Wednesday, August 6, 2008


August is, despite its brightness, the 3 am of the year. Most everyone is in some kind of sleep, occupational sleep, summer sleep, cultural sleep. I'm teaching a summer class on the short story to high school students, but mostly they just want to talk about Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books. They no longer want to talk about Harry Potter, although they're all experts and scholars on the subject--they're like old academics who could, if forced to, lecture for months about deconstruction or structuralism, but have moved on. No, they want to talk about Twilight, and do so with a weird gleam in their eyes and giddy catches in their voices.

Meanwhile I place these short stories before them, and they turn out to have read many of them before, though when asked about them, they get key details wrong, or switched around. It doesn't bother them. Bartelby the Scrivener is suddenly down for whatever, and Sonny in Sonny's Blues is now a guitar player who meets the devil at the crossroads.

But if a student gets a detail of Twilight wrong, or even right, an enormous quarrel begins and won't end until someone is sullen.

Me, I hate a vampire story. And I'm tired of superhero movies.

"And I confess I find it hard/ speaking to people/ who are fond of outer space," wrote the poet Stephen Dunn in "Turning Forty."

But who am I to complain. In high school I read mostly Stephen King and Ayn Rand because nobody was around to suggest anything different, and my own taste was too slow in developing to warn me away.

Where does that turn happen, away from crap to works of real value?


Anonymous said...

I wonder if you're just drawn to writing in which you see your present self. Maybe that's why _Romeo and Juliet_ works better in high school than _Lear_. And a lot of teens are (or imagine themselves) outside of things. _The Scarlet Letter_ is taken seriously in high school, but is it Hawthorne that many academics pore over? Not really.

I first read "The Rockinghorse Winner" when I was a hs freshman. I remember thinking it was creepy, but now as a father who worries about money, it is profoundly more unsettling to me. Forster's Italian novels were about sexual freedom in restrictive Victorian/Edwardian England; he had a huge following when I was in high school, but academics (i.e., older readers) have largely discounted his works (especially the earlier novels) as less significant in the traditional canon.

My examples are still from the literary canon, whatever that means, but what I'm saying might still hold true. I wonder if what I liked when I was a teen now seems less valuable to me because I'm thinking about other things. Plus, I'm less outwardly emotional, I'm less brooding, I'm less a lot of things and more a lot of other things.

Anonymous said...

I was in 5th grade when my best friend Moss - the son of two Manhattan ex-pats, both Harvard grads, his mother a fine arts restorer and his father an unemployed ex-hippie who invented an ingenious device to limit his kids' time in front of the TV - turned me on to Marvel comics and AD&D. It wasn't long before we discovered fantasy novels. Tolkien was great. But the Dragonlance series of paperbacks by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman? Those were golden.

I obsessed. Bought all the fantasy novels my allowance afforded. I read before school, on the bus, after school, during school. Any time I could. While the other kids were discovering girls and playing pick-up kickball, I was nose deep in Dragons of Spring Dawning, relishing in the back story of Raistlin, a sickly, heterochromic mage with boundary issues.

Finally, after a year of this, I started finding books left on my desk, on my dresser, on my bedside table. My dad, in an attempt to nudge me toward something better, would place them there after I’d fall asleep. In this way he introduced me to Dostoevsky, Kafka, Poe, Kipling, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.

It was 'The Trial' that turned me from paperback fantasy to respectable literature. My friends saw the change. Unlike my pop, I loudly proclaimed the inferiority of pulp to anyone who'd listen. Moss was skeptical until he borrowed 'The Prince'.

He now works in the film industry.

ed skoog said...

john and gcm, I appreciate your comments: very true.

First, I want to say that what is "crap" for the youths to read, from the perspective of my advanced years, seems too easy to define. I certainly learned important things about narrative and prose style from Stephen King and Rand. No matter what I'd have been reading, I would have drawn reasonable lessons. But what if someone had given me some Kafka or Borges or Calvino, or Tolstoy or Dostoyevski or Turgenev, or even, darn it, Faulkner or Hemingway or Fitzgerald? The best my teachers did was, finally, a little bit of Chaucer my senior year. That's why I barely attended high school, and spent most of my time in the library, reading what struck me (mostly horror or propaganda).

Ah, had someone suggested Forster or D. H. Lawrence, john. Or, gcm, had someone pointed out that the AD & & and Marvel comics that I was immersed in could be looked at in a different way, what leaps would I have made?

I hate bad movies made from good books, the horrible distortions and misreadings. But to the kid in the sticks, a movie about a Jane Austen novel is some sort of signal to read Austen. some official encouragement (the sort one ought to be wary of), which is more that I suspect most kids, even well-educated kids, are likely to receive.

Schools are conservatizing, and what they offer are intended, generally, to be acceptable, what Dave Frese in the KC Star called, regarding songwriter Steve Earle, "just dangerous enough to be safe."
And on the other side, the book market is quick to respond to students looking for something branded Dangerous, which accounts perhaps for the vampire crudites of Twilight, or the painful writing of Eragon, or even stuff I love, like Tolkien.

There's no winning for the teenage reader, I suspect.

Maybe Bolano.

Anonymous said...

My 12-year-old daughter is one of the millions gaga over the Twilight series (I blogged about it yesterday -- author spells her first name Stephenie with an e, it was point out to me). I'm going to read the series (if I can stick with it) just to see what it's like and why it's so dang popular.

She also has read hundreds (I mean it, this girl has a bigger library than me) of books, many classics, many that I didn't read until I was an adult. She devours everything.

I don't even remember talking about books in middle school, although I do recall getting to h.s. and passing around a copy of Carrie and a copy of Helter Skelter. It was a different world back then, and I kind of wish we had something that ignited our interest the way this series and Harry Potter before it did.

Anonymous said...

On our annual Haj to Minnesota this year we listened to Twilight on tape. My wife and I are huge Buffy fans, as is our daughter. We also listen to a lot of children's and young adult books on tape (besides of course reading them). Twilight is crap. It's bad, derivative Buffy. And compared to any great children's, YA or for that matter adult book, it's poorly written. My 11 year old,who reads and listens to and watches Harry Potter obsessively (actually she's on to Buffy and Angel now), loves Twilight. She's as absorbed in it as she was in Ramona or the Little House books. I remember well being that age and also obsessively reading whatever I could lay my hands on. What I lacked entirely was judgement, thank god. I liked The Godfather, Papillon and Jaws as much as Hemmingway or Poe. Later it was Camus, DH Lawrence and Doestoevsky. I doubt I could read camus now with any pleasure.

There are books I love to read to my children. I've been a parent for 22 years and I have a 6 year old. I read him books I read to my oldest child. I don't think there are huge differences in some ways between great even baby books and adult books. Goodnight Moon, Pat the Bunny, Shoes...the Little Bear and Frog and Toad books are charming even after hundred of readings over decades. And yet the books I detest and am bored by, Clifford, Richard Scarry, Star Wars books, late Arthur, delight them just as much. We are trained in taste as teenagers, but the impulse to read, the drive to read, is what carries us along. You can't teach that part.

Anonymous said...

The first John again. Thanks for your response, Ed.

Books considered "good literature" were passed on to me at a young age, but I think that older readers recommended works that weren't a writer's hardest read (I mean hard aesthetically, hard psychologically, etc.). For example, I didn't read _Passage_ until I was in college; _Room with a View_ and _Where Angels_ were conceptually simpler, and they had the effect of making me continue to read Forster because I liked him (the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of _Room_ came out around the time I graduated from high school, too, which also encouraged my interest).

My junior-year English teacher encouraged me to read Mishima in translation, but he started me out with _The Sound of Waves_; other Mishima--especially the more brutal--might have been hard for me. But that foray kept me reading Mishima.

I wouldn't start a high schooler out with _The Sound and the Fury_; I'd offer "A Rose for Emily" and then move into the novels maybe.

If I were to recommend, say, Philip Roth, I would give a younger reader _Portnoy's_, but I would never expect the same reader to be moved by _Everyman_ until much older.

You get what I mean.

Another way to think about approaching younger readers is to draw them in differently. From the get-go, I thought learning poetic meter was cool, but not so for most other high schoolers. Much later in grad school, another teaching assistant developed an analogy of poetry to raves to draw undergrads into a sincerer understanding of meter. Teaching the Elizabethan sonnet form, she likened meter and the rhyme scheme to the consistent beat of rave music: it's more or less a constant that keeps the rave-goer grounded while s/he trips. And the trip is the content of the sonnet. The students began to think about form less as a restriction when she framed it that way.

Plus, this: do you think your present group of high schoolers use the Twilight series as a kind of social currency? I mean, it's instant conversation, it's instant social connection. I'm not saying it's a good thing, but I know that when I'm with adults I don't know, I try to involve myself by discussing what in my heart of hearts I'm not particularly interested in--professional sports, gossip (though I am sometimes interested in that!), community weirdnesses. And as I mentioned before, the content of the Twilight series, however crappily put forth, might just speak to where their present selves are. I think a way to involve most readers is to figure out where they are and recommend good stuff that matches that place.

Anonymous said...

I think what offends me about the Twilight books (I haven't read them but forming belligerent opinions is more fun when it's in ignorance) is that they're supposedly clean-cut. Vampires who don't suck human blood! And so it's safe for kids, which is very nice, but to me it sounds like Meyer is co-opting the genre. Like The Carpenters covering Sex Pistols songs and changing the lyrics to make them safe for a.m. radio.

Anonymous said...

My high-school English teacher assigned The Stranger, which changed my idea of what literature might be, and then suggested that I read, on my own, Siddhartha, which she called her favorite book. (She was the daughter of a farmer, and a farmer's wife, in Mississippi.) Combined, the two books had the effect of making me certain that there was nothing worth doing except perhaps writing books such as those. Fifteen years later my parents blame my teacher, to some extent, for turning my head away from the "real" world. They have a point.

Kate Evans said...

That's funny, the idea that the kids are Harry Potter scholars.

Have you read Nancie Atwell's work? She talks a lot about ways to draw on kids' interest in "crap" books to lead them into higher quality books.

ed skoog said...

Folks can read whatever they want, of course. What's interesting about these students is they're self-selecting for wanting to learn about writing stories. They burn with narrative. They really love the stuff, and are extremely talented. But they get stuck because they stick with this vampire and oogy-boogy stuff long after they've learned what they need to learn from it.

Perhaps because these books are social currency, as john points out, they become self-enforcing. If these books are a kind of money, they begin to hoard it. Bad money drives out good, right?

I should mention, in case any former or current students read this, that I'm not talking about them, I'm talking about that kid to their right.

Anonymous said...

Ed, thanks for those flattering links!

I've often considered compiling a list of my personal top 100 most influential things--not just books, but movies, comedians, TV shows. When one crony read an early draft of my forthcoming book, he told me that he could definitely see a "Lost" influence.

I think a smart kid gets a lot out of crap. I did, anyway. Poorly executed characters and plots may harbor holes big enough to drive a Prius through, but an imaginative kid can fill those holes with all sorts of good stuff. I didn't read anything remotely decent until college, when I discovered Ann Beattie and Alice Munro by prowling around in the library.

Of course, my work wasn't worth shit at the time, and actual excellence in lit is a big part of what pushed me over the top to be able to actually write something decent. But I still think Asimov has informed my writing as much as Dostoyevsky.

This doesn't help you enjoy your teaching, though. Personally, I would find it difficult to connect consistently with kids that age--I find myself kind of intimidated by teenagers... Rhian, on the other hand, I think understands them intimately, and would probably be a great teacher of them.