Bit of Ivory

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Genre Fiction and Me

September 28th, 2007 · No Comments

Note: Many thanks and respect to Robin McKinley, whose recent post and encouragement got me to finally type this out.

I’ve been thinking. About the kind of reading I do, and what that means to my chosen profession.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I first learned how to read at age 4. My brother, who is about 18 months older than me, was learning in Kindergarten. Whether from kindness or a desire to show off (or both), he would come home and teach me what he’d learned. It wasn’t long before he didn’t need to teach me any more, because I’d become just as good as him, if not better. The first thing I can recall really reading is a passage from the Book of Mormon that this same brother (well, I only have one) had used in a talk in our church’s children’s organization. He was trying to give the talk from memory, and therefore was repeating this verse over and over again. And I got out a copy and was able to match the words he’d been repeating to the shapes on the page. I can still repeat a lot of it from memory: “And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin. . .” or something like that. Yikes. I just checked, and indeed, I remembered a good portion of it. I always got stuck on the phrase after that. Although I could recover by “But ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.”

Anyway. We moved just after I started Kindergarten myself, in November, to where we still live now. And the new school district didn’t teach reading in Kindergarten, so while even at my old school I’d been ahead, I now found myself the only one in a class of 30 who could read. My teacher, I suspect, didn’t know what to do with me. At times she had me read to the class while she completed other work. (The detrimental effect of this to my social life is another post in itself.) My first grade teacher didn’t know what to do with me, either. I was far and away above even the highest-level reading group. I ended up spending most of the year reading out of chapter books to a second-grader. Luckily this teacher was a bit more perceptive of how this singled me out from my classmates, and eventually reintegrated me into the highest group, where I was bored. But at least not completely unique. My second grade teacher ignored my skill level and tried to teach me phonics with the rest of the class. I. . . did not react well. I admit that I was a bit of a problem child for my second grade teacher. Boredom will do that. Luckily, by the time I got to third grade, several other girls had caught up with me, and a 5-girl group was formed where we read Newbery books instead of the usual McGraw-Hill readers. The first book I read in this group (I can’t believe I remember this) was The Witch of Blackbird Pond. By the time I was in sixth grade, I read at a twelfth-grade level.

Now. I know I am not unique in this reading-early-and-reading-well thing. But even in that, I’ve come to see my experience as unusual. Because, while I was reading above my level for almost my entire life, my tastes tended toward. . . well. If I’d been Doing it Right, I’ve come to find, I should have been reading Pride and Prejudice at age 12. I should have devoured Hemingway in Jr. High. My shelves should have been filled with Moby Dick, War and Peace, and the unabridged Les Miserables by my sophomore year of high school. But I didn’t do that. I first read Pride and Prejudice my senior year of high school. I read The Old Man and the Sea as an assignment in 9th grade (it was one of several on a list, and I picked it because it was the shortest) and hated it. I’ve never actually read the other three above mentioned. Almost all of the classics that I have read have been assigned in class, whether in my honors/AP English classes in high school, in my undergrad English degree, or my current grad school classes. And to tell the truth, I haven’t really liked most of them. I’ve learned how to read them, how to write about them, but for the most part, I haven’t learned how to enjoy them.

So what did I read, then? Lots of things. Instead of reading far above my supposed level in elementary school, though, I only read a few levels up, and very quickly. Then I’d obsessively reread my favorites. So while most of my peers started reading Nancy Drew mysteries in 5th or 6th grades, I started reading them in 3rd. I’d blow through a Baby-Sitters’ Club book in an hour. I devoured Encyclopedia Brown. I read and reread Little House and the Anne of Green Gables books. Even when, in junior high, I moved away from the children’s section and started on truly adult books, it still wasn’t Steinbeck or Joyce, it was Erle Stanley Gardner–with some R.L. Stine and L.M. Montgomery thrown in for good measure. The librarians would boggle at my stack of books, wondering how I’d ever finish it all in the three-week loaning period. They didn’t know that I’d have them all read by the end of a week.

And, of course, I haven’t stopped. Yes, I’ve got a nice bookshelf full of classics and more recent books of so-called literary merit, but most of them I’ve only read once (and have little to no desire to read again). In the meantime, I buy everything from picture books (have you guys ever read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type? How about Hooway for Wodney Wat? They’re both absolutely delightful) to middle readers (Ella Enchanted was one of those books I wore out in paperback before finding it in hardcover, and I just bought Robin McKinley’s new Dragonhaven), to young adult (just finished The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, excellent reading), to sci-fi and fantasy (I need to replace my copy of Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold, it’s falling apart; and of course, there’s Harry Potter), to (tame) historical romance (I’m going to have to start buying my Georgette Heyers from England, ’cause Harlequin has seemingly stopped reprinting them), to mysteries (did you know that the Jane Austen Mysteries are really quite fun?). Maybe it’s a reaction to the regimental reading of grad school (although I don’t think so), but my taste naturally gravitates to genre fiction and children’s books.

I can just imagine all of you going “so what?” Well. . . there’s a problem here. Because when I go to my graduate school classes, when I read literary criticism, when I look at Calls for Papers for conferences– I get the distinct impression that I’m reading (and internalizing) the Wrong Things. It’s simply impossible for some of the people who inhabit the Ivory Tower to conceive that the writers of genre fiction might have just as much to say about the human condition as those who write literary fiction. They’d scoff if I told them that the books that really stick with me aren’t the ones that they think should. And yet– is there not moral ambiguity in, say, the story of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose quest to uncover a murder inadvertently causes the deaths of more innocent people, just as there is in Hamlet? Is Miles Vorkosigan’s struggle for identity in the face of disability and prejudice any less valid than, say, Huckleberry Finn’s, just because Miles’s story involves spaceships instead of a river raft? Why should the One Ring be an unacceptable device for portraying the corrupting influence of power, while an allegory involving farmyard animals is not only fine, but genius? And you will never convince me that Sidney Carton’s self-sacrifice is morally (or even literarily) superior to Harry Potter’s, even if ultimately Harry didn’t die.

See, the thing is, I personally believe that in the examples I gave above, the genre-fiction equivalents are more powerful, simply because they are more accessible. I don’t care what deep, weighty issues a book is dealing with– if the author can’t manage to portray it to me in an understandable, even entertaining fashion, I’m going to forget all about it when I close the book. Maybe even before that. If I can’t comprehend what exactly it is you’re trying to say behind that oh-so-innovative language (or format, or whatever the author decided to do to make their book “literary”), how am I ever supposed to decide whether I agree with you or not? It think that was ultimately my problem with the rhetorical criticism class I took last year– the first class I ever failed. Because I never understood the issues, the theories, well enough to internalize them. (As an aside, you’d think a rhetorician would be able to make themselves understood, wouldn’t you? Hah! Kenneth Burke is as opaque as a piece of wood.)

I’ll admit that things are better than they used to be. There is such a thing as Cultural Studies (as long as you’re careful to make it clear that the pop culture you’re studying is still Just Pop Culture). Every once in a while a university will throw genre fiction a bone, like the British Mystery Writers class I took a couple of years ago. But the change is slow, and you’ll only gain real acceptance in certain circles. I was told by one professor (who I respect very much) that I was committing career suicide by writing my MA thesis on The Lord of the Rings. I shudder to think what he would have said if I’d told him I was thinking of writing on Harry Potter. “Why don’t you write on Austen instead?” he asked, and my answer was that I didn’t have a good Austen-focused idea (and I didn’t, at the time), but I did have a good Tolkien one. “That’s a shame,” he says. Now, my thesis chair, when I asked him if this was a real possibility, said that yes, it would probably close a few doors, but that they wouldn’t be doors I wanted to walk through anyway. At the time, I was satisfied with that answer. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered.

Do I really, really, want to spend the rest of my life in an atmosphere that disdains the kind of reading that I hold most dear? I know, I can join the people in the Ivory Tower to corrupt from within, and I admit that’s my plan. But. . . that means spending at least two, maybe five, more years Faking It. Pretending that the chloroform in print they keep shoving down my throat is worth even reading, let alone writing pages and pages about. And then what? It’s hard enough to get a tenure-track position these days if you’re a canon conformist, let alone if you want to be a rabble-rouser. And if I publish papers on The Female Hero in Young Adult Fantasy, will it even count? (And let’s not get started on literary criticism in general, ’cause that’s yet another post.) Even my chosen PhD topic (if I ever get that far) is unusual– I can just imagine the admission committee reading my statement of intent: “She wants to study Jane Austen paraliterature? Like, sequels and fanfic? Really?”

No wonder I can’t write my thesis. I don’t even know if that’s what I want to be when I grow up.

Tags: Essay · Life · School

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