Posts Tagged 'Literature'

Reason #34 Why I’m Glad To Be An English Major

My last class of my college career was yesterday– “American Gothic,” an English course. We had just finished reading Beloved (which was my fourth time reading it overall, yikes). Our reading list had started in the 17th century so, three centuries later, we had a fairly good understanding of gothic novels in America. For our last class, my professor brought in the film version of Beloved, produced by and starring Oprah.

Now, critics generally agree that the film version of Beloved was a bit of a disaster– everything is sub-mediocre, from the screenplay to the acting to the cinematography. But what watching the film clips really made me think about was how glad I am that I’m an English major.

I’m not saying that good films can’t be made from good books– but I do think that there is inevitably something lost when you transfer a text into a visual medium. Especially with Toni Morrison, who rarely uses linear narrative and often fucks with basic elements like.. character identification, and, um, reality. So you can see how unwise it might be to try and make a film from her works.

But I was also disturbed by my professor’s ease with bringing in the film and showing only the most graphic clips. Her point was well-taken: that the film brushed over all the horrific memories in the novel and condenses them into one brief, confusing flashback. But I do take issue with her perpetuating that insensitivity by showing the most graphic parts of the film out of context. It was literally two minutes of watching dead babies and tortured slaves, without much discussion.

I think her assumption was that our generation has been desensitized to film violence, and therefore we can watch extremely violent scenes any time, any place.  Sure, piece of cake.

Except– this is exactly why I’m an English major, and not a film major. Because graphic violence in novels is different. It still forces you to visualize violence in intense detail (for example, from Beloved: “to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so that her head would stay on; …to absorb, still, the death-spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life…” hello?!).

But violence in literature also forces you to do more than “watch” violence; it also forces you to reflect on that violence. To think about the meaning of it. Violence in films, or on TV, requires no reflection– just absorption.

So, that’s the long story of how my last class of college was: a little frustrating, but also making me satisfied to have the degree that I do.

History of the Orchard

Orchard

At times the world seems to demand a moment of reflection: to bring your feet together and stand still, to breathe deeply the newly-crisp air.

In Virginia I was only just beginning to feel it: the peak of Harvest time, full of watermelons. But the academic calendar forced me to jump start a new season, driving north and skipping a few weeks forward into cooler weather.

So I thought (in my moment of reflection) that it would be a good time to revisit The Orchard. You know, that mental place where ripe ideas hang low on the branches, the namesake of this humble blog.

Ironically, I was sorting through poems entitled “The Orchard” when I came across a poem by Kathleen Norris, whose book of nonfiction sits just to my left, dog-eared halfway through. Her book Dakota got me through last Spring Break the same way that In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens saved me a few years ago. The poem is titled “The Monastery Orchard in Early Spring,” and ends:

Encounter with fruit is dangerous:

the pear’s womanly shape forever mocked him.


A man and a woman are talking.

Rain moves down and

branches lift up

to learn again

how to hold their fill of green

and blossom, and bear each fruit to glory,

letting it fall.

*   *   *

In one sense, the orchard resembles the garden in parallel world mythologies and fairy tales. It is enclosed; it is forbidden; it is the realm of the gods. More than the garden, though, the orchard is immortal; it is old (these are trees, after all, not daffodils).

Poor Persephone, who ate the pomegranate seeds from Hades’ orchard and was thus tied forever to the world of the dead. The Monkey King, on the other hand, stuffed himself with the Peaches of Immortality, setting off a long chain of events which ends with his elevation to Buddhahood. But Pomona, the wood nymph, tried to enclose herself in her orchard in order to keep suitors away, and was eventually forced to marry Vertumnus. Daphne too, being chased by Apollo, turned into a tree. Coincidence?

It’s a complicated place, the orchard: women running every which way, trying to find safety in trees, or running away from them. Some do find safety; others are victim to Trickster’s invasion (The Monkey King is China’s Trickster figure; Vertumnus disguises himself as an old woman to seduce Pomona, the Norse Trickster god Loki allows for the theft of the goddess Idun’s orchard, which contained the apples of immortality).

It’s a place where women, having always been the target of theft alongside the other ‘forbidden fruits,’ are beginning to climb trees.

And some are wandering into the woods, which are equally immortal but a bit more crooked than the orchard’s rows. Women are re-learning how to graft trees, which is the method for repairing fruit trees, and for making hardier breeds. Beautiful beautiful, to be grafting new trees from history.

Others are writing in the shade, resulting in something like Alice Walker’s Celie, who says, “my first step from the old white man was trees.”

Escape and Awareness

*This is an article I wrote recently to show to a local magazine*

I’m fascinated by my youngest sister’s character. We’re 8 years apart, but sometimes it feels like I’m several generations older. It becomes clearest when we’re talking technology: she’s never known a world without computers or television, but when I was a kid, my family owned neither.

She’s also into fantasy, something I worry about. I’m not gonna lie; I judge anime fans. Not because I think anime is bad in itself, or because I’m a product of a society that looks down on any costumed culture that doesn’t involve barely-dressed women posing as nurses or playboy bunnies; No, I’ve arrived at a general unease with anime culture very slowly, over the past six or seven years, and through various friendships and acquaintances with [some very good] people who are anime or fantasy fans. My distrust comes from the insular, protected “bubble world” that many fans create, settle into, and rarely leave– a world that has very little contact with reality, and that expands beyond any one series to whole cybercommunities with fanfiction, fan art, and other forums that blur the line between watching, reading, writing, and living. It’s a world that cares little for social action, much less social justice: a cozy little bubble that doesn’t challenge its inhabitants; it indulges them.

I’m not arbitrarily hating on anime, which is something that many Americans do. To these people, anime stands as a symbol for an “East Asian” takeover of American culture and commodities. These people will likely find it very difficult to admit that the escapism that anime provides for many American adolescents is no different than the escapism that American television offers– which affects far more American adolescents than anime ever has.

It would also be a mistake to group my bias with our general cultural distaste for what we have deemed “nerd games” — Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Second Life, etc.* That’s just a symptom of America’s need to preserve an [increasingly fragile] ideal of the socially-adept independent man. (Yes, “man”– how often do you see girls in mocking portrayals of D&D?)

So, I use anime as my first example because it has been most visible in my friendships with fans. But my distrust of anime is the same as my distrust of Harry Potter, and any series that spawns conventions, internet alter-egos, fanfiction, fan art, etc, etc. Basically, my gripe is with the escapism itself.

In many ways, the escapism into mainstream television is worse, because it doesn’t carry the social stigma that anime and fantasy do. However–partly because of that stigma–fantasy and anime are more prone to creating self-contained worlds on the internet or elsewhere, devoted to their dramas. This is changing, of course; I’ve read more bloody posts about Dancing with the Stars/So You Think You Can Dance in the past two days than I hope to ever encounter again.

This may sound like nostalgia for a time that I never knew, but I don’t think that this applies to fantasy from more than 30 or 40 years ago. Lord of the Rings definitely spawned a subculture, costumes and alter-egos included, but with less-developed mass-marketing techniques and the lack of internet, LOTR never created the full, daily, and self-supporting fantasy facade.

My sister doesn’t “do” anime, but she reads a lot of fantasy, and not much else. She’s a voracious reader (which is something my 12-year-old self can identify with), but the vast majority of her reading material is fantasy series. When I pester her to read non-fantasy, she complains that the Young Adult sections of the bookstores are all about sex, boys, or vampires. …Okay, fair point. The writing in the Twilight series is nearly as bad as HP fanfiction written by a 14 year old. Also, I’m a bit proud that she hasn’t branched from fantasy to vampires.

However, even after reading some books I recommended [The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime]**, my sister seems to have a clear aversion some basic literary tenets: unhappy (or ambiguous) endings, any narrative style that doesn’t start with a description of a medieval-esque village, any regular ol’ coming of age story… etc.

Some of this is just her age– and of course I felt the same way at her age. You want to believe that your own life will have a happy ending, so you read up on them. But my sister has an option that I didn’t have: of staying in that fantasy world way into her adolescence, into her adulthood. And yeah, that scares me.

I mean, okay, I read Dealing with Dragons in 2nd grade and definitely had a brief love affair with ass-kicking princesses, but then I displaced my mystery/fantasy attractions onto Celtic and Irish culture (cultural “oops!” moment), and then was kicked into reality when my family filed for bankruptcy. And I don’t think you have to stop playing dress up when you’re an adult– but at 20, you can dress up for a multitude of awesome reasons (themed party? mood elevator?) that do not involve impersonating a comic character.

Then, the other day, my sister said something that clicked: something along the lines of “I don’t want to read a violent book.. then it’s just like watching TV.”

Oh. Duh.

What else would explain the rise of all-encompassing escapist media cultures? Not only do they offer the option to leave your own life behind and enter into the lives of characters, but you can rewrite their lives and plots to bring your personally preferred ending into “reality.” In a sick, sort of ironically American way, we’re bringing up a generation that’s more saturated with “reality” than any before– in the sense that they’re being exposed to mindless sex, mass violence, and all sorts of subtle visual and psychological messages about the meaninglessness and futility of the world, way earlier than any other generation of Americans.

Sure, television in the 1950′s was a facade as well, serving to reinforce all sorts of gender and racial stereotypes. But at least then a kid came face to face with reality through a personal experience–actually having awkward unsafe sex, getting in a physical fight–instead of having it ingrained from birth by both TV/movies as well as the news, which supposedly covers real life.***

For me, this was an important message for me as a writer. It’s dangerous to write too sentimentally (readers will not be able to reconcile the text with their own lives), but it’s also dangerous to indulge in violence and meaninglessness in the name of “realistic” writing. For my sister (and, I assume, most American kids born after her) there is another, far more appealing option just waiting on the computer.

I highly recommend “The Future of Reading: Digital Versus Print,” an article from a series in the New York Times about “how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read.”

The good news is that my sister seems to be embarking on a fascinating quest to balance escapism with awareness. When I introduced her to I Love Lucy, she became obsessed. She even tried convincing her science teacher to watch it– though the teacher, a 30-something who would have grown up with the more contemporary relationship to technology, claimed she “didn’t like things in black and white.”

The even better news is that when my sister and I watch I Love Lucy, we laugh hard and then yell in protest when something ridiculously sexist happens. Has anybody seen the episode where Lucy starves herself to be thin enough to perform in Ricky’s show, and has to be carried off in a stretcher at the end? Yes, hilarity. It used to be just me pointing out all the sexism on the show, but lately my sister has been bringing things up as well.

Makes me proud, it does.

__________

*Although I struggle with an underlying distaste for these game cultures in general, my hunch is that this is more of an internal struggle with growing up under the “nerd” label, and with my own desire for escapism.

** (yeah, she’s sort of an advanced reader)

*** I’m clearly underestimating the detriment that white racist sexist heteronormative television had on earlier generations. I only want to point out that it may have been better than today’s media culture in at least one way.

Rurality 101

No pictures today– sometimes I have to rely on words alone. This is probably good for me, given that I’m an English major. Which brings me to…

A book recommendation!

amusing

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman.

I first read this book as a senior in high school, when my father gave it to me (on top of a stack of other books) for my graduation. This is one of the top ten books that changed my life– not necessarily because it was beautifully written (in fact, Postman’s style can be pretty obtuse) but because it provoked me to re-think my relationship to technology, the media, and the world in general. Given that we live in a media-saturated (post)modern world (I am writing a blog post, not a letter, after all), it’s tricky to turn a critical lens on technology. But this book isn’t a sermon, and Postman is no Luddite. Rather, Amusing Ourselves to Death is a historical, psychological, and social exploration of media in the broadest sense, and the evidence that turns up is hard to ignore.

Here’s the foreword, which I’m quoting in full because it’s short and worth reading:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

After reading AOTD, at 17 years old, I drastically reduced my time on the computer and in front of the television. It wasn’t a disciplinary cold-turkey sort of thing; I actually began to feel physically disgusted in front of a screen. I needed more conversations; more fresh air. More dirt. As a result, I began to reconnect with something I had forgotten: my rural, solitary, Southern, low-income, dirt-filled childhood.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m living on a farm. No cell phone service, no internet. Just ploughed fields, piles of scrap metal and construction remnants, and me. Maybe it’s the free time, or maybe because I just finished reading Huckleberry Finn for my senior comps in the fall, but I’ve begun to do really Southern things. Like whittling.

I’m sure my posts will get comically rural over the next few weeks.

Cover Art Collage

Even as I settle into the beauty that this summer promises, I’m having to plan ahead for my Honors thesis, which I’ll begin in the fall. My reading list is double the size of regular English majors, so… in lieu of actually working, I decided to procrastinate with a pretty collage!

Honors Reading Collage

I judge a book by its cover (don’t lie; so do you). Sort of the same way that I [used to] buy shampoo in the prettiest bottle. Cover art is so interesting, particularly the way that it evolves with each edition. In a Children’s Literature class that I took at Hollins University, we examined the evolution of cover art for The Great Gilly Hopkins– Gilly’s appearance ranges from childlike to adolescent, from tomboyish to very strange sort of hip femininity. I always preferred the original “face obscured by bubble gum” cover. It allowed the imagination to color in the rest.

It’s also always amusing having to read old books that are being re-designed and marketed as chic modern reads– like the Barnes and Noble “Classics” edition of Robinson Crusoe. What is that cover– a mysterious romance novel, perhaps?

 

Key to the Collage:

1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
2. Complete Fiction of Nella Larson (I’m assigned Quicksand)
3. Shell Shaker by Leanne Howe
4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
5. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
6. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
8. Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Marie Borroff trans.)
10. Paradise Lost by John Milton
11. Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
12. Way of the World by William Congreve
13. A Good Man is Hard to Find (and other stories) by Flannery O’Connor
14. The Life and Times of Michael K. by J. M. Coetzee
15. Turn of the Screw by Henry James
16. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
17. Henry V by William Shakespeare
18. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
19. Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove
20. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Not Included (but which I still have to read):
Poems of W.B. Yeats
Selected lyric poems by Ben Jonson
Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer
Poems of Anne Bradstreet
Poems by  Theodore Roethke
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: 29, 30, 55, 73, 116, 129, 130, 144, 146

Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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