Posts Tagged Fiction
Greetings From Chicago!
It’s hard to believe that August starts tomorrow. Summer is moving along fast. My summer has been both restful and productive this year. Reading for my book progresses nicely and I even managed to finish revisions on my First Year Writing course early. Now I can enjoy the weeks leading up to the Fall semester without stressing over the changes needed to my course schedule and writing assignments. This year I’m teaching four sections of Academic Writing I in the Fall and I decided to focus more consciously on the concept of genre. I’ve always felt that genre represents something of an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer. It generally gives you a sense of what you are about to read and (as a writer) it gives you some parameters to work within to make sure that what you are writing is properly understood. Beyond that, I’ll be using the class to focus on implicit versus explicit argumentation. The plan is sketched out. Now I just need to make sure it actually works for the students. I should have a greater sense of this by about week 4. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow I head off for my last trip of the summer. I’m flying north to Vermont to visit my family. It’s interesting to read about my home state in the books associated with my research. The Green Mountain State keeps coming up in discussions on the various attempts throughout US history to reform agriculture and improve human relations to the land. Apparently Vermont is not only imagined as some sort of vacationer’s paradise but also as an Agrarian Utopia. Having living in Vermont for nearly 21 years of my life, I can’t help but laugh. This isn’t really the Vermont I know. Author’s on the topic of agriculture and environmentalism seem obsessed with the eclogue. I lived the georgic. I was part of the labor mechanism that supported the outsider’s illusion. Oh well, it’s good for local business and there are worse ways to make a living. Like painting old dumpsters. (Yes, this is a job I have done. Don’t recommend it for people with weak stomachs.)
For this month’s post, I want to comment a bit on the relationship between history to literature. This topic seems especially important now that shows like The Man In the High Castle and Confederate are being produced. Generally speaking, I have no problem with counter-factual narratives. Some are quite entertaining. We shouldn’t hold fiction to the same standard as non-fiction. Engaging the imagination is the point, after all, of figurative language. Getting us to imagine a world of “what if’s.” History is a different story. It relies on narrative and imagination, just like literature, but it should be held to a more vigorous standard. History needs to show us what the world was actually like at a specific place and time (good, bad, utterly horrific). We should then be able to imagine as accurately as possible what people lived through during the time period examined. Perhaps a good way to sum up the distinction I see between history and literature is that history complicates and literature creates empathy.
Of course, there are exceptions to the little schema I’ve provided above. Many of the historians I enjoy reading create empathy with the characters in their non-fiction narratives. Ken Burns is a great example of this in a visual narrative medium. Also, there are plenty of good fiction writers who complicate our relationship to the fictional world they have created. Empathy in Gone Girl is a difficult enterprise. What worries me, however, is that the line between history and literature is starting to blur to an unhealthy degree. Even more worrisome, we don’t seem to be talking enough about this blurring. It’s like I tell my writing students, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them. Otherwise it’s just a grammatical error and not a cutting edge technique. The same is true when mixing elements of history and fiction. You have to know (or want to know) the truth before you can start engaging in the act of imagination. Otherwise you end up with narratives that consciously or sub-consciously serve dangerous ends. You start to forget what is the fictional story and what was the real course of events. You also might start to not even care anymore about the distinction.
Others have written more eloquently than me on the problems of our “post-truth” era and its relationship to “fake news” and “reality TV.” So I’ll spare you my analysis of those trends. What I want to end this discussion with instead is a provocative juxtaposition of Mad Men with The Walking Dead. Neither of these, of course, are history. They are both Television shows. What they share, however, is a similar emotional starting point. Nostalgia. In Mad Men, this nostalgia is painfully obvious in the mid-century modern details of each frame. (Material nostalgia is rampant right now and deserves a good book.) Yet it is also ambiguous in its message. Are we supposed to mourn the loss of a world where straight white men ruled the world? Where smoking and drinking happened everywhere with impunity? Or are we supposed to look back at this episode of US history as a warning and take a moment to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go? With The Walking Dead, more subtle messages (at least for me) are hidden behind the gore. If you can set aside for a moment the fact that the living dead are killing and eating people, you start to see that the show both feels nostalgic (for a world before the crisis) and also points to that nostalgia as a source of crisis.
Will we choose the Zombie or the ash tray? And are they not the same thing? A reminder that obsession with the past can be unhealthy. That what is past is never truly past. Perhaps HBO can redeem itself by staging one of Faulkner’s works like Go Down, Moses instead of a stupid fictional docudrama imagining a world where the southern states won the Civil War. Or we can take a break from imagining the past or the future and look at our present. Beautiful, Scary, Confused, Ugly, and Poignant. I’d like to see that on the page and screen.
Here is where I end my post. I just have one more thing to add. A reminder that the deadline for NeMLA paper submissions is fast approaching (September 30). You can check out the various CFP’s here <https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp>. I have several sessions that I have proposed. You can see descriptions of them in my last NeMLA post (#19) along with links to the CFP for those sessions. Let me know if you have any questions about what I’m looking for. If you can possible afford to attend and see a session of interest, I would very much like to meet you in Pittsburg.
Until Next Time….
Greetings from Chicago! The spring semester is almost over and faculty and students are preparing for summer break. Of course, it feels more like winter here today as the temperatures in the city will be lucky to reach 48 degrees. A good day to stay indoors and read.
Don’t forget that tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a session proposal to the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore.
Information on the types of sessions you might propose for the conference can be found here https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html .
You can propose your sessions on the CFP website via this link https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.
In my last post, I combined a recap of the NEMLA 2016 Conference in Hartford with an examination of the broader theme–Why Write? This theme seemed to dominate the conference sessions I attended. This month I’d like to consider the related questions of how and why we read.
How we read in and out of the classroom was a question that came up frequently during the round table session I chaired in Hartford on reading American Literature with Digital Texts. We looked at some of the formats in which electronic texts are distributed and how close reading techniques such as annotation can be used with them. One of the more interesting trends explored was the use of software that allows collective annotation of electronic texts, specifically Lacuna Stories . I’m not totally sure how to use this software, but it does seem to address what has long been one of my concerns with electronic texts. Reading in the context of an English class requires an attention to language that goes beyond scanning a webpage for content. We often call this special type of reading “close reading” without really thinking much about the mechanics involved in the process, aside from reading a text multiple times. Annotation, however, is the crucial difference between casual reading and reading with a purpose. Lacuna Stories allows this process to transfer from the analog to a digital environment. Even more importantly, it allows students and faculty to share those annotations (or not) and learn from each others reading process. This is a great example of using technology to achieve a goal that might not be possible in an earlier classroom setting.
But why do we read in the first place and is there any connection between this activity as it happens outside the classroom as well as in? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot because I’ve been teaching ENGL 240 this semester, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Critical Theory. This course is required for all English majors and minors at UIC and it is presumed that this will be among their first English classes, preparing them for upper level surveys and seminars. Finding a baseline for teaching students in this class is very difficult, as each student comes with a varied educational background. Some of my students are transfers from community colleges who have extensive knowledge of how to read and write about fiction. Others are just out of high school and haven’t read much fiction at all. Add to that the groups of students who speak English as a second language and those who are interested in an English major or minor predominately for Professional Writing skills (Corporate Communications, Public Relations, Journalism, etc.) and you have an almost impossible task staring at you. First, to find out what prior knowledge this diverse group of students possesses and then to devise a course plan that works to build upon the commonalities in what these students know.
What I’ve found this semester, is that my students don’t read much fiction at all. They watch a lot of fiction. They even write a considerable amount. But reading fiction, not so much. This even includes what we might refer to disparagingly as “fan fiction” or “pulp fiction.” My students watch their stories rather than engage them through the written word. The challenge for me this semester has thus been to turn their attention to the written word and explain what to do with a fictional text (i.e. close reading) as they read. Oddly enough, this experience has felt a lot like what I experienced studying Latin and Greek at UVM during my undergraduate years. An intellectually stimulating exercise that in large part felt separated from the world around me. I could escape for a few hours into the world of Livy, Vergil, and Catullus and not worry about current events.
I realize that at this point I’m starting to sound like “that” professor, vaguely luddite, who laments their student’s inability to perform at a level they deem acceptable. If you read The Chronicle of Education at all, you know the type. My colleagues have even asked me when I talk to them about the problems I’ve faced getting students to read carefully: How is this any different from the way things have always been?
My answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps this problem has always been with us, but I feel like something has shifted. I’ve taught at UIC for 15 years, part of that as a Graduate Student Instructor and part of that as a Lecturer. During that time, the baseline I can assume for student knowledge has shifted away from text based narrative to alternative forms of storytelling. In the meantime, English pedagogy has generally stood still. That’s why what I’m teaching students feels more like Classics than English.
I continue to teach students how to read written language carefully in spite of my doubts and concerns because I believe in the power of imagination and the written word. Most of the communication we encounter on a daily basis is obsessed with utility and the way things are now or could be in the near future. Fiction (at its best) opens the door to a world we hardly thought possible. It looks beyond the far horizon and asks Why Not? My understanding is that University studies should prepare students to create a world that doesn’t yet exist rather than replicate the one that we have or tweak its existing parameters. Fiction is crucial to that task. And nothing, in this bibliophile’s opinion, makes that possible like sitting down and immersing yourself in a good book.
Now that I’m finished writing, I think that’s what I’ll do next.
Until Next Time…