Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

I’m teaching a philosophy class this semester. First time. Nothing big, just a basic introduction course, but it’s been interesting and I LOVE the students. They are so curious, so questioning. They don’t hesitate to call ‘crap!’ on these philosophers!

But today we had a discussion that really broke my heart.

I’m a historian and a writer, above all else. (And, currently, a feeder of newborn kittens every two hours, but I digress.) So in philosophy, I love to go into the history of the times, so my students understand why these philosophers were thinking about certain things, what their inspirations were, even what they were railing against. So today, we finally got to the Existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. – and I was able to talk about the tragedies of the Industrial Revolution and the horrors of World War I.

And I mentioned the literature of the time, too. How it was moving from the romanticism of Jane Austen, to the more rugged adventures of Mark Twain. That it was a reflection of the times (I forgot to mention Upton Sinclair, though!), I especially mentioned Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.”

Now, let me be clear:  I don’t love all literature, and I don’t think all the literature we force down the throats of high school and college students today is worth the paper its printed on. If I ever get my hands on a TARDIS, the first thing I’m going to do is go back in time and shoot Flaubert before he has a chance to write Madame Bovary. I’ve never, ever wanted a character to die on page 1 as much as I wanted that self-centered, self-absorbed bitch to die!

Again, I digress. Suffice to say, there is literature we all could do without.

But what broke my heart was when I discussed “The Story of an Hour” and heard that my students a.) weren’t reading it in class, and b.) hated their literature classes. Hated their Comp 2 classes, in fact, because they are basically literature classes. And what they hated most was the stories the teacher had chosen.

No, I don’t like all literature. (See remarks on Madame Bovary, above.) I think there’s a lot more out there that could be explored, but isn’t, either because the teachers are too lazy to do the prep work, or because they just don’t like the stories. I hate that students aren’t allowed to ‘choose their own adventure’ when it comes to literature. I took a British Lit class once because I adore British Lit – but the stories the teacher chose were really, truly awful.

More importantly, though, what I always hated about my lit classes was the lack of history that went along with them.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the thing:  nothing exists in a vacuum. Teaching is, and should be, a holistic experience. In Anthropology, we explore everything – history, colonization, artwork, marriage and family relations, religion, biology, forensic science, current events . . . and I do the same in my history classes. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.


Ever read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? I have, and when it was presented to me, I had no clue how to interpret it (though I did despise Gregor’s family and sympathized with him greatly, which earned me the ire and mockery of my classmates). Now, I know far more about Kafka’s life, and the society in which he lived, and his influences, and I have a much better grasp on that story. But when I was younger? Nope. It’s really quite philosophical, in fact; really, it’s a discussion of Kafka’s own bleak outlook on life, that all humans are doomed to be alone, to always live as outcasts, never to be truly known by others. (And, apparently, also doomed to die with a rotting fruit stuck in our carapaces.) So if you thought it was just about a guy who turns into a bug, think again.

Let me go back to “The Story of an Hour.” If you’ve never read it, here’s a link:  http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/

This is a story about a woman who has been under the thumb of her husband for her entire married life. Maybe he was abusive; maybe he wasn’t; Chopin lets us draw our own conclusions there. But once she this woman realizes he is dead, she also realizes one critical fact:  she’s free.

I talk about this story in my US History classes, when we look at the Victorian Era. This story was published in 1894 – twenty five years before women had the right to vote! Chopin was a voice crying out for women’s liberation before the term had ever been coined. She urged women to fight for their rights and their independence, every bit as much as Jefferson, et.al., urged the American colonies to rebel against the shackles of Britain (their words; I’m a Loyalist, myself!). But unless you know about the Victorian Era, the ‘cult of domesticity’ that kept upper-class women busy with silly affairs of the home, and the wrath and ridicule that women who dared step out of their sphere of influence endured – then how can you fully grasp what this story’s about?

Fact:  You can’t.

Every single time I put this story in its proper historical context in my courses, I see the light dawning on students’ faces. Hear the words. “Oh! THAT’S what it means! We read it in Lit, but I had no idea what it meant.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. How can you pretend to teach Siegfried Sassoon, Kate Chopin, Anna Sewell, Rudyard Kipling  – any of the 19th century writers – without putting their works into context? How??????? How can you sit there and preach to the students what they should and shouldn’t “get” out of these stories and novels, and not give them the tools to understand them?

Fact:  You can’t.

No one would dare try to teach the Declaration of Independence, or Common Sense, or “Vindication of the Rights of Women” without historical context. So why do it for literature? These are historical documents, too! No, when they were written, the authors didn’t consider them to be historical. But they are. They are microcosms of 19th century life – the mannerisms, clothing, hair styles, society and social hierarchy, politics, humor, even the jobs and modes of transportation, are all there.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not you. Not me. Not literature.

So please, lit instructors:  give it context, and make it interesting.

And if you can’t – maybe you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.

Writing Every Day: Myths, Realities, & Why I Hate It

Pick up a writing book – any writing book – and I’ll bet you that somewhere in there, it says something to the effect of:  “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every single day. Even if it’s crap. Write.”

Or it’s “Set a goal of x number of words per day. If you write 500 words per day, in a year you’ll have a novel!” Or whatever the magical number is supposed to be.

I hate this advice. And here’s why:

1.) It assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality. News flash:  no one is the same. Painters do not paint in the same style as everyone else. That’s how art historians can tell whether it was really Rembrandt who painted this particular work, or one of the many assistants he kept on staff – or even a forger two hundred years later. Writers do not write the same, either. Yes, there are some who write every single day because if they don’t, they lose the rhythm, or the plot, or (like a friend of mine) turn into raving lunatics. But not everyone is like that.

2.) How much pressure is that to put on new writers? “Write every day OR ELSE!” Or else what, exactly? The world won’t end. You may take longer to get better at writing, is all.

2.) Sometimes, I literally don’t have the time to write. We all have busy lives. Some have kids and spouses; others, pets. Most writers have other jobs (maybe even 2 or 3 jobs) to pay the bills. Real jobs that require us to shower and go out into the world and interact with people that care whether we brushed our teeth this morning or not.

3.) Sometimes, I don’t feel like it. We all need breaks from everything in our lives. That’s why people take vacations. If I’m stressed and frustrated about other things in my life, it’s impossible to get my writing mojo in gear. My writing needs to be something I come to when I’m fresh and excited to be there. Like sex! Ever have sex when you really didn’t want to? It’s like that. Take the past two weeks, for example:  I had graduate tests to oversee, just found out my hours are getting cut at work much more severely than I originally thought, and I still hadn’t done my taxes. It wasn’t until the tests were done, taxes were done, and the job search was underway, that I felt like going back to my manuscript.

4.) I need to have something in mind when I sit down to write, a scene that must be written. If the characters aren’t in my head chattering away, I don’t write. All the times I’ve sat down at the computer and forced myself to type something out because I felt like I had to, it’s all been absolute crap. I’ve learned over the years not to force it. A lot of people will say “Write it anyway! You can revise it later!” But there’s revision, and then there’s I have to toss the five pages of dribble that I forced myself to write the other day, because there’s nothing here worth salvaging.

5.) It makes writing into a chore – and you resent it. You get home from a long day at work, the kids are screaming, the cat’s throwing up, you’re getting a headache . . . and then you think, ‘I’ve got to write 500 words tonight before I can go to bed!’ How good do you think those 500 words are going to be? And more importantly, how much are you going to resent every single one of those words?

6.) But the thing I hate most about this advice is that I believe it stops people from writing. New writers who read this advice and think ‘Holy crap, I can’t write 500 words a day, every day! There’s no point in even starting!” So they go do something else instead, and that dream they had? Of writing? It never gets fulfilled. Because of this advice.

Now, I admit that when I’m in the middle of drafting a novel, writing every day, or nearly every day, does help me stay connected with my characters and my story. But if all I’m doing is typing out cold dribbles of pudding that will never, ever end up in the finished version, what am I accomplishing? Nothing. I may as well be photographing in the dark without a flash.

The idea that all writers write every single bloody day is a MYTH. If you’re trying to get into the writing habit, then yes, a word count per week is a good idea – but for some of us, it just doesn’t work. We’re wired differently. I can go days – even weeks – without actually putting fingers to keyboard. But I’m mulling over ideas. Letting the story evolve in my subconscious. And then, when I do sit down, I write in spurts, doing two or three hours a day, every day, for a week or two, or even six or seven, depending on the project. It’s just how I roll. It’s neither right or wrong. It just IS.

If you’re a slow writer, or you need to do research, or life simply gets in the way and you think you can’t write because of that – of course you can! It’s a different path, is all. It takes longer to get there. But you CAN get there.

Writing should be a joy, not a chore. It should be the place we go to express ourselves, to find an outlet for our creativity, to give our characters voices and lives and beating hearts.

So just do this for me.

Write when you can.


“But WHY are the curtains blue?” A rant about ‘literary criticism’

When I first started college, I intended to go into English, maybe majoring in Literature. But I figured out pretty quickly that I lacked one major character trait that was absolutely necessary for being a Lit major:  I had zero ability to rip apart a work and analyze it for every last nit-picky thing. (Okay. Really, I should say “interest,” not “ability.” I had the ability. I just couldn’t be bothered.)

To be fair, I should have figured this out in high school. I didn’t need it all spoon-fed to me. I didn’t need to endlessly discuss each and every novel. Yes, I get it, Jim is Huck’s surrogate father. Yes, I get the symbolism of Hester Prynne’s beautifully embroidered A. No, I do not want to ponder the dichotomy between Heathcliff and Catherine; I want them to both die already so I can stop reading this god-awful book!

Currently, I’m editing a small anthology of literary analyses of HP Lovecraft’s stories. Ironic, yes, I know. Having never read Lovecraft, I’m intrigued by the depth and range of his work. But I’m even more fascinated by the people writing these papers.

If you don’t know Lovecraft, he is considered one of the very first sci-fi and fantasy writers. He wrote mostly in the 1920s and into the 1930s. His writing style is . . . odd. Though born and bred in America, he affects an 18th-century British ‘accent’ in his writing that even I, a dyed-in-the-Lake-District-wool Anglophile, find frustrating (in large part because half the time, I can’t tell if the person writing the analysis misspelled the word, or if they’ve got it right and it’s one of Lovecraft’s misspellings instead). However, I am coming to appreciate – deeply – his word usage, his sentence structure, his ability to create fantastical plots, and his descriptions.

And holy cow, can his fans find depth in his stories!

A few years ago – I forget exactly where – I heard a story about an author who was scheduled to give a presentation at a small college. Most attendees would be college students and instructors, and she was looking forward to an hour or so of give and take. But when she got there, they started bombarding her with questions. “Why are the curtains in Sarah’s room blue? What does blue MEAN?!” Etcetera, etcetera. She finally held up her hands, waited for the questions to stop, and then told them that – gasp! – it all meant nothing. The curtains were blue because that’s what she saw in her mind when she wrote the scene. That’s. It.

That’s how I feel about literary criticism. Who bloody freaking cares if the curtains are blue? Who cares what the red dress signifies (ahem; unless you’re in the 1950s and it’s a subconscious ploy to get you to think about Communism, that is)?

Take Lovecraft, for example. There are two papers in this anthology that deal with the same short story, The Colour Out of Space. These two papers make radically different arguments, come at it from radically different viewpoints, and – you guessed it – come to radically different conclusions. One is absolutely certain that Lovecraft was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and there can be no other explanation. The other is absolutely certain that this is a story about radiation poisoning. Both have good evidence (though as a historian, I find one a bit more convincing and interesting than the other). But what a contrast!

See, this is why I find literary criticism so pointless. A story means one thing to me. It means another thing to you. And it means something else to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Why can’t we all be right? Why can’t we just take our interpretations and conclusions, agree that we’re all brilliant, and go home with smiley faces on our papers? Why does the professor have to glare down his nose at some of us, heave a great sigh, and say, “Of course this isn’t right! This is a dribble of cold pudding! Try again!” I despise digging deeper into a story. I despise looking for meaning. Maybe the author didn’t have a deeper meaning. Maybe the blue curtains really are just blue because that’s what she was thinking of at the time. Maybe the curtains in her own room are blue. Maybe somewhere, the character said their favorite color was blue. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . . who knows?

More to the point, who cares?!

Seriously. I am happy to rip apart primary sources, picking apart words and sentences, to dig for the true meaning behind the words of the person who wrote it. It’s one of my favorite things, in fact. But picking apart a fictional story to discover the greater meaning, is just So Bloody Pointless.

By now, I realize I’ve destroyed any and all chance of ever being admitted to University of Oxford or any other schools worth attending. Oh well. To quote one of my favorite movies, “I said what I said, and I’ll defend it to the death!” (McLintock!)

So right here, right now, I make a plea to my future readers and critics. Do not do this to my books. There is no deeper meaning, I promise you. Kai’s eyes are blue because that’s my favorite eye color. I chose the name Abigail because I happen to like it, not because it means a particular thing relating to x in the plot. Likewise, the name Malachi signifies nothing more than a really cool name, which I could then shorten into an even cooler name. I am a totally superficial writer, and a totally superficial reader. I will not look deeper into a text for the Greater Meaning Of It All. And I won’t write esoteric Easter eggs into my novels, either. My Easter eggs are right there in the open.

I do wonder, though, what Lovecraft would think of the papers I’m editing, particularly the one I read today in which the word ‘phallus’ was used (I kid you not, I counted) 40 times in 4 double-spaced pages. See, that’s what I mean.

Please, people. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. Life is short. Read for enjoyment. I beg you.

Pushing the Edge: YA Fiction and My Sanity!

You know how last week I wrote that I can’t slow down? Yeah. Screw that.

Mostly because I spent this weekend in a marathon of course-building.

Don’t get me wrong. I like building, designing, and creating courses. I wish I could do more of it. But when you have it all built, and then you lose the entire thing, and it has to go live in 48 hours . . .

This particular course is a continuing education class on young adult fiction, geared specifically for high school and middle school instructors. They’re looking at current YA fiction and how to implement it in their classes. It has been a great deal of fun to design and create it.

I like young adult fiction. There’s something about it — maybe it’s the fact that it moves fast, it starts fast, and it’s often funny and insightful and irreverent. I’ve discovered in the past year, of taking the wonderful Writing Young Adult Fiction online course through the University of Oxford, and writing my own YA book, and helping my friend with hers’, that there’s an entire “cult” out there of adults who are YA devotees. And I think that’s fairly new. I remember when my niece and nephew gave me the first two Harry Potter paperbacks several years ago, I’d barely even heard of those books. But there I was, five days later, at the library, queued up to borrow Prisoner of Azkaban and enduring some really weird looks from the librarian, who I suppose was wondering what a twenty-something wanted with a young adult novel, and why didn’t I just go buy it for myself? Actually, there was some validity to that last question. But the first one was clear:  I needed to know what happened next! I suppose there was supposed to be some sort of shame to wanting to read a young adult novel, the same way there’s a secret little shame in wanting to read romance novels.

Today, though I walk into Barnes and Noble and buy them outright. (The young adult novels, I mean, not the romance novels. I download those to my Nook.) And I’m not the only adult who does that. (Buys YA fiction, I mean, not downloading romance novels.) Today’s YA is edgy, well-written, fast-moving, and explores topics teenagers want to read about. Just because we don’t currently live in a dystopian society doesn’t mean teens can’t relate to Katniss or Tris. And just because (as far as we know, anyway!) there is no Downworld, that doesn’t mean the lives of Will, Jem, and Tessa, or Clary and Jace, are any less important, and that their struggles and problems are any less relate-able.

There’s a fantastic book, How to Write Great Books for Young Adults, that we used as our “textbook” at Oxford. The author is YA literary agent Regina Brooks. She is passionate about young adult fiction, and this is one of the best books out there, IMO, for learning the basics of YA fiction and how to write it. Because it is different from adult fiction! There are different rules. It has to move fast. It has to have a YA protagonist. The parents should be unobtrusive. Etcetera.If you’re at all interested in writing young adult fiction, you have to get that book. Likewise, there’s a plethora of information out there online. Blogs written by YA authors. Articles from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times about the “darkness” and “edginess” of YA fiction and is it good or bad? It really is its own world — slowly expanding into its own universe.

So I’m excited to see where this course takes my students, and I think they’re excited about it, too. I already know that next year, if I get to teach it again, I’ll choose two different books — The Fault in Our Stars and Code Name:  Verity rather than Thirteen Reasons Why and The Book Thief. Just to keep it fresh and new. But for now, after a 48-hour marathon of revision and rebuilding, I’m happy that it’s up and running, and that I’ve got ten instructors who want to give YA fiction a whirl in the classroom.