Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Literature Professors Write Fiction?

When I was halfway through my MA program for Literature, a PhD student in the program gave me the following sage advice: “If you’re going to be a serious student, don’t take creative writing courses.”  Partly he meant that since you’re getting a degree on literature, you should chase one rabbit at a time.  Writing a short story is time you could be writing your MA Thesis, or drafting an article, or doing something to get you into a conference or PhD program.  However, beneath this was a threat of not being taken seriously: enrolling in a creative writing course at the MA level (for a non-creative writing MA) is amateurish.  It smacks of not being quite serious, or worse, being a dilletante.  “I would never enroll in a creative writing course,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.  I went ahead and took the course, since it was taught by an author whose works I deeply enjoyed.  No regrets, either: I learned a lot from the course, finished my MA Thesis, and got into a halfway decent PhD program. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Book of White: Reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King

The Book of White: Reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

Most literary folk vaguely know the story of King Arthur: that he pulled a sword from the stone to become king of England...that the wizard, Merlin, helped him achieve power through various mystical lessons...that his wife, Guenevere, fell in love with the greatest knight in the land, Arthur’s right-hand man, Lancelot du Lac...that Arthur was seduced by his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to give birth to Mordred, who became his implacable foe...and so on.  Yet no two stories of Arthur agree on all the specifics, so whether you read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, Chretien de Troyes’ Romances, or the Lays of Marie de France, you get a very different Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot.  That’s why T.H. White’s version of the legend is so welcome, since he takes bits and pieces from each and translates them from his own perspective to fit his own philosophy.  Simply put, the four books of The Once and Future King (or five, if you count the suppressed The Book of Merlyn) are one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written, and certainly among the most original.  There’s nothing quite like it in literature, though it shares a satirical heritage with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a sense of the fantastic and absurd with Nikolai Gogol.  Those expecting a grim, fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein or Marion Zimmer Bradley will be somewhat disappointed.  However, like all books, if you approach it on its own terms, and appreciate it as a wholly unique take on the Arthurian epic, you’ll be surprised, confused, delighted, and amazed by White’s achievement. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"This Class Would Be Just Perfect Without All the Students!" (and other complaints of the novice professor)

About a week ago, an article was published on Book Riot entitled “The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature,” focusing on a brief career teaching college English as a TA: http://bookriot.com/2014/08/26/joys-sorrows-teaching-literature/#comment-1568114287

Of course, the title is misleading: the article is only about the sorrows and the thesis consists largely of this: students don’t love reading the way you do, and if you want to keep loving literature you should quit teaching immediately (or better yet, don’t go into the field at all).  This young teacher was disillusioned by the incredible disinterest of her students, particularly when she tried to share her love of language and metaphor to students who simply wanted to pass a class.  This is indeed disturbing to any teacher in love with his or her subject, but of course not surprising at all: why should students made to take a required class be expected to love it the same way as the professor being paid to teach it (or in this case, the TA)?  What bothered me about the article—and I’ve read several like it—is the sense of pervasive defeat in every sentence: you can’t teach literature to students, they don’t care, the profession is full of jargon, so I’m going to retreat into a book club and simply enjoy reading again.