“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Literature and Rock n Roll

I ended my Intro Rhet Comp class early on Thursday. I’d scheduled fifteen minutes of the class for discussing the chapter of the textbook assigned for the day, and fifteen minutes after that to a group project based on the reading. After calling on two students randomly and getting a bewildered look from both, I asked for a show of hands to see how many of the eighteen present had read the chapter. One hand went up. Suddenly, the class’s performance on the last paper began to make more sense. Bewildered now myself as to how so many students could be so cavalier about their grades, how they could be content with doing the bare minimum and constantly testing to see if they could get by with even less, I floated the idea of daily quizzes by a few of my fellow TA’s who share an office with me during our pointless office hours.

“I don’t see my job as making sure students do the reading,” Darlene said. She’s a returning adult, one of the women who frequently derail classes by straining to apply their personal and family experiences to the questions raised by professors. “I look at the textbook as just a guide they can use if they need it.” It’s her first semester teaching.

A visceral antipathy toward reading is pervasive on our campus. I read it in my students’ faces every time I discuss an upcoming assigned chapter, this look of “Why are you doing this to us?” But I also encounter it in advanced Lit courses. Last week, after having been arranged into groups of five by the professor, I was excited to see what my classmates had to say about Gatsby, an old favorite of mine. Before getting started, though, we did what had become an obligatory round of disclosing how far into the reading each of us had made it. I was the only one in the group who’d actually finished it.

Undeterred, I kept an eye on my classmates’ Blackboard postings over the following days. The few comments that appeared that were actually about the novel were resoundingly, astonishingly, negative. “The characters are superficial and the plot is confusing.” But mostly people wrote about their difficulties making sense of the “tricky” narration—as if Fitzgerald had let them down instead of the other way around. And these are people who profess to enjoy reading.

Seeing those responses was shocking, uncanny, and oddly encouraging. This past summer I finished a draft of a novel and, after asking on Facebook who all was interested in reading it, sent out fifteen copies. My goal was to get as many responses as I could from educated people who weren’t necessarily English or Literature majors. I got three detailed responses. One was from a fellow English grad student. The other two I would see echoed almost word for word two months later in my classmates’ postings on Gatsby. They complained about not getting the characters, but they’d also missed key elements of the plot which would’ve brought the characters into better focus. I could’ve responded to the poor reception—the twelve copies that went unanswered were somehow worse—by blaming the readers. Instead, I became pretty demoralized. Seeing how many people had the same response to Fitzgerald didn’t exactly reassure me of my bright future as a novelist, but it did hang a question mark over what had for those two months been a period.

Still, I have to wonder if literature has become one of those geeky pursuits, like video games, Dungeons and Dragons, or magic, that so many people--males in particular--obsess over, only to experience more and more isolation because of it. At the opposite end of the spectrum lie passions for sports and music, the crowd-pleasing passions, which are really just as pointless except for their wider followings and the social sanction of popularity.

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