Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
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This little gizmo has become the symbol of my life right now. It seems all I do is move fourteen things around in an effort to get one thing where it belongs. Sometimes I feel like just piling everything in the middle of the floor and starting from scratch.
Oh, except that there isn't any room in the middle of the floor either.
Dozens of them weren't in the BookLikes database, and I was too busy the past few weeks to enter them. I'm making a concerted effort this week-end to finish them.
There's a reason for this: they're scattered all over in the workshop and I need to get some of these messes cleaned up!
This has been a week-end dedicated to the cleaning up of messes. I'm not sure how much I've accomplished, but I've been busy.
The big major cleaning/organizing task I thought was finished in the studio last week turned out to be not quite finished. I can put off the last of it for a while, however; none of it is urgent. I did manage to clean enough out there that I actually have counter space in the studio kitchen cleared off so I have room to work. This coming week I intend to expand on that. This is the first time in over a year I've had functional space.
A smaller cleaning/organizing task in the studio has also been crossed off The Eternal To-Do List. I had a substantial quantity of paper that needed to be cut to size for making my origami boxes, but it was scattered in a dozen different places. I gathered it all into one spot Saturday, then sat down with the paper cutter this morning and chopped it all up. Unfortunately, in the process I discovered that I have lots and lots and lots of the paper that's used for lids, and a lot less of the paper to make the bottoms. I do NOT want to have to buy more paper, but it looks as though that is going to be a necessity before long.
Slowly, the chaos is being reduced.
As each chore is crossed off the list, I have more time for the others. Very few of the organizing projects are such that I can just start and work on them until they're finished. Most require some prep, such as locating and gathering all the origami papers in one place. It can be very discouraging to work all day on a project and not be able to mark it off the list! but that's the way it works.
With the gothics, it's a matter of looking them up to see which ones are already in the database, then scanning the covers and editing them to size, then actually entering the information. I'm down to less than 20 of them -- I think -- so maybe that task will be completed tomorrow. Right now it's too dark to make another trip to the workshop.
In fact, it's late enough that I can call it a day and crawl into bed with The Tulip Tree. Although that one little detail was enough to confirm that I had indeed read it before, I remember nothing else about it, so this will be almost like a first read.
I knew I wouldn't be able to stay up and read very long because I was really, really tired when I went to bed. I did, however, want to start this book.
There's no question that this is a gothic romance. The publisher put it right on the cover! It's compared to Du Maurier's classic Rebecca. The artwork is almost typical gothic, with the spooky house and single lighted window. The young woman, however, is in close-up portrait rather than full-length with windblown hair and gown.
And the author is male.
There are also quotes from a number of reviews published in real newspapers. Hmmmmmm. Gothic romances did not get reviewed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the 1960s.
I only read 12 pages, not quite the first whole chapter, before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that I had read this book before, decades ago. One small incident ticked my memory, something I would not have consciously remembered but that came back to me the instant I read it.
There were only two ways I could have read this book in the 1960s. It was either condensed by Reader's Digest, or it was a Doubleday Book Club selection. My parents subscribed to both for a number of years at that time. I read the condensed version of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop as well as his later novel, Ocean Front, though I don't know if that was book club or condensed. I do remember the cover, however, so maybe it was a book club edition. I also read two other book club offerings, The Daughter of the Pangaran and Summer Doctor. I remember details of both those books, and they were published about the same time as The Tulip Tree, so I'm more comfortable guessing I read a book club edition.
So in 1963, a gothic romance written by a man would be published in hardcover by Doubleday and be reviewed numerous newspapers, be selected for their subscription book club, and later be republished in paperback. No doubt Howard Rigsby earned a great deal more for his gothic romance novel than most of the women writing paperback gothics.
This is one of the books from the hoard of gothics in the workshop. Though my (battered) paperback copy was published in 1970, the original Doubleday hardcover was published in 1963. I think I may have read this, perhaps in a Reader's Digest Condensed version or possibly as a Doubleday Book Club selection my dad had.
So I may just keep this one out for a day or so and read it in bed at night, if I'm not too tired.
This is a superb analysis of the intertwined issues of gender, gender roles, and power.
One of the most interesting graduate classes I took at ASU was "Sociology of Everyday Life," for which this was one of the texts.
Sadly, much of our time in class was flat-out ruined by a trio of middle-school teachers who were more interested in chatting (loudly) than in listening to any discussion. They became an informal example of how "ruling relations" affect our everyday lives: Accustomed to being in charge in a classroom, they transferred their sense of authority to our classroom. The professor, being only an adjunct and therefore lacking in authority, hesitated to demand their attention or call them out for their disruptive behavior.
I had no such reticence. I got sick and tired of it one evening (it was a night class) and told them to shut up. They were sooooo insulted! Who was I to tell them to shut up when the professor himself hadn't said anything? Well damn it, I was paying for that class and I wanted to get something out of it beyond hearing their problems with their students.
We were treated to a special Saturday session for which Dorothy Smith and another sociologist were brought in. One of the things I remembered most about her presentation was a diagram showing how texts -- meaning books, magazines, movies, advertisements, etc. -- are never static because they get interpreted by those who consume them. Therefore it's virtually impossible to evaluate any text solely on its own merits without considering the context of both the producer of the text and the consumer.
Needless to say, this applies to the reviewing of books: Regardless what the author may have intended the book to be or to mean or to do, the reader's reaction is an independent and valid context.
If popular culture weren't so politically powerful, we wouldn't have so much of it.
I read All the Happy Endings as part of the research for my master's thesis, and it was one of those old books that I could never find a copy of for myself. So I brazenly photocopied it. Now that I'm scanning these photocopies into PDF format, I'm taking another look at some of my notes, too.
Papashvily focuses on the "domestic novels" of the 19th century, but also on the writers and the readers. She sees enormous social and -- more important -- political impact from these seemingly harmless tales. She claims they were in essence guidelines for domestic revolution.
If indeed they were, but if their influence only went as far as a revolution confined to the private space of hearth and home, did they encourage women to become independent, or did they instead reinforce the patriarchal status quo by making women believe in an illusion of domestic - and therefore matrimonial -- power?
There has been so much talk lately about why women -- and yes specifically white women -- so often vote against their own best interests. It may in fact be that they aren't, because those women have a very different definition of their own best interests. And that definition may lie in some -- but not necessarily all -- of those happy endings.
Shelved for a re-read.
My car is back. I am considerably poorer as a result, and the air conditioning still isn't working right, but that's a separate issue. It's November, so I have a while before a/c becomes crucial.
Everything from the Studio Tour is packed up and put away until the next show. I've tried to continue putting a few things away here and there in the studio and I can actually see a tiny bit of improvement. Of course, we have lovely sunny weather, which means the studio heats up quickly. At 1:30 this afternoon it was well over 90F inside! I did my work there early in the morning.
Forecast for good weather over the next two weeks means I really need to find a source for lubricating oil for the rock saw. That's on tomorrow's agenda, along with a huge list of other errands.
The decluttering project is once again active, after being shoved aside for other activities. I make the most progress on that when BF is out of the house. Otherwise he interrupts me far too often.
Without having real details on how much publicity is done for the Studio Tour, I'm not able to make a valid analysis of what, if anything, is wrong, but it seems to me that something -- something -- is not right. The first year, when I resurrected it from another group and had absolutely no clue what I was doing, we had 20 studios and approximately 50 artists. That was 2007. Here we are in 2018 and we had 24 studios and 74 artists. That doesn't seem like much growth. Membership in the group has gone from the original12 we had when we did that first Tour to about 80 now.
My feeling is that we're still missing the biggest promotional opportunity with our local magazine, Superstition Living. It comes out early each month, but not necessarily on the 1st or even the 2nd day of the month. Here we are today on the 5th, and the November edition hasn't arrived; the website is still showing the October edition. If there's an article about the Studio Tour, well, it's too late. I've begged the publicity person to do more throughout the year, but well, you know how it is.
I noticed this morning that the signs we put out along the roadsides are not nearly as visible as they should be. They're the size of small political campaign signs, and this time of year they get lost in the forest. Worse, however, is that ours are put on bent wires, which places the sign itself literally at ground level. Although the color is hot pink and seems like it would just jump out, it actually doesn't. So any reliance on drive-by traffic is probably zero. People who already have maps might be able to use the signs, but they're not a good draw in and of themselves. They need to be bigger and a different color. Green? Turquoise? Red? Purple? Pink doesn't cut it.
For my studio, I also need better signage, which I had planned to take care of last week but had to deal with the car instead. Since we have another Tour coming up in March, I'm going to start preparing for it right away!
The art group doesn't meet again until 14 November, so there's time to do some more analysis. But I'm really not happy with the way things went this year.
Well, I didn't make $20,000, which is how much it would take to clean up all my urgent financial needs. But I made a little bit and that's okay. The Studio Tour is not my most profitable event, but it still is my favorite. I have lots of fun!
I had no weird customers today at all. Just a lot of nice folks who had lots of questions and said lots of nice things about my work even if they didn't buy very much. Again, that's par for the course with this event.
Weather was absolutely perfect except for a space of about half an hour later in the afternoon when we got a few clouds. All that did was keep the sparkly stones from sparkling. And the clouds did make an absolutely SPECTACULAR sunset, but by then I was too tired to hunt up the camera.
The show ended at 4:00 and by 5:00 I had almost everything torn down and put away. The first load of table covers went in the washer before we left for dinner; I'll throw them in the dryer before I go to bed, and leave the second batch until tomorrow. Then everything will be ready for the next show on 2 December.
I wish I had sold more not just for the money which is always welcome, but to decrease the stock on hand. My big organizing project from last week made a huge difference in the amount of working space I have available in the studio, but it didn't decrease the actual amount of "stuff." That's what I need to do -- get rid of . . . stuff.
The decluttering project will move back into high gear this coming week, I hope. At least that's the plan. Tomorrow morning the car goes to the mechanic for a new alternator or whatever, and then I intend to spend the rest of the day on the decluttering.
Tuesday is, well, Tuesday. Right now, the stress is almost unbearable.
I am exhausted. I shouldn't be, but I am.
Up at 5:30 a.m. to finish some organizing tasks and to start a batch of spaghetti sauce for tonight's supper. As soon as it was light enough to work outside, I began setting up.
Two days of car issues and two weeks of back issues left me woefully behind on prep for this event. Usually I can set up in 90 minutes or less because I have everything staged on the patio. Not so today. I can't begin to count all the things I'd forgotten to put on the patio. That meant one trip after another back to the studio to fetch things. A forgotten sign. Ribbons to tie other signs. Extra boxes. On and on and on and on. When my first customers arrived at 8:45, I was nowhere near ready. (Official start time is 9:00.)
Even so, sales went okay. Not great, but okay. I've had better, and I've had worse.
Most of the people are great, even if they don't buy anything. Every once in a while there's a jerk in the mix, and I got one of those this morning.
The jerks come in two flavors: The kind who know everything and will argue every point you try to make, and the kind who know nothing and want you to tell them all your secrets.
This morning's jerk was one of the latter variety.
First he wanted to know how I could have the nerve to charge $5.00 for a rock I picked up for free out in the desert. This is a common question, and easily answered with, "I had to find the place to pick it up and that place is 100 miles from here. When I got the rock home, I had to clean it. I had to pay for all my display equipment, I had to pay to be in this event, I had to pay for the packaging. If you don't want to pay $5.00 for it, you don't have to."
But then he wanted me to tell him where I found these rocks. I refused to tell him. I said only that it was within a 100-mile radius of my house, and that was it. He felt that was unfair. "Aren't artists supposed to help other artists?" he asked. "Um, no," I said.
Then he wanted me to show him how to do wire wrapping. I told him I don't give lessons. Well, he didn't really want lessons as such, he just wanted me to show him how I do it.
I try to be nice to these people, because someday they might come back and buy something. Or maybe they'll tell a friend. Or maybe they'll just be assholes and bad mouth me all over town because I didn't give them free rocks or something. But I do try to be nice to them.
This guy pushed me almost to my limit. After I told him I don't give lessons and I don't give personal demonstrations, he wanted me to recommend websites where he could learn to wire wrap. I told him to Google it. I told him there are dozens, maybe hundreds of websites about wire wrapping, and he'd have to look at them and decide which are best for him.
Overall, he must have been here for half an hour or so. Of course, he bought nothing. He just put me in a bad mood.
Fortunately, the weather was absolutely superb. Not a cloud in the sky, 80-something degrees, barely a whisper of breeze all day long. I sold a few things, made a little money and cleared out some inventory. Whoo hoo!
Tomorrow will be easier, as most of the set-up just stays out there. I still don't have enough display space for all the crap . . . er, I mean all the STUFF I make. I need a damn store that can be open five or six or seven days a week.
Spaghetti sauce is now simmering. I need to make salads and cook the pasta. Then I need to sleep.
I can't go to bed until my laundry is done. Too tired to do anything really productive, but this is a good time to do some thinking-out-loud, if you will.
The past few days have been weirder than my usual weirdness of days. I won't bore you with all the details, especially since I've already bored you with my tales of automotive woe, and so on. The first day of the Studio Tour is over, but I never know what to expect for the second day. Just have to wait and see.
I felt bad not being able to do better for Halloween Bingo. With all these "new" old gothics to read and a bunch of other book discoveries, I was all hyped up for it. Well, it didn't work out, for a variety of reasons. The books are still here in the living room, in two more or less neat stacks, just waiting for me to have the time.
On the plus side, I did return to one of my two major writing works in progress. I haven't posted an updated word count because I'm still writing longhand in a spiral notebook and haven't transcribed everything yet. My informal goal is at least one page per evening -- I do most of this writing at night after I go to bed -- and I've pretty much been able to keep to that measure.
This week-end's 12th Annual Artists of the Superstitions Studio Tour is a big event for me. I worked all week as much as possible on preparations, only to discover this morning how much I had either forgotten to do or just didn't have time for.
I also discovered that I have way more inventory than I have display space for. Before the spring studio tour, I really should buy at least two more tables. No, I do not have the funds for them. At least not right now. And I won't be able to use them for anything but the studio tours, where I have room for them. It's something else I have to think about.
Over the past month, the weather and my stupid back have kept me from doing a lot of work that I wish I could have been doing. This week I was finally able to attack another of the huge non-inventory crafting projects, huge in the sense that it has made a disaster of my studio. That project is now 90% done, to my intense relief. The other 10% can wait until after the Tour. For the first time in about eight months, I have working counter space in the studio.
I was even able to spend some time on the rock saw last week, though not nearly as much as I wanted. To my dismay, there is no longer a lapidary supply shop anywhere near me, and that's the only place I can buy the lubricating oil for the saw. There is a potentially viable substitute which I may be able to obtain locally; the only other option is buying online and paying outrageous shipping. This is another issue that has kept me awake at night. Without the lubricating oil, there is no cutting of rocks.
I also have an even more huge decluttering project going on in the house. It stalled two weeks ago when wrestling Moby out of the car did a number on my back; I simply couldn't do even the minimal physical work required. While I'm not 100% recovered, I'm much improved, and the decluttering will start in earnest again after the Tour.
The issues with my car are not minor. I live in an area where there is no public transportation and where the nearest grocery store is 2.3 miles away. Not to mention that I need a vehicle for art shows. I do not have the funds to replace it; I can barely scrape together the funds to fix it. This causes a lot of lost sleep, too.
There are some other personal issues going on that consume a significant amount of mental and emotional energy, too. There is nothing I can do about them but have patience and persevere and let things run their course. Of course, I lose sleep over this, too.
When I began writing again a few weeks ago, I considered using NaNoWriMo as an unofficial prompt. Adding 50,000 words in a month would advance the book significantly. I even for a while considered making it an official attempt. But the whole financial situation being what it is, I opted out.
The 24 Festive Tasks was another project I was looking forward to, but again, everything is in such flux that I don't feel comfortable making that kind of commitment. If I participate this year at all, it will be sporadic at best.
At the core, at the innermost heart of all this, is that I want to write. I have very little confidence in myself, and I tend to second-guess my writing all the time . . . except when I know damn well I write pretty good. The latter doesn't happen very often, or at least not often enough to keep me writing.
But today I had a customer at the Studio Tour make a comment while she was looking at a printed copy of The Looking-Glass Portrait. I had a few copies made by Amazon and I've actually sold a few -- they're outrageously expensive -- but mostly I have them to advertise the Kindle editions.
Anyway, this lady was looking at it, and she asked if it was historical. I told her no, it's contemporary, right down to cell phones and laptops. She was a little disappointed, because she thought it might be medieval based on the cover. I explained that it was a ghost story inspired by the house my aunt used to live in. So she flipped through the pages, stopping down and then to read a bit. I got the impression she was a real reader, not just someone who looks at books and then doesn't buy anything because oh, she just never has time to read.
She was looking at a random page, reading for a few seconds, and then she looked at me and said, "Wow, this a real book, isn't it."
I kind of laughed, embarrassed, and said, "Yeah, it is."
Now, you folks know I'm not very good at tooting my own horn, so this is difficult for me even to say second-hand. The lady went on to say, "I mean it's not like something somebody just wrote who doesn't really know how to write."
I knew she hadn't read very much, not more than a couple paragraphs at most from a few random pages through the book. But the words of Josh Olson echoed in my head:
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
She bought the book. She didn't have to. She could have made all kinds of excuses, and I'm not exactly a high pressure salesperson!
But she bought it.
I know that part of what's kept me from writing as much as I'd like to is the current state of world affairs. I lose sleep over that, too. A lot. Maybe things will change in the next 72 hours or so; maybe they won't. I've done what I can to contribute to the change I want to see, and beyond that it's out of my control. Maybe things will get worse, a whole lot worse. Maybe they won't.
But more than anything else, I want to write. I've let too many excuses keep me from it, and let too many fears and doubts take charge. I just can't do that any more.
I have a lot of commitments in the next two months. Some I can get out of, but most I can't. What I can do, however, is not make any more, except to myself: To write.
Heinlein's Ultimate Rule:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put your work on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold.
Even in these days of instant digital publishing, where there's no waiting for editorial approval and contract offer, the Rule still applies.
Especially #1 and #2.
I'm hoping the car can be resurrected. Actually, I'm hoping we can get it running long enough to reach the repair shop.
BF is usually pretty good at figuring out what the issues are, but he's not positive this time. Could just be a dead battery. It's three years old and that's usually about how long they last here due to the heat. Might be the alternator, or even possibly both. Or something else entirely.
I'm just glad it happened here at home. I had a doctor appointment at 2:00 and when I went to leave at 1:30, the car wouldn't start. At all. Not with a jump even.
I wasn't able to reach my friend who gave me the amethysts, but he's been known to take off for a few days and be out of cell phone range. I'll try again tomorrow.
Oh, I almost forgot. I bought a new deck of tarot cards from Amazon. They arrived today and I haven't even had a chance to look at them.
I have too many rocks. So I've been doing my best lately to not acquire any more, at least until I significantly decrease the inventory. The fall Studio Tour is this week-end, and I'm hoping that will help me clear the shelves of a few . . . chunks.
Today a friend called and said he had some rocks I might find interesting. He has brought me some cool stuff in the past, never wants any money for it -- though sometimes I force him to take something. He was on his way to somewhere else and I was too busy to engage in much conversation, so he said he'd just drop off what he called "a large coffee can" with some rocks.
I figured they were more of the interesting but not very valuable river rocks that he picks up here and there, or maybe some petrified wood. He has brought me some very nice pieces of wood in the past.
A couple hours later I had a chance to get out to the front gate where he said he'd leave the coffee can. The rocks didn't look like much, but to be honest, I had forgot to put on my sunglasses and the sun was so bright I really had to squint. The contents of the can consisted of about a dozen chunks of very dirty rocks that had some shiny sections that might be kind of like crystals, maybe.
When I got them to the studio, I took out a squirt bottle and sprayed a couple of them with water.
The shiny parts are purple. The crystals are amethysts.
They're not "gem quality," but they're still amethyst. I don't know where they're from. They may be from somewhere in Arizona -- we have several locations that produce amethysts -- or from somewhere else. I don't think they're from the Four Peaks area, where the commercial amethyst mine is, but they could be. I don't know when they were collected. I don't know if my friend picked them up himself or he just sort of found them.
I know he's out of cell phone range for the rest of the day, but I will definitely be contacting him tomorrow morning for more information!
Somewhere along about 1988, a friend who had connections with Romantic Times got me my first reviewing job. Kathryn Falk, who owned RT, controlled who got what romance novels to review, and most of that was done in-house, but she spun off another magazine that she hoped would do for every other genre what RT had done for romance -- make her some money. The new venture was called Rave Reviews, and I became one of the reviewers.
I can't say I enjoyed all the books sent to me for review. None, of course, were romance, so at best I got my second choice which was fantasy. Further down the list was horror and science fiction, as well as the occasional non-fiction. The Portuguese cookbook, for example.
For paperback originals, we usually got uncorrected page proofs, which had absolutely no value at all, not on any market. Most of the authors were unknowns or relative unknowns, and in those days before the internet, these 8 1/2 by 14 inch printouts were just so much text. Sometimes we got a cover flat to go with them. Often we didn't even get that. Our only tangible compensation came in the form of hardcover books sent out in advance of the paperback reprints. (The Portuguese cookbook, for example.)
Because my friend knew nothing at all about fantasy -- there's a story to that, too, but I'll save it for later -- she passed almost all of those along to me. Here I got lucky. One of the books I reviewed was Judith Tarr's The Golden Horn. Though it was the second book in a trilogy, it was enough of a stand-alone that I was able to enjoy it and give it a good review. I also got Bruce Ferguson's The Shadow of His Wings, which still ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
We reviewers weren't required to give rave reviews, though that was the title of the magazine. Like Goodreads years later, RR was intended to sell books for the publishers, so they'd buy ads. Favorable reviews therefore were much preferred to unfavorable ones. Sometimes it wasn't easy to find something good to write about a bad book, and often I just refused to be nice. But I always justified why a given book didn't work for me, and no one seemed to complain. Most, but not all, of my reviews made it into print.
Then came the one I simply couldn't review.
Our turn-around time was short, since everything had to go through snail mail. It wasn't unusual for me to get four or five books to read and write reviews for in a week. And in those days without internet, research was virtually impossible, pun intended. So when I got the third book of a fantasy trilogy that wasn't a stand-alone, I didn't have sufficient time to order the first two books on inter-library loan and wait a week or two or three for them to arrive. So I wrote back to whoever it was at RR that I simply couldn't review this book and it was grossly unfair for them to expect me to do so.
They weren't happy. They wanted a review of some kind.
I don't remember now if there were phone calls back and forth or letters or what, but I was ticked. Because I was also a writer, I felt an obligation to the author of the trilogy to give a fair assessment. And I couldn't do that. However, I also felt an obligation to myself. I liked reading fantasy, and this looked like a wonderful trilogy. I didn't want to ruin it for myself by reading the third book and not having the background and then hunting up the first two books but already knowing the end.
And now, almost 30 years later, I don't even remember if I wrote any review at all or if I completely refused or what. I do remember that that was just about the last time I reviewed for them and they were pretty ticked at me. Of course, eventually the whole experiment failed -- only the romance genre really played Kathryn's game -- and that was that.
I've become Twitter friends with Judith Tarr, who actually lives not too far from me. I lucked out and picked up a paperback copy of the first book in The Falcon and the Hound trilogy recently at the library book sale, then bought the final book in Kindle format.
I've also become a follower of the author of that other trilogy, the one I have only Book Three of. I never read the book, because I didn't want to ruin it for myself. Yesterday, after doing some clean-up work in the studio, I came across that book again and thought, gee, I should see about getting the first two books and reading the whole set.
When I first looked to see if there were a Kindle edition, the three book set was something like $22 and I just wasn't comfortable with that. Not now when my budget is stretched to transparency. Even though I have a little bit left on a gift card, I'm extra tight with it.
I'm not sure why I decided to check on the prices of the individual books as opposed to the complete set, but I did that this morning. Aha! Book One is only $2.99 and Book Two is only $5.99, but Book Three which I already have, is the deal breaker at $12.99!
So I'll buy the first two books of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series in Kindle edition, and finally, after almost three decades, read that free hardcover edition of the third book.
Stolen via (but not from) Twitter:
My screen shots are difficult to read because the original grey text on white background is difficult to read. I did the best I could.
I wrote a little last night after going to bed, a little more this morning when I woke up. I'll try to do more tonight.
There was an interesting thread on Twitter this morning about the pros and cons of teaching "the classics" in high school (or younger grades). Some people felt the dead white male canon was no longer relevant, others thought there should be a new "mixed" canon, and so on. Some tweeters made comments regarding whether or not the classics should be enjoyed on their own or just as cultural icons.
I'm not sure exactly when we began to have assigned readings of full-length novels in school. In eighth grade (age ~13) I remember being assigned Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest. I never read it. We also had to read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, but I'm not sure exactly what grade that was. I didn't read that one either. Somewhere along the line was Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain. I had seen the Disney movie on TV, so I didn't read that one either. Oh, yeah. And we had to read The Pearl by John Steinbeck. It got the same treatment from me.
In high school we had the usual: Dickens' Great Expectations in an abridged version in our literature book along with Romeo and Juliet. Nope and nope on those, too. I think Julius Caesar came in sophomore year. Another nope. Junior year was American literature, with Miss Cobb, which meant Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe The Scarlet Letter was thrown in for good measure, but I'm not sure. I didn't read them. Senior year I had Miss Leonhard with her Thomas Hardy obsession, so that meant The Return of the Native. I managed maybe 40 pages of it before I gave up.
This was not an issue of getting a student to read or to like reading. I loved reading, and I devoured books like potato chips. I read Michener's Hawaii during American history class because Miss Black's teaching was too boring. For my senior English research paper, I read most of Tolstoy's major works -- Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata -- and even if I didn't completely understand them, I read them.
Later, years later, I read The Return of the Native and found it fascinating enough that I've reread it several times. I read an unabridged version of David Copperfield and loved it.
Why is it that more than 50 years after I graduated high school, these same issues keep coming up? Why are kids still being taught depressing "life's a bitch and then you die" crap like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Shakespeare? Why can't the canon be expanded to include women writers and writers of color and books written in the 20th and even 21st centuries?
I clearly remember hating The Old Man and the Sea because there was absolutely nothing in it I could relate to. Not the fish, not the old man, not the lions that Miss Cobb said had such immense symbolism. I didn't get it, and I didn't like it, and I couldn't concentrate on it. The same with Thomas Hardy. Egdon Heath was a living, breathing entity to Miss Leonhard, so much so that she and her two equally unmarried English teacher sisters made biannual pilgrimages to England and Hardy country to collect fresh specimens of gorse and heather and other plant to show their students.
Johnny Tremain probably had more relevance to our teenaged selves, but The Pearl sure didn't. Yet these stories are classics. There's something about them that has transcended the popular culture of their time to become universal. Why didn't the teachers then -- or the teachers now -- manage to convey that universality to their students?
When my daughter was in high school and her freshman English teacher handed out a list of acceptable books for book reports, there were virtually no women authors on the list. Not even Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Just a bunch of dead white guys. When I confronted the teacher, she looked at me like I was nuts. These were the books that had always been on the list and no one had ever complained before. Well, honey, I complained.
The following year, when my son was a freshman, the high school canon had been expanded, but not by much.
And the kids still didn't read it.
I'm not sure kids are even capable of understanding most of the themes of classic adult literature unless the teacher knows how to make it relevant to their limited experience.
There's a certain similarity between The Pearl and a silly horse story I read in fifth grade, Silver Saddles. The ending is the exact opposite, of course, because the horse story ends happily and the Steinbeck classic is a monumental tragedy. But is the tragedy the whole point of the story? Is that what eighth graders should be taught, that life is a never ending struggle and you shouldn't hope to have anything good come of it because more than likely you'll just end up worse than you were before?
Romeo and Juliet is another tragedy. Why is it still being taught to teenagers who are maybe just starting to experience romance and love and sexual desire? I still remember that English teacher's rapt expression when I said I didn't think kids needed to see love and suicide in the same context without some kind of warning. "Oh, but I just love Romeo and Juliet!" she exclaimed. "It's so romantic!"
Yeah, suicide at 14 is so romantic.
We're a diverse society and we need a diverse canon. But if we're going to impress the importance of that canon or any canon on young readers, don't we have to make it relevant to them? If Jane Austen's universal truth is truly universal, shouldn't there be other examples from literature, from popular culture, from the news, from the kids' real lives?
Maybe I just see all this through the lens of 70 years, or maybe I'm just nuts.