On the Twentieth-Century Novel

Some thoughts on the purpose of English as a discipline…or more accurately on the purpose of Literature in the twentieth century.

I’ve recently started reading Russell Banks’s latest novel Foregone. Browsing through the response to this book on the website Goodreads, I found the following rather astute observation:

Let me theorize, based more on hunches than evidence: an embarrassing amount of 20th Century American literature is about rites of passage in the lives of upper-middle-class white American heterosexual males. The mid-century practitioners of this navel-gazing modernism – John Cheever, John Updike, John O’Hara, JD “John” Salinger, ad infinitum – are long gone, and the generation of writers they inspired – Richard Russo, Paul Auster, the good Mr. Banks, ad infinitum – are desperate to eulogize themselves. Unfortunately for these gentlemen, but fortunately for literature, more women and people of color are being accepted as “serious” writers, so cis-male memento mori like Auster’s “1,2,3,4” and this book by Mr. Banks seem about as relevant to modern life as the Pyramids, and more self-indulgent. Read any book by an author whose life and experiences are shaped by the kind of social, cultural or economic forces that have no impact on people like Mr. Banks’ protagonist, and the contrast is kind of dispiriting – do we really need books like “Foregone?”

The overall point here seems to me to be spot on: the twentieth-century “serious” novel was the domain of middle-class, white heterosexual men, and to a lesser degree those who. aspire to write and think like them. Sure, in sheer numbers, most novels were written by women, and much genre fiction was written by men who never made it into the middle class. But the writers who got to sit on committees that granted awards, who taught at the major universities, etc., these were almost all ivy-league educated, white, heterosexual men.

What I would want to nuance a bit is the “class” part. Because if we look at these lists, we see mostly men who were born at the fringes of the “middle-class” and wrote as a way to gain access to that class. That is, writers like O’Hara and Updike were not affluent by birth, but born into the lower fringes of the middle class. O’Hara’s father died when he was young, leaving his family in poverty, and Updike’s father was, I believe, a high school teacher.

My point is that the “serious” male novelist of the twentieth century is generally writing about the aspiration to belong to the middle class. This usually includes protagonists who have some special quality, some unusual moral sense or sensitivity or whatever, which enables them to escape a threatened slide into poverty by doing something somehow “creative,” like writing or in the case of O’Hara’s From the Terrace working at an investment firm. The protagonist generally finds the upper middle class, to which he finally ascends, less than fulfilling in some way—usually in its limitations on his sexual adventuring, but sometimes in the fact that his not having “old money” marks him permanently as socially inferior.

The twentieth-century novel, then, is not about the experiences of the upper classes, who almost never write fiction, but about the experience of those who aspire to the upper-classes, and who almost make it there. Off hand, I can’t think of any successful novels in which the hero fails in his attempt to rise socially. That just wouldn’t make a novel.

Ideologically, then, the functions of Literature is to teach aspiration, to teach us to want to join the upper-middle class, even if we are allowed (we always are) some degree of resentiment, some pretense of moral or aesthetic superiority to those we want to belong among.

What the reviewer of Foregone misses, I would suggest, is the simple fact that the inclusion of more women, as well as more African-American and Asian and Native-American and Hispanic and Middle-Eastern writers among the “serious” writers is not at all a change in this ideological function of Literature. It is simply a reflection of the fact that these groups can now also aspire to middle-class status, and can then be bitter when they get it because they aren’t as fully accepted as they wanted to be, and anyway the world of the upper middle class turns out to be culturally stifling and intellectually barren anyway. We tend to include these novels, not because it is actually more possible for these groups to enter the upper middle class than it used to be, but because we want them to think it is, and we also can no longer allow the suggestion that there might are white, heterosexual men who are not already in the upper middle class. Poor white men are always only criminals or mental defectives, all the rest have white privilege, whatever that might be.

My current writing project is a novel that attempts to address this ideological function of Literature, exactly by taking a heterosexual, white man born to most affluent level of the working class, who shares all the aspirations of the protagonists of a novel by John O’Hara or John P. Marquand, but fails to get into that upper stratum. That is, I am trying to write a kind of anti-novel of the late-twentieth-century. One in which ideas and the intellect are not the great evil they are for writers like Updike or Auster or Banks. And more importantly, one in which all of this aspiration to “rise” by merit through the creative professions is seen as what it is: a sort of pressure-valve for late-capitalism, and not a real possibility at all (except for those very few who become wealthy novelists or pop singers or movie actors…that is, those who have the “creative” ability to escape the fall into poverty).

I doubt such a novel will be “enjoyable” in the traditional sense. It won’t offer an ideological fantasy, or a traditional Oedipal narrative, the two strategies (sometimes combined) which are usually what makes a work of art feel compelling today. My hope, though, is that it might offer a kind of intellectual pleasure, one usually excluded from the discourse of the novel.

At this point, the novel is drafted, but needs revision. So if I’m not writing much here, it’s because I’m plowing ahead with the work of re-writing.

In the meantime, I continue to be interested in the attempt to eliminate the teaching of English Language Arts from the high school curriculum. I believe that only by doing this could we create a general public capable of reading any kind of Literature other than the usual fantasy narratives we see every week on the best-seller lists. So I’ll continue to write, in the probably naive hope that some day there will be an audience for the kind of anti-novel I’m producing, or even better there will be other writers producing such books themselves.

Eliminating English Language Arts, part 2

We are now two and a half weeks into the school year, and I’ve asked my daughter each day what she did in English Language Arts. As with most teenagers, her initial answer is always “nothing,” but with a little pushing I get a more detailed description out of her.

So far, here is what they have done:

1) For a two days, they did a “bio-poem”; this is a favorite activity among secondary education teachers. If you don’t know what it is, google it—there are many “lesson plans” for this online. I doesn’t teach anything, but is supposed to build self-esteem and help students “explore their personal identity”, according to on such lesson plan.

2) They spent one day having their reading level tested. Good to know this, I guess, but since they haven’t been taught reading since third grade I cannot see why they are so concerned to test their abilities every three months. They don’t, incidentally, proceed to match reading assignments to reading level; my daughter, and most of her friends, read at about a 12th-grade level, but the book they were assigned to read over the summer is written at a 3rd-grade level. She read in in about three hours.

3) Two days watching a video about 9/11. Again, fine to think about this, but in Language Arts class why not read something, instead of watching YouTube? Why not ask them to write something about this?

4) Three days practicing writing emails, to teach “email etiquette.” This seems to amount to: use a salutation and signature, and write in sentences not as if you were texting your friend. They were instructed to “use good grammar,” but the only example of what that meant was “don’t use ‘ain’t’”, which prompted my daughter to ask “who says ‘ain’t’ anymore? We’re not in a production of Annie.”

5) For one day, they discussed their summer reading book. They had to write down on slips of paper their favorite character and their favorite scene in the book. It was, I’m told, a lot like the old “Chris Farley Show” sketches on SNL: “remember the part when…? Yeah, that was awesome.” Unfortunately, their teachers seem to have no idea how to go about discussing a work of literature intelligently, so it doesn’t even occur to them that they should be teaching their students how to do so.

That’s it so far, almost three weeks in. One day was spent doing “team building exercises”, but that was in all classes not just ELA.

So far, no homework, no reading or writing assignments, and no idea at all what they are supposed to be learning in eight-grade ELA. In math, on the other hand, they have already reviewed algebra and been taught proper notation for geometry. Unfortunately, in science, they yesterday did the same assignment on “the scientific method” they have done every years since third grade. I mean literally the same assignment—the exact same worksheet on the exact same web page. The students, I am told, find this funny, and aren’t particularly bothered that they will spend yet another year doing third-grade science lessons from a website.

My concern, though, is mostly to get people to ask their kids what they do in middle-school and high-school English class. Find out what they are supposed to learn, and ask their teachers and school administrators how exactly they might learn it by writing fill-in-the-blank poems or watching videos. If we can get some broader samples of what really goes on in the secondary-school ELA classroom, we can perhaps have the data needed to create a petition demanding that this waste of time be removed from the school curriculum.

So far, little interest. The few parents I’ve spoken to are not concerned. They remember having hated the boring books they read in English class, and are just happy that their kids can get easy “A”s without having to wade through Silas Marner or “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Most don’t believe that literacy skills are terribly important in the STEM-field jobs that they think are their children’s future. Literacy is a thing of the past—Microsoft Word already revises your writing for you, and nobody’s boss can read anymore anyway, so who will know if you don’t read well?

Literacy is important. If it is no longer the job of English Language Arts to teach it, and it clearly is not, we need to free up some money and time for a new discipline in which these essential skills can be taught. Unfortunately, all current ELA teachers, who have never been taught these skills themselves, will be out of a job. And we’ll have to figure out who exactly has the skills to teach this today, which may take some time. But in the meantime, we can at least free up money and time for other pursuits. Just because we have nothing in place to accomplish this task does not mean we should continue wasting time and resources failing to accomplish the task in current ELA classes. That’s like arguing that until we have a cure for brain cancer, we might just as well have people bang their heads against the wall.

Anyone reading this: got any suggestion as to how I might spark greater interest in this problem?
How to even explain that without literacy skills we are dooming our children to a life in which they will have no true agency, no ability to, borrowing a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, “put their social and cultural order to the question.” And if they cannot learn to do this, if the social order goes on as it is, we are all doomed to a bleak and dystopian future.

Eliminating “English”!

I’ve been giving some thought to resuming an old project that I had abandoned years ago because I seemed to be the only person in America concerned with it. I may still be the only person concerned with it, but that seems to be true of many of my concerns, so why not?

I’m talking about the attempt to eliminate the teaching of “English” (sometimes called “Language Arts”) in secondary education. No, I don’t mean I’m concerned that some evil anti-intellectual group is trying to do this and we ought to prevent it. Rather, my point is exactly that it is high time we got rid of this waste of money and time in our public schools.

I first raised this topic years ago, after having taught a graduate-level course for high school English teachers. I started my first class of the semester by stating that the goal of teaching English in high school is to make students better readers and writers than they were at the beginning of the school year. The objection to this was unanimous and surprisingly hostile: I was informed that this is not at all what English teachers do, and so my course was not going to be of use to them. English teachers, the students in this masters-level class assured me, are tasked with “relating” to students on an emotional level, and their goal is to help students deal with personal and emotional problems. This is often better done by watching movies and coloring pictures in class, and doing brief therapeutic exercise such as having students write poems meant to bolster their self-esteem. Reading difficult texts would only get in the way of this, since it would add stress and make them feel less capable if their reading skills are poor.

I’ve since spoken to a dozen high school English teachers from the surrounding school districts, and they universally share this belief: there is no value at all in having students read Shakespeare or other difficult texts, since these have no application in their everyday lives. The goal of any lesson plan is to “engage” students, and this is best done by discussing “memes” or popular movies like the Harry Potter series. These are used to “relate” to the students, and help them to deal with their emotional problems.

My position was, and remains, that we don’t need to be paying millions of dollars to have untrained therapists wasting our children’s time. If they won’t teach reading and writing skills, we might as well eliminate the entire discipline.

The other day, I got a letter from my daughter’s middle school teacher that renewed my interest in trying to form a grassroots campaign to get rid of English Language Arts. Here are some passages from that letter:

Creating a climate where reading and discussing honest, original thoughts on that reading is crucial to the development of your child as a reader and thinker. The beauty of having freedom of choice in what you read is that students are able to find what genuinely sparks their interest and can challenge themselves to enter into new worlds, categories, concepts and stories. Luckily, we have a wonderful Library Media Specialist at Dodd and each ELA classroom is equipped with a multitude of titles to choose from. Alongside novels, I encourage students to explore types of texts they find interesting (i.e. graphic novels, comic books, short stories, news articles, etc.).

Research shows us that one of the best ways to increase students’ reading and writing abilities is simply for them to read and write more.

The best books challenge our beliefs by helping us see through different eyes —to live a different life. I have spent the summer building my classroom library to offer a variety of choices, and I will also be utilizing our school library. I won’t know the details of every book students read and refer to this semester, and I won’t remember the details of all the books I recommend to students. What I seek for all of my students is a compulsion to read—for pleasure— for knowledge—for a passion for a good story or
information that will keep them tuned into the pages of a book past our assigned time for reading.

My concerns here are numerous. Most importantly, if the goal of an English classroom is only to have students spend some time reading comic books, well, don’t they already do that? Do we really need to spend millions of dollars on teachers to stand around and watch while they do?

If the teacher is not going to know about the books being read, how can they possibly evaluate whether the student is reading it well? It sounds like such evaluation is not even going to be attempted; rather, any response that is “honest” and “original” is okay, whether or not the text was understood correctly.

And where exactly is the “research” that “shows” that reading any old thing that captures your interest will improve your reading and writing skills? I’ve taught college composition for decades, and have looked for research on how to improve reading and writing skill—there just isn’t any. There are lots of unsupported claims about this, abundant speculation and wishful thinking, but no such research exists.

Then, the myth that reading fiction will somehow allow us to “see through different eyes.” No, it doesn’t really do this. This isn’t even the goal of Literature. It may the be goal of a certain way of teaching Literature, but it is not the goal of any novel ever written, much less of a graphic novel or comic book. Even if it were, though, how likely is this challenge to student’s beliefs when they are asked to read only whatever captures their interest?

Finally, why do we need teachers who will not have read the books the students are reading? How is this different from having them read on their own, if they choose, whatever they choose?

If we want our students to be prepared for college, the goal ought to be to make them read things that they may not read otherwise, texts that challenge them and that will teach the something about the world. Then, the teacher needs to be able to evaluate whether the student has read the text well, in order to help them figure out where they are going wrong when they miss the point of a text. Discussions of texts can only be useful if everyone in the conversation has read the same text! Then students can begin to see that other readers might construe a text differently, or emphasize different things in the text.

This move to have English be a free reading time is just laziness on the part of teachers, who are quick to claim the support of imaginary “research” they can never actually point to. Most English teachers, as I’ve found out over the years, cannot themselves read a Robert Frost poem, much less a Shakespeare play. They are generally poor writers and worse readers, and try to cover their inability to do what they were hired to do with these claims that the “real” mission of English is to “relate” to students.

The result is that most students get into college unable to read above a fifth-grade level. Ask any college chemistry professor what happens when she assigns a textbook chapter to her students!

What little reading and writing they learn seems to done mostly in their history classes, where they are taught to write papers and to read “sources” correctly. Maybe it’s time to drop English, and spend more time in history class? Or devote more resources to educating them about basic science?

Right now, I’m looking for others willing to support this project. If you have kids in middle school or high school, send me copies of the assignments their teachers give them (not the student’s paper, but the “prompt” for the paper). Ask your kids, every day, what they did in English class, and keep track of how many times the answer is “we had a study hall” or “we watched a movie” or “we colored pictures.” What books are your kids actually reading? What kind of writing are they asked to do?

English departments are already being eliminated from some public universities. Maybe it’s time to eliminate them from public education completely? If we can’t do that, at least I would like to push educators to make some defense of keeping English; if they have to defend it, I would wager they won’t be able to do so without putting a stop to most of what goes on in the average English classroom today.

In the future, I may shut down this blog and start a new one devoted to this project. I hope some of the readers here will recommend this post to anyone they think might have an interest in advocating for an actual education for our children!