30 June 2011

Literary Elitists: Updated

Recently I had a friend ask me to write an article about "reading and writing". This hugely vague and broad topic in mind, I scoured past blog posts for something I might be able to revise into something worth reading. I came across a post I wrote in April of 2009 and sent it off, thinking that if the bare bones of what I wrote two years ago was worth reading then I'd take the time to update it.

Apparently it was really well worth my time as about a day and a half later I had an email from Orson Scott Card in my inbox asking if he could reference my post in a few places. Being the slightly obsessive person I am, I said yes - and then desperately wished that my revised version was available, because it's better, not written out of frustration, and includes two more years' experience.

So I am including that version here. You will also be able to find this version on author Kristen Randle's Website.

A few years ago as an undergrad I took a literature class that very nearly sucked all the life out of me. The class included a plethora of post-modern literature. It meant a semester with authors like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison - authors that other people (re: not me) found genius because of their innovative writing techniques and mystical storytelling. It also included spending a huge amount of time with a professor who, while certainly very qualified in her field, drove me absolutely batty with her elitist views on literature. The books that I was even tempted to enjoy were so destroyed by class discussion that I started a countdown to the end of class.

Now, for you to appreciate any of this, you must understand that my favorite thing in the entire world to do is to talk about what I’m reading. As a student I was an overactive participant in every class discussion (including this professor’s.) As a teacher in my own class, my primary method of inspiring life-long reading in my students revolves around discussion. I still believe that talking about books is a fun and productive way for people to enter into the world conversation. For a teacher to out-discuss a book to me takes a huge amount of work. Somehow, by her focusing more on commentaries on the book rather than the book itself, I managed to leave her class every day with the mad desire to never touch another book again.

But then, at the end of the semester, we were assigned the book Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. It was one of those “kindred spirit” reads that so resonated with me that I simply could not bring myself to write what I had been writing all term to please my professor. Before, I had played the game and written exactly what I knew she would like. It was the kind of high brow writing I could do well, but didn’t enjoy. This time, this one last time, I wanted to write for myself just as I had read for myself. So I presented a plan to my professor. I reminded her that I had done spectacularly on all her other assignments and suggested that perhaps I could try a different style this time? Specifically a personal essay instead? My professor nodded, said that would be a fine idea, and I tripped off home to write.

I wrote about how the story of Mr. Pip had resonated so closely with my dearest reading experiences. Those times when you read a book that takes you away to the point where, upon returning “home”, you feel as though you’ve left it and aren’t quite sure what to do with yourself. I wrote particularly of my time with Anne of Green Gables, the dearest and most personal of my reading experiences. I wrote about how, like the main character in Pip who had grown obsessed with Great Expectations, I felt closer to Anne than nearly any “real” person. The resulting essay was a fairly sentimental tribute, perhaps, but I meant it. Throughout my college experience I had enjoyed analyzing the symbolic and historical significance of great works of fiction very much, but this time I wanted to honor it.

Knowing that my professor was often rather forgetful and was likely to need some reminding that she had, in fact, approved my experiment, I included a cover page to my essay. I thanked her for assigning the book and let her know how much I enjoyed it. Then, feeling more than a little cheeky and daring and fed-up after a long semester, 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 was, admittedly, a very foolish and risky thing to do. My professor, after all, was a bonehead literary elitist. But given the subject matter of Mr. Pip I figured that, in spite of the jab, she had to be fair enough to see that the quote was actually supporting the lesson taught by the book she’d assigned me to read. If she had a soul at all - she had to see reason, right?


On the last day of class when my portfolio was returned, I pulled out my essay to see that it didn’t appear to even have been touched. There was no crease by the staple, at least. Only the cover page had any response to it. Next to the quote by Orson Scott Card was written, “Not true. This is a very silly remark. See if you can figure out why?”

I left class that day absolutely fuming. Even now, two years later and well out of this woman’s grasp, I still get frustrated thinking about it. I hated her for being such an elitist that she’d forgotten why people should read to begin with.

If you ask people why they read, I would imagine that very few people would tell you that they enjoy reading because they enjoy high faluting literary commentaries. That may be part of the reason. This essay, after all, is a commentary on literature. I don’t think literary analysis is bad at all - I think it’s what helps to keep a book alive and relevant. But if you talk to most readers about their favorite books, the analysis will only matter to them if they have connected to the book individually as well. If that book, as Card says, “shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.”

I’ve realized this even more now that I’m on the other side as a teacher myself. For the past two years I have been the one to present students with books they will be forced to read and then graded on. I’ve fought to make sure that I find books and plays that I love and have tried to pass that on to my students. Because I teach a combined English and History class, I also try to find books that will make particular connections that can link to their immediate reality. Studying To Kill a Mockingbird and Asian philosophy together, for example, provides a nice discussion on how to live your life in a way that is at peace with difficult decisions. It is rewarding to have class discussions where students do what the state educational system wants them to do - demonstrate understanding of important themes and symbols in literature. But the greatest compliment I receive as a teacher is something that could never be measured - it’s when I hear a student say they love a book I’ve assigned them to read. To hear a class refer to Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Reuven Malter (The Chosen), Jonas (The Giver) or Napoleon (Animal Farm) as examples of people they do or don’t want to be like. And these are all people (and a pig) who never technically walked the earth.

I remember being in second grade and coming to class every day with a pile of books as tall as I could carry. I would read one chapter from the book on the top of the pile and then put that book on the bottom and take the next one down and so on to maximize the number of books I could read at a time. I remember falling asleep with my mother’s copy of Anne of Green Gables when I was young, flipping through the pages long before I could read the words on them, aching to be old enough to read it. I remember getting my drivers license and going to the library for my first drive alone. I remember staying up until way past my bedtime reading books by flashlight. I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre. I remember finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and immediately starting the book again because I wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. The first piece of furniture I ever bought for myself was - what else? - a bookshelf. I remember packing my emergency kit when I was young and agonizing over which book I loved most to save if I had no time to save them all.

That is why we read, isn’t it? Because we want to fall in love. Because stories matter. They take us away, they bring us back, they touch our souls and enlighten our minds. At their best, stories inspire us to be better than we could have been on our own steam.

I look across my bedroom and see Mr. Pip on one of my bookshelves now, situated in alphabetical order between The Turn of the Screw and Ella Enchanted, two completely different works of fiction. One I read to work out my brain and for the pleasure of words perfectly formed, one I read for the pleasure of a simple story well told. I wonder where Mr. Pip sits on the shelves of the office of this old professor of mine. I wonder - hope, really - that she has a book that she reads every year just because she wouldn’t feel complete if she didn’t. I hope, too, that she read a book this year not as a teacher preparing for students but as a human being that needs to be connected to other human beings - even if they are fictional.


Bill said...

Bravo, Joni.

As I read this version, I was struck by how much your writing style has evolved over the past yeras. It's fascinating how much time (and in some ways, two years doesn't seem like that much time) and experience can affect our perspectives and writing styles, and how in other ways they remain the same. While the original post was good, this version is definitely more appropriate, in my opinion, for Kristen's website.

That said, I'm actually glad that Mr. Card (can I call him Brother Orson? I'm sure he'd love that!) read the earlier version. I can't say why, except that I think it's something he would appreciate more. It had a little bit more raw "chutzpah" to it, likely due to the sting being so much more fresh.

Again, though, this is very appropriate for what Kristen's looking for. It's got the welcome and conversational feel to it, and it paints some beautiful pictures. It doesn't necessarily pull the reader into your experiences, though it gives a clear representation of those. Instead, it sends the reader back into their own similar experiences; at least, that's what it did for me.

Thanks for posting this. :-)

Joni said...

Bill -

I'm glad you think my writing's changed over the last two years. I would certainly hope that it would have at LEAST stayed on par and not regressed - improvement is better, though. Thanks.

And yes - I do think the other essay has more nerve and raw emotion to it which would definitely appeal more to OSC. I posted the revision mostly because of the way my thoughts on the subject have evolved. I think both versions of the tale are worth having around - but maybe I'm biased toward my own work?

Elise said...

How have I never seen your blog? I feel like I've been missing out. Also, I think I need to be your friend on Goodreads.

I can't believe your teacher didn't even look at your final paper! I can't believe her unkindness and close-mindedness. Wow. I once had a high school English teacher give me a D- on a very well written and organized persuasive essay on why we should use horse meat in the school cafeteria. Obviously it was tongue-in-cheek, but that didn't make it any less persuasive. And to think that I might have actually enjoyed that assignment. The nerve!

I'll definitely be coming back again. :)

Joni said...


Thanks for your kind words. How are you?! I'm glad to see you around. Hope things are going well for you.

Colin said...

Intense Joni. I hate it when teachers grade according to their bias and not according to the quality of the idea generated. I'm glad you stayed true to yourself and didn't give in to (or into, I've never learned grammar:) academic politics. I admit to writing papers that my professors wanted to hear to improve my grade, but practicing logic, other than my own, is what I pretend to be trained in (<-- Bad grammar again). Maybe I'll become a lawyer.

A. Bailey said...

Joni, when you are a rich and famous author/motivational speaker/teacher please don't forget me! I LOVE your blog. It is one of my favorites because what you write is so thoughtful and beautiful. So like I said, when you are rich and famous, don't forget that we shared a refrigerator for two years ;)

Joni said...

Amanda -

How could I forget YOU?! Some of the most valuable lessons of faith, optimism and perspective have come from you. If my writing touches you, that's wonderful - but your example has meant a great deal to me over the years. I was so fortunate to have you as a roommate :)

John Brown said...


G. M. Palmer said...


I was prompted here by Scott's page; it's unfortunate that your professor felt that way--many do. Indeed, the university system is notorious for cranking out cranks of all sorts (you should talk to an academic poet for an afternoon. . .).

Anyway, I think I'll have my students read this in the Fall.

All best.

Joni said...

G.M. -

It is sad, isn't it? I've always thought it terribly depressing that those in academic circles seem to forget the joy of learning because it becomes their job. Aristotle discusses the ideas of leisure, business and amusement by saying that amusement is something you do to relax, business is what you do to stay alive, and leisure is what you do to expand your soul. What, for so many other people, is leisure becomes business and suddenly a book becomes a soul sucker instead of a soul feeder. Too bad students aren't always strong enough to form a metaphorical patronus against the dementors of the academic world, hmm?

Hope your students enjoy.

Bill said...

What, for so many other people, is leisure becomes business and suddenly a book becomes a soul sucker instead of a soul feeder.

I couldn't agree more! In fact, that's the very reason I decided against becoming a music major my freshman year. Music was my stress relief, and if I turned it into a stressor, well, then that would be one less thing I could use!

This very problem came up the semester I took Milton, actually. I ended up burning out SO much on reading that I was genuinely worried that I had lost it for good. It wasn't until after I'd graduated that that pull to read came back... but I'm glad it did. :)

Adelas said...

I read both versions, too, and I feel like this one fills in the bits and chunks that I understood (as a kindred spirit) though they were unsaid.

And I agree:

Sometimes knowing why you enjoy a book - for instance, because the author did a good job of using a recurring theme - can help you to enjoy it more, but it's way more important to enjoy a book than to know why you enjoy it.