Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On "Literature" Part Two

A discussion with Carrie Heim Binas after yesterday's post brought me to the realization that I should probably add some clarification to my statements about taking certain authors out of the literary canon.

Every name that I listed yesterday -- Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner, and all the others -- are deserving of respect because they wrote stories that have endured for decades. A Farewell to Arms is still in print, so is As I Lay Dying, and The Scarlet Letter. That last is the most impressive, seeing as it's been kicking around bookstores for 160 years. I hold Dickens in a similar high regard for the same reason.

My problem, as I realized upon talking with Carrie, is more to do with how people are introduced to these stories (yes, Adam Heine already said this in the comments yesterday). In college, I was forced to dissect Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Because of this, I developed a loathing for the story and I extended that to all of Hemingway's works. My problem with Hawthorne stems from a similar root (I read it during 9th-grade English class -- I wasn't close to ready to understand the themes behind it at age 15).

In high school, I was fortunate enough to take advanced English and be introduced to some of the great Greek playwrights. We read the play "Antigone" at one point, which sticks in my mind because I wrote a paper arguing for the title character as the tragic heroine. I got a C because, in my English teacher's words, I was utterly wrong because Greek tragic heroes were always men. Therefore, Antigone couldn't be the tragic hero because she was a girl.

Now, this isn't bashing English teachers in general (I wanted to be one for awhile after all, and teachers get a bad-enough rap as it is. Full disclosure: my mother's a teacher), but I did want to bring up one of the reasons I think a lot of people hate "the classics." This being that they're forced to read and dissect them based on the teacher's interpretation of the text. Which annoyed me to no end because I almost never agreed with the teacher's view on any of the stories we read. But since teachers control grades, you have to work within their interpretation of the text in order to get anywhere (except for the "cool" teacher that dares you to disagree with him or her and rewards people who argue it well).

A classic that I read in class and enjoyed was The Red Badge of Courage when I was in 8th grade. Was it because I had a good teacher? Well, he was OK. But the real reason, I think, is because on the first day of class, that teacher pointed to the wall (yes wall) of books on the window side of the room and told us "You have to read at least five books by the end of the year. I don't care which ones you choose; just choose five." I think I read a minimum of three times that number by year end. That's how to get people to love reading. Turn 'em loose and don't tell 'em what to think. (Which is also why I love Moby Dick.)


Rick Daley said...

I think you make valid points.

Elisabeth Black said...

The things I want to say about your teacher's Antigone comment are not polite.

If you're saying you dislike Hemingway and Dickens because they were forcefed to you, I am so sorry. I don't like Julius Caesar, which is the ONLY Shakespeare play I don't like, because we read it in HS English.

I think most books, poems, etc. have to be read through the lense of enjoyment before you start trying to understand them. "Dissecting" a work of art is such an obnoxious concept.

That said, it's exciting to know someone else who, as an adult, is interested in reading classics. For years I've been working through literature of all ages and places, and it's been immeasurably helpful to me not just as an artist, but as a person.

Matthew Delman said...

Elizabeth --

I actually like Dickens's work for the most part. Some of his writing can get overblown, but that's because he's well ... Dickens.

But yeah, I hated pretty much all of the books I was made to read in high school and college. With a few notable exceptions made possible by teachers that let us actually read without pontificating.

Susan R. Mills said...

I agree. Turn them loose. Let them read what they want to read, and let them decide what they want to think about it.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I left an awesome comment yesterday, but it was apparently eaten by the blogosphere. This post is much better. My slightly ruffled feathers are nicely smoothed. :-)

L. T. Host said...

I was going to comment something like this on the other post, but you said it so well here! I think that having to dissect them is what ruined them for me, too.

Though I will still steadfastly always hate with a passion The Grapes of Wrath.

Natalie said...

Here I agree 100%. I think way too much time is spent trying to discuss hidden meanings and "why the author did it this way" in schools. And that is just boring... usually.

I had an absolutely fantastic English teacher when we read THE GREAT GATSBY, and we really delved into the symbolism. It was an amazing experience and I still love THE GREAT GATSBY because this teacher made us see it in a whole different way.

But most teachers aren't good enough to do that. I think usually it's best to just let the kids read the book and see what they thought of it in the end.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

We need more cool teachers. It would solve a LOT of problems.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I think I brought this up over on the Lit Lab a little while ago. I was never turned off because of teachers, but I did have some bad experiences. I had some amazing ones, too.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I dissect my own stories and eventually learn to loathe them.

That may be true of any writing.

Gary Corby said...

Three factors here:

1. Some teachers are brilliant and inspiring. A few are terrible.

2. Not every book is to everyone's taste, no matter how brilliant it might be. Being forcefed a book you don't like has the inevitable effect. In particular, Janet Austen is the greatest writer of English prose ever, but she must never be taught to boys.

3. I don't know about where you live, but where I am, choosing "modern" texts is an irresistable invitation for teachers to inflict their political and social ideologies on the students. "Classic" texts tend to be ideology neutral, if only because it's all so long ago.