By Art Taylor
A few years back, one of the professors
in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself
teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi
for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too
heart-breaking for her.
Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each
of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a
little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how
disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far.
"We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just
shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."
admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of
"You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just
reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.
(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)
AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
A different effect, right?
reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included?
What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What
are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene
this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the
point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't
the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence
"Red Harvest was just a
bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because
after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to
care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We
don't even get his name!"
OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.
point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own
tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and
active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I
do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses
of boredom, dismissal, dislike.
the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something
about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the
impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of
mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out),
and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count
themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their
days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups"
Is it that many of my students in this class—a
gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply
aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be
with some level of disinterest or even hostility?
don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would
be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or
framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to
hear what others think.
In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:
few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that
examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my
favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam
day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them,
mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the
One student turned in her exam and then
walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and
held out her arms wide.
I have to admit, I find myself
disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might
imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this?
look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.
I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester,
I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."
Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and
my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that
she's reading to that daughter too.