15 April 2009

Literary Elitists are Boneheads

NOTE: You can view an updated version of this essay here.

This post is for catharsis. Catharsis that I desperately need after a semester with a certain professor so dreadful that I have to get one last essay (albeit unsent) to defend myself. Seeing as said professor grades on whether or not she agrees with our opinions. . .

We read nine books this semester. Or rather, we were assigned to read nine books this semester. I read six (which, by the way, is saying something. A-type personalities like me usually fight through all the books but. . . I just couldn't bring myself to do it this time.) One of the books really touched me. I thought it was well written and interesting, the story of the main character reminded me of parts of my own past. So I presented this professor with the idea that I would like to write the response paper for that particular book as a creative non-fiction essay instead. She approved the idea. I turned in my essay a few weeks later with a one page explanation about how much I had enjoyed the book and how I couldn't bring myself to dissect it as I did other books. I included the following quote:

The elitists are such boneheads they think literature exists to be admired. Wrong. Literature exists to create memories so true and important that we allow them to become part of ourselves, shaping our future actions because we remember that once someone we admired did this, and someone we hated and feared did that.

Literature matters only to the degree that it shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.

It becomes importantly bad only to the degree that it entices the audience to revel in actions and memories that debase the culture that embraces it.

Next to that, questions of how one literary work influences other literary works, or how the manner of writing measures up to the tastes of some elite group are so trivial that you marvel that someone who went to college could ever think they mattered more.
Orson Scott Card, July 29, 2007, "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything"

This is a quote that has stuck with me pretty strongly over the last few years. It's a survival quote, really, as an English major. As someone who really does enjoy analyzing literature, it is important for me to be able to step back and just enjoy reading for the sake of it. After this quote I wrote "This is why I wrote my essay in this particular way. To attempt in some small way to explain why literature is important - not in the way that it can change the world and influence social movements, but in the power it has to change the way that individuals think and behave."

Now, I knew this was going to be somewhat risky. Said professor is, after all, a literary elitist. She is the elite of the elitists. I've never, ever, in my life, ever, met a professor so fully entrenched in literary elitism. So yes. It was a risk. But the book we were reading (Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones) is all about how the reading of Great Expectations changes a young girl and how Mr. Pip as a character means so much to her. I figured that, in spite of the jab towards people who suffer from a rampant case of English Major's Disease, she was a fair enough person that she would see that the quote was actually supporting the lesson taught by the book she assigned in the first place.

Apparently not.

Today was our final. I got my portfolio back with the top page of this essay (not the rest of the nine pages of it, which, by the way, I strongly suspect she didn't read) and an A- on it. The only comment is to the side of this quote and it reads in part: "Not true. This is a very silly remark. See if you can figure out why?"

So, literary elitist professor in the BYU English department, here is my response:

No. No, I don't think it's a silly remark. In fact, I think the fact that you can't see how important it is that books touch people on an individual level shows how blind you can be as a professor. You are a smart woman. I respect that. But how else are literary movements or social movements supposed to begin if not by individuals who read a book that is so moving and important to them that it changes the way they behave? Card's idea is not "silly" - it is incredibly poignant. I do not want to be the kind of teacher next year and years following that expects my students to read because finding metaphors and symbols is fun. I want my students to read for the pleasure of it. I want them to read because when you cannot travel physically it is a relief to travel mentally. People refer to "escapist" literature as a bad thing, but I don't know if that is always true. There is a place in this world for literary analysis. Heaven knows I enjoy it. But I don't read to analyze sentence structure or symbols. I read because I can't help myself. I read because reading is more a part of me than my own blood. I read because the characters I love have changed me, because they are my friends. If you are narrow minded enough to think otherwise, then it's a mercy you aren't teaching Junior High. They would eat you alive.

Catharsis over. As for you, Mr. Card, if you happen to stumble upon this at any point by some freak chance, this A- was well worth the satisfaction of knowing that I finally managed to touch a nerve in this woman. And you're completely right. Literary elitists are boneheads. And that particular bonehead didn't comment on my writing at all and gave your words an A-.

14 April 2009

Susan Boyle, when I jump the pond, I'll vote for you.

Here's one for everyone who thinks the world is against them.  Utterly incredible.  You Tube won't let me embed it, but trust me.  You want to click here.

12 April 2009

We read to know we're not alone.

I had an interesting discussion last night about the role of fiction that I don't think I was altogether prepared for.  I don't even remember how the topic came up, but I do remember saying something along the lines of how I hope there are good fiction books in heaven otherwise I don't think I want to go there.  And I mean good fiction.  Fiction that isn't necessarily about people in the church kind of fiction.  I don't want my only option to be Charly by Jack Weyland.  

The person I was having this conversation with didn't seem altogether convinced.  Maybe as a non-English major he just hadn't considered it, which is fine.  From what I can tell in the brief amount of time I spent with him (it was on a double date - he wasn't my date) he seemed pretty well put together and nice enough to laugh when I inadvertently managed to be more sarcastic than I intended to be (which was more often than it probably should have been.  Need to work on that.)  Really, I think this is something that I think about quite a bit simply because so much of my life revolves around reading and fiction.  

So I'd like to elaborate on that now.  I still think there will be fiction in heaven.  And I don't think we're going to be limited to certain kinds of fiction either.  I have this idea that God has sent us to this earth to build and to create and to hone the talents He has given us, and that these talents will be used in the next life as well.  I don't think that seems unreasonable.  Why shouldn't books continue?  I think that books, and fiction books/stories/etc. especially, provide another way for people to learn to become more like the Savior.  Let me explain: 

First of all, the Savior taught in parables.  He taught in parables because the stories could be understood on multiple levels.  In that way, I think, the best fiction of our day can serve the same purpose.  One of my favorite sections of the Doctrine & Covenants is about the apocrypha, where the Lord says that if you read it with the right spirit you will find truth - that not all of it is right, but that you can be uplifted.  There is a connection here in that stories help people to see things from different perspectives that they had not considered before. 

I was also reminded of 1st Nephi 19 when we are instructed to "liken the scriptures unto (ourselves)."  We are told to take these stories and apply them to our own lives.  "This is like when _______ had to do ______, I should try _______ to solve my own problem."  In that way, we are taking stories that are part of our culture and pulling from them lessons we need to know.  This is how other stories work - only in this case the stories are "physically true" as opposed to the stories that were "created truth."  

When it comes down to it, I think it is a matter of the Lord recognizing that people learn in different ways.  All things testify of Christ, but that doesn't mean we all recognize those ways.  We think differently.  We feel the spirit differently.  Those who are adept with science and math (unlike me) can look at the universe and the way it all fits together and know that God is in it.  I don't see those connections.  But I do see those connections in humanity in the books I read.  I learn by reading.  By putting myself into the fictional feet of other people.  Ender Wiggen.  Harry Potter.  Anne Shirley.  Jane Eyre.  Briony Tallis.  Lucy Pevensie.  Tom Sawyer.  Etc.  The lessons I have learned about humanity and perseverance from these good (and occasionally not so good) "people" could not have been created in other ways.  There is a place for storytelling in the universe.  An important place.  And while I admit to a definite bias as an English Teacher, and understand that there are many other ways to learn and to draw closer to the Lord, I will argue until I am blue in the face that fiction is important and that I don't believe it is only a mortal tool of learning.  Heaven wouldn't be much of a heaven at all if there wasn't entertainment.  Theater and music.  Discovery.  Moments of peace and reflection.  The sheer pleasure of sitting on a quiet beach with a book so gripping you simply can't put it down.