, in which he argues vigorously against what he calls the “sociological model” of human nature–that is, against the idea of man as a “blank slate” whose nature is formed entirely by his environment.

In the middle of an early chapter of the book, Pinker presents the sociological model in a long passage from that point of view, and a poster to an e-mail discussion list I was on at the time furiously and stubbornly insisted that this passage was Pinker supporting that proposition.  See?  Pinker says right here that it’s all environment!

I don’t know who the writer of my e-mail was, but the poster to that discussion board was not an idiot in the way we’d usually use the word.   He was a lawyer, which means he had to have had a certain amount of education, although he was old enough so that he got his law degree without having to get a bachelor’s degree first.

Still, those high schools we all think were so wonderful back when our fathers and grandfathers were alive had failed to teach him something utterly basic about reading and writing. 

I stopped short in my answer to the e-mail and didn’t actually tell the woman that I’d really prefer if she never read another word of mine again, but I was tempted.  I get tired beyond belief at having to deal with this sort of thing, and something more than tired at the knowledge that these days it’s impossible to produce a ‘best seller” on any serious scale without making sure you aim your prose at a level these people can understand.

That’s part of the reason that I don’t think popularity should be the standard of literary value–one of the others is the fact that, if that is our standard, then all the greatest works of fiction in English will be pornography–but it’s also part of the reason that this writer is so paranoid.

Liberals are making fun of her!  They’re snickering!

But I was doing nothing of the sort.  What was happening here was what the less intelligent of my cousins do–here is a woman aware that something is going on that is over her head, and the knee-jerk reaction is to go paranoid and scream that you’re being made fun of. 

And yes,  I do know that there are some “liberals” who do indeed make fun of people like this, but I wasn’t doing it, there is nothing in the book that would make anybody think I was doing it, and  I venture to suggest that the writer’s paranoia here stems from the gut feeling that somebody ought to be making fun of her.

I don’t think she thinks liberals think she’s stupid.  I think she herself thinks she’s stupid.  That’s why the panic reaction.

Look, I fully agree that the goal of study in high school should be different–very different–from the goal of study in colleges and universities. 

It just seems to me that learning to read is more complicated than just being taught to sound out words phonetically, and the least a good high school could do would be to introduce and explain basic literary devices and how they work.

That way, this woman could read her way through a mystery novel without imagining the writer is poking fun at–that absolute opposite point of view the writer is actually poking fun at.

Okay, my head hurts.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ignorant and Proud of It

with 5 comments

I  want–I really  want–to get to Rick Shenkman’s comments about how to get my students interested in history, but before that I want to answer what I think has become confusion enough in this discussion:  knowledge for its own sake and utility.

Robert complains that I can’t have it both ways–either the liberal arts comprise those things we study for their own sake, with no reference to what we might use them for, or they’re useful somehow and can be defended that way.

But the fact is that I can have it both ways, because there’s no contradiction here.   Einstein didn’t study physics becaus he thought he could “do” something with it–hell, it didn’t even help him get a job.  He was interested in the nature of the universe, and he was compelled to explore it, even if it had no use he could see. 

But it’s neither surprising nor unusual that someone came along later and found a use for it, or even that Einstein himself did.  I have found my own education almost infinitely useful in my life, and I think the fact of it has profoundly changed me as a human being, but that’s not why  I wanted to study literature.  I wanted to know because I wanted to know.

My objection is to the habit we’ve gotten into of saying things like, “You’re majoring in philosophy?  What kind of job can you get with that?”  It’s a habit in which we place no value on the knowing itself, only on what it can do for us, preferably something down to earth and everyday, like getting a job.  And getting a job is important, but it has nothing to do with education.

But, back to Rick Shenkman, and his contention that my students only find history boring because they’ve been taught history badly.

First let me stipulate:  my students have been taught almost everything badly, assuming that they’ve been taught it at all.   The solid core of them  have attended the worst sort of inner city high schools.  I don’t know what goes on in them, but it can’t be much, because these kids arrive in my classroom knowing virtually nothing about anything.   A couple of years ago,  I gave a class a freewriting assignment.  Answer the question:   Your town has decided to erect a monument to you.  Why?

About ten minutes into the exercise I walked around the room and found one kid with absolutely nothing written on his paper.  I leaned over to give him a little encouragement, only to figure out, after some difficulty, that his problem was really simple–he had no idea what the word “erect” meant.  Well, okay, he knew what it meant in the sexual sense, but he had never heard it used otherwise.  

This is not just bad teaching, it’s wholesale educational neglect, and when  I get angry these are the kids I get angry about.   They are the ones with the most to gain, or lose, by the educational system.   If they don’t “make it”–and most of them don’t come close–they go back to the kind of neighborhoods most of us associate with Beirut.

But these are also not the kids expressing the kind of attitudes about history, and knowledge,  I was talking about in the last post.   I have a word of advice for anyone thinking of teaching in a remedial program:  the students you have to be most afraid of are the ones who are upper middle class and white.  

The minority kids might not understand the rationale, but they do know that negotiating the system is crucially important.  They fail not because they don’t care, or because they resent the work, but because they’ve been so badly prepared that they need something more than a remedial program could give them.

The middle and upper middle class white kids in these programs are something else again.  Some of them come from very good high schools indeed, but over the last few years I’ve decided that a big bait and switch is going on in those with the least able and motivated students.

By that I mean that the best suburban high schools do an excellent job of teaching things–to the top ten percent of their students.  Those are the kids in AP courses and honors courses, the ones with ambitions to go to the Ivies or the Seven Sisters or the service academies, and the schools take them very seriously. 

With the rest of their population, though, the goal is to get them through and out without too much hassle from their parents, who simply will not accept that Sweetheart could get a D in anything, never mind fail it.  So these students are given classes where the standards are undemanding and nobody really cares if they learn anything or not. 

Then, when their SATs look like golf scores, they get sent to me.

Rick Shenkman says he doesn’t believe that a student, presented with the opportunity to discover why he thinks the way he does, could possibly be bored by a pursuit of the answer.

I think that Rick Shenkman is what I was before I started teaching in these programs:  a smart kid who went to college with a lot of other smart kids and then went to work in a profession only smart kids have a chance to enter.  I am, after all, a Vassar girl with twenty-two published mystery novels to my credit.  For years before I married–another mystery novelist, who graduated from Syracuse–I worked on women’s magazines and at publishers. 

In other words, I had never in my life met people like my students on any scale.   Oh, sure, one or two, you can’t avoid them–but when it’s only one or two (or my cousins), it’s easy to dismiss them as anomalies.   If somebody had told me–okay, my father did try to tell me–that there’s an entire population out there, and a big one, with these kinds of attitudes to knowledge and understanding, I would have dismissed him as just plain wrong.

Consider a student I had last year.  I’d assigned an essay for analysis, and understanding it required knowing that Robert  E. Lee was at the head of the Confederate forces in the American  Civil War.  It was one of those things, a throwaway reference, that expected the reader to “just know” and in just knowing to make connections that framed a more current event.  So  I pointed to this young woman and asked her if she knew who Robert E. Lee was.

No, she didn’t know.

I asked the class generally, and got no volunteers.  So I explained the reference myself.

The young woman put up her hand and demanded, “How was I supposed to know that?  It happened before I was born!  How’s that supposed to make me a better nurse right now?”

I’m going to try an experiment–I’m going to print out Rick Shenkman’s comments on the last post and hand them out to my class, to see what they say.  I could be surprised, but I don’t think I will be.   The general response to demands that they know anything they don’t feel like knowing–which takes in the majority of what is available to know in the world–is anger and resentment, often followed by heroic efforts not to learn it.  

What’s more, they won’t even approach reading with anything like an active engagement–they won’t, for intsance, ask questions about vocabulary they don’t know or references they don’t get.   With my inner city students,  I can blame bad schools and bad teachers who didn’t like questions and didn’t respond to them in any useful way.  With my upper middle class students, who went to high schools I know and which work overtime to make learning “active,” I can find no exuse. 

One of the other things I assigned for reading on that same class day as I assigned the Shenkman piece was a book review of Susan Jacoby’s Age of  American Unreason. I’ve read that book and I don’t actually think it’s very good, but the essay was short and funny. 

Or, I thought it was funny.

Unfortunately for what followed, including the discussion of  Shenkman’s piece, the book review was funny because it made fun of two specific incidents of ignorance:  somebody who thought  Europe was a country; and two guys who thought Pearl Harbor had something to do with the Vietnam War.

I could see the storm clouds gathering in the face of the young woman in the front row, the same one who would later demand to know why Mr. Shenkman thought anybody should bother to know all that stuff about politics and history.

“I don’t see why it’s all right to laugh at these people,” she said. “i’m one of these people and I’ve got every right to be.:

As it turned out, she had, before reading the article, thought Europe was a country, and she had thought Pearl Harbor had something to do with the Vietnam War.

And she mightily resented the suggestion that this somehow made her stupid, or ignorant, or required to go look into a bunch of stuff she couldn’t see any reason to bother with.  

It’s possible that all of this comes from bad teaching.  It’s possible that better middle school and high school teachers could have fixed this, could have inspired even in my kids–and in the half of the population that doesn’t go on to college after high school–a respect for and interest in learning.

But I think something bigger is going on here.  This attitude is not restricted to my students.  On the few occasions when I have a chance to meet their parents, their parents usually exhibit it as well.   And then there is, as I started out saying, the Sarah Palin phenomenon, the presentation of a political candidate whose “ordinariness” and ignorance were displayed as a positive virtue–under the impression that there are people in the  United  States today who would vote for such a person not in spite of that ignorance, but because of it.

My students read almost nothing.  They don’t understand what they do read.   In fact, if you give them something to read and ask them what it means, they tend to make a guess vaguely in the direction of the subject matter, with the emphasis on some platitude they’ve heard somewhere that they expect to be hearing again.   When they run into things they don’t know, they don’t look them up.  They don’t even ask me.  They just glide right by them and then complain they can’t understand anything.

But they did understand Mr. Shenkman’s piece, so I’m going to take his comments in next week and see what they make of them.

In the meantime, I will point out again that it’s not just my students.  Some of the posters here will remember the discussion on RAM about The  Da Vinci Code, and the person who declared that it didn’t matter if the book was historically inaccurate to the point of ludicrousness, he didn’t  know any of that anyway and it was a good story.

This was the same person who, in another thread, declared that he read for entertainment, and if he came across a book that made him work in any way, he just got rid of it.

But let me bring those comments in to class, and see what happens.

Written by janeh

November 8th, 2008 at 6:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cheating at Everything

with 4 comments

Cheryl says she could never cheat because–among other reasons–the lie would go on throughout her life.   Not only would she be claiming, now, to know something she hadn’t learned, but she would go on claiming it through the grade on her transcript, sent out ot employer after employer through the rest of her life as if she had actually done the work.

I think the key to understanding my students–as far as it is possible to understand them–is that they wouldn’t think of buying a term paper for a distribution course “cheating.”   As far as they’re concerned, they aren’t claiming to know something they don’t.  There’s nothing to know.   Literature courses, philosophy courses, even history courses are either largely without content, or so irrevelant as to be meaningless in any practical context.

It would be one thing if they thought the university administration expected them to acquire some kind of knowledge in one of these areas, or that employers expected them to possess it.  Instead, they think there is no knowledge here to acquire or possess, and that everybody in the system–their teachers, the university, their employers–knows full well that “distribution requirements” are just methods of extracting time and money from students to keep the university profitable.   Paying attention to such things is just silly.

Did I mention the fact that among the things they don’t know is the distinction between for-profit and non-profit institutions?  Or even that there is such a thing as a nonprofit institution.

I met with those particular classes yesterday, and we worked on an article called “How Stupid Are  We?”  This is the link I gave them


and I’ll warn you that my younger son really hates this article.  He thinks Shenkman is something of a snob and something of a snot, which is probably true. 

But the significance of the article lies in the reaction of the majority of my students to it, and that is to complain that Shenkman has no right to pass judgment on people just because they don’t know this stuf.   Why does it matter if anybody knows any of this stuf, anyway?  What difference does it make and why should they care?

Before I get into exactly what it is they don’t know and don’t care they don’t know, I want to point out a point I started to make a week or so ago–all of these things, science and social science and humanities, hang together.  There is no situation in which we can indulge a know-nothing dismissal of literature of philosophy without finding that those same know-nothings feel exactly the same way about history and biology.   The issue, for these students, is not “why should anybody know anything about literature?”  It’s “why should anybody expect me to know anything about anything that isn’t my major or something I’m interested in?”

There were quite a few things in that article that my students didn’t understand why anybody should care if they knew.  For instance–why know what Roe v. Wade is?  It’s enough to know tha abortion is legal.  Why know who the Presidents were before they were born?  Why should anybody care who’s on the Supreme Court, or whether it’s the President or Congress who can declare war?  It doesn’t have anyting to do with them, and even if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it.

In a way, I think it’s a testament to the success of this country that so many of them feel this way.   Let me tell you who doesn’t feel this way:  the students I have who have immigrated from Eastern Europe, or the Middle  East, or  Africa.   History and government look a lot more important when even small changes in them can take away your livelihood, put your parents in prison, get you killed. 

My American-born students, though, are indignant that anybody would expect them to know things like the differences between the federal government and the government of the states, or the geographic location of Iraq.

“i could see it if you had your brother or your boyfriend in the war,” one of the young women said.  “Then you’d look it up because it would be important to you.”

I don’t know if my students are typical of students throughout the system, but I think they probably are typical of students on the bottom rungs of it.  And certainly some of them are “stupid” in the strict sense.  That is, they are not intellectually gifted.  They have a hard time with even simple abstractions.

But most of the students in the class that was the most indignant about that article are not stupid in this strict sense.  They are woefully unprepared, but what distinguishes them is this conviction that all such knowledge is “useless,” that it doesn’t matter if you know this sort of thing, that none of this has anything to do with their lives, and that their lives are what matter.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t think they should think their lives matter, only that I don’t know if their conviction that ONLY their lives matter is the result of their prior education (or lack of it) or of something more innate.  I don’t even know how to go about asking that question. 

I don’t know what to do about the problem, either, or in the face of the wall of resentment they put up whenever I give them a handout or send them to a website that requires them to know words (solipsism, xenophobia) or things (what 1984 is, the significance of Pearl Harbor) that they consider both irrelevant and “boring.”  I sometimes think this is the chief difference between them and the students at high-end schools like Yale and Vassar.  My students find almost everything “boring.”

It’s this thing–this insistence that everything is “boring” and that nobody has the right to demand they know anything about stuff that “doesn’t matter”–that I think causes the weird incoherence of much high school educaiton in literature and history.  In literature, it results in reading choices that have very little to do with the Great Conversation–or even the Western Canon–but that are perceived to be “relevant” (and therefore not “boring”) to student lives. 

For a while that meant endless assignments on Catcher in the  Rye, or A Separate Peace, both declared “relevant” because they dealt with high school students, never mind that the high schools involved are high-end prep schools and not  Andrew Jackson Tech.  Later the fad was for The  Outsiders, which had the virtue of not only being about high school but having been written by a high school student. 

Most of all, not being “boring” meant not assigning anything written before, say, 1950, so that in high school after high school students managed to make their way through and into college classrooms without ever having even heard mention of Oedipus Tyrranus or King Lear.  They were, and are, given no sense of the flow of the literature, of the way it developed over time, of what came before or after what else.   It was all a big jumble, and time after time, the only thing they were required to “know” about it was if they found it “interesting” or if they thought it was “good.” 

If that’s all that courses in literature are about, why in heaven’s name shouldn’t they buy term papers?  What point is there in wasting their time with this sort of thing?

History really isn’t in much better shape, even if they can articulate at least one reason for knowing something about it–that if you don’t know something about it, you might repeat old mistakes.    I think that must be something they’ve heard from their high school English teachers, since so many of them can trot it out when I ask why anybody would want them to know something about history and government.

But the explanation doesn’t really work for them, because as far as they’re concerend, they’re going to be spending their time in marketing or equine management.  They’re not going to be the ones charged with running the country and worrying about repeating old mistakes.  Let the pre-law maors worry about all that.  A lot of them want to go into politics, and if you want to go into politics then all that is important.  For the rest of us, it’s just a lot of useless crap they’ve got no reason to clutter up their heads with.

The defense of the liberal arts has to be total.  It really does.  My students do not represent the failure of literature courses in particular or history courses in particular or math courses in particular or science courses in particular.  They represent the wholesale rejection of the u tility of any kind of knowledge at all beyond that that is immediately necessary for their personal concerns.  It is a posture towards learning and understand that infects everything they do. 

And I think that it affects the rest of us, in ways we don’t even think about.

Written by janeh

November 7th, 2008 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tolerable Malfeasance

with 4 comments

At least, that’s how I think you spell it.  I tried to look it up this morning, and either I’m a genius, or spell check hates me.

At any rate, Barack Obama has been elected president, and I spent yesterday walking into walls from lack of sleep, because I still had to get up at three thirty in the morning if I was going to get any work done.  Which  I did, sort of.  After I did, I spent a lot of time going from one place to another looking for a copy of the New York Times.  I wanted one with The Headline on it, but so did everybody else, and everyplace I looked the copies were all gone.

I was feeling very unhappy about this, and determined to try at least two more places, when  I picked up my younger son at school and started to drive him homw.  That’s when it hit me.

One of the places I teach orders dozens of copies of the Times every single day and leaves them out and available in bins for anybody who wants to take them, for free.  On the two days a week I go up to this place, I don’t bother buying a paper–well, okay, usually I read the thing on line these days, but I don’t do that either on these days–I just pick one up on the way  into my classes.  And I never worry that there aren’t going to be enough left, because nobody ever seems to touch them.  My students come to class completely clueless about any current event-what’s affirmative action? one of them wanted to know the other day–and yet they could probably get half my references just by glancing over the front page of a newspaper they can have for free any time they wanted to pick it up.

So I took Greg and we went out to this place, and sure enough, there was a stack of brand-new, untouched copies of the Times still sitting in their bin inside the front door of the main classroom building.  It was a big stack, too.  It probably came up to my waste.  There had to be fifty of the things.  I took three:  one to read; one each for my sons to have to keep.   My father once went out and got me a special copy of the Times whose headline reported the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I still have it.

All of this is leading up–or back–to the discussion about history a bit before, and that article I posted the link to a while back.   You remember the article.  It was the one about the term paper mill and the “dumb clients.”  I’ve been sending my kids to read it, and their responses to it have been interesting.

Almost without exception, my students think there is nothing ethically wrong with buying a term paper in a subject outside their major that they’re taking because of distribution requirements.  Why do they think that?  Because they think distribution requirements are nothing but a way for the university to make money off student tuition fees.  It’s not just that they don’t care if they learn the things they are supposed to be learning in English or history.   It’s that they think the university itself doesn’t care if they learn those things.   All that matters here, they’re sure, is that the university gets to rake in a little extra cash.

I asked them if they could think of any other reason why the university might want a marketing major to take English literature and a little science and math.   The only thing anybody could come up with was the suggestion that the college wanted to make sure students were “well rounded.”

I asked her what she meant by “well rounded.”  She thought it had something to do with knowing a little about everything, but she wasn’t sure.  She was sure that the whole exercise was pointless, which was why she couldn’t see anything wrong with buying a term paper for a course for a distribution requirement.

I don’t want to force anybody to take courses in the liberal arts–hard science, social science, humanities–because I don’t think that I have to.  Back in the time when professors of literature, history and philosophy knew why their subjects were important–and knew their subjects–there was no shortage of majors in the humanities.  In fact, right up until the early  1980s, English was the single most popular major on any university campus except the few (MIT, Caltech, RPI) that were primarily oriented to the hard sciences. 

What’s more, there’s apparently a healthy market for courses in literature, art history, philosophy, and the rest in the for-profit sector.  Companies like The Learning Company and The Great Courses sell DVD and audiotape lecture series by the boxful.  Somebody out there wants a systematic approach to understanding the development of the novel or the evolution of ethical thought in Western Civilization.

And the solution to the lack of people willing to major in literature, philosophy, history and classics is academic departments filled with people who once again know why their subject is important and why anybody would be better off knowing the basics of it.

At the moment, of course, we don’t know that.  The problem with what most students are asked to study in university humanities courses these days is that it isn’t the humanities.  Instead, it’s some weird hybrid exercise in self-agrandizement, and like most such exercises it results in a lot of idiots preening themselves about the loveliness of their plastic beads while leaving all the good gold jewelry untouched.

Okay, that was somsthing of a disaster of a sentence, but it is only five in the morning.

Somebody, I forget who–I think it was T.S. Eliot, but I’m not sure–said that most of the real trouble in the world was caused by people trying to be important, and that’s such a wonderful description of what has happened to university humanities departments that it ought to be carved into the stone over every college’s mock-Gothic gateway.

A student arriving at even our best college English departments will not get Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Pope–or, at least, he won’t get them in a way that might help him to understand them.  Instead, he’ll get one of two things, and possibly both:  a relentless and somewhat hysterical drive to ferret out depredations of gender, race and class in anything ever written; and a complicated set of “technical” terms meant to “unpack” the “meanings” of the “text” in such a way that nobody has the faintest idea what anybody has said, ever.

Once a year, they give a prize on the Internet for the worst writing by an academic, and that prize goes often to an academic named Judith Butler.  If you want to know why, you might go here:


It’s easy to piss and moan about writing like this, and to speculate that the writer hasn’t got the faintest idea what she’s saying, but the real problem here is more fundamental:  this is a woman who knows little or nothing about literature.  Reading Judith Butler on literature is like listening to a tone deaf person sing.  It’s not just that it’s bad, it’s that it misses the point so completely that it isn’t even music.

It’s not true that humanities departments are filled with nothing but people like this.   It’s an academic journal, run by and for people in humanities departments, that holds the bad writing context to begin with.  What is true is that too many of our “best” humanities departments are top heavy with people like this, so that any student wandeing in to find out what all the fuss is about  Plato or Herman Melville wanders out again with the distinct impression that the entire enterprise is bullshit.

And, what’s worse, such a student has no problem picking up the subtext here:  that the humanities aren’t really important in any way, that they’re useless, that getting a PhD in literature is an exercise in silly self-indulgence and reading Chaucer is on a par with playing videogames or watching sitcoms.  In fact, in a desperate attempt to get more students into the classroom, many English departments now offer courses in sitcoms.  Popular culture is still culture, after all, and who are you to say that sitcoms aren’t just as good a use of a student’s time as reading The Iliad?

There are a million conservative critiques of this sort of thing, of course, and even a few liberal ones, but they largely miss the broader picture.   What has happened to the college humanities departments is that they have absorbed the perennial problem of the high school humanities courses and, not knowing how to handle it, have panicked.

John Dewey believed that there were “rational” subjects (like science, an autoshop) and “emotional” subjects, like English and classics and art.   He thought teaching English and classics and art was important, mind you, but only because it would help the new rational citizen enjoy the leisure time the newly rational and scientific wold would provide him with.

I know, I know.  It’s hardly credible that I’m producing one more diatribe condemning Dewey and all his works, but the result of this particular bit of Deweyan educational philosophy is that our high schools now teach students that the only thing that matters about literature, art or–yes, even this–philosophy is whether they “like” it and whether it “interests” them.   is Paradise Lost good art or bad art?  The question is nonsensical.  The only thing that matters is whether it is good art or bad art for you.  Is abortion the murder of an innocent child or a case of self defense against an person draining your resources against your will?  Let’s sit down and figure out what your values are!

If  you don’t think these things are connected–the way we study literature and the way we make moral decisions–you haven’t been paying attention to the world you live in.  I started this blog by saying that literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.  It’s bigger than that, though.  Literature is the moral imagination of a culture.  It’s how we picture what it is we believe, and the content and atmosphere of that picture means more than a million Sunday sermons and sensitivity training sessions in deciding what kind of people we will be.

Right now, we seem to be a small people, a little people, ignorant, barbarous and cruel.

To quote one of my favorite movies, really out of context.

But I’ll get to that tomorrow. 

Right now, I have to go in to school and find out how many of my students who heard Obama’s victory speech got, say, the reference to the Gettysburg address.

What to make book on how many of them even knew it was a reference at all?

Written by janeh

November 6th, 2008 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Hot Damn

with 2 comments

I lived to see it.

Written by janeh

November 5th, 2008 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Random Notes

with 5 comments

I’m a little scatty today.  I got my younger son up at five in the morning so we could be ready to leave the house at six, so that I could vote before it got crazy later in the day.  We arrived at the polls at six thirty–hey, with Greg, that was some kind of victory–and although there were lots of “privacy booths” to fill out ballots, there seemed to be only one optical scan machine.  So we didn’t wait in line long, but we did wait in line, and that’s the first time that’s every happened to me in the state of Connecticut.

I have no idea what kind of shape I’m going to be in tomorrow. I usually insist on staying up until somebody is declared the winner, but the 2000 election almost killed me, and then it went on for weeks.  I don’t think there will be that kind of problem tonight, but who knows.

Which is in the way of saying that I don’t know how much of a post there’s going to be to this blog tomorrow.

On the political front today, however, I’d like to make a single point.

Democrats sounded like complete idiots–and asses–when they called George W. Bush a “fascist.”

Republicans sound like complete idiots–and asses–when they call Barack Obama a “Communist,” a “Marxist” and, yes, even a “socialist.”

Words have meanings.  People who participate in the political process should look them up.

One more thing:  the Republicans seem to be doing, this election, what the Democrats did for election after election starting with Gingrich and the Contract with America, if not with Reagan.

That is, they’ve started looking for any reason at all why a victory for the other side isn’t really real–it’s voter fraud! Really!  The whole thing is fixed!  Nobody really wants to vote for those guys!

My father used to say that if you failed at something, you’d better pray like crazy that it was because you screwed up.  If you screwed up, you could always fix the problem and try again.  If you failed because somebody else or something outside your control tripped you, you were doomed to failure no matter what you did.

The Bush administration has been, how shall we put it?  Less than successful on many fronts.  And then there’s the banking meltdown, which happens to be an instant replay of the Savings and Loan mess–I mean, didn’t we do the thing where we deregulated the banks but went on insuring their deposits back in the Eighties?  And didn’t it result in a cascade of bank failures?

You see my point here.

Anyway, assuming the Republicans don’t want to spend the next twenty years the way the Democrats spent the last twenty, they’ve got to get their acts together and figure out what they did wrong that they can fix.

And then I think everybody–Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, left and right–should sit down and think about what they’re doing to the world’s greatest experiment in democracy when they respond to any election they lose by screaming “voting fraud!” 

There is, of course, some voter fraud in every election in every democracy.  But the incidence of it here is minimal, and one of the lessons of living in a Republic is the responsibility to accept failure when it comes and learn to live as a loyal opposition.


Back to the other stuff.

Cheryl and Robert have both put their fingers on something important, and what would have been the subject of this post if this hadn’t been election day:  the biggest obstacle to doing something sane about university education in the US today is the universities themselves, who have gotten fat and happy on a system that virtually requires any eighteen year old who doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life flipping burgers to spend huge wads of money getting a “degree.”  The money is an important clue to what is going on here, and there’s a lot more of it than most people realize.

That said, to backtrack yet again, a bit:

I agree with Robert that it would be a good thing for even plumbers and taxi drivers to know something about history and literature.  In fact, that has been my point from the beginning.  But the level of study required to do that for most people  not interested in academics, and not likely to want to end up in a position of serious responsibility on a national level, should be pursued in high school.

I find it interesting that most of the books Robert objects to having assigned in what I presume were college English courses were never assigned in any college English course I have ever taken or taught–To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance, was assigned to both of my sons in eighth grade. 

And it’s definitely the case that any reform of liberal arts education has to start in the high schools, because right now we’re stuck with a system that sends all but the very best students from the very best prep schools and gifted programs to “college” with no systematic understanding of literature or history, and none of what we use to call civics, either.

On the post-high school level, however, I don’t see why nursing students should be asked to explicate the significance of original sin in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller.  I do understand that registered nurses need more training than they got in my  mother-in-law’s day, because they have more responsibilities, but that means more training, not random courses in literature and philosophy that do not relate to anything else they’re doing and do not provide a coherent introduction to the fields in questions.

John pointes out that in Australia the BA and BS degrees take only three years and have no distribution requirements.  But the English system was always like that, because it does assume that most students who arrive at university will have been through a secondary school that provided a solid overview of the liberal arts (all three, hard sciences as well as humanities and social sciences).

I’m not sure such a system would workin the US.  There are too many variations in high school education across the country.  Even if every single American high school was as good a representative of its kind as it could possibly be, we’d still be faced with the different kinds.

Elementary and secondary education in the US has always been a local concern, and I tend to think of that as the good news.  I’m uncomfortable even with state school boards, never mind federal interventions in the curriculum,  What some people have called the “fragmentation” of American education has in large party saved it from cyclical systemic breakdowns.

We could, of course, go back to the days of “tracking,” where some students are placed in a “college track” while others are placed in a “vocational track,” but what I remember about that system isn’t exactly positive.  To the extent that it mirrored the European practice of identifying the “acadmically gifted” early and closing off advancement to everybody else, I think it hurt us rather than helped us.

There’s a lot of virtue in a system that allows openings for people who did not arrive at ninth grade thoroughly organized and ferociously mature, who screwed around for a while, who made mistakes, who just didn’t care.  Virtually everybody who becomes a major innovator in the culture was one of these people, and structuring the system in a way that will let them get back into the game when they’re older and wiser and finally know what they want makes their talents available to us when they would have been lost otherwise.

And, in a way, the mess that we’ve made of university study in the humanities in the US threatens just this advantage, because it increasingly means a divide between “real” colleges and universities (all of them expensive and very, very hard to get into) and everything else, where nobody is even trying to provide a university education.

I feel like I’m blithering again.  I just got a call from Matt, who managed to vote successfully, in Pennsylvania, one of those first-time voters everybody is talking about.

So maybe I ought to just let this go and start obsessing on the election news.

Written by janeh

November 4th, 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What I Want

with 5 comments

So, Robert asked how I’m supposed to convince people to study the things I  want them to study.  I thought about that, and a few things occurred to me.

First, I don’t want to force anybody (past the high school level) to study anything.  I’ve been the teacher in the room full of students forced to study literature and angrily resentful of it.  I don’t think the experience did them, or me, any good. 

On the college level, for me, the best solution would be to go back to the system of university degrees in classic liberal arts disciplines (the humanities AND the social sciences AND the hard sciences), and to make everything else (business, nursing, teaching) certificate programs instead.

Most “college” students these days are not getting “college” degrees.  They’re getting vocational training to which the lattes BA or BS are attached.

If this change in designation had come with a reworking of the traditional curricula of these programs to make them actually degree programs, I wouldn’t care.  But what has happened in extending the “degree” designation to myriad vocational rograms is that the “degree” part has been either completely ignored, or so truncated as to be worse than useless.

Look at it this way:  exactly what do you think is accomplished by forcing some girl who wants to be a registered nurse to take a semester of “literature and composition”?  How about a semester of philosophy? 

If she’s the one misfit in a class full of people who know what they’re doing there, you might actually get through to her.  If she’s one of twenty-six students who all think the only reason they’re being required to take this course is so that the university can make money, you not only don’t get through to her, you confirm her conviction that there’s nothing to the study of literature or philosophy.  It’s all just a lot of bullshit and nobody can tell her what she ought to like.

Forcing this young woman to get a “degree” is a vestige of another time, a time when the value of education (as opposed to training) was almost universally  valued in the culture at large.  I don’t mean that there were no Snopeses in the Thirties, or even the Fifties, but that for a long time even the “mass media” paid lip service to higher (and non-monetary) standards of excellence in every area of study. 

And they had a point, too.  The liberal arts are those things we study because we want knowledge for its own sake, but I think education does more than that for the people able and willing to take it in.  It changes our conceptions of the world and of ourselves.  It forces us to acknowledge both the possibility of human greatness and the danger of human depravity.  It calls us to work towards the one and guard against the other, in ourselves if not in the rest of the world.  Lionel Trilling gave the idea in the title to a famous essay, “The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent.”

In a world where the status of “high culture” (both artistic and scientific) was largely unquestioned, even if largely not understood, you could require our nursing student to learn something about  Shakespeare and she would not balk.   She’d have the idea that there was something “stupid” and “ignorant” about not knowing, so that the time she spent in a classroom doing uncongenial work would be like the foul-tasting medicine she had to take to cure her last case of rickets.  No matter how unpleasant the process might be, it was for her own good.

In a climate like this one, however, where high culture (in the artistic sense) is labeled as nothing but snobbishness and elitism, and high culture in the scientific sense is often feared as arrogant and anti-religion, it’s hard to see the point of putting her through this kind of thing.  She doesn’t need it to be a nurse, after all, and for generations nurses, even registered nurses, didn’t have bachelor’s degrees. 

Most of them still don’t have bachelor’s degrees, of course.  They’ve got something called a bachelor’s degree, but without the extensive work in the liberal arts an actual degree would have cost them.  Instead, they’ve been forced to spend a semester here and there being bored by professors who are even more bored themselves.  Their “degree” therefore costs them an extra $20,000 and an extra year than they would have had to spend under the old system, and I don’t see that it’s done them any good at all.

Never mind what I haven’t touched on here, which is intellectual ability.  Real college-level work in real liberal arts is difficult to do.  The usual estimates are that less than 15% of all graduating high school seniors actually meet the standard of sheer raw intelligence to get it done, and far fewer than that have what used to be called a “college track” high school education–that is, the preparation necessary to do real work in the real liberal arts.

Move this to another field and see how silly it sounds:  decide that every single person who wants to be anything at all that pays better than minimum wage has to pass a course in, say, track and field.  And we’re going to hold them to the highest standards!  Our track and field course is going to be just as good and just as rigorous as the one held for the US Olympic team.  After all, anybody can learn to run the four minute mile if we just teach them with the right methods!

What we do, of course, in the real world, is very subtly destroy standards completely, and then pretend we haven’t done it.  Since this is actually very hard to do in math and science–for the early level stuff, there are obvious right and wrong answers, so we can’t really fudge them without getting caught doing what we’re doing–we push the least prepared and least talented students into “college” on the vocational tracks and then make them pay up for “courses” that are largely exercises in wasting time.

Mind you, I’m not talking here about radical professors or pushing politics in the classroom.  I’m talking about courses that don’t teach anything at all.  Most of the profressors I know who teach at the bottom of the academic system do not bother even trying to teach literature.  They rely on the old high school standby–read the work, then tell me whether you like it or not, or think it’s interesting.

Only some of these teachers even bother to correct any but the most egregious misreadings.   What would be the point, really?  Tell students that the point of Othello is not anti-racism, and they’ll hunker down and refuse to budge.  Who are YOU to say what Othello is about?  It’s just your opinon!

So the first thing I want is to get these people out of college classrooms.  They don’t belong there and they don’t want to be there.   There’s nothing wrong with wanting to study nursing, or business, or elementary education.  We need nurses and businessmen and elementary school teachers.  For that matter, we need automechanics and hotel industry workers, two jobs for which it is possible to get a “degree” in some of the “colleges” around where I live.

But none of these jobs requires a grouding in the liberal arts, and most of the students who want to train for them aren’t interested in getting such a grounding.  Let’s return vocational training to vocational schools and leave the colleges to students who actually want a college education.

The second thing I want is a way out of a culture that insists that the only standard that matters is money.

But that’s for tomorrow.

Written by janeh

November 3rd, 2008 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Robert asked, back there somewhere, why, if we’re only worried about cultural importance, we should have to put poor John through the pain and suffering of actually reading Paradise Lost.  Wouldn’t a synopsis or an outline do as well?

The answer is no, but it’s no for two reasons.   The first reason is that Paradise Lost is one of the great achievements of Western Civilization.  Witnessing John Milton recreating the narrative of how sin (and death) came into the world is important for the same reason as witnessing the moon landing is, or even watching Michael Jordan play basketball.  For all the blithering silliness we get from people trying to convince us that man is “just another animal” (I really will get back to that at some point), the fact is that he isn’t.   He creates things no other animal creates.  He achieves things no other animal achieves.   He is capable of excellence in a sense no other animals is.

It’s not a small thing to be reminded of all this, because there are consequences, nearly all of them bad, that come from forgetting it.

The second reason a synopsis won’t do is that art doesn’t just deliver ideas, it delivers them in a particular way that a synopsis cannot replicate.   To beat my particular horse again:  literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.  But it’s the living in it that’s important.

Ideas and abstractions matter.  They have consequences.  But we don’t experience them in the same way we experience the  Sistine Ceiling or The Divine Comedy.

A writer I like a great deal, named Walker Percy, once summed up Kierkegaard’s explanation for why the humanities are important as that the humanities concern themselves with “what it means to be a man living in the world who must die.”

It’s the “what it means” that matters in that sentence, because meaning is osomething that science not only doesn’t “do,” but that it forthrightly proclaims it can’t do.  And I don’t agree that the fact that meaning is not a scentific question should mean that it is thereofore a question we should just stop asking, or relegate to the realm of the “subjective,”  as if the best we can say about it is that we all have different opinions, and we should let it go at that.

Narrative is a way of understanding the world and what we mean in it, what it means to be human in it.  Narrative is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, ways of approaching such understanding, and it remains the most powerful.  Scripture does not deiver a set of dogmas, either in the Old or the New Testaments.  It delivers stories.  It creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.

I feel like I’m tripping over my tongue here, but the best I  can say it is that there is a difference between hearing about something and experiencing it.  Art–and not just literature–tries to make you experience it.  If a book (or a painting or a piece of music) is important for the impact it has had on the culture, that impact is an impact of experience, not of abstractions.

If Margaret Mitchell had written a little philosophical tract about how slavery wasn’t really as bad as those Northerners made it out to be, nobody would have paid the least attention to her, and we’d still think of the Old South as Simon Legree and daring slave escapes across the ice floes.

That fact that narrative drive is difficult to understand–is not really understood, as of yet–is no reason to ignore it, or to declare that it isn’t really real.  We don’t understand why some people are charismatic and others are not, either, but we don’t deny the existence of charisma or stop talking about it.

And charismatic books have a lot in common with charismatic people, especially the thing where such charisma, no matter how strong, is in no way indicative of quality.   Some very bad people are charismatic.  So are some very vacuous ones.  Like books with terrific narrative drive, we still find it impossible to ignore them.

The problem, of course, is that cultural impact is a variable thing, and it is affected by the very decisions we make when we call something culturally important.   In a world where most people do not read much of anything, what we do and do not decide to teach in classrooms becomes enormously important.  It becomes, in fact, “literature” as far as most people are concerned, representative of the entire endeavor across the entire length and breadth of human experience.  

That is, assuming they remember anything about it at all.  It’s remarkable how much students can be forced to read and yet still manage to retain absolutely nothing.

I’ve been very nervous, throughtout this blog, about the idea that “education” is about what happens in schools.  I’m not saying I don’t think schools are necessary, only that they are what they are, and are therefore limited.  The things we read and retain are almost never the things that are “taught” to us, because being “taught” is in itself a structured way of experiencing literature, and that way is different from what happens to us when we just read.   John Milton did not write with one eye on the future academics who would expound his “ideas” and “allusions” to posterity.

And yet.

The problem with cultural impact is just this:  that cultures change, and the changes may make it difficult for us to experience some work, no matter how important to the development of this civilization, whose immediate contexts have passed into history.

I’ve got a lot of trouble reading Tolkein, and of reading a lot of the New Testament, as well, because I just don’t think in monarchical terms.  Giving me Jesus Christ or Aragorn as my “king” simply does not compute.  I don’t have a king.  I don’t want a king.  I’ve never had a king.  And I’ve never had a relationship to anybody  like the one the New Testament assumes I should have with Christ.   I am, literally, incapable of thinking of myself as somebody else’s “subject.”  I don’t mean that I object to the idea intellectually.  I do, but it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t.  I just can’t make the imagery feel real to me.  At best, the idea of looking to somebody (even God Himself) as “my king” just feels silly to me.  At worst, it feels fake.

Many of my students have a different problem–they find it impossible to understand why Dorothea doesn’t just divorce Mr.  Causabon if she’s so disappointed in him, or just walk out.  They do sort of vaguely understand why she doesn’t become a Great Intellectual on her own–they’ve heard of “discrimination,” when people were bad and wouldn’t let women have “careers”–but the idea that divorce would be nearly impossible to get and that a divorced woman would lose all her friends and become unemployable, maybe even be shunned by her own family, is simply beyond them.

Marriage, as far as they’re concerned, is about “love.”   If two people don’t love each other any more, then there’s no excuse at all for telling them they have to stay together.   No one has ever even suggested to them that marriage is anything other thana private act meant to make two people “happy.”  The idea that marriage might be a public act in which the happiness or unhappiness of the two parties is largely irrelevant isn’t just something they haven’t heard of.   It’s literally inconceivable.

It’s because of problems like this that there is any argument at all about “relevance.”  Why force students to read Middlemarch, when the problems it deals with are in the past, when it has no connection to the problems of men and women today, or in the future?

The answer, of course, is that the proembs of men and woman today do have some connection–the dilemma of the woman who, instead of making her own way in the world, invests her ambition in a husband’s career didn’t disappear with the founding of NOW–and that even the apparently irrelevant bits are more relevant than they look.  Are we really better off defining marriage as a private matter concerned with “happiness?”  What happens if we try to think of marriage as it used to be thought of, if we envision our world without the assumption that any two people who come together for a while are just as likely to split up as stay together, whether they get married or not?

What happens if we try to think of the world as not about us?

If my students share one unshakeable conviction, it is that the world is all about them.  Literature is good or bad depending on whether they “like” it, or find it “interesting.” 

And we, of course, having spent the past several decades declaring that excellence in the humanities in general–and the arts in particular–is all subjective, just a matter of “taste,” have no means by which we can explain to them why they should read Vanity Fair instead of watching Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.

Written by janeh

November 2nd, 2008 at 7:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Driving to the Sea

with 2 comments

I’ve thought a lot about the comments that were posted here yesterday, and  I want to address a couple of things directly, and then I want to argue against one of the most kneejerk assumptions in the evaluation (and enjoyment) or literature.

First,  I don’t think Gone With The Wind was written in order to repair the reputation of the South or to make the Sunbelt possible–I just think it did.  Margaret Mitchell sent her highly sentimental fantasy of the Old South out into the world, and the world loved it.  For better or for worse, for most Americans, was the South (and slavery) were “like” was what Margaret Mitchell presented them to be.   And that South is a hell of a lot easier to live with than the reality would have been, or than the accurate perception of that reality would have been.  Sororities at Ole Miss and debutante balls in Charleston can celebrate their “heritage” by throwing parties with “anteBellum” themes because, when they envison “anteBellum” life, what they see is the Tarleton boys and Tara, not pregnant women picking cotton all day in hundred degree heat and the slave market in New Orleans.

Since I’m actually intending to get to American literature, I’ll leave Huck for later, but I do want to point out to Robert that there is, indeed, at least one battlefield scene in GWTW.  It’s not the scene of a battle, but it does take place on a battlefield, where the battle has largely been lost and moved on, and the wounded are lying on the ground as the doctor moves among them, without hope, without anesthetics, without effective help for the dying. 

In the middle of all this, Scarlett rushes up to demand that the doctor drop everything and deliver Melanie’s baby, and she gets shoved off in just the way she ought to be.

That’s not only the most famous scenes in the book, it’s probably one of the two most famous in the movie.  

But let’s get to that other point–that Margaret Mitchell’s virtue as a writer was in her ability to “tell a good story,” and that especially since she was not interested in hammering home a cause or otherwise propagandizing her readers in any way.

I want you to consider, for a moment, a novel that quite definitely means to propagandize its readers, that in fact spends a good third of its really hefty bulk doing that directly, with people giving speeches like treatises that last ten to fifteen to twenty pages long, that violates every rule of good novel writing (talk about characters constructed from the outside in), and that still manages to sell, 100,000 copies paperback a year fifty years after it was published and twenty after its writer died.

What can we say, really, about Ayn Rand and her last novel, Atlas Shrugged?

I mean, what they hell.

Let’s admit it.

That woman was to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.

Narrative drive is what people actually mean when they think they’re talking about “a good story.”  There are thousands of “good stories” that sell few copies and interest few people.  There are dozens of stories that are not so good, that are simplistic or incoherent or muddled or meandering or unbelievable on a million levels, that gather readers like an  Elizabethan virgin gathering rosebuds in May.

Neither Shakespeare nor Stephen King ever came up with an original plot in their lives.  They both rely on a long tradition of “stories” that they feel (felt) free to update and adapt.  We don’t read those other stories.  We read them.

But they’re at least good writers–very good ones–even on the technical level we talked about before.  Ayn Rand isn’t so much a very bad writer on that technical level–although she’s that, too–as an affront to the entire tradition of the novel.

Symbolism?  It’s everywhere, and so obvious and overdone it makes your teeth hurt.   What’s worse, a lot of it has dated very quickly.  At one point, for instance, she goes into an elaborate extended metaphor about how the lit end of a cigarette in a man’s hand is like the fire alive in a thinking brain, and puts the entire silly thing into the mouth of a character who spouts it whole as if he’s just stopped being a character and started giving a lecture at a Chattaqua. 

It would be hard enough to read a passage like that if the subject was culturally neutral.  In a world in which smoking cigarettes has come to be equated with nearly instant death, it’s enough to make you wince.

Then there are the characters, who are scarcely more rounded than the ideational figures in a Medieval morality play, and who are prone to stopping short in the middle of the action to deliver long disquistions about everything on the planet.

The heroes are heroes–so heroic they’re unable to kiss their wives without contemplating how their love for her represents and affirms the best within themselves.  

The villains are villains–scheming and hysterical, but likely to deliver disquisitions, too, like Lilian Riordan’s bit about how to use guilt to control the man you want to support you.   That one comes with a horse training metaphor so overused in the Anglophone cultures and to constitute something worse than a cliche.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that every hero and every villain looks just the way he’s supposed to.  Dagny Taggert is beautiful, clean-lined and “pure,” by which Rand doesn’t mean virginal, but morally innocent.  Lilian Riordan is slack-jawed and prone to wearing perky little ridiculous hats that scream “irony” and destroy any attempt any person who sees her may make to take her seriously.

In Ayn Rand’s fictional worlds, good people take themselves very seriously indeed, and the suggestion that maybe we shouldn’t do that is proof positive of the villainy of the person making the suggestion. 

This thing should be a train wreck.  On any objective, technical level, it is a train wreck.  It certainly violates Robert’s thing about not preaching or promoting a cause.

And yet.

I read that novel for the first time when I was eleven years old.  Then I read it twenty more times–twenty, and the damned thing is as big as a college dictionary–by the time I was fifteen. 

And I’m not the only one.  For a period of about eight to ten years in the early Sixties through the Seventies, Atlas Shrugged was the one novel most colleges could assume their incoming freshman would have read, so much so that some of them made countering its ideas and assumptions part of freshman orientation. 

What’s more, the book created a cultural climate that hasn’t quit yet, a set of libertarian assumptions shared at least in part by left and right both, and a generation of bright men and women who went out into the world and acted on what they’d imbibed along with cigarette metaphors and the vision of sex as a kind of stylized rape.

It gave us  Alan Greenspan. 

Story doesn’t matter so much, but narrative drive does.  The problem with the contemporary novels that I know Robert doesn’t like, and that I often don’t like much either,  is not that they lack plot or that they don’t tell a story.   That’s sometimes true, but not always.  The problem with them–the works of people like Ann Beattie, for instance, or even Jonathan  Franzen–is not that they lack plot or story, but that they lack narrative drive.

And if I could explain narrative drive, believe me, I would.  I could make a lot of money selling it to publishers, who know damned well that whether the book is going to sell depends more on this than anything else.  

The best I can explain it is this:  there is something about some people’s writing that  pushes the reader forward, pushes and pushes, relentlessly, so that he goes along because he can no longer resist. 

This effect can be nonexistent, or mild, or moderate–moderate is where most reasonably popular books fall.

Every once in a while, in a few extraordinary cases, it can be strong as hell, and if it is, nothing else matters.  Literally nothing.  Bad writing, cardboard characters, preachy interludes–the things that would kill most books won’t even slow the readers down.

And what’s more, the effect will last, for generations, at least.   Hit a nerve culturally (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The  DaVinci Code) and you’ll sell a lot of books and then watch your novel sink into obscurity, a sociological curiosity rather than a work of literature.

Produce a work with terrific narrative drive and you’ll have given yourself an annuity that just won’t quit. 

It’s the Holy Grail of any writing career, and I don’t know of a single case where a writer has been able to acquire it deliberately.

Written by janeh

November 1st, 2008 at 5:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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