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-.


Liz Busby said...

Do I know this professor? Even if I don't, I know some like her. :D

Jeremy Nicoll said...

Hey, I like looking for symbols and metaphors! Seriously though, I can see both sides of this. You can't realistically attack how someone is and expect that person to be hunky dory with it. There are very few who will take a step back from their emotions to examine at what is being said. Whilst I very much agree with you that there is more to literature than just analyzing it (and that elitists that force such behavior on others are in fact boneheads), the very first sentence in your quote colored the rest of the point quite strongly. Even the most analytical of us are highly swayed by our emotions. If you really want to bring someone to your point, attacking their way of thinking / living is generally not an effective way of persuading them.

Joni said...

Liz: You might. We'll talk. Lol.

Jeremy: I like looking for symbols and metaphors too! I'm actually in the works of planning out a paper on the symbolism of water in the book Atonement. So cool. I love looking for that kind of thing. But really, the purpose of that cover page wasn't to try and persuade my professor to believe anything, I was just explaining why I had responded to the book in the way that I did. If I was trying to convince her that analyzing books is stupid (even though I don't agree with that completely), then I certainly would have been more tactful. Thank you for visiting! I appreciate your feedback.

Mouse said...

Apparently Mr. Card did see this, which is how I found it.

I can see Jeremy's point about the way the quote was worded, but I think the professor's response was a bit off. "Very silly remark"?! I may be an English teacher because I love the analysis and decoding game, but I would find my vocation on par with teaching someone how to play Monopoly if it weren't for the deep and abiding significance of literature in the lives of individuals.

I may need to bookmark this for the next time I need catharsis for dealing with Professional Professors!

Joni said...

Mouse -

OSC is not exactly well known for his soft comments on things. It's what makes him such an entertaining writer to read - he calls it like he sees it. If you like this quote you should read the whole article it came from. It's a review of the last Harry Potter book, and the whole thing is wonderful.

K said...

Oh, wow - those Greensborough people are savvy - they do the best they can to guarantee you'll return to them by giving a truncated function to the link sites. HA. But I beat them. I wondered how people were showing up at me through you. But now I see that they are seeing you through him - how interesting the internet is. And what fun! You are having fun, right?

Joni said...

Yes :). It's been fun to play writer again. I've been in teacher preparation land all summer and it's fun to wear a different hat. I'm hoping I can wear it more often.

snickety said...

It's a very human tendency for malleable motivation to coagulate into an inviolate recipe for dealing with the world. What is the process that turns a person into a pharisee? "You cross the ocean to make a convert and make him twice a son of hell as you" -- not a precise quote, I don't have a bible handy. Anyway, there's a book in it, I know.

Colin Low said...

"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."

None of these sentences are mutually exclusive. It's true that experienced readers often have gained analytical skills to the point where they can appreciate works that offer pleasure entirely on the level of symbol- and structure-finding (i.e. the kind of works that O.S. Card dislikes, because they're not written for non-experienced readers). But any piece of writing that offers pleasure, that allows us to travel mentally: it can only do this because of its metaphors, symbols, sentence structure, narrative structure, character development--all of the things that form the meat of literary analysis, which allows us to explain how the form of a piece of writing can produce such profound effects in us readers. It's not magical; it's deep-rooted in the art and science of knowing what words to place where.

Joni said...

Colin - I agree with you. Symbols and metaphors and word choice are all very important. But they are only important if they mean something to us. I think it's a question of ends and means. The problem that many professors have, including this one, is that symbolism becomes important just because it's symbolism. The ends and means were the same, and symbolism became important just because it exists. The analysis was the important thing. My opinion is that a book can be full of as much symbolism as you would like, but if the symbol doesn't mean anything to a reader, then what good is the symbol? If it means something only for the sake of analysis, then it's no good to you as an individual. I would argue that symbols and metaphors and character development are crucial, but they matter only to the extent that the reader gives importance to them.

Colin Low said...

Joni - Glad you agree! I was just trying to point out the danger your original post was in of creating a false dichotomy between "symbolism" on one side and "meaning" on another. (Although my issue is more with O.S. Card, who sometimes seems to be saying that symbolism/structure/diction is the stuff writers need to get out of the way to present their characters.) As a Literature teacher myself, I always want to remind students that symbolism/structure/diction is not just something "fun" or "enjoyable" (which implies that they might be disposable entertainment), but that they are directly responsible for all the meaning that we get out of a text, its plot and its characters.

Joni said...

Colin -

Keep in mind that this post was written more than two years ago under extreme frustration, which rarely leads to my best phrased writing or clearest arguments. I think the revised version of this post is much better.

Either way, I appreciate your feedback. Thanks for stopping by.

John Brown said...

Meaning is not what draws most readers to fiction. It's a tool. But readers don't go to stories to be intellectualized. Readers go to fiction to have an experience. To feel suspense and anxiety and triumph and horror and wonder and wishfulfillment and devestation and poignancy and mirth and a dozen other things that all center around sympathy for and interest in other people and situations. Symbolism and decoding and "close readings" miss the point entirely.

Mark Holt said...

There's a reason symbols (and flowery language, and other clever things writers do to draw attention to what great writers they are) are worked into stories and not the other way around. Stories (i.e. characters doing stuff we want to read more about) are the cake, and symbols are the frosting. Some people scrape the frosting off the top, some can't imagine their cake without it. But who wants a cake made of frosting?

That said, I just realized my post above was actually a single metaphor (which is really just a sort of symbol) and contains no story whatsoever. So I wrote this paragraph, which turns the whole post into a story about me realizing what an absurd thing it is to worry so much about what is "right" to enjoy when you are reading.

So I have an idea about this, and you other readers can tell me if it makes sense. There is no "right." Some people really are smarter than others, and really do enjoy working harder intellectually for the journeys on which their literature takes them. On the other hand, some enjoy reading simple stories, or reading complex stories on a simpler level. In my opinion, neither is "right." There is, however, a "wrong:" pretending you like something when you don't--you only like the fact that you understand what others can't or don't care to. If you are doing this (and no one can prove what your motivations are, but I suspect a great many English teachers, English majors, and, let's face it, English people (not really, but I needed a third item in the list) are indeed reading things they only "love" because this allows them to feel superior) then you are part of a problem that you cannot comprehend, and those whom you regard as either stupid or somehow beneath you have grasped completely and effortlessly.

PS If you can diagram that last sentence, you get props even if you are intellectually superior and/or English.

Joni said...

Mark -

You bring up a very good point. Maybe I misunderstood this professor. Maybe she really just likes the "frosting". I think it's a little *sad* if she just likes the frosting, but I suppose it's no sin. (It just has the tendency to turn you into an unreachable academic who spends more time writing about literature than actually writing it personally or reading it.)

There may not be a "right", but we do run into problems when the more extreme ideas start being presented as the only educated way to read, I think. (Have you read Ken Robinson? He talks about this in his book "Out of Our Minds", which is brilliant.) I don't think that reading a piece of literature solely for symbol identification is the only educated way to read. I think there's much to be said for talking about progression of story, and connections of one story to another, and connecting a story to yourself or to history , talking about choices characters make, etc., in addition to the role that symbolism plays in all that. So while it could be argued that some people are smarter than others in one way or another, I don't think there is only one way to read a book that is smart, and I don't think there is a "scale of smartness" with book reading.

But then, I'm barking up the wrong tree, because you agree with me. (Which is lovely of you, by the way.)

And I don't believe in sentence diagramming. So I guess that makes me not intellectually superior?

Jason J. Willis said...

To those who were defending the teacher because she justifiably got her feelings hurt I make the following argument. This was not a class in the teachers feelings. This was an English Class. Therefore the professor lowering the grade for that reason, assuming that it was the reason (the grade was an A- after all) is completely unacceptable behavior akin to grading someones math test lower because they have a different political affiliation as mentioned in an essay. This is not ok.

Pair O' Dimes said...

Reading isn't mathematics. A book isn't a puzzle that needs to be solved. There's a place for the latter, and I have a math mind so I like the latter, but literature isn't the place for it, neither in the reading nor in the writing.

Literature is for erasing the space between the written pages and the reader, so that the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred--so that, as you have said, the experience of reading (which is real even if the story is fiction) impacts the reader to change for the better. It's about communication and connection with the rest of the world, including with the past and the future.

It's not about problem solving (although there are of course mystery stories where there is a case to be solved within the context of the story).