Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pride and Prejudice, part 2

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I know, we've been through this already. Sadly, I'm forced to go there again.

(Kicks out soapbox and climbs on in a huff…)

Dear Huge Publisher of Literature Anthologies,

As I prepared to use your Literature of the Western World, Volume 1 (Fifth Edition) for the first time, I was appalled and dismayed to find the following statement in the introductory material to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Romance, as a literary term, refers today to a kind of formulaic fiction about love affairs, written quickly, sold cheaply, and consumed thoughtlessly, as a pleasantly erotic diversion. […] A ‘romance’ is generally a vulgar, subliterary work. (1613).
As an instructor, it is difficult enough for me to convince a sophomore engineering student that literature has anything worthwhile or important to teach him. Your statement only makes a bad situation worse, as it perpetuates the myth of an arbitrary standard set by academic demi-gods separating Great Literature from Trash.

When faced with sweeping statements that denigrate a very popular genre, students are led to believe that if they read and enjoy such “vulgar” works, then they are obviously unable to read, understand, and appreciate the texts taught in literature classes. Perceived literary elitism is the bane of all classroom teachers; to have the elitism spelled out and endorsed by the class text practically guarantees that many students will not even attempt to connect to the texts in any meaningful way. After all, they aren’t part of that academic elite that is too good for genre fiction.

It is the height of arrogance for anyone—regardless of his or her academic credentials—to condemn an entire genre in such a manner. I also find the editors of the complete volume to be negligent in allowing such a discriminatory statement to pass uncontested. Northrop Frye found ten common characteristics in all of Shakespeare’s comedies. Is Shakespeare a “formulaic” writer? Austen’s Northanger Abbey is easily consumed in one sitting and seldom requires the reader to participate in any manner of deep thought. As most “great” texts can be bought in student paperback editions costing less than $5 each, the price of fiction does not seem to be a strong argument to its greatness. Shall we disregard both Sappho and the Amarushataka because they may be a “pleasantly erotic diversion?”

May I remind the author of this statement that Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, and countless others were once dismissed as nothing more than popular trash. Only time and academic study have raised these authors to their current level of literary respect. To quote Samuel Johnson,

Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes cooperated with chance; all are perhaps more willing to honor past than present excellence […] The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns and the beauties of the ancients (A Preface to Shakespeare).
Perhaps the author of the introductory material should be less quick to pass judgment on any modern text.

Although the Preface to the fifth edition claims to avoid “imposing a single interpretation” (xxii), you have done just that. You have provided students with only one narrow, prejudiced point of view about a genre many of them enjoy. In doing so, you have alienated them from the text, the class, and literature as a whole.

That is unacceptable.

I hope the editors will remove this dismissive and arrogant statement from the sixth edition of the anthology. In the meantime, I will be lobbying the department heads at my university to find a text that encourages its readers to approach all literature (regardless of its genre or time period) with an open mind for its possibilities.

The Problem Child

That's what I wrote Monday instead of my WIP. It'll be going in the mail soon.

I hate arrogant, elitist academics. Literature snobs give all English teachers a bad name. Yes, it's their textbook, but they don't own the literary canon. They just need to pull the sticks out of their as...ahem. Sorry.

(Gets off soapbox and goes to get a strong drink to calm self down)

Don't forget--tomorrow is our super-duper dual guest blog with Michelle Buonfigulio of Romance: By the Blog. Lots of fun and great prizes!


Playground Monitor said...

If it ain't the pompous politician from Texas or the kind folks who designed the subway ad for Washington, DC, it's the literary snobs.

Bless their hearts, when the letter writing begins, they won't know what hit them.


Rhonda said...

PC, that letter rocks! Let'em have it!

Smarty Pants said...

I love this letter. Some people don't appreciate the art of writing a good letter. If you just wrote and said "I write romance and you made me mad, blah, blah." They would just cast you aside. But by throwing literature in their face, twisting their own words and ultimately indicating that by their own definition, most great works are in fact, trash... someone will have to take notice. Threatening to have the dept. change texts doesn't hurt either. If you can't appeal to their academics, their pocketbooks suit just as well.

Those snobby types seem to forget that in the day, Shakespeare's plays were rowdy beerhall entertainment. Most of them probably haven't done enough real analysis of the texts, which can be filthy, funny or just plain crude. They just repeat things they've heard at cocktail parties and try to sound smart. At Shakespeare in the Park in Las Vegas, I'd love how all the snooty types would show up with their wine and brie baskets, then they'd leave at intermission because they had no idea the play wasn't over. Only for Romeo and Juliet did they stay - they weren't dead yet, so they knew there was more acts left.

Is there enough room on that soapbox for me too?

Kathy said...

Let 'em have it, PC!

If the definition of romance in literature conjures up the word 'trash' by some, we could reach far back in time and discover that romance was thread throughout every story in time, starting with the Bible. It is man's ultimate quest to find love and whether he did that while on a great adventure or not, he often found it on many different levels. Are we then to glorify man's right to sex without the added benefits of love?

Look at Beowolf, the Odyssey, Greek myth, the reasons many wars were started, stories of the Gods who avenged one another because they were scorned or jealous all for love's sake or the lack thereof. Romance! History is riddled with true tales of woe begotten by men and women who tackled torrid relationships. Look at the writings that have come out of Russia. Look at Hans Christain Anderson. The Brother's Grim. Even Edgar Allen Poe!

Romance has been the driving force of human nature since the dawn of time. Why did Adam take a bite out of the apple? He did it because he loved Eve.

People need to come down off the pedestals and take a gander at the real world. Man needs the love of a woman to survive. Man dreams and writes about what he desires. Mankind as we know it, lives on. Enough said.


Problem Child said...

Climb aboard SP. There's room for all of us.

I can't tell you how angry I was to read that statement. I love and respect lit, but I don't hold one genre above another. And I certianly don't dismiss any text as trash.

I try so hard to teach my students that they don't have to like anything just becuase it's "Great LIterature," and that they don't need to be ashamed about it. All they have to do is respect the text. How sad that a bunch of PhDs in New Jersey can't see that simple fact.

Now I just have to call my dept's book rep and find an address...

Linda Winstead Jones said...

Ha! Great letter, PC. Find that address and get it in the mail.

LJ -- a fan of great letters.

Playground Monitor said...

Shakespeare was beerhall entertainment and have you read the Song of Solomon lately???

Maybe you should send the link for this to Eloisa James. I'm sure she'd be up there on the soapbox with you.


Instigator said...

Great letter PC! Send that puppy out.


Angel said...

Bravo! Bravo!

LouAnn said...

Don't forget about the Canterbury Tales.....now there is a PRIME example! Some of those tales were very bawdy, yet still required reading for high school students!