Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An open letter to unemployed scholars who know French and Latin

Dear unemployed scholars,

Did you know that Jean Bodin's complete Six Books of the Republic has not been translated into English since 1606? That, as you may have noticed, was a long time ago. English has changed a lot since then. Plz get to work.

Miss Self-Important

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Skokie in the NYT!

Admittedly, a passing mention in an otherwise uninteresting article, but I'll take what I can get:
The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, president of Loyola University, a Jesuit university in Chicago, said of Mr. Patel’s group: “They don’t have the knowledge base or experience in theology, but they have provided the data on where our kids are. The world we grew up in was all Irish, Italian and German. Now it’s Vietnamese, and Poles and Jewish kids from Skokie. We are not automatically able to reflect on their reality.”

Thursday, June 09, 2011

YA lit: The only genre whose public discourse has not changed in 40 years

Last week, this eminently reasonable op-ed about YA lit appeared in the WSJ:
It is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
The same op-ed has appeared every few years in various newspapers and magazines since about 1969. It always generates the same outraged response from YA authors, ostensibly in the name of the children.* No one should be surprised that YA lit feeds off of book banning outrage--the genre was born from it. Book censorship had a decent history before YA lit came onto the scene in the late '60s, but no one remembers that history. Public libraries removed Communist and other politically incendiary stuff from the shelves from the '30s through the '50s, and many of these removals were challenged and overturned. Why then does the phrase "book banning" immediately make us think of Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye, while memories of those poor leftist tracts have totally faded from our consciousness? Mid-century Communists, whatever their other failings, at least had a political project, a project whose circulation was perhaps slightly diminished by library removal, but which did not exist merely for the sake of library circulation. Anyone can read Marxist ideas and remain unconvinced--a failure for the project. But YA lit of this "realist" strain has no argument except the exposure imperative. Children must be exposed to it or they will remain forever naive. This excuses every excess and failure of style and skill. The writing might be total crap--all the better. That's more real. Real people, after all, are inarticulate, and bad writers. The main thing is to describe in lurid detail ever more exotic forms of misery. (All things I've written about before.) The next step is to wait for adults to object to the lack of moral and aesthetic judgment contained in the work, and then launch the Typical YA Lit defense, which goes like this:
Think of the children! They must learn of the facts of life--the "real things" that happen to "real people" in the "real world"! These include, but are not limited to, the following forms of misery: racism, drug abuse, eating disorders, rape, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, incest, murder (preferably by gangs). These are the constitutive elements of reality (if your life does not feature them, it might not be real), from which you prudish parents have unjustly been shielding your children by such evasions as selectively introducing them to people who don't engage in these behaviors, moving to neighborhoods where these problems are uncommon, and encouraging them to avoid these fates themselves. This kind of "sheltering" is not only foolish, but it is downright negligent. That is why we, YA authors, are here to save your children from your misguided moralizing efforts by exposing them to these realities early without passing judgment. Only sufficient exposure can bring about understanding. And this is what the children themselves want to read. (We know this because they send us fan mail!) Wait, what now? You want to prevent your children from being exposed to our important work? This can only mean that you prefer to abet abuse, disorder, rape, and murder! Censorship! Censorship! We are being muzzled! The very fact that you object demonstrates how very important our work is--you are trying to hide the truth from your children, while we are revealing it! We are heroes!
This rhetoric merged with the supposed illiteracy crisis of the 1970s (it's hard to believe this was a real event) to create an entirely amoral argument for YA lit: kids these days don't read anymore, and non-reading leads to academic failure, school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and death. Therefore, we must encourage kids to read! Reading anything is better than nothing! And this is the key: somehow, the actual benefits of reading literature were never raised in all the sloganeering, and what remained was basically a call to force children to scan words with their eyes. If they pronounced some books "boring" then and refused to lend them their eyes, the solution was to find something more visually captivating that still contained words. YA lit, which made no pretense to be literary at first, was a natural candidate for this exercise. Thus, we get this tale of miraculous literary awakening from a 1972 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan (a journal for teachers and ed school monkeys):
In a local school, a student teacher purchased and took two paperback copies of Paul Zindel's The Pigman into a junior class of "nonreaders," and overnight two students read the novel. Returning the next day, they commented that this was the first book they had ever read and asked where they could find more like it… Their reading began with a few of the now young adult novels but led away and for a few, eventually, included some of the Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Stephen Crane found within the approved school sources.
If you are my age, you will perhaps recall how your teachers pinned similar hopes on such illustrious works as the Goosebumps series: "At least they're reading something! Who knows--maybe RL Stine will nourish a lifelong passion for Shakespeare!" I bet it will.

Which brings us to Alan Jacobs's very good point:
According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all...What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.
The reason that it is commonly thought that YA saves is because it's widely believed that reading saves. Reading is the opposite of illiteracy. Ergo, even reading the phonebook is a step in the right direction. This view is so entrenched in Jacobs's commenters that they can't even think of a book that could possibly do any harm. Even reading total crap apparently "helped develop my critical facilities." I'm hard-pressed to think of another activity that merits such unstinting praise that we can't even discern failure in it. Imagine if we felt this way about music: Even listening to tomcats howling in an alley helped me by showing me what disharmony sounds like. I now seek out alleycat wailing to experience this pleasure again and again. Jacobs offers a perfect example of harmful teenage reading--Ayn Rand--and even this is rejected because apparently reading Ayn Rand is valuable in helping us to see what is wrong with Ayn Rand.

What seems to be lost here all sense of what it means for a book to be harmful. Jacobs's readers, and YA's defenders generally, are mired in the rhetoric of book banning and seem to think that if they admit that a book is harmful, that means it will either kill you or move you to kill someone else, and it should therefore be burned. But that is of course not what a harmful book is, and no one is proposing a ban on such books. The effect that harmful books have is either that they cement pernicious views of the world that adolescents are already inclined to hold, or simply that they waste time that could be spent on better books or better experiences. This is not world-shattering harm, of course, and perhaps that's why it's hard to notice against the supposedly self-evident good of reading. But growing up is a complex process of perceiving the reality of the adult world, and small things that do no more than draw one's attention away from one emphasis to another still play their part in forming these perceptions. When all the books marketed at adolescent girls are about eating disorders, high school social tyrannies, and sex, these topics form their intellectual horizons. Is being encouraged to inhabit such narrow horizons--to think there is nothing to do or contemplate beyond reputation-honing and calorie-counting and shopping--not a form of harm? It's not clear how spending three hours reading a trashy novel is superior to spending those hours playing video games or watching paint dry, but the act of eyes scanning words on a page has come to be thought a morally upstanding activity.

*Do you want to know how old and tired this rhetoric is? Below the cut is a short history of Judy Blume and her reception in the 1970s from a paper I once wrote on this topic but will not impose on you involuntarily (complete with archival research--thanks grad school!):