Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Caught in a literary Yale-storm

Michael Blowhard, of 2 Blowhards fame, protests the narrowness of academically correct fiction in a posting about an Open Yale course (I accidentally typed "curse" — hmmm) on "The American Novel Since 1945." He says:
Take that course and you'd learn little if anything about postwar crime, horror, romance, or western fiction. You'd discover next to nothing about erotic fiction or humorous fiction. You'd remain clueless about the enduring influence of writers like Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann. (I bet you also wouldn't wake up to the history of the postwar American publishing business.) Yet you'd emerge convinced that you'd "done" the postwar American novel. And you'd have Yale's imprimatur bolstering your confidence about that judgment.
Here are the novels that will be taught to litivores seeking the Yale professor's insights.

Let's see: I've actually read a couple of them (Lolita and, when I was a pup, On the Road). I've read quite a few of Philip Roth's novels, although not The Human Stain, and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, though not Franny and Zooey. I vaguely recollect that a writer I think highly of praised Wright's Black Boy. The names of Flannery O'Connor, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy are known to me.

But I have to confess complete ignorance of Maxine Hong Kingston,
Marilynne Robinson, Edward P. Jones, and the "students' choice," Jonathan Safran Foer. I am culturally deprived (I accidentally typed "depraved" — hmmm). Get me a grant. Who's the Obama literary czar?

Should I happen to take Professor Amy Hungerford's course — she's not half cute, is she? — to improve my mind, here are some of the conundrums, condoms, and carborundums I could explore.

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior:
Referring to examples throughout the syllabus, but especially Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, Hungerford describes the overriding tendency of American novels written after 1945 to explore the tension between individual and collective identities and to interrogate the artistic and political stakes of competing notions of authenticity.
Is Amnesty International on the case? Are harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, used to interrogate the … erm, I'm not sure what the object of the verb is, "stakes" or "notions." Why must notions of authenticity compete? Why can't they cooperate? Why can't we all just get along?

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping:
The loss of identity that Emerson describes as becoming a "transparent eyeball" in the woods, Robinson brings into the realm of the home, the built environment. The individual voice and its guiding consciousness are all mixed up in the material substance of the world, giving them a concurrent fixity and fragility that it is Robinson's talent, and our challenge, to explore.
Emerson's lost identity became a transparent eyeball in the woods? Ah, yes, I remember his essay now: the old farmer, chopping down trees to add to his pasture, stopped to pick up the eyeball, irritated to have to interrupt his task. "Yah, tha' use to be Ralph all right, th'old git," his voice with its guiding consciousness said. He contemptuously tossed the eyeball aside, but it and his voice and his consciousness got all mixed up in the material substance of the world. There they remain to this day, fixed and fragile, I've heard it whispered on dark nights in the cabin at the shore of Loon Lake. Challenge enough for anybody.

Edward P. Jones, The Known World:
Professor Hungerford suggests that Jones revives a nineteenth-century form of the novel when his narrator takes on a God-like omniscience, but unlike the nineteenth-century novel's narrators, Jones's omniscient narrator provides little in the way of God-like consolation.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and don't you dare tell Me different. I know everything, you little pipsqueak reader. But even if it was the worst of times, don't worry, be happy. That's why you read Me, for consolation. Not like that wrong number of a deity Jones — think you'll get a scrap of comfort out of him? He was the inspiration for "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by that Reverend Edwards who used to practice his frown in front of a mirror.

Students' Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer,
Everything is Illuminated:
In thus attempting to marry the nineteenth-century social novel with Postmodernist, or late Modernist, techniques, Foer participates in an emerging tradition that risks the confusion between resonant emotion and sentimental cliché.
Now this I can relate to. I'm constantly confusing resonant emotion and sentimental cliché. I'd like to believe I've had some small influence in the emergence of this emerging tradition.


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