Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On "Literature"

I try not to complain on this blog. Not entirely true, yes I know, but most of those other posts have been about specific writing-related things (the lack of value some people place on editing, overused words and phrases, etc).

However, this is the first time I will actively bad-mouth something that's only loosely writing related. As you can probably figure out from the post title, I'm going to be talking about "Literature" (the capital L is important).

Why is the capital letter important? Because the novels I'm talking about are the ones taught in high schools and colleges across the country. Hemingway, Hawthorne, Steinbeck, Joyce, Updike, Melville, Salinger, and Faulkner -- these are the names of the favored sons of "Literature." Educators across the country proclaim these writers and others (Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, The Brontes, etc) as the standard of what makes "good" literature.

I think this is a load of codswallop.

Sure, the above-mentioned men and women had some good stories in them. Pride and Prejudice has spanned practically a cottage industry by itself, and stories like The Catcher in the Rye have thrilled generations of readers into hearing a story's message decades after its publication (I happen to like Catcher, personally).

However, there are some other authors in this canon of "Literature" that need to be taken out post-haste. Hemingway and Hawthorne are among them. Full disclosure: I've read only "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and The Scarlet Letter. That said, if those two stories are indicative of the style Hemingway and Hawthorne wrote in, then I have no desire to read any of their other work.

The problem with "Literature," as I see it, is that teachers pick things that might have spoken to them when they were younger, or be forced to choose things from a list. It's been established on other fine blogs (Lit Soup among them), that the works considered part of "Literature" are best discovered on a reader's own time.

What's this mean for the English teachers of the United States? Find some new books. If you must teach literary fiction, there are more contemporary authors that will appeal to students -- Michael Chabon and S.E. Hinton among them. And I ask you, English teachers, what in the world is wrong with teaching genre fiction? "Literature" should not be inaccessible (as that seems to be the sole criterion for what's taught at the high school and college level).

And that's my rant.

Note: I don't hate literary fiction as a form of the novel. I only hate that the works teachers wax lyrical don't get younger than the 1920s or 1930s. Choose some contemporary novels already.


CKHB said...

You may be heartened to hear that Hemingway is apparently NOT taught in high schools today, as indicated by a recent informal survey in which teenagers said they had no idea who he is.

Personally, I think Hemingway is a g--damn genius. I'd like it if he was taught in high school because I think his short stories are VERY accessible, but I also think kids will eventually find him on their own, so I'm not totally worked up about it if he doesn't make the cut.

(And we're going to have to have a separate discussion about why you don't like my favorite short story of all time.)

I went to a high school that taught genre, if you think that 1984 and Brave New World count as genre...

I think it's more important to teach a range of styles/demographics than to teach old versus new. And I think schools teach older works because they've been vetted, so they don't end up teaching something that had flash-in-the-pan appreciation, but instead something that has critical acclaim that lasted. Not every high school/HS English dept. has the ability to make good independent choices on this front.

Natalie said...

Ha, ha. You crack me up Matt. I have to be honest I LOVE some Literature (Dickens, Austen, Wharton and Tolstoy are favorites). And I will also confess that I read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and I liked it a lot.

But yeah, there was definitely some Literature that I hated (like everything by Chaucer, and Beowulf, and anything by Voltaire).

I am glad that I was exposed to all of it though. I agree that some S.E. Hinton and maybe some great genre fiction would be a nice break for high schoolers, but I think the other stuff is important too. Even the stuff I didn't like.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Yeah! Stoopid litterachure.
Showing me viewpoints from 100 years ago. Who cares what happened back then?
We def should just recycle all books over 10 years old because all those old writers are idiots and have nothing to say to modern, internet-savvy readers. How dare they use prologues and omniscient point of views! Criminals!
Burn them! Burn them all!
AHAHHAHHAHHAHHAHAHhhaha ha ah a uh no.

Susan R. Mills said...

I agree with you. My son did have to read The Outsiders for his 7th grade English class. I was thrilled. He loved it.

Joshua McCune said...

Joyce was the worst. Absolute worst.

I'll take 5 hours of Hemingway over 2 minutes of Joyce.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Being relatively new to the literary world, it was astonishing to me to find the throw-down culture wars in literature. Who knew that there could be such disagreement about what constituted "good" literature, and thus should command the attention of our youngest minds?

This, of course, is because the beast is incredibly subjective.

I am used to the world of science or engineering where there are arguments, but they mostly come down to "well, we haven't proved that in the laboratory yet, but WE WILL! And then we'll show you, Mr. Smarty Pants!" In fact, the closest science comes to the WWF wrestling that goes on in the literary world on the subject is in physics - where people are trying to provide impossibly crazy things about incredibly small particles or outrageously large phenomena. "The Universe's expansion is slowing!" "Is not!" "Is so!"

I read a little Hemmingway. I didn't make it through the whole thing, but I had to admire the man's style. And there's not much to recommend Stephanie Meyer's literary skills, except - you know - that practically everyone on the planet has read her story.

Although Matt, I think you're winning the fight for the recognition of genre fiction as a genuine literary form. Evidence: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Just ignore those moans of distress from the literary circles...

Davin Malasarn said...

When I was in school, we studied books like the Chronicles of Narnia, and Watership Down. I remember my summer reading lists having genre books in it, although, like you discuss here, it wasn't the majority of the list. But, I do think times are changing. When I was in college there was a class that focused solely on the movie The Matrix. For me, I happen to think the classics are still the best books out there, for the most part. I'm very hard pressed to find modern books that are better than Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Faulkner.

Adam Heine said...

I'm still trying to figure out exactly what bothers me about Literature, as taught in school. On the one hand a lot of those books are classics, and although I find them mind-numbingly dull (e.g. Heart of Darkness), for every classic there's someone -- or a whole bunch of people -- who love it.

I think what I don't like is (1) teacher's who say, "No, THIS is what the author meant, and there's no arguing about it" (stupid because every reader brings their own interpretations to every text; there is no One Right Interpretation) and (2) being forced to read books that were so far beyond my experience as to be inaccessible (e.g. 1984 would have made no sense to me in HS, but now I love it).

And yet, having dragged my niece through books that (I was sure) she could understand, I know that we need to be exposed to this kind of stuff else we'll never grow.

Gah. This is why I've never written a blog post about it. I can't figure out my opinion. I do agree that there needs to be more genre and (dare I say it?) popular fiction. At least every once in a while, if only so kids don't learn to hate reading.

dolorah said...

I think any book you hand a kid to read and then have to dissect and explain the writers intention is a crock full. I went to HS in ancient history, and the literature they taught for creative writing and english was older than that.

Yeah, I'd like to see an update to some more modern writers. Someone who really reflects the last couple generations; not the last century's best.