Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Popularity Contest

with 9 comments

I should start with a couple of things here, just for form’s sake.

First,  Mique, who likes Dickens and read him without having to have it assigned at school, is not female.  He’s an Australian male and, if I’m remembering this right, ex-career military. 

My point about Dickens has been that you can’t have it both ways–he’s either a popular writer or something snobby English teachers adopted as “good taste”  just to beat you over the head with it. 

Dickens was not just popular in his time, he was a genunine phenomenon the like of which had not been seen before him and that would not be seen after him until Stephen King’s career got going.

What’s more, he was popular for fifty years before anybody thought to assign one of his books in an English course, and he continues to be popular in a way that can’t be explained by CATs.  A bit of Dickens assigned here and there does not account for the fact that a good dozen of the man’s books are in print from major houses as well as minor ones.

The man is a popular writer, today as well as in his own time.  That doesn’t mean you have to like him–I don’t like most popular writers–but it does mean that the reason he’s on the RRL sometimes is not that he’s something nobody likes so that teachers can push him at you to make themselves feel superior.

The other thing I wanted to get into is the thing about what people who read this blog read, or don’t.

I’ll admit I never thought of the writing of this as being something I’d do to recommend books.  I do recommend them sometimes, but when I do I come right out and say that’s what I’m doing.

I will admit I’m the opposite of John–literary recommendations tend to mean I am going to like something, at least when applied to writers from past eras (contemporary ones are complicated).  But I’m the opposite of John in a lot of ways.  John pointed out on the comments once that he’d liked the television series House until it became more about the private lives of the main characters than the medical mystery.  I started to like House when it ditched reliance on the medical stuff to focus on the main characters. 

What we like is what we like.  I never expected anybody to read this and go running out to read Dickens, or James.  And that’s especially true of James, because he can be difficult to read even for somebody, like me, who honestly enjoys him.

I will say this:  I do tend to think that books that are wildly popular are not going to be any good.

That’s not snobbishness about popular taste, or some desire to hold myself up as better than and smarter than anybody else.

It is a nod in the direction of reality.

People with intelligence, education and good reading skills read books well below their ability to understand them, but people without any of the three do not in general read books above their ability to understand them. 

There is, therefore, automatically a wider audience for simplistic, uncomplicated fiction than there will ever be for something that requires that you be able to handle literary forms (think third person multiple viewpoint), know a few references (Pearl Harbor, say, or the Canterbury Tales), and make connections (Susan went to bed with Dan and now she’s throwing up.  That means she’s…)

The more the writer demands of the reader, the fewer readers he will necessarily have–but most really good books do demand something from the reader, often quite a bit.  Even Stephen King couldn’t write what he writes without that third person multiple viewpoint, and even half of hip-hop music runs on allusions.

So much of what comes in as advice about writing here sounds to me like:  stop writing anything you’d want to write, and hope that all writers write the kind of thing you’re never going to want to read.

I like difficulty, I like ambiguity, I like nuance–and I really hate having to plod through explanations when a simple reference would have been all  I needed to understand what was being said. 

And the thing about “don’t assign real literary classics in English class, assign things people are going to like to read,” sounds to me like “only assign things in English class that YOU’LL really hate reading, because YOUR pleasure in reading doesn’t count, it’s just odd and nobody else shares it.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who really like reading the literary canon tend to be people who also end up majoring in English and sometimes becoming English teachers.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who really like math tend to be people who end up majoring in math or math-heavy subjects and that most people who set out to be math teachers really like math.

It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s the obvious nature of things–you’re attracted to those fields that interest you.  If they don’t interest you, you do something else. 

It doesn’t have to be some kind of conspiracy to make people feel bad–the content of the literary canon is what it is, the content of mathematics is what it is, if you’ve got an aptitude and an attraction to it you do it, if not, not.

There’s a sentence for you.

But it’s Sunday, and I’ve got harpsichords and Henry  James.

Written by janeh

May 9th, 2010 at 8:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Popularity Contest'

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  1. Mique was, in fact, my point of misunderstanding. Sorry about that. (Is it pronounced “Mike?” I’d read it and heard “MEE-kay.”)

    And while I’m fairly sure I’ve made these point before:

    Reading is not math. We need the general run of citizens to be good through roughly algebra, geometry and probabilities, and retain enough beyond that to understand compound interest. Other than that, a survey which concluded no adult was working math problems not assigned by school or work wouldn’t get much of a response.

    A survey which says adults are reading in declining numbers is troublesome for a lot of us. Too many ideas come through books, and more books than we’re going to be assigned in school–or books written after we stopped taking courses. There is also a school of thought that reading places demands on the brain that watching the moving pictures just doesn’t. (I will concede that there are some very good and challenging television shows by any standard, and some very bad books. Let’s not get sidetracked.)

    So we want the student to learn a certain amount of mathematics–or history, or civics, or science–and this is sufficient. We want them to learn to read, to have read certain works, and to write with some clarity–but we also want them to continue to read when the RRL doesn’t command them any more. Freshman Calculus is an end. Freshman English is a start. This ought to affect how English is taught. If the students can pass a written exam on six assigned novels, but leave the course vowing never to read a seventh, is this a satisfactory outcome?

    Which brings me back to the horrors of English Grades 7-12 and English 101. It’s not that I didn’t like this or that author. It’s that I liked scarcely any of them, and I’m not that hard to please. And my response seems all too common. It’s under-represented in most places that discuss books, because too many of those who consistently disliked their assignments gave up on reading for pleasure. Which, of course, is the tragedy of it.

    There’s a reason for this. The assignments may all have been “classics” but a much more interesting assortment could have been found even within the fiction Canon. The problem was by the time you crossed out every title with romance, adventure, detection or violence and doubled down on “coming of age” and “relationship” books and Important Lessons as understood by middle-aged female civil servants the remaining titles were indoctrination–and really dull indoctrination at that. Shakespeare was of course an exception, but I think they’d have dropped him if they’d dared. Certainly no one else with a Shakespearean plot was admitted.

    And for at least the third time: I am not saying that works assigned in school should be chosen on the basis of popularity. I’m saying that within the range of great English literature there is a tremendous variety of form and content. If we could persuade our English departments to use more of that variety, more students would be aware of the possibilities. They might continue to at least monitor the “Great Conversation” when there was no longer an instructor around to berate them.

    Isn’t that one of the objectives?

    As for popularity and appeal, I’m an agnostic. Difficulty is not an end it itself unless you’re writing a classic mystery–or a crossword puzzle. Nor are best-selling authors necessarily the simplest and easiest. Tolkien is not an easy read if you do it right, and I’m pretty sure if you handed Edgar Rice Burroughs’ PRINCESS OF MARS to a major publisher today, they’d tell Burroughs to shorten his sentences and reduce his vocabulary. Jenny Crusie has done that-but I find I have to take careful notes and construct timelines to get the full juice out of her plots. The early Tom Clancy–HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and RED STORM RISING showed very considerable research–unsettling amounts of it in certain quarters. But none of this has gotten me through a “Harry Potter” yet.

    I think it’s fair to say that rising levels of difficulty–especially of sentence structure and vocabulary–can limit appeal. But it’s also fair to say that any book which sells well initially and stays in print for decades without academic support got basic story-telling right.

    I don’t know what to make of the Book of the Moment–half a million copies sold one year, and forever out of print within five. I never did. But they aren’t all bad, and I have continued to re-read and treasure some novels out of print 30 years and more.

    If only the Google Settlement had gone through!


    9 May 10 at 10:28 am

  2. Mique is pronounced Mike–and if you look at the header, you’ll see that that’s the way he spells it in real life.

    He was on an Internet discussion group for a while where there were three or four other Mikes, and adopted the spelling so that people wouldn’t keep imputing to him opinions that belonged to the others and that he didn’t share.

    As for the rest–Dickens fits your criteria. He was in print for fifty years before he was ever assigned in a course, and his books continue to be among the most popular of the classics, with new movies, musicals and adaptations made of Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist even as we speak.

    And I’ll agree–it’s too bad that they didn’t give you Oliver Twist instead of Great Expectations.

    But there is nothing in Dickens of “indoctrination,” and there is plot, character, strong stories and everything else you usually like.

    As for the coming of age novels–those weren’t chosen to indoctrinate you, and they weren’t chosen because they were what “middle aged female civil servants” actually liked.

    They were–and are–a desperate attempt to assign reading students will find “relevant,” with the assumption being that students will not be interested in stories about anybody very different from themselves.

    That teachers and English departments are wrong about what students will find ‘relevant” is obvious–prep schools endlessly assign Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace and Death Be Not Proud because they take place at prep schools, and everybody groans.

    But that doesn’t turn any of the coming of age novels into an attempt to “indoctrinate” anybody into anything.

    As for the point–no, I don’t think it is to get you to read later, or to take part in the Great Conversation on your own.

    I think it’s to impart a body of knowledge, or the rudiments of one, that exists whether you like the content or not, whether you’re interested in the content of not.

    It is not the job of the math department to make you “like” math, and it’s not the job of the English department to make you “like” English literature. In both cases, the goal is to show you what it is.

    And yes, math and English are exactly alike in this case, and we do indeed have similar surveys panicking about how very few people want to go on in math-related fields.

    I agree that difficulty is not an end in itself–but I do think that any novel that is truly great will be difficult of necessity, because it will engage a wider range of literary devises, references and structures.

    And Tolkein is not an easy writer to read–but then, most of the people who buy him these days don’t get a tenth of the references and don’t care.

    As a girl in one of my classes said, when she gets to that kind of thing, she just skips it. It’s not important.

    She just likes imagining herself as an elf.


    9 May 10 at 10:51 am

  3. Ah, Robert, I’m sorry you couldn’t have had my brother as an English teacher! Perhaps I’m biased ;), but I think he does a masterful job of exposing his students to the canon while also choosing contemporary books to illuminate similarities and differences, and allowing students to choose their own books (as long as they read them thoughtfully). He reads books the students recommend to him, too, and incorporates them. He doesn’t hold science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romances, and graphic novels in contempt–he revels in them, if they are well-written. His students come out knowing what English literature is, but also liking to read. It can be done; just sayin’.



    9 May 10 at 1:30 pm

  4. Jane said it first and better – but I also think that one purpose of school is to impart a certain skill at reading and a glancing knowledge at least of the main literary forms and a few examples of each. It’s nice if the student ends up liking reading, although I also really dislike formal education that focuses on attitudinal objectives – ie, The student will enjoy, appreciate, aupport etc various ideas and activities – but it isn’t essential. And I suspect that the coming of age books were put in as part of an attempt to inculcate love of reading, like ‘Black Arrow’ was in an earlier generation. If they don’t like medieval adventure stories, maybe they’ll like stories about people like themselves!! Personally, if I never read another book about an angsty teenager, it’s too soon, but I’m not a teenager myself. I wasn’t much past my teen years when I heard impassioned pleas to put more local stuff in the curriculum; stuff from the students’ lives and backgrounds. Even as a child, I was always much more interested in books (and other school lessons) about the new, different, far away and novel; not the familiar, but I was in the minority, I guess.

    I wonder how many people are turned off reading in adolescence. In my rather limited experience, people who read avidly as adults started as soon as they learned, sometimes before school and sometimes in the primary grades. People who read only for work and never for pleasure as adults also read only when forced to in Grade 1. Some might be – I was nearly turned off French by a high school teacher – but it seems to me that a lot of people develop their reading habits and attitudes towards reading earlier.


    9 May 10 at 3:53 pm

  5. No, Math and English aren’t just alike. Note the NEA survey on reading specifically excludes “job related” reading. In your normal terms, Math is techne. Reading skills and a short outline of various authors and arguments are the beginnings of education.

    As for text selection, I’m unconvinced, to put it mildly. Even our K-12 educators can eventually recognize a mistake, which is why all the “open classroom” schools now have walls. If books were actually being assigned in hopes they would appeal to the students and they obviously didn’t, they’d be off the RRL in 30 years, tops! But if you assume prep school books appeal to prep school teachers, their futility as assigned texts is irrelevant, and they’ll go on being assigned forever. It’s the same in the public schools.

    Being a “genuine phenomenon” and persisting without the RRL for 50 years isn’t enough, or we’d have been given Walter Scott and Conan Doyle.

    But Dickens fit right in with the other choices–urban, gritty, family and relationship oriented. If you don’t like the tone of “indoctrination” you might say that the books had to have a certain sensibility or tone. Or you might say that any view of the world unacceptable to an English Department concensus was excluded. But those are just more polite ways of making the same observation: nothing was going to be assigned which troubled the faculty, and the range of material which didn’t trouble them was fairly narrow.

    How does one reconcile “students are only interested in people just like themselves” with “Tolkien readers aren’t doing the hard stuff: they’re just imagining they’re Elves?”

    And who would want to be an Elf in the first place? The few, the proud, the Khazad!!


    9 May 10 at 5:32 pm

  6. Okay, a part of me is genuinely stunned.

    Dickens is “gritty?” DICKEN? Maybe I don’t know what “gritty” means.

    My comment about Dickens having sold well outside the RRL for fifty years was not an attempt to use that as a reason he’s on the Canon–that’s NOT the reason he’s in the Canon–

    My comment was in response to how you couldn’t call an author popular unless he did that. Dickens IS a popular author–and he is by the criteria you, yourself put up as a standard.

    And whether you believe it or not, all those angsty teenagers stories ARE what English Departments have decided people will like to read.

    Do I think that’s what they want to read?

    No, they’re God awful.

    I thought of it at the time–and it’s what my high school reading lists were full of–as a determination to dumb down literature courses to make them “interesting” for stupid people, and that’s what I think now.

    But it is still the case that that IS what English departments hope people will be interested in reading–see? It’s about teenagers just like you!

    What I want English departments to do is stop caring what students are going to “like” and start teaching the contents of the discipline.

    And there are specific contents. What you–or anybody else–“likes” is of absolutely no consequence to what the contents of the discipline are.

    But okay, come up with something (a few somethings) that:

    a) are legitimately part of the Canon, part of the history of Western Literature important to the construction and development of this civilization as a civilization AND/OR

    b) well written, in the sense of being an example of as close to pure style in English prose as possible AND/OR

    c) exemplifying the moral complexity and ambiguity of situations in everyday life, or in situations generally AND/OR

    d) is historically important for some other reason (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin)

    So first you pick books like that, and then the ones that make it that do not qualify under b and c are taught as being DEFICIENT for not qualitifying under b or c. Because they are.

    As for the elves–what can I say? My students all want to be elves.

    But that issue aside, it’s pretty much univeral around here, in public and private schools both, to assign The Hobbit in eighth grade.


    9 May 10 at 6:32 pm

  7. Robert, I’m wondering if you rebelled at anything else the way you do at the reading you were assigned as a kid?

    Honestly, my mom forced me from time immemorial to eat nasty canned asparagus and lima beans, boiled into slime. And made me sit at the table until it was gone. Sometime I felt like I’d be there til I was 50. This did not, actually, put me off food altogether, nor did it eternally make me hate asparagus. (though limas still make me shudder) I’d formed the habit of eating much earlier, and continued it. I even learned that properly cooked asparagus was one of the Best Vegetables, Ever.

    In my experience, likewise, kids who read for life do not learn to read for enjoyment in middle or high school. Or college for that matter. They read for enjoyment much earlier, and treat the unfortunate choices of their teachers as so much slimy asparagus, to be gotten through, gagging or not. They take the occasional gem of an assignment as secret treats, and then go on from there. It would never occur to me that I should stop reading, or stop reading for enjoyment, because a few unpleasant things were assigned. Really.

    And it wouldn’t have mattered to my non-reader fellow students if they’d been given Harry Potter or equivalent at the time. To them, the act of reading, of sitting still, concentrating, and engaging their own imaginations, was anathema. It wasn’t 9th grade English that made them that way. They’d rather be running around, playing, or getting into mischief any day.

    My mother gave me awful asparagus because, well, it was the 60s and she didn’t know any better. She thought it was good for me. My English teachers assigned crap (mostly) for the same reason, and I accepted it the exact *same exact* way I accepted learning the times tables, geometry, and algebra, because they were necessary building blocks of the civilization I was being trained to participate in.

    I agree with Jane…it’s not about teaching what children “enjoy.” Given the choice, children enjoy sloth, junkfood and mindlessness. It’s about teaching what they *need* and then worrying about ways to make it more effective. Not palatable, effective. Effective teaching is teaching that comes with passion.

    How much better to have someone passionately and genuinely engaged with their subject stand up there and tell you about it, than some bored civil servant who is following the state-certified curriculum which has had all the excitement sucked out of it? The teachers I remember, and from whom I benefited most, were those who really loved what they taught, and who went beyond the curriculum into passion. But they still gave us unpleasant things to do, because, well, it was good for us. A good foundation can lead to passion about a subject. Passion alone cannot lead to a good foundation.

    I was lucky enough to have math, science, and yes, English teachers who had that passion, several times in my school years. But none of them taught me to love reading. I did that for myself. It’s not the job of any school to teach a student to love any particular subject. It might be a mission to help students love *learning* but I haven’t a clue as to how to manage that on a mass scale. It probably isn’t possible.

    I’d like schools to return to teaching *competence* in a subject, and skip all the liking crap. Get those rare passionate people in there, perhaps by rewarding them better, and expose more students to them.

    And take all those state curriculum boards out and shoot them, along with 75% of all administrators, as they’re all dead weight, as far as I’m concerned.

    Rant over. Robert, you are rebelling against a straw man, as far as I can tell. There is no legitimate need for any reader, anywhere, to “enjoy” everything they are required to read, and either enjoying it or not will not change the lifelong reading habits of people already formed. No middle or high school can form those reading habits, nor discourage them if they have already formed.

    I’m guessing all those people who fell on Harry Potter and who declared they were now readers for life, have, seven years later, read nothing but the rest of the Harry Potter books. Just guessing. But nobody has done *that* survey, have they?


    9 May 10 at 9:33 pm

  8. I don’t know what the NEA has to say about anything, but claims that we should be teaching stuff in the affective domain, if I remember my jargon correctly, goes back at least to the 70s and probably considerably earlier, given that educational fads took (and take) a while to get here and also I never much paid attention to them until around then. So there’s undoubtedly lots of official stuff out there claiming that you really need to make the students feel the right things – eg enjoyment when reading – which I considered highly suspect. I did rather like one professor’s take on the issue; that you shouldn’t try a teaching method that might be effective, but which leaves the student with a permanant dislike for the subject. I think this was in the context of making students memorize stuff in foreign language learning, but I’ve always thought memorization a very useful skill. I do realize the type of foreign language instruction I had from grade 5-11 did far too much of it, to the exclusion of speech, but it wasn’t the memorization that almost turned me off the language entirely, it was the teacher. Still, I’ve become much more philosophical about it over the years; you’ve got to expect some teachers you don’t get on with and anyway I found better language teachers later, although I never have been that good at languages.

    I guess you encountered some teachers who gave you a permanent dislike of Dickens, sure enough, but they don’t seem to have stopped you from reading.

    Dickens was noted for extreme sentimentality as well as gritty takes on social issues. And ghost stories as well.


    9 May 10 at 10:21 pm

  9. A bit (well, more than a bit) off the topic of the post, but I thought you might find this interesting if you weren’t already aware of the article:



    10 May 10 at 7:27 am

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