From the Basement

August 10, 2010

Free Indeed: Writing & Reading Outside of Academia

Today, it struck me how different my summer would have been had I been accepted to grad school, particularly in terms of reading. In the eager anticipation of entering a doctoral program, I had prepared a list of “must read” books – notable 19th century novels, notable theorists. A small sampling:

Nathaniel Hawthorne – Blithedale Romance

George Eliot – Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss

Matthew Arnold – Culture and Anarchy

Catherine Gallagher – Nobody’s Story

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble

Since grad school didn’t work out, I’ve been reading very different sorts of books – the sort that doesn’t secure cultural capitol in academia. Genre fiction, memoir, Christian living. Desiring God and Women Food and God were two of the best reads this summer, and I just finished Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (I didn’t realize Janzen was an English professor until I started reading). I’ve been traipsing around Egypt with Amelia Peabody and indulging in the romantic comedies of Jennifer Crusie, whose titles (Welcome to Temptation, Faking It) are apt to send the literati into seizures. The disappointment of the summer was James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series – I made it through four books before tiring of the formula.

The closest I’ve come to grad school reading material is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and maybe The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I’m almost done reading the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies, but I don’t know if that counts since I would read her stuff even if she hadn’t won the Pulitzer. She and Atwood are quite possibly the only literary writers I enjoy – reading Toni Morrison is like pulling teeth and I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of a Salman Rushdie novel, sorry.

All this has me wondering: exactly why did I want to go to grad school? I’m terrific at forcing myself to read books I don’t want to, mainly because it feeds my English Major Ego – I could force down Native Son again if my professors told me to. It’s about being able to say you’ve read this novel or that novel or this theory or that theory…

The question arises: what’s the point? I might pick up one of the aforementioned novels, because I really am interested in reading more 19th century work, but they’re obviously not my priority or I would have read them already.

Here’s the thing: if you give me the option between writing a novel and studying a novel, I’d rather write a novel. My English major was an external result of a deep love and appreciation for the power of a good story. I think literature is of critical importance in a society, mainly because good stories are absolutely critical to the nourishment of the human spirit.

My reading this summer has been the sort that nourishes that spirit, or at least mine. It’s encouraging, revelatory, instructive, hopeful. In its own way, it teaches. (It also teaches you how contemporary novels are structured, because I’m sorry, but Middlemarch and Pamela are utterly useless when it comes to learning how to write a novel.)

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a close friend. We were talking about how God had leveled our plans and expectations. My friend had thought she wanted to pursue teaching or higher education in public policy, when what she really loves is being on the ground, working with the people, loving the people. For me, I’d thought I wanted a doctorate in literature so I could teach about other people’s stories, when what I really love is writing my own stories. God took away the chaff and gave us the wheat, the small, concentrated portion that had been driving us the whole time.

God’s taken us both to a place where our real passion is evidenced. She’s working on the ground with people, and I’m writing a novel. Unemployed and living at home, but writing! I can read whatever I want to, and no one is going to judge me. I can write whatever I want to, and who cares if people judge me? My goal is to write a good story, imperfectly told, that is emotionally honest and accessible.

That’s what I want. I don’t need to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri; I’m content to learn from her. I don’t need a Pulitzer or a Booker or to be “literary” or to please my professors or even to please my friends… I need to tell the best story I can, one that is honest and emotional, that demonstrates the value of the human spirit. A friend recently texted me these words of encouragement: “You have something to share with the world that no one else does. God has words for you to communicate – not even necessarily sacred writing – but stories.”

And who knows? Maybe someday I will want to read Middlemarch and Pamela, and maybe I’ll want to pursue a doctorate… just not right now. Not while I’m writing, gloriously writing. For the first time in years, I feel free.

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June 20, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part one

I’m going to come out and say it: I’ve read Twilight. More specifically, I read the first three books in a dizzy, coffee-induced fury two years ago. I have since labeled that frenzy “hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but in truth, I’m very, very glad that I’ve read 3/4 of the series that is defining a generation.

Like it or not, it is defining our generation’s teenage years. 12 years ago, I was on the younger end of the generation that grew up with the original Britney and Backstreet Boys, that cut its teeth on Harry Potter. Now, I’m on the older end of the spectrum – at the ripe old age of 22, I go gaga for Lady GaGa rather than Edward Cullen, but Twilight is a phenomenon reaching beyond the borders of age and into the consciouses of cultural commentators, professors, publishing professionals, and concerned parents. (Yes, they should be concerned.)

I have a feeling that this is the first of many posts on this subject, but I want to address a few things up front. Namely, the discussion of good vs. bad literature, and why I think the series is important regardless of the answer.

So, do I think Twilight is good literature?

To me, this is an irrelevent question that gets bandied about almost exclusively by those who are leaping out of their chair with the exciting revelation that Twilight is badly written. Thus, it is bad literature, and thus, you shouldn’t read it!

That logic doesn’t work for several reasons. First, we lack a definition of “good” versus “bad” literature. Do we mean the quality of writing? One major complaint is that Twilight is badly written. For the sake of argument, let’s take that claim. So – what makes it badly written? Notwithstanding S. Meyer’s affinity for adverbs, critics may point to overwrought emotions, constipated prose, and the poorly constructed story arc. Valid arguments that I actually agree with, by the way.

However, I doubt that anti-Twilight sentiment would be so vehement if those were the soul reasons for disapproval. While I’d like to believe that there are in fact enough former English majors out there to stir up a grammar revolution, chances are good that they’re not leading the brigade. Moreover, as one who has read Twilight, I can assert that Meyer’s writing actually improves with each book. It gets better, I promise! (The writing, not necessarily the story.) But in spite of this fact, critics still claim that Meyer’s bad writing is ruining teenagers’ understanding of literature. (And The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High didn’t? Please.)

As a side note, I’d like to point out that some of the evidence for “bad writing” – e.g. the overwrought emotions – are common traps of the genre – that is to say, other YA and Romance books. Similarly, cardboard characters are a common trap for thriller writers, one that John Grisham falls into all the time (Dan Brown, too). This doesn’t make it okay to fall into a trap; I’m just observing that Meyer takes a heckuva lot more flack than Grisham and Brown, partly because of the genre she’s writing in. That aside, Grisham, Brown, and Meyer get the last laugh – they’ve had some of the highest grossing book sales of the past decade, and none of them seem that bothered about not winning a Pulitzer.

Bad writing is in the eye of the beholder, and “bad writing” (whatever it is) does not mean that a book won’t sell or – more importantly – that a story isn’t compelling. People very much enjoy heaping criticisms of “bad writing” on authors, and yet they almost always fail to offer a definition of good writing. It’s quite annoying. Why are people so ticked off that bad writers are on the bestseller list? Why aren’t they buying books by good authors? And why aren’t the books with good writing selling?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. Oftentimes, there is a gap between good writing and good stories. I’ll make yet another distinction: there is often a gap between these things for the pickiest of readers. Most of the time, bestsellers come from decent writers who have incredible self-discipline and an inordinately compelling idea (think J.K. Rowling). Notwithstanding Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, most bestsellers are nowhere near a Pulitzer. They do not foreground language; they emphasize tension and story, simply because most readers (yours truly included) put a compelling premise above quality of writing. If offered a scintillating page of description or a scintillating good vs. evil scene, um, I’ll take the scene (sorry, Ian McEwan).

This preference (compelling scene vs. inclusion in a Norton Anthology) is part of why Grisham, Brown, Rowling, and – yes – Meyer are on the bestseller list. And this is why literary writers are more often found in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shenandoah, which – while outstanding – are not widely read publications outside of academia. (The New Yorker is the grand exception.)

I recognize that I am making enormous generalizations here, and I do not mean to set up the binary literary/bestseller. They’re not mutually exclusive. Plenty of outstanding “literary” writers enjoy popular readership (the aforementioned Morrison and Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri – love her). There are literary writers who produce beautifully constructed, emotionally compelling stories which are sadly overlooked. And, of course, there are plenty of decent writers whose work does not sell “decently.”

But – I don’t think my main point can be overstated. That is, as long as the writing isn’t painfully bad, people flock to compelling stories. Good is subjective, but few can deny that certain premises – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard, a young lawyer who gets taken in by the Mob – are compelling, even if it’s not your preferred cup of tea. This explains a lot about Twilight‘s popularity. Many critics of the series just don’t seem to understand the concept. When you start bitching about Twilight, everyone’s standards shoot through the roof.

(It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.)

Of course, Twilight is also interesting for other reasons. Because it pushes the boundaries of what we consider “good” storytelling (is it the writing? the structure? the message?). Because it’s chalk full of controversy – allegations of unhealthy relationships, obsessive-compulsive behavior, blood play, teenage sexuality (it’s been called “abstinence porn”). It’s also a story we’ve seen before – Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, and especially Wuthering Heights (which Bella is actually reading in chapter two of the first book). Yet it is a bona fide phenomenon – it hit on something that our culture is hungry for, perhaps starving for.

What most interests me about Twilight is not the quality of writing. It is simply this: what is it about this book that so resonates with youth today, and what does that say about our culture? At many points throughout the series, Bella seems almost a proxy for the reader. She is insecure, lonely. She has low self-esteem. Her parents are divorced. She considers herself average, or even below average. So why is she so popular with readers? And why is an emotionally stunted 100+ year old vampire a romantic hero? Lack of choice is a theme that permeates the series (it is almost the anti-Harry Potter in that respect), and it has hit on something deep within our cultural subconscious. Even those who do not identify with or enjoy the series find themselves enveloped in the conversations and debates surrounding Twilight and its similar cultural counterparts, such as the hit television series True Blood (initially based on Charlaine Harris’ pre-Twilight Sookie Stackhouse series).

Why is Twilight such a powerful force in our culture?

That is what I want to think about.

And on the note of literature, good literature – the stuff that I learned in my English courses at college – is often what defines a generation. I’m not saying that Twilight will be anthologized and taught as part of university curriculum, etc. etc. But it’s clearly of cultural importance, and that makes it worth studying.

And last but not least, to the critics who routinely lambast “popular fiction” as not worthy of study, I would add that Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Jane Austen wrote the “popular” fiction of their day. Dickens and Dumas were serialized in the newspapers. They had something to say that resonated with people in their time, and even after. And there’s no way they could have predicted that. /tangent

While another post on this subject brews, feel free to respond (I’d love to get your take on the series or anything I’ve said). I will also leave you with two marvelously entertaining links, both of which are rather critical of Twilight. (Please send me links to positive stuff; it’s hard to come by on the internet.)

The first is to a series of posts in which the LJ blogger Cleolinda gives a snarky chapter-by-chapter summary of Breaking Dawn, the last installment in the series: http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/630150.html

The second is a wonderful video blog entitled “Alex Reads Twilight.” It’s a 20something British guy giving short, >5 minute summaries of the chapters as he reads Twilight. He says such wonderful things as “Who the fuck is Lauren?” and “Stephenie Meyer plus science equals wrong.” He also has a remarkable eye for spotting S. Meyer’s dangling subplots. Hope you enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L253VLwH3w&feature=player_embedded

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