23 March 2018

Seriously, You Don't Think It's a Masterpiece Too?

I'm not sure how many times I've read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but I'm now teaching it for what's probably the fourth or fifth time—this round for my "True Crime" course at George Mason University. I almost didn't add it to this semester's syllabus, assuming that many students may have already read and studied it in other classes, but a quick poll of folks who registered early for the course showed that this wasn't the case; in fact, turns out only four of the 20 students have read it before. Even if more had, I might have included it anyway; In Cold Blood seems such a central, foundational text for this genre. How could you not?

Earlier this week, in our first class session discussing the book, I asked for initial reactions from students encountering it for the first time. One woman raised her hand. "It has a lot of details," she said—which immediately opened up in my mind so many directions for conversation: How did Capote amass all this information? What techniques from novel writing did he bring to this nonfiction work to weave that wonderful tapestry of details? How do all these details form a compelling portrait of the Clutters, of their community, of the killers?

Then the student added, "And a lot of commas too."

It was suddenly clear that her observation about details wasn't meant in a positive way.

When I pressed her about it, she added, "It dragged a little"—her tone saying that, really, for her, it dragged a lot.

There are many directions I could go with from this anecdote—including a discussion of those details and that pacing and why In Cold Blood remains such a masterpiece to my mind reread after reread. But instead I'm going to focus on that "in my mind" and the divide that sometimes opens up between my own enthusiasm for a story or book or film and my students' just as extreme lack of enthusiasm.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow professor mentioned to me that she would never again teach Austen in her classes. Because she didn't care for Austen herself? That was my assumption and my question. But it was the opposite, in fact: This professor loved Austen so much that she couldn't bear to hear her students react negatively to the novels one more time. It was too heartbreaking. Better just to teach something else.

Despite that advice, I've assigned texts to my syllabi that are among my own favorites—and, as predicted by that other professor, I've struggled more than once with students' derision of them or dismissal of them. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest comes to mind, and Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision," and John McPhee's "Search for Marvin Gardens," and Nicholas Roeg's film version of Don't Look Now, and... There are many others—masterpieces all, I firmly believe this—but no matter how much I try to extol the virtues of each of them, endeavor to count out those virtues one by one, many students—too many—prove unmoved.

I don't take offense (well, not too much), but the disjunction here does pose some questions. When you're teaching students to analyze a text, does it matter whether you get them to appreciate it too? Certainly not everyone is going to like the same works of art as everyone else, but shouldn't you try to encourage a broadening of perspectives? ...which may circle back again from analysis to understanding to that question of appreciation. And then, what if there's simply a generational gap in some cases? A week ago today, I turned 50, and these kids... well, their tastes are different, the culture they grew up in is different, their aesthetics are a world away from mine, and....

Each to his own then? Surely that may be part of it, but even there....

As part of various small celebrations of my milestone birthday, my wife Tara and I were supposed to go see Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in the theater Wednesday night—part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the film. It's one of my favorites—one of a handful of films that I remember watching absolutely mesmerized start to finish. (Others would include Raging Bull, Manhattan, Breaking the Waves, and Birdman—a list that might seem more eclectic at first glance than it really is.) Tara and I never made it to Vertigo. A combination of spring snow and sick child put an end to those plans. But I was reminded of one of the last times I've seen it on the big screen (four total, I'll admit) with a woman I was dating at the time. Partway through those beautiful sequences where Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, that girlfriend leaned over and whispered, "This is so boring."

I guess I should've known then the relationship wouldn't last.

And speaking of Tara, I remember when we first started dating and she asked me if I'd read the Harry Potter books. When I told her I hadn't, she said, "Oh, you need to read them." So I told her that I would—as you do in situations when someone recommends books like that. But then she got very serious: "No. I mean it. You need to read them." Unspoken: Now.

I did, of course, and loved them, which seems fortunate for all of us. I still wonder where our relationship would be if I hadn't read them, hadn't liked them, had failed what was clearly a test of some kind.

The stakes aren't always so high, of course. I loved Birdman—loved, loved, loved it—but when I mentioned that to my writing group, a couple of them looked at me like I was insane. And I couldn't judge them too harshly for that, could I?


Several more questions here—this time for the folks reading this post: When have friendships been formed or cemented because of a mutual love for some book or movie? On the flipside, have relationships ever been strained because of serious disagreements on something like this? And how do you handle it when your enthusiasm for a story or a book or a film is met by a shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand from someone whose judgement or opinion you really value?

And if you really hate any of the favorites I mentioned above, I promise I'll try really not to think less of you. 😉


  1. A lot of commas. Well, it’s a well-known writing maxim that you don’t want too many commas. Too many commas spoil the writing brew.

    Art, you’ve really given us a lot of food for thought here. I guess I’ve already made my comment on the student who didn’t like In Cold Blood. I’m curious as to what she does like.

    I agree with you about trying to encourage people to broaden their perspectives. Tastes are different from one generation to the next and times do change, culture changes, but that doesn’t mean we should jettison the past. There’s things to be gained from reading (or watching or listening to) things from various eras. Should we throw Shakespeare out with the bathwater? How ’bout Chandler? Or Austen, in your friend’s case. I’d hope not.

    Young people today don’t seem to like black and white movies for a variety of reasons. But in my opinion they’re missing out on a hell of a lot of good stories – you know stories, the thing that seems to be missing from so many of today’s movies.

    As for Vertigo, I think your relationship with that woman was doomed from the get go ;-) . In my not-so-humble-opinion Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A near-perfect film and tied for my fave of his with The Lady Vanishes, a very different kind of movie, but fun and wonderful in its own way.

    To answer your questions, I have formed friendships based on movies, books and especially music (when I was younger). You tend to bond over those things and other things you have in common. I haven’t lost any friendships because I’ve disagreed with people on such things, but I might have looked at them just a little differently afterwards…

    Sorry to go on so long, but one more thing: I do disagree with you on Birdman. Not one of my faves. There were definitely too many commas in the dialogue and not enough feathers. But please don’t think any less of me.

  2. I have to admit that of 50's Hitchcock, I prefer REAR WINDOW and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH to VERTIGO, and in fact prefer the Grants to the Stewarts. (I, too, have a weakness for THE LADY VANISHES.)

    There's an anecdote about John Milius, that when he started seeing someone, he'd take them early on to see THE SEARCHERS. If she didn't like it, he knew they should cut their losses. I feel a strong sympathy. I remember a friend of mine saying, after he saw it, that he thought it was the same old Indian-as-Other racist crap, and he couldn't stand Wayne anyway, and Oh, was he in love with his brother's wife? You missed the whole point of the picture, I wanted to say, but didn't. The thing is, you can't talk somebody into something, or out of it, either, If they take an immediate dislike to something, or they have enormous enthusiasm for a book or a movie you think is total toe-jam, you're stuck with it. It's unrequited love, and it's visceral.

  3. On a first date to a retrospective theatre to see CASABLANCA on the big screen, my date declared, "It's in black and white." After about twenty minutes, she said, "I get it. It's an old movie."

    Good article, Art. I agree with you and Paul about VERTIGO but I tend to like the Grant Hitchcocks better. My appreciation for Cary Grant keeps growing every time I see another movie with him.

  4. It's kind of the reverse of what you're looking for, but the first date I had with the man who would be my husband, we saw a dreadfully pretentious Swedish film that we both hated. Proved to be a good sign!

  5. A great post, Art.

    I love Vertigo and Rear Window (my wife played one of the neighbors in the world premiere of the play version at Hartford Stage). I also love Austen and stopped assigning Pride and Prejudice because my students couldn't appreciate the humor/irony.

    Do you assign Larson's The Devil in the White City?

    Anyone else here love Wuthering Heights? I think it's one of the most brilliant novels ever, in spite of the chaotic spelling and sentence structure. And I have acted in or directed over a dozen of Shakespeare's plays.

    Teaching is tough because you have to balance the value of the text to bring out the ideas you're trying to teach against the tastes and sophistication of your students. I love Gatsby, but some kids don't get it. And I still see the argument that Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel from the people who don't grasp satire (deep sigh).

    It's hard to understand why some books don't resonate with everyone. I suspect it's the "sound" of the words. I was read to constantly when I was little, and I still hear the words when I read. If the vocabulary or rhythm is too unlike my own rhythms, it becomes a problem. I can overcome it if the story or characters appeal to me, but I'm aware of the effort.

    My wife and I have similar tastes in reading and met doing theater. But my test used to be music. I love, love, love old blues and many women consider it annoying noise by raspy-voiced old men.

    (Sorry about all the commas)

  6. Hi, Paul, David, O'Neil, Janice, and Steve —
    Thanks for chiming in so quickly—and with such fun perspectives across the board!

    Paul: First things first, I should add that my student is a really good one—bright, perceptive, and articulate... even if her taste is lacking a little. And yes on the black-and-white movies! Dash watched his first one recently, Holiday, and loved it, so we're doing something right. Oh, and no judgement on Birdman; I can actually understand why it would be a divisive film.

    David: I love the Grant Hitchcock's too—though something about movies about obsession draw me in, so Vertigo fits that bill. And yes on The Searchers! Too easy for people to lump that in with so many other westerns.

    O'Neil: Hilarious about Casablanca!

    And Janice: Love the reverse side of this--bonding over what you both hate.

    Steve: I haven't assigned Devil in the White City--or, more sadly, even read it myself, though know I need to. I do indeed love Wuthering Heights myself--need to reread that one sometime, been meaning to. And yes, I think you've phrased it just right: teaching against the tastes and sophistication of your students. That's a great way of putting it, I think, and recognizes that some texts (Gastby for example) are likely better later when you've grown into them. And hey, great stories about your and your wife--and I too love the blues!

  7. Great article, Art, and I love all the books and movies you mention. I'll have to look at In Cold Blood again with a view toward commas. Re: teaching students who don't get it or don't like it--I can relate to this in a somewhat analogous context with respect to my book group. We've been together 25 years and are fast friends, even if the vitriol flies occasionally regarding a particular book pick. This month we are reading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, to my mind an amazing book on so many levels, while members of the group are saying it was too boring or too weird or they didn't want to go on after a few chapters. Full discussion next week, when, after a few glasses of wine, my analytical praise may be swallowed in the din of unrestrained criticism.

  8. Great post and comments. I love Hitchcock films---Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Lady Vanishes among my favorites. Birdman was okay.

    I may be in my dotage, but the classics like Austen were classics when I was in school and I loved them. I never liked Wuthering Heights, mainly because of Heathcliff, but adored Jane Eyre. I like anything by Shirley Jackson. I'm afraid to say this but I haven'tread In Cold Blood. I did see the move Capote---does that count? No? Oh well, it's on my list.

    Commas, challenge, me.

  9. My biggest lesson? Never EVER use your own books in a classroom. Not even if your students ask you to. Beg you to. Don't read your short stories out loud to them. You will *never* get the reaction you think is appropriate, even if the story won best crime story in Canada for the year.
    Sure, some will love your stories and will fall in love with you. (And that has problems of its own, in a classroom!) But one out of twenty will hate what you've written, and you don't want to discover that in person.

  10. I've had the same reaction, often with new books. I forget that because I'm an expert in my field, that new book is just what fills the gaps in the scholarship. Students new to the topic often aren't that excited. Still.

  11. This puts me in mind of the graduate class I took on Hawthorne/Melville in college. We were assigned MOBY DICK (there's a few hours of my life I'll never get back). Anyway, the professor , who was a huge Melville fan, asked for analysis. I knew everybody in the class disliked the book, but I was the only one to say so. After I'd finished telling the professor my points of why, he nodded and said, "Excellent points and analysis." The rest of the class was stunned.

    So as long as students can legitimately analyze and describe why they don't appreciate a work, I think you've done your job. Obviously, it would be easier if students loved exactly what their teachers loved, but it doesn't work that way.

    I've never had a relationship go south because of a difference of opinion, though. My husband loves certain books that I don't. He can't understand why I've read Harry Potter a bajillion times. Eh.

    Oh, and Steve? Never could get into WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Heathcliff was...disturbing.


  12. I took my 6 year-old nephew to see Vertigo last Sunday and he liked it. I’m sure he didn’t follow everything but when my sister asked him what it was about he gave a concise but accurate answer: “The man didn’t like his wife so he threw her out of the bell tower.”

  13. Edna and I met in gradual school, when there was only so much time for pleasure reading. But we did both like silly romantic movies. I think Heaven Can Wait was the litmus test, and I passed!

    Then there was a young lady whom I knew in high school. I found out on our first date that she hated Otis Redding. There was no second date.

  14. Mary, the problem with Wuthering Heights is that you have an unreliable narrator (Lockwood) quoting another unreliable narrator (Nelly Dean) who hated Heathcliff at first sight. Everything Nelly tells us about Heathcliff is slanted against him, especially since she's trying to cover up her own culpability in Catherine's death, Cathy's kidnapping, and maybe even Linton's death. Heathcliff gets a raw deal and Lockwood is too dumb to realize it. That's part of the brilliant technique I admire, the double irony. If I were treated as badly as Heathcliff, I wonder how I'd turn out...

    I agree on Moby Dick, though. They should make convicts read it so the time passes more slowly.

  15. Laura Thompson23 March, 2018 13:19

    I had never read In Cold Blood until the MFA program at Mason when Alan had us read it for his Writing from Life class. I will admit I didn't care for it, but that was because I felt so immersed int the story due the level of detail that I was deeply shaken by the murders and the conversations with the murders later in the novel. To me, that makes it a master piece, but not one I ever want to read again, if that makes any sense.

    A book I feel like might fall into the same sort of category as some of the others have mentioned is The Count of Monte Cristo, which I love. First read it at 14 and read it over and over every few years. I've often recommended to friends or boyfriends or had tutoring clients read it, with typically the same reaction, "why is this your favorite book again?" So I've been there.

    In response to the rest, huge fan of Hitchcock but my favorite is by far North by North West which I've seen dozens of times. I also adore Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (regardless of Heathcliff's disturbing behavior). ;) I think there is something to say for reading and learning the ins and outs of the classics regardless if they become beloved books or not. We must know the past and what has stood the test of time to really appreciate current literature and where it is leading. But that's just my two cents. :)

  16. I think I tried to read Moby Dick once. I've never read Austen but I have read In Cold Blood & seen the movie about Capote. I'm old, so I like commas.

    Around 2002, hubby's BFF was engaged to a girl who told hubby & me, "We don't like Harry Potter." Not I, but "WE". They broke up & he later was married & divorced twice before the third one took. The current wife is a Harry Potter fan!

  17. I love all the stuff you mentioned, Art. But my litmus test in the dating years was Monty Python - if a man couldn't get British humor, we weren't going to work out.

    Meanwhile, I love Wuthering Heights, Gatsby, Shirley Jackson (I agree about "We have always lived in the castle"... what a great novel), and Austen: I also think that "The Good Soldier" is one of the ultimate unreliable narrators (I did a whole blog on that one). And "Mildred Pierce", the novel, is one of the greats, because Mildred never grasps what she is doing, has done, or will do for Veda. And "The Woman in White" is my favorite go-to long Victorian read for rainy autumn/spring with Count Fosco as one of the great villains of all time. It outdoes "The Hound of the Baskervilles" for me.

  18. When my now-husband told me he'd read nearly all of Anthony Trollope's novels, I grappled him unto my soul with hoops of steel. I'd read only one, but I'd seen The Pallisers on PBS three times, and The Barchester Chronicles once, and I knew I had to have him. On the other hand, if he'd said he thought The Old Man and the Sea was a fine book, I would still be single.

  19. Oh, Kathy - I'm a Trollope fanatic myself, I totally understand.

  20. My dad loved Trollope, but I didn't read him until after my father's death - significant in itself, I'm guessing - and he caught on with me right away. Far more supple and skilled a writer than Dickens, although everybody's got their issues with Dickens. Neither of them are writers you can really appreciate until you're older, so trying to choke down A TALE OF TWO CITIES at a tender age can put you off Dickens for life. (I happen to think the same is true of Scott.) There was a terrific BBC adaption of BARCHESTER some years back, with Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, and Alan Rickman, among others. Worth tracking down. but I don't think you can stream it.

  21. I can't say that Temple and I bonded over a specific movie. Rather, we bonded over a genre: Film Noir. We watch Noir Alley on TCM almost every Sunday morning, and when we're scrolling through Netflix and Prime looking for something to watch, we frequently select movies that are, or are close cousins to, Film Noir.

  22. Oh, I'm so behind on comments!

    Vija: I've never read that one myself, but on my list. She's such a distinctive writer, especially her prose, but I can imagine love it or hate it responses to her work. Stand firm with the naysayers!

    Maggie: Yes, it counts to have seen Capote, a great movie, I think.

    Melodie: Oh, yeah, I'll second that. Haven't done it myself, for various reasons, including the ones you point out.

    Deb: Yep. Obviously, we have knowledge and perspective/context that helps us to see things more clearly about texts in our field. Having texts we value dismissed sometimes comes across as having our own authority dismissed. That's not to dismiss students' opinions or input, but just to say that there's a lot to balance here, a lot to factor in.

    ...which leads me to Mary: Good for you for articulating so persuasively your objections to Moby-Dick!

    HOLLY: I love it!!! (And this is the same series we missed, sadly.... We chose Wednesday over Sunday, but ultiamtely couldn't have made either one....)

    Jim: Great stories on both sides. How can you not like Otis Redding?!

    Laura: Good points about In Cold Blood. It is indeed disturbing in so many ways. And love this line: "We must know the past and what has stood the test of time to really appreciate current literature and where it is leading."

    Elizabeth: Love that story—"WE" indeed. Ugh. Glad he found someone he's better with. :-)

    Eve: Great list! Two specific points. One, I'm a big Monty Python fan—great up watching it on PBS late night. Two, I read aloud Woman in White to Tara--we're fans of that as well.

    KATHY! I love that phrase "grappled him unto my soul with hoops of steel." (...though I've never read Trollope, sad to admit. Seems from comments here, I need to!)

    And Michael: I wish we could watch Noir Alley, but we cut back on our cable (primarily because we never had time to watch it). One of my own favorite genres—enjoy!

  23. Steve, I haven't thought about Wuthering Heights for a long time, but your points make me think that's my main "hang up." I'm not a fan of the unreliable narrator. I can appreciate the technique and artistry, but as a reader...not my favorite.

  24. While it's to be expected that younger people will have different tastes, it is also true that someday they will be older people with deeper experience,wider knowledge of the world,and an enhanced understanding of the human heart & it's conflicts. When they know more about the world & more about themselves, they will come to appreciate classics & understand why they are classics.


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