13 February, 2018

but why not dragons?

So over on Facebook I see a post by a former grad-student-turned-HS-teacher, asking how to help a student of hers "transition" from epic fantasy to "more serious" literature, and I am back to being 19 again, in the TA offices, listening to the MFA grad students going on about genre in tones of great scorn, and feeling defensive and defiant. Be proud of me, readers: I did not storm in there and punk-post about judging books by their cover (the student reads books with "dragons on the cover," which is obviously proof of the contents' quality), or get high-handed about how fantasy can be, and often is, serious literature with challenging writing, jesus H, have you read N. K. Jemisin or Le Guin or goddamned Beowulf, the fuck is wrong with you?

Instead, I spent a morning on this post instead of the WIP, but hey, blog posts are still writing, and the WIP needs to percolate a little more, and goddammit.

Once, long ago, I was an undergraduate student who wanted to be a writer. I was persuaded to pursue the literature degree, rather than the creative writing degree, for reasons of practicality, which, had I interrogated them closely, were really based on fears that you can't make a living as a writer rather than any certainty that an English degree would prove more employable. (I should have gone for the astronomy degree, or the chemistry degree, or anything else in STEM. I was dissuaded by Calculus 2, for which I had an abysmal teacher, and a desire to spend my weekends playing D&D instead of in a laboratory.)

I spent much of that undergraduate literature degree reading things I did not like and trying to find ways to read and research things I did like for credit, like the forty-source annotated bibliography on J.R.R. Tolkien scholarship instead of Hawthorne or Dickens or [insert canon author here]. That, in turn, led me to his inspirations and influences, and I discovered Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and All The Medieval Romances(tm) and mythology, which mean going over to Classics for some of my electives (and reading the Welsh and Irish stuff on my own), but whatever. I had imagined that literature was full of dry realism, women seeking husbands and red badges of courage and scarlet As, and instead I found all this magic stuff that looked like D&D. After years of resisting the parental dictates to "read more widely" (which meant: read Dickens and Bronte and put down the Tolkien or Cherryh or the Le Guin) I saw that I could read legit literature and still get my fantasy vibe on.

But I couldn't write it, not in that MFA program, so I kept going with lit in grad school, and after a series of science-grant administrative jobs I ended up adjunct professoring in composition at a big public university. The staff is composed of people like me, lecturers with graduate degrees, and English graduate students in both the PhD and MFA programs. My office shares a hallway with several professors, some in Creative Writing, some in Literature. As one might imagine, I come into contact with a lot of academics. A lot of us like Tolkien. A lot of us are gamers. But for most of us, it's still unserious. Leisure stuff. "Real" literature is something else, something mysterious, that could be universal themes or beautiful prose and universal themes or so much cultural cache we can't get rid of it? (And okay, but why is a goddamned hairy-handed vampire more legit than a dragon, as a book's subject? Dracula, not Twilight.)

Well. In my cynical mood, I'd say what they mean by serious is Not Fun (for me, this applies also to Dracula).

The Facebook poster seems to think that her student's dubious literary analysis skills will be bolstered by Not Reading Fantasy. I think--just based on the kid I was, reading shit I did not like one bit in high school lit classes--that if the student has something to say about the work, her literary analysis will suddenly improve; but if she's bored or disengaged, well. Shitty writing. I learned to fake it, but I had good teachers who let me play with form. My essays were half the time fantastic arguments made in character's voices, weird and recursive and, because I gave a damn about what I was writing, good analysis.

Which is not to say broadening of literary horizons is not a good and necessary thing for cultural literacy and just knowing shit and hey, sometimes we find something we like--I would not have read Virginia Woolf on my own, or any of the modernists, without that graduate seminar--and sometimes we encounter concepts we wouldn't, if we stayed in our comfort zones (Like modernism. Like post-modernism. OH MY GOD, JAMES JOYCE, WHY?) But if we're talking about learning to read critically, then... why not something with dragons on the damn cover? Just because dragons aren't "real"? (Well you know what? Neither is Mrs. Dalloway, or Kurtz or the Artful Dodger. Characters and settings aren't real. They just exist on a scale of scientific-materialist plausibility.)

Here's a thought: if you want someone to be a better writer, let them write about something they care about. Dragons. Or vampires. Or women seeking husbands. Or whatever.  Then make them think critically about why they like it, why the prose is working (or not), what the author's saying. Some writing is just crap, okay! But the way to have someone realize that is not to tell them it's shit and hand them a different book. Teach them to like the thinking, and they'll start looking for writing that makes them think. With or without dragons.