Monday, March 23, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #1 What Is It?

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it. 

So what are we even talking about? The word "literature" suggests some special quality that is elevated beyond just reading stuff like a cereal box or a blog post. Everybody has an opinion about what qualifies and what does not, and some people feel pretty damn strongly about those opinions.

The frame I used is a modified version of what I learned from my own high school English teacher, and I find it useful for sorting things out. Our four categories are:


Classics have been tested by time. That requires a couple of generations. It's easier, perhaps, to see the process with music. Particular music has its big popularity when it's new, then a nostalgia bump when the people who grew up with it inflict it on their own children. Eventually, if people still listen to it, it's because they find something there that speaks to them. Initial popularity is not always a good measure; "In The Mood" was not a huge hit when it was new, nor was "Bohemian Rhapsody." Now they're iconic.

So there has to be time, and then there has to be something universal in the work that still speaks to people after decades have passed. Romeo and Juliet still makers sense to folks, to the point that it can be refilmed or restaged every decade or so and be successful. (Note: not true of all Shakespeare).

Note that when I say a work speaks to us today, there are three elements in that formulation-- the work, us, and today. The Canon, or any ideas about the Canon, can't be set in stone. Who we are and what is going on in our world changes what messages matter or can cut through. Almost everything in the Canon, regardless of whose canon you're talking about, has been ion and out of favor over the years. That's okay; the very act of re-evaluating the Canon is part of the value in teaching literature-- "What is this work saying, what is it saying to us, and how is it saying it" are fundamental questions that make us better by being wrestled with.

In fact, whether a work is classic or not can depend on presentation and framing. I was required for years to teach Julius Caesar, and could not sell it to save my life (10th graders are not, it turns out, electrified by political intrigue). But when I started framing it as a play about trying to read the signs-- can you tell when something bad is about to happen, and having read them, avoid it--it clicked. Likewise, Hamlet doesn't fly as a play about palace intrigue, but if you ask adolescents "What would you do if your life sucked so much you couldn't stand it and you had nowhere to turn to deal with it," they get it. It's all about the big questions-- how does the world work, and what does it mean to be a human in it?

Great Works:

There are works of art that are important, even if nobody really relates to them. Ulysses is important and influential, but you didn't really read it. Moby Dick is iconic, but Oh My God in heaven, what a slog to get through. Like a movie that's important in film history, but impossible to sit through, some works hold an important spot in the history of literature or of a culture, but modern readers are unlikely to forge a relationship with them. These are often the works that hardcore fans read--but nobody else (like, say, Shakespeare's histories).

You'll know you're teaching one of these if you spend a lot of time trying to explain to your students why anybody should care about the work at all, rather than showing them the connections to the world they live in. Important works don't have to pass a test of time, either. They can be important right now.

Good Trash:

Throughout history, few writers have sat down thinking, "I will create a universal classic that will live through the ages." (Walt Whitman counts as an exception.) Mostly, writers sit down and say things like "I am hungry and would like money to buy food" or "I have some cool ideas and would like to draw a crowd to look at them" or even just "I have to write just like I have to breathe, but I do hope somebody will pay me to do it." Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Big Billy Shakespeare-- these were all guys who were trying to get the bills paid.

This was a revelation to 14-year-old me, who imagined that authors were pursuing some elevated heavens-inspired genius. I think the most important implication of this idea is that it means that writers live/lived in the exact same world as the rest of us.

My teacher used the "trash" label a bit ironically, meaning simply work written out of a need for money or an audience--and that's not a bad thing. The questions may be small, the issues simple (how do I get away from a bloodsucking monster in an old house). What distinguishes good trash is that it is well put together. The characters act like real humans, and the prose is smooth and well-constructed. Stephen King writes good trash. Virtually all classic started out as good trash when they were new.

Bad trash:

The motives are the same, but the material is awful. Characters don't act like recognizable humans, but function as two-dimensional plot engines. The writing itself is awkward and clunky, and often not even very precise or clear. Dan Brown writes bad trash. The Twilight books are bad trash.

Not time nor perspective elevate bad trash. At best they serve as good negative examples.

We can teach from any of these categories, but we do so for different reasons. Classics deal with the big questions and show students new connections to their world. Great works each carry their own reason for being. Good trash is great for growing readers because it is more immediate and relatable. Bad trash-- well, as I said, negative examples.

Oh-- and super important note-- all of this applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.

In the days ahead I'm going to dive further into the why of all this. I would be delighted to read your thoughts and responses in the comments. I'm really hoping to kind of hide for a bit back in the work I always loved while we try to navigate the current craziness.

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