On Falling (Back) in Love with Books

I completed my MA at a relatively small school. For a university, it was very small; total enrollment hovers around 5,000. In many ways, the school’s size was an advantage; graduate programs are notorious breeding grounds for competition and resentment, but my program was so small that there was very little need to jockey for professorial attention.

The downside was that graduate-only seminars were thin on the ground. If you wanted to take more than one course in your subfield, you resigned yourself to enrolling in a few upper-level undergraduate courses—and it definitely felt like resignation. One of the first bits of student-to-student advice I received had to do with these mixed-level courses. It was, roughly, this: avoid them if you could, tolerate them for the independent research if you must, but don’t expect to get much out of the discussions.

I doubt it’s saying anything particularly controversial to admit that there was, in fact, a difference in the level of discussion between upper-level undergraduate courses and graduate seminars. I still enjoyed the courses I took, but it was easy to grow impatient with the (comparatively) more superficial readings we were doing, and my mind would sometimes drift from the actual topic of discussion to the kinds of comments the undergraduates were making. It didn’t take long for me to notice a pattern, and it took even less time for that pattern to become grating. Regardless of what we were reading, the response of the undergraduates seemed overwhelmingly negative. The students in these courses were mostly English majors, and yet they didn’t seem to enjoy anything we were reading:

“The story just seems so predictable. Like, even the characters that are supposed to have more depth seem really flat.”

“The way the author talks seems kind of bossy.”

“I just don’t like any of these characters. They’re all so horrible.”

It’s not that these aren’t valid responses, but something about them rang incredibly hollow to me. Take the last comment, which came up during a discussion of Wuthering Heights. It’s true, of course, and maybe that was part of the problem; I’d heard variations on it so many times that it had begun to sound like a cliché. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that anyone whose entire response to the novel was confined to not liking the characters was really missing out. For me, Wuthering Heights has always held a kind of visceral appeal. To use a cliché myself, it’s like watching a train wreck. It’s terrible, and you feel, on some level, that the fact that you get a thrill out of it is probably terrible itself, but you can’t look away; everything is so raw, so brutal, so intense, that the novel achieves a sort of larger-than-life grandeur precisely because of how strange and dark it is.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t buy the student’s response as her response. I could understand if she didn’t like the novel; there are plenty of canonical works I don’t care for. But her response seemed so pat—I couldn’t help but feel that she was saying it not because it explained her reaction to the book, but because it sounded like the kind of thing you’re “supposed” to say in a literature class.

At the time, this made me want to tear my hair out in annoyance. The undergrads in the class would lean back in their chairs, roll their eyes, and issue drawling pronouncements on whatever we were reading, and all I could think was: do you not understand how ridiculous you sound? Do you not realize how clear it is that this world-weariness is just posturing?

In hindsight, though, I can see that I was being unduly harsh—and quite hypocritical. I was sensitive to comments like this in part because I remembered saying similar things as a high school student and undergraduate, and I knew that (at least in my case) they came from a place of insecurity. I still cringe when I think about the weekly response paper in which I loudly decried Animal Farm’s heavy-handed use of allegory. It was over-the-top and therefore ineffective, I declared, acting for all the world as if I had just divined this thought—whole and uncorrupted—from the ether of analytic brilliance, when in fact I’d probably seen and heard it voiced in at least half a dozen places over the years (even Cracked has touched on it). And I didn’t believe a word of it. Or, rather, I could understand how some readers might find Orwell’s style off-putting, but it hadn’t really bothered me; I had enjoyed reading the book. To this day, I’m thankful that the professor teaching the course was as no-nonsense as he was; he had no qualms about (tactfully) calling me out on my insincerity, and I learned my lesson.

Still, I wonder if we should give students the benefit of the doubt when they say things like this, and not just because they might really feel as they say they do. I think that for most students this is probably just a phase—and maybe a necessary one. The entire concept of criticism is still fairly new to high school and college students, and it’s easy to take it too far. You’re trying on different hats as a reader, and it takes some time to realize that you can wear one or more of those hats without surrendering your genuine enjoyment of the works—that reading critically isn’t quite the same thing as simply criticizing. In fact, meeting the book halfway is sometimes the best thing you can do as a serious reader; it forces you to think seriously about what the text is doing—to you, to your emotions, etc.—in a way that you can’t when all your energy is spent resisting the narrative’s pull. Besides, it’s entirely possible to respond to a work in two (or more) contradictory ways—to clearly see its flaws and still find yourself charmed by it.

In any case, I ultimately fell back in love with literature—or, more accurately, admitted that I had never fallen out.

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Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

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