Friday, January 26, 2007

Here's the Grapes...and here's the wrath

Last night, my kids and I were discussing John Steinbeck.

Now, before you go jumping to any conclusions about the cultured ether in which we dwell, our discussion centered on how much we think the works of John Steinbeck SUCK. Not “suck”, mind you, but “SUCK”.

Both kids have read Steinbeck for class assignments and as I watched my 12 year old son trundle through the Grapes of Wrath, all I could think of was my concise summation of the 672 paged doorstop. -Life sucks, you move west, life sucks some more, death ensues-

We ended up discussing what makes a book a classic, or anything for that matter. Who are the arbiters of taste that decide what the rest of us “must see” or “must read”? It’s great to have other people’s opinions but there comes a time when intelligent people need to break free of the shackles of literary oppression and cry to the heavens, “This book/movie/poem sucks!” It is then advisable to hide in the deepest hole for a few days because surely, the wrath of God will be upon you.

What’s so sad to me is how literature is taught in schools. There was a time that I was an English major with a lit minor and as I sat through excruciating dissections of stories and poems, all I could think of was one of my favorites by Walt Whitman:

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
And measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
Much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Quick summation? Any and all beautiful things can become dull, ugly, and unappetizing when pinned down and flayed for microscopic investigation.

So what, pray tell, can be done? If you can’t take a book/poem out back behind the Language Arts Building and stomp the shit out of it, what would the purpose of majoring in English be? I had a wonderful teacher who knew exactly what majoring in English would get us. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he would tell us “And here is a wonderful cocktail party fact…” In other word, this knowledge would show up on our exam and after that, would only be useful to impress other people at cocktail parties.

And that is what it’s all about. That is the purpose of majoring in English; to impress people at parties.

And do you know what the most diabolical situation in the entire known universe is? A room full of English majors at a party. It is constant parry and thrust, one-upsmanship, “I can be the most loquacious catty literate bitch in the land”.

I thought I had left all that behind years ago when I left college but I had a totally surreal experience when I was at the office holiday party last month. I sat at a table with a wonderful Russian couple, a young witty pretty boy, and a husband and wife that would have made any college English professor proud. The topic of conversation? What books have you been reading. The College Campus Couple? (the wife was a middle school teacher) started reeling off every book from the freshman recommended reading list. Being in their late forties/early fifties, I wanted to stop them mid-list and ask when the last time they sat down and read War and Peace.

When they turned to me and asked what I had been reading lately, I answered them honestly. I’ve been out of college for many years and I forgot that English majors aren’t supposed to answer honestly…they are supposed to answer in such a way as to impress the most people with the fewest words. I told them that I had just finished “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. When they said they had never heard of him, I explained that he was hard to classify but would probably fit into fantasy or horror.

“Oh, you mean like Stephen King?” was their frosty inquiry. The knives were being produced from pockets and handbags…I was going to be carved up like a Christmas ham.

“No, not at all like Stephen King…” I made some half hearted attempt to explain the plot and the imagery and it was right then and there that I decided I didn’t give a damn what these people thought. I didn’t have to explain myself, I wasn’t getting graded on my response, and there were no blue notebooks to scribble in.

“Oh,” the husband replied. “I’ve never thought much of fantasy novels but I did enjoy Eragon.”

I shook my head slowly. “Yeah, that book came across as regurgitated Tolkien, all jumbled up and smelling to high heaven.” Yeah, that English major mojo was kicking in…

It was then that the couple turned to the Russians and began expounding on Crime and Punishment and how they LOVED Dostoyevsky. They went on and on and just as I was going to throw up, the Russian wife sighed and gave a mock shudder. “Dostoyevsky, he is to dark for me. You do realize that there are many more than just one Russian author?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

So children, remember this one fact: literature is to be enjoyed (or not). It should never be wielded as a weapon.


Amy said...

From one English major to another, you go, girl!

I remember a college professor whose exams were legendary in terms of what's wrong in teaching literature. He'd expect you to know the name of a minor character's sister's cousin's horse. That was mentioned once in a 500-page text. Just to be an ass, I think.

The best teacher I ever had was a woman who looked at Shakespeare as an adventure. She got everyone, even those just taking her class to get the mandatory English class in, completely fired up about ol' Will. Too few teachers can do that, I think. And I know I wouldn't be one of them, hence I'm not a teacher.

Tamara said...

Speaking of literature wielded as a weapon, the other night on Nanny911, which is a show I don't watch very often, the parents were using READING as a PUNISHMENT. The young boy was sent to his room to read and was told he HAD to read at least 5 pages. For being bad. WTF?

Is that what reading has been reduced to nowadays? Punishment? Gah!

Knitting Momma said...

You hit the nail on the head. I was also an English major (v. qualified to say "Do you want fries with that?"). My attitude towards books now is like wine. If you like it and it cost $5 a bottle, more power to you.

I hate Russian lit. And I hate John Steinbeck, too. Fuck the canon, that's my motto.

Sorry...just get a little worked up over that kind of thing.