Perhaps it is different at a place like Eton, where beaky-nosed British boys are made to memorize Kipling at age six, have tutors in Latin, and sit three to a professor in some grand old parlor studying The Republic. Maybe Hemmingway [sic] or the Brontes [sic] are easily digestible light fair in their single-sex vault of antiquity and starchy blazers. Or even across town from where I live, in Santa Monica, at tony a private school like Crossroads, where the sons and daughters of James Cameron and Denzel Washington go, where they get to address their teachers by their first name, perhaps hanging out in the “student lounge” on plushy couches allowed them greater psychic energy to ponder the odd courting rituals of nineteenth-century England.
But most high-school-age kids don’t go to those schools. They go to overcrowded, underfunded schools, staffed by largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamploma very real to sixteen-year-olds.
Perhaps […] the issue is with the novel itself. Just maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers. Maybe there is a better format and genre to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write a coherent manner. Thankfully this genre exists: It’s called non-fiction.
I need a moment to gather myself. One more. Okay. I think I am ready.
- Given its content, it is telling that this piece misspells both “Hemingway” and “Brontë.”
- Though this woman clearly had a less than inspiring experience in her high school English classes, it seems somewhat irresponsible to pin that experience on the foremost literary genre of the modern era, and not on, say, circumstance, or the types of novels being discussed. (She does discuss her bad teachers in the article, but as you can see above, comes down, ultimately, in favor of going after the novel itself.) I am also intrigued by the notion that only posh elite schools are capable of teaching fiction in such a manner that makes it palatable to young people.
- As alluded to above, there are, in fact, many kinds of novels. While, yes, Hemingway and Fitzgerald tend to get a prominent place in the US high school curriculum (along with Salinger), my brother read The Hunger Games in his freshman year. The House on Mango Street was a pretty required text on my freshman reading list, and my junior year English class included novels by El Salvadoran, Indonesian, Polish, and Native American authors, and also a novel by fucking V. S. Naipaul. (The following year we read Père Goriot which remains one of my favorite novels of all time. This is also disregarding all other forms of fiction, like, you know, plays - does she also think we shouldn’t teach Shakespeare in high school?) I went to an excellent public school and our offerings were distinctly unusual, and not everybody was that into V. S. Naipaul, it’s true, but my friends and I remember that class pretty fucking fondly. I suspect there is a wider range of literature being taught in high schools across the US than this writer thinks there is, but in any event she isn’t making a case for, say, more schools teaching The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: she’s making the case for NOT TEACHING NOVELS AT ALL.
- Adolescence is a pretty crucial time for the development of personality, and cutting out fiction during that period is a pretty good recipe for depriving a lot of people of the chance to get exciting about literature at a point when they’re particularly impressionable, and also when they are particularly in need of stories they can identify with. Being a teenager is shitty. Teenagers over-identify with fictional characters because they feel things intensely. There’s a reason so many teenagers have been so obsessed with Catcher in the Rye over the years. There’s obviously nothing wrong with non-fiction but it doesn’t serve the same function.
- Finally, a crucial note: this article opens with the author arguing that because she didn’t “get” that Jake is impotent in The Sun Also Rises in high school that she shouldn’t have been reading it at such a young age; it was ~beyond her. Well, let me tell you something, sweetheart; I read that book (independently) when I was in college, and I still didn’t get what was going on until I read the Wikipedia article after finishing it. There is no statute of limitations on stupidity, so you MIGHT AS WELL START OUT EARLY.
There are so many issues with this that I’m not sure where to start. I loved reading the type of nonfiction she’s talking about (especially if it was about sex, drugs, or music or politics or death - I was reading Hunter S. Thompson at an age when it was CERTAINLY INAPPROPRIATE) but I also loved novels (usually the ones about the same things, plus magic, plus space, and those weren’t getting taught at my school either.)
1. She’s essentially arguing that her personal preference for reading about things that really happened means all teenagers share this preference and therefore they shouldn’t be taught novels. I know people who’d rather read about things that really happened, sure, fine, but all teenagers? (At any school that isn’t wealthy? more on this in point 3.) This idea that teenagers can only identify with things that really happened is shortchanging the imaginative abilities of teenagers and shortchanging the personally transformative powers of literature itself. Maybe we NEED to be teaching teenagers how to identify with experiences that aren’t immediately provable, verifiable, whatever, “based on real life”. Fiction teaches readers how to make the leap from personal experience to another’s subjectivity or even to “universal” experience by disguising true experiences of human life within “lies” of fictitious structure.
2. Her argument also ignores that, for people who don’t care about the “reality” of the subject, a lot of the appeal of these “non-fiction” works are that they’re written in a novelistic way. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby in full for writing practice and his experiments with language within his journalistic memoir-style form are similar to the writing done by his contemporaries writing novels and poetry. The novel and creative non-fiction are not separate traditions in which one is fake and one is real. These journalistic works are popular not primarily because they talk about things that really happened, but because they reconfigure reality into fictionalized structures that mimic novels - the reader can tell themselves “yes this really happened” while still being guided through the plot via skillful writing and fictionalization to make the reality make sense in the way novels do.
3. Morgan’s points above address this a bit, but she’s not just committing the logical fallacy of “novels aren’t taught well, therefore they shouldn’t be taught.” She’s saying “novels aren’t taught well at poor schools, therefore they shouldn’t be taught except maybe at those wealthy schools with wealthy students.” Her snide comments about Eton or the Denzel Washington school or whatever are an attempt to show the reader she’s on the side of the little guy, but really she’s arguing that poorer students should receive a less challenging education, that they should be catered to because we can’t expect them to make the leap to identify with things that didn’t really happen, and that novels have something to offer the rich or the brilliant but nothing to offer the (economically or intellectually) average person. But not teaching novels to the average or below average teenager is removing one more tool they could have in their repertoire to stand up to the structures that are keeping them down and reimagine their position in the world.
4. Her list of books is still really great! A lot of those SHOULD be taught in schools (and several almost certainly are.) I’d be the first person to support switching out Hemingway with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s just not an either/or proposition. What we need is more teachers willing to assign better, more diverse books. (and to burn hemingway to the ground.)
yes. yes to all of this. also yes, I propose that we keep Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby 4lyfe, y’all), and burn Hemingway to the ground.