Yes, I know, this has been done before . . .

I mean, this thing about Real Literature vs Genre.

But I like this post by Ursula Le Guin. Who also knows this is not a new thing:

“I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal . . .”

And then in the course of taking apart Krystal’s article (which he sure deserves: “Good Bad Books”, honestly, I ask you), she makes the single best suggestion I’ve ever heard for how to deal with the customary elevation of “Literary novels” and the denigration of genre:

“To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis: Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it . . . Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.”

To which I respond: Well, obviously. But I’m not sure I felt it was all that obvious before Le Guin said it.

Incidentally, my favorite comment on this post?

Pat Mathews says:
June 18, 2012 at 9:08 am

“PLEASE don’t suggest that English teachers teach the novels people actually read! I can think of no better way of ruining the pleasure in the book for the students than to have to deal with those tiresome “Questions for discussion” and the intense analysis that deconstructs everything.”

Interestingly, though my response to that comment was AMEN, several later commenters think that deconstructing novels is a great pleasure. So there you go.

Personally, I NEVER liked a single novel that was assigned in school. (I’m including high school and college here, and reserving the right to have forgotten something I actually did like.)

Some I nearly liked (Faulkner’s THE BEAR) and some I detested with a burning passion (MADAME BOVARY), but I didn’t actually enjoy a single one. This left me with a conviction that Great Literature must be grim, depressing, and tragic.

This reflexive flinch at the mere concept of Great Literature lasted until a friend made me watch the movie “Sense and Sensibility”. Which I loved. Which led me to read all of Jane Austin. After which I asked, Why in Heaven’s name didn’t anybody assign THOSE in school? I think we need more English Lit teachers who are natural optimists and don’t automatically think a book has to be GRIM and carry a message about the fundamental hopelessness of the human condition in order to have, you know, worth and depth.

But if English Lit teachers were going to pick some fabulous genre examples to add to their curricula, what would be some good picks? I don’t want to suggest anything too super obvious, so nothing like The Lord of the Rings — let’s get beyond that and pick some cool stuff that nobody’s ever thought of teaching in the classroom!

My top five off the top of my head:

THE CITY AND THE CITY (Mieville) — my God, teachers should love this one if they want to have discussions about what everything means and the nature of truth. And I was just re-reading bits of it last night, so it was on my mind.

A FREE MAN OF COLOR (Hambly) — a mystery set in 1830s New Orleans, the lit teacher could tie it into the history class, for a teaching across the curriculum type of thing, and it’s truly a great story.

THE BOOK OF ATRYX WOLFE (McKillip) — because it’s just the most beautiful book ever.

A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT (Whitcomb) — because I think teenagers would love it, it’s got great female and male characters, and it’s raises some really neat questions about morality and society and all that stuff, and besides it’s just fabulous.

And, um . . . um . . . I said five, right? Okay, but I’m going to cheat and throw in a series:

The Queen’s Thief series (Turner) — because I think kids would love them and they’re great stories and the setting is sorta-kinda historical and I could go on but basically I just think they’re really amazing books. Especially the middle two but really all four.

What occurs to you that would be great in the classroom?

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10 thoughts on “Yes, I know, this has been done before . . .”

  1. I agree on choosing less grim tomes. It’s been an issue for our fifteen year old for years: she shuts down with grim, realistic novels. Can’t/won’t read them, if forced to turn the pages won’t take them in. Very sensitive to style, too. Catch-22? failure. Fahrenheit 451? failure… Lord of the Flies, flatly refused to tackle. Some battles aren’t worth the fight and making her read specific (grim) books is one of those.

    I haven’t read the Mieville, so can’t comment on it (you’re the first person to remark on any of his books and make them look like they might be worth a look). I love McKillip so I’d second anything of hers,although for teaching the trilogy might be easier. Pratchett – maybe SMALL GODS, which I’ve heard religious people say is a really good exploration of religious stuff. The Hambly, maybe – it’s certainly a good read and ties in to history. They could even do two, jumping to the one where she sends him West, which will bring in the Mountain Men angle of history.

    For teaching in the school year, it probably ought to be relatively short, or they won’t get through it, unless it’s a ‘read over the summer and discuss when school starts’ assignment. The Turners fit the shortness critera, and they ARE packed with good stuff.

    What I think might be worth doing, if you have to read stuff like Lord of the Flies, is to find another book with the same basic plot that handles it differently. Verne wrote one about boys shipwrecked on an island for 2 years. Pair it with LotF, and contrast, compare, and think about which is more plausible, which is the better outcome… that sort of thing. I went looking for it recently, hoping to suggest just that to our girl’s English teacher, and it isn’t available easily in English, AFAICT, unfortunately.

    By the way, I like deconstructing novels when I’m doing it because the author wrote something densely enough to be worth it. But that’s now. I hated being required to do it in school.

  2. I hated LORD OF THE FLIES . . . made it through, but I just detested it. I am so with your daughter on that one. And FARENHEIT 451. And ANIMAL FARM, though my brother tells me he liked it because he knew enough about history to enjoy the way it was paralleling the rise of the Soviets in Russia, which I of course didn’t notice or else didn’t care about.

    Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY did much the same thing as LORD OF THE FLIES, and although I thought the ending had some stupid bits, the kids certainly handled the being-marooned thing in a much healthier and (to me) much more believable way.

    You’re probably right about length; that might THE CITY AND THE CITY more suitable for college. Pratchett — a great choice, especially if you’re reading Gulliver’s Travel’s (which, okay, I didn’t hate that one) — you could do a whole section on social satire. Then it’s just an agonizing job picking which Pratchett to use! My personal fav ever is NIGHT WATCH, but I might be inclined to pick one of the other ones for a class.

    I loved loved loved the Riddlemaster trilogy, but I’d pick something from McKillip’s later work for a class, especially since after all that one is a trilogy, so you do run into length issues. And I just loved ATRYX WOLFE. How about THE CHANGELING SEA? That raises some great questions and issues, and it’s lovely, and very short.

  3. The Riddlemaster is a really SHORT trilogy, especially by today’s standards. It packs a lot, though. I was particularly thinking that the hints of ancient cultural stuff like the one-eyed Power, the sky power vs earth, that sort of thing might be more acceptable – and accessible – in that set, than in her later books. Like her very latest, which I saw someone somewhere call a retackling of most of the Riddlemaster’s issues. I don’t think it’s quite that, but there are the bards and riddles and questions of the uses of power.

  4. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately, as I have a sister finishing up her degree in English teaching (for high schoolers) and I’ve been loaning her books for her class in Young Adult literature. (Most recently, THE SCORPIO RACES and THE FLOATING ISLANDS!)

    Almost all of the books I read in my high school literature classes were deeply depressing: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE JUNGLE, ETHAN FROME, Eli Wiesel’s NIGHT, Masuji Ibuse’s BLACK RAIN, Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART… My friends and I joked that they were the type of books calculated to drive kids to suicide, and indeed they did add THE BELL JAR to the curriculum the year my youngest sister was struggling with bipolar disorder and was suicidal. I had a long discussion with my mom over whether they should try to get an exemption for my sister and whether it would be okay for her to immerse herself in that book.

    She did read it eventually, I believe, and was fine. Which opens up the whole other side of the discussion about how sometimes maybe kids need to be exposed to the darkness of the world, to see they’re not the only ones struggling, they’re not alone… I just wish that lesson came with a dose of “Keep going; things will be okay,” because so many of the books we read–so much of the literary canon in general–seemed to point at nothing more than “Life sucks and then you die.” Which is unfortunately true for a lot of people in the world–but shouldn’t we then be motivated to do something to make a difference?

    That’s what I love about speculative fiction, especially fantasy. Life sucks, often, very badly. People suffer. But they struggle through, and they keep going, and eventually they make it. It may not be a triumphant victory. It may come at a terrible cost. But it almost always, in some way, makes the world better. And if teenagers are reading books looking for lessons, that, I think, is the one they need to learn.

    (Of course, a lot of the books I did read in high school were terrific, due in large part to my school’s International Baccalaureate Program, which stressed international works as well as English poets–so we read lots of Shakespeare and Frost and Yeats, as well as The Odyssey and La Morte D’Arthur and Ibsen and Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I spoiled my entire class for the ending of Anna Karenina: I thought it was just part of the cultural zietgeist that everyone knows Anna jumps under a train, but apparently it is not!)

    So, books I’d recommend?

    THE SCORPIO RACES — gorgeous writing, very subtle romance, conflict within families and in society and against nature, superbly understated characters, a depth of feeling, a wealth of thought.

    SCARAMOUCHE (Rafael Sabatini) — not fantasy, but definitely genre, and particularly good if they’re studying the French revolution at the same time. It’s got lots of swashbuckling, but it’s also got fantastic characters and really complex themes–great for conversations about what happens when you act without thinking, when you think without acting, when you engage in a cause without fully believing, when you weigh the difficult choices between personal and societal good, when you take a good cause too far. Plus it’s got one of the best first lines in literature: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

    THE HERO AND THE CROWN — I first read it when I was in third grade and it is not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, and everything I thought about what a girl could be.

  5. Well, I’m not going to argue too hard against the Riddlemaster trilogy, which is probably one of my favorite stories of all time! Onward! Get it in those curricula!

  6. And THE BLUE SWORD! Those two books define for me a particular kind of storytelling, where the characters are perfect and the writing is absolutely plain but perfect and therefore invisible, and you fall directly into the story. I would love to see those two books on every school’s reading list!

    SCARAMOUCHE — never read it, but now I will add it to my wish list.

    And of course, SCORPIO RACES. Why didn’t I think of that?

    I think our society . . . have I said this before? Sorry if I’m repeating myself . . . takes it for granted that in order to have artistic depth and worth, a piece must be grim and carry the message that life is intrinsically tragic and hopeless. And lit teachers too often buy into that message. And since they want to assign great books, and since despair is intrinsic to greatness . . . well, there you go.

    And I just can’t stand that. I think that idea is not only unappealing to me personally, but flatly wrong. AND totally the wrong thing to be trying to teach children.

    Now, it’s not that I think every message directed at kids needs to be unicorns and rainbows and puppies. No. But there’s nothing wrong with the message that happiness is also part of the human condition, and not an inferior part, either; that being happy does not mean you must lack depth; that in general if you work to make your life better, you can.

    What we do not need is to provide an unrelenting message of gloom and doom. Because issues of depression in young people aside — and I do think those are very real issues — that message is actually not true.

    And the occasional rainbow and puppy is fine, for heaven’s sake. And possibly not even lacking in literary merit.

    Okay! Stepping off the soapbox now.

  7. SCARAMOUCHE is a lot of fun, and so is the movie they made from it. The text is on Gutenberg, if you want to check it out easily. Sabatini also wrote Captain Blood – he seems to have enjoyed swashing those bucklers.

    In the department of people are weird and unpredictable, as an 8th grader (or so) I had to read ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and loved it. Although I’m not sure I realized the guy died at the end. And I like most of the Greek tragedies. Those, I think, come off differently to a reader than the modern grim novels – there’s a grandeur about them, that seems to say: even if you can’t beat your ‘fate’ (Oedipus, I’m looking at you), something great comes of your struggles. It isn’t all doom, gloom and depression. It might be related to the Northern thing about dying well, even if it’s Ragnarok, you don’t give up, you do your best. In the grim modern crap (ahem) what is very often lacking in the examples I’ve read is that sense that it is worth doing your best no matter what. The older stuff is not necessarily hopeful in the standard sense, but it offers something more than hopelessness and despair.

    Wasn’t there a big stink on the web several months ago when a reviewer – was it in the WSJ? – asked why there was so much grim stuff in YA?

    Anyway, my daughter is interesting to me, in that she has commented that she doesn’t like stories that are all fun and games, rainbows and puppies – it’s like a diet of cotton candy. She wants a balance. I’m not sure how many fifteen year olds are aware enough to discern that – I’m pretty sure my contemporaries & me didn’t at that age.

    LOTF didn’t offer that. For the Bradbury her objections were half the style – it grated on her – and half the subject matter. I’d zeroed in on the Verne because he’s a ‘classic’ writer, so I thought he might be more acceptable to a teacher. Besides the girl already has read and liked several of his books.

    Mary Beth, how is your sister doing these days? Our daughter is bipolar, but tends to mania, not depression. Still, her experiences over the last 6 years since her diagnosis have left her very sensitive to certain elements in stories – part of her issues with Catch-22, I believe, although she won’t talk about it much.

    Totally off topic: We saw BRAVE this morning and liked it.

    And now I need to go finish the chocolate parfait pie/frozen chocolate pie I promised her.

  8. Elaine, I first read ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT in about 8th grade, too, and adored it. I first read BEOWULF the year before, and in 6th grade I loved THE ILIAD enough that I convinced my group in technology class to try build a working catapult. (Nevermind that they didn’t have catapults in the Trojan War; the catapult ended up not working anyway). So I completely understand you on the “people are weird and unpredictable” front. ;) I think you’ve very right about the old classics focusing on something great coming of your struggles, of ‘dying well’; I wonder how much of the darkness we see in the modern literature we’ve been talking about is that our culture has lost that focus on honor and greatness and leaving “a fame and name that cannot be slain” — of doing something bigger than yourself, leaving something worthy behind.

    Which is not to say that I want to read a new crop of novels where the hero dies at the end and leaves everybody building a ginormous funeral pyre and singing lamentations — but I want to see characters able to make a difference in their world, to make an impact on the people around them, to MATTER. Because isn’t that a legacy we all want to leave?

    My sister is doing much better these days, btw. She’s nineteen and just finished her freshman year at college 1600 miles away from home (though at the same school all four of her sisters attended previously, and several of us are still in the area to look after her). She struggled a lot, and sometimes had weeks where she didn’t manage to make it to class, but she’s really worked hard on taking care of herself and doing her best. I think one thing that was really important for her to realize was that, coming 5th after 4 overachieving sisters, her best wasn’t necessarily OUR best — all that matters is that she do what she is capable of doing, and do it to the best of her abilities at that moment.

    …Which is pretty much what we’ve been saying books should teach us. :)

  9. “but I want to see characters able to make a difference in their world, to make an impact on the people around them, to MATTER. Because isn’t that a legacy we all want to leave?”


    Preferably a positive impact of some kind, too.

    I’m glad to hear your sister is doing so well. It gives me hope that our girl will do well in the end. It’s not just bipolar she’s got, there are a couple other physical medical problems that have added to her difficulties. We’re trying to get the same idea across that your sister needed to grasp: do [whatever] to the best of your abilities when you do it. And work to learn to do it better. She’s getting there. As the physical problems dwindle it gets easier. Quite possibly her reading helps, too, although I try not to inquire too deeply and make reading seem like lessons.

  10. “I wonder how much of the darkness we see in the modern literature we’ve been talking about is that our culture has lost that focus on honor and greatness and leaving “a fame and name that cannot be slain” — of doing something bigger than yourself, leaving something worthy behind. ”

    I think this hit the nail on the head — at least one of the nails.

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