quaking aspen, previously

much ado about literature

Posted on: August 5, 2006

Ever read The Goose Girl, or Princess Academy? (If not, what are you waiting for? Go, reserve it at your library or order it on Amazon. Go on, I’ll wait.) Their author, Shannon Hale, has a blog called Squeetus. In the last week or so, there’s been some great posts and ensuing discussion on an article the Wall Street Journal had out recently.

Okay, how about first you read the first entry, then come on back. Alright. This is what I had to say about it all, in comments:

Now, I must say, I adore the Wind in the Willows, and did so as a child too (I think because my dad read it aloud to us — I will admit not all chapters of it were equally entertaining to my childhood self. But the bulk…). And generally speaking I prided myself as a kid on not reading “those Sweet Valley books.” BUT…

As Shannon said, I don’t think it would hurt to include classics on the list too. In fact, the fact that its a summer reading list, no tests, supposed to be fun, etc, might actually make it more likely that some kids would read them, because, naturally, ANYTHING is more fun to read when you don’t have to take a test on it. And getting the name out there in a positive context (along with more “fun” books, the type not likely to be assigned reading in school) would be a good thing, too. Have some faith in kids’ abilities and a wide spread of interests, and include a wide range.

It IS clear that the author of this article has an attitude of snootiness. I haven’t read any of the ones listed, but it’s awfully unfair to judge just about any book by a one sentence summary. Yes, I know, as a writer I should be able to do a short summary of my book and all, mmhm, good rule of thumb, but c’mon. Any book (and sometimes it seems particularly fantasy/scifi, so dear to my heart) suffers when you have to “tell what happens” in a sentence. “A girl and her older brother grow up in 1930s Alabama, with a recluse down the street.” “Two hobbits and their friends attempt to destroy the One Ring and save the world.” “Four sisters growing up in 1860s New England learn a lot about life, and don’t marry who you’d expect.”

Sounds dumb, right? (What a terrifying thought, as a potential author: “Submit my beloved novel to synopsis? NOOOOOO!”) So I think I might actually try reading some of those listed books, since the librarians likely have, while the WSJ clearly has not.

Lots of other comments there, very interesting. Then the next entry is this, a brief comparison of experience (the author’s and her husband’s) with reading.

And the discussion continued.

One commenter, Lisette (couldn’t find a blog link), had insightful things to say (she wasn’t the only one, of course). She referred to this essay by Peter Dickinson (a great author). Also she said:

My personal opinion is that there are very few adult “classics” within the last century (and possibly a half) which are worth reading. All the best stuff–Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dostoevsky–came before that. Later works referred to as classics (which are those that put a person off reading) are mostly the self-promotion of an “elite” circle of writers for whom the most important criteria seems to be obfuscation and obscurity. If “the masses” can’t read your work, you’ve created a masterpiece.

Children’s classics (and YES, Narnia belongs in this category) are an entirely different matter. The people who wrote them actually cared enough about children to give them STORY. So I trust this category of classics. And still read them. And recommend them to all my younger siblings. (Though I also have many favorites which are too recent to be called “classic.”)

Another poster mentioned:

I wonder if she’s [the WSJ author] taking too much liberty with the word “classic” (especially in contrast to “fluff”).

Very good point. Here’s the novel I wrote in response:

People confuse the term “classic” with meaning either just “old” OR (worse) with meaning “books we’re forced to read and analyze in English class.” Orson Scott Card has a lot to say on that subject, the gist of which (IMO) is that university literature departments (and therefore trickling down more or less to high school) are not interested in experiencing or enjoying stories, but only in analyzing or deconstructing them. They only approve of books which have “layers” and “themes” and such that they can interpret with their own methods, and preferably in multiple ways (sometimes this means ignoring part or most of what’s actually there, but never mind that!).

In some ways this is practical: after all, it’s hard to imagine how long you could go on writing papers on, say, The Lord of the Rings, without running into repetition and so forth. [Though I’ve seen some very interesting ones in such books as Meditations on Middle Earth, for example.] This is for a very good reason: it was written as a story to be experienced, not something to be decoded.

Many of the “classics” were written before all this literary theory came into play, and they had to sell! Like Charles Dickens for example. Not that he appeals to every modern reader nowadays, but at least he had to present a STORY at the time, not just a bunch of overly artsy twaddle for a few elitists to ooh and ahh over and feel superior because THEY could understand it; not like all those lowly masses who got bored or confused or both (it’s so often both) when reading it. But a lot of those older books (Shakespeare in particular) have been taken over and put through the wringer of lit theory, because they could apply funky specialized theories to them, or simply because the authors were dead and couldn’t disagree.

The point of it all is that, the majority of the time, the theory angle is the only one that is taught, and it turns kids way off, because it asks them to only examine the story, not actually get caught up in it and enjoy it. (Or even, gasp! let it change you and the way you think about something. Very dangerous.) And that’s maybe the real problem. There can be interesting things when you’re studying something from this literary point of view (I was an English major myself) but if people don’t know or care what’s going on in the book, why would they want to expend the effort to study the book’s themes?

I know that it is possible to teach classics older literature in a way that is more interesting and accessible (maybe not to everyone all the time, but you know what they say about pleasing people). My best example is when I was in 4th or 5th grade: the upper grades of our school were going to be putting on Pirates of Penzance for the whole school, etc. My music teacher took a whole lesson period with us and went through the play: the story, some of the songs and jokes, etc. The result was that when we all saw the play, I LOVED IT. I found it funny, clever, I loved the acting and the music. There’s very little chance that I would’ve enjoyed it without some sort of preparation, what with my age and how unfamiliar the time, place, etc of the story of it was. But with that preparation, I had SO MUCH FUN. I think it’s possible for teachers to present books in class — both “classic” and not so — in a way that will ENGAGE their kids, prepare them to understand and enjoy a book, no matter when it was written.

Maybe the whole point is that: we learn better when we’re enjoying something. If we could focus more on experiencing and enjoying books than picking them apart, we’d learn more about a lot of things (including theme, etc, all that stuff they focus on now.)

So, there we are. Any discussion?

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