25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?

Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain
"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...


  1. Frankly, one of the reasons I (a bookaholic from early childhood) studied history rather than literature was because at least in history we only embalmed the dead. And back in the 1960s, K-12 literature was often a major dissection, with predetermined answers, rather than just reading the damn story and talking about what we thought about it.
    I'm hoping things have changed - and this pandemic has certainly sent people back to the books!

  2. Steve, I enjoyed reading the classics under my desk during 5th grade math class. They were fascinating, much more interesting than calculating at what point two trains coming from opposite ends of the track would meet and where. But, I did not enjoy dissecting these classics later in college courses. So, yes, I do agree with your post today. Thanks.

  3. Eve & R. T.,

    If you're as much like me as I suspect, you re-read many of those texts you were assigned and liked them better years later. I know I did. I also believe teachers don't put several classics on reading lists because they would be difficult to teach in the way we used to do it, chapter by chapter instead of letting kids read the entire book and discuss it. Heart of Darkness (Which Cliff's Notes divides into non-existent sections) is a hard book to teach. I love The Sound and The Fury, but wouldn't DREAM of assigning it.

    The year I retired, we were assembling new course for the next year, and one of the ones I did was a semester elective on Mystery and Suspense. I'll bet if I went back and looked at what I did then, I'd change almost all of it.

  4. I've worried about both sides. Growing up without television (and iPhones) facilitated reading for enjoyment. By the time I hit university, those 400-page assignments began to drag me down. You didn't happen to mention that males have pretty stopped reading compared to women. Worse, studies have concluded reading is considered unmanly for boys.

    On the other hand, our world ranking in academic achievement is pathetic. We used to brag we were in the top 10, then top 20… 25… 30… Now we can only brag about a sad showing barely within the top 40. We're caught between, er, Charybdis and Scylla.

  5. Steve, I teach college, and I spenx a lot of time trying to reintroduce fiction to high school grads who came away hating to read. Yes, this tearing apart of books does kill the love of reading.
    For that very reason, I will not be on a jury for an award that insists upon the filling out of a marking checklist. If you are judging a book for an award, you are not 'marking' it like you would a student's work. Kills all the fun of reading.

  6. Melodie, one of the reasons I left teaching was the Connecticut CAPT, a standardized test used as a graduation requirement, used a rubric for scoring, just as you mention for the marketing checklist. It was dehumanizing and pretty much useless in the real world.

    And Leigh, I didn't know males read less than females, but it's not surprising. We've know for years that women are better at math than males until about when puberty arrives and too many of them are afraid a guy doesn't want a smart woman.

    Charybdis and Scylla. Was that a sixties folk singing duo?

    I still remember how my sister, my cousins and I were all excited about the first day of school. By about third grade, we were all pretty turned off. It's even worse now, and nobody seems to care enough to find a way to make learning both exciting and fun again, which shouldn't be much of a challenge.


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