Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Obvious and the Mediocre

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So, the other day, while I was talking about expressing ourselves, I mentioned that the textbook I am required to use for my Literature and Composition course is, as all such textbooks are, composed largely of the obvious and the second rate.

Since then, I’ve gotten a flurry of e-mails from a number of people expressing astonishment–surely such an anthology would include a lot that I liked? 

I’ll give up, for the moment, the fact that, three years into this blog, most of you have no idea what it is I “like” in fiction, and apparently even less what I respect. 

Let’s just go with what’s wrong with Lit and Comp textbooks.

Back when I was in college, the standard textbook for Freshman English at my place was The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  We were also required to buy two novels in paperback.  I don’t remember what those were for my year, because although I got an A in Freshman English, I never actually took the course. 

My professor seemed to think I was (possibly deliberately) screwing with his grading curve, and after I’d handed in the second paper, he threw me out.

I do remember The Norton Anthology of American Literature, though, fairly well.  It was an enormous trade paperback, nearly thick enough to be used as an endtable, and its mission in life seemed to be to include as much American literature as could possibly be stuck between two covers.

It had Jonathan Edwards and Phyllis Wheatley, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickenson, Poe, you name it, right up to the twenties and thirties and people like Hemingway and Faulkner.

I’m pretty sure it also had Dorothy Parker.

It had so much in it, even a teacher who was required to use it against her will could ususally find something she wanted to work with.  Since it predated our attempts at “inclusion,” it lacked the ritual examples of Latino fiction, gay fiction, feminist fiction,whatever.

There was,  however, quite a lot of African American stuff, starting, as I said, with Phyllis Wheatley.

I’ll admit, I really liked that anthology.  I kept it for years after I graduated from college.  In the world before the Internet, it was one of my best sources of what was out there to find written by Americans.

The anthologies we get these days are nothing like that was.

For one thing, they’re almost always a lot shorter.

In spite of the fact that everybody is obsessed with inclusion these days, the obsession does not seem to carry over into actually including stuff. 

Instead, what you get is a highly foreshortened list of “classics” and “quality” fiction, and a whole slew of work by the memebers of various groups, whether it makes sense or not. 

What’s more, what’s included is bizarrely monotonal.  Apparently, whether you’re a Latino writer, and Asian writer, a gay writer, a feminist writer, a transgender writer, a Native American writer, or an African American writer, your narrative voice is thoughtful, considered and a little bit sad.

The mania for inclusion would actually be worthwhile if the compilers of these anthologies would actually include truly diverse voices, instead of handing us a long list of people who went to all the right colleges and picked up all the right attitudes and produced exactly the same kind of fiction everybody else at the Iowa Writers Workship did.

You can almost see how good this could be if you look at some of the African-American work that was out there before the Great Inclusion began–Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison. 

You get some of this, but not nearly enough.  Instead, the compilers seem to seek out anything they can find that has that same tone, and then congratulate themselves endless in the introduction on having “included diverse voices.”

It’s the Rainbow Sprinkles vision of diversity–we all look different, but we all think and talk and sound exactly the same.

I want to hasten to add, here, that not everything done in this tone is bad, or boring.  Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is a brilliant piece of work, and so is just about anything by Amy Tan.

After a while, though, you just begin to wish you could find anything else.  A different tone.  A different approach to life.  Anything.

And that brings us to the “old” stuff.

The first problem is that there’s no rhyme or reason for why what is included and what is excluded. The Norton Anthology of American Literature at least started at the beginning and brought the works forward chronologically.  It had some kind of order. You got some sense of where everything was going and why it was going there.

With what we have now, the “old” stuff is largely scattershot, and if there’s a rationale to picking what they’ve picked, it’s beyond me.

If I get very, very lucky, I sometimes get “Bartleby the Scrivener,” by Melville–but it’s long, and it’s difficult, so I don’t usually.

Instead, I can usually guarantee a small list of things–Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” something by Hawthorne (usually “The Birthmark”), Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” some John Donne poetry (usually “Death Be Not Proud”), sometimes Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” something by James Joyce from Dubliners (usually “Araby”), something by Hemingway (usually “Hills Like White Elephants”).  Whatever.

The problem is not that all this stuff is bad.  Some of it is and some of it isn’t.  The problem is that it’s all out of context.  You can’t understand Donne without knowing a lot about Christian theology and, yes, the history of the Reformation in England.  You can’t understand Yeats’ “The Second Coming” without knowing a lot more than that.

The plays, in the meantime, usually include something Oedipus Rex, A Doll’s House and either Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  Then there will be a little cluster of modern plays like Fences along with some truly bewildering surrealist stuff most likely chosen for being one-acts.

If I had a choice, what I would do is construct each Lit and Comp course as an actual English course–“Victorian Literature,” for instance, or “The Literature of the American Flowering.”

I’d make them buy not a textbook but a little bunch of paperbacks–at least one novel, some short story and poetry collections, a couple of plays.

Then I’d go to work teaching them both the coherent literary history of the period and how to read closely and analytically at the same time.

And in the end, I think, I’d be able to get across not just the material itself, but the point of studying literature at all.   

As it is, the best I ever get is a student or two who finds an author she “likes,” and many  more students who feel (with some reason) that they’ve been forced through an exercise in futility. 

 Those students think the only reason they have to study literature is because the college wants an excuse to charge them more money, and they may not be entirely wrong.

Written by janeh

July 6th, 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Obvious and the Mediocre'

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  1. That’s clear. It’s a vocabulary problem. My idea of “obvious” WAS Norton. I’d have called what you wound up with “politically correct.”

    But I agree with your proposed solution: much better to work one period intensely, to see the issues, beliefs and authors playing off one another rather than just random bits of literature. (This assumes you can find everything you want in the period, of course. Not a lot of modern epic verse, nor, I think, 17th Century unreliable narrators. Some compromise is probably necessary.)

    A word in favor of “like” though: if people take pleasure in reading, they’ll read more. If they read more, they’ll read better and take more interest in how things are written. It’s hard to make a lot of progress on various points of view and narrative styles if the student feels he’s being dragged through something he doesn’t even want to read, let alone understand in depth.

    This does suggest something be done about the “thoughtful, considered and a little bit sad” business, though. And I bet the “ranbow sprinkles diversity” is also, from my point of view, the dullest sort of mainstream. A Latino from a good prep school and an Ivy League university, writing about tenure and prejudice, is diverse–just like all the other preppies writing about the same thing. A Texan with a high school education writing about barbarism and civilization or a Danish farm kid from a land grant writing on the problem of pain just wouldn’t be the sort of diversity they’re looking for.


    6 Jul 12 at 7:22 pm

  2. I am never sure I’ve really gotten my mind around exactly what kind of literature someone else likes, but I think there are good and bad anthologies. I have no recent experience with the Introduction to Literature ones, and haven’t read the Norton one. These days, I tend to anthologies of short stories by author(s) I like.

    It seems quite reasonable to me that an anthology might contain nothing I like, particularly because I dislike edited or shortened bits, and in the foggy mists of my memory I have an idea that sometimes the educational type of anthology would have bits of, say, a Victorian novel which was supposed to replace the whole thing. Cheating the reader, that is. Even (or especially) if it’s ‘Silas Marner’, which I liked even if no one else did.

    By the way, my difficulty with identifying books other people like isn’t limited to books. I almost mever by clothes for other people because even if I carefully memorize things like ‘she likes brown and frills’ or ‘he hates polo shirts’ I nevertheless get it wrong in some way.


    7 Jul 12 at 11:22 am

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