20 July 2014

Are those adults reading YA? The horror!

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a Slate.com article called Against YA by Ruth Graham, which is summarized below the title as "Read whatever you want.  But you should feel embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." The fans of YA, especially the adults, were understandably rather offended by this article.  As of the moment I am writing this, there have been over 3,000 comments on the article on Slate, both for and against with varying degrees of vitriol and sense.  And that's just on Slate.

Okay, so adults who read YA should be embarrassed.  What else?  Well, naming books like The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Eleanor and Park, Graham states: "These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers."  Let's think about these claims for a bit.

But first let me say that I don't read Young Adult books, and therefore won't be offering any opinion on the quality of any of them.  I can't remember there being many books of this kind around when I was a teenager, though I do recall being compelled to read The Pigman.  In any event I was mostly unaware of such books back then, and would have found it extremely insulting to be told that that they were more suited to my age than Crime and Punishment.  Even now I think this suggestion is insulting to teenagers. At its best it's condescension.

What then do I read?  Here, in no particular order, are the authors I've been reading over the past year or so:  Louis Auchincloss, Daphne du Maurier, Marcel Proust, Chaucer (in Middle English), Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Edith Sitwell, Seamus Heaney, Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beowulf Poet, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alfred Bester, Tom Shippey, Charles Dickens, Alberto Manguel, Robin Sloan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Niall Williams, Gene Wolf, Donna Tartt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A. S. Byatt, Muriel Spark, Kate Atkinson, George Eliot, John Crowley, Orson Scott Card, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Walter M. Miller Jr., John Lindow, Terry Pratchett, Tarjei Vesaas, Michael Frayn, Frank Herbert.

A pretty odd mix, as you see. But even if you feel inclined to ghettoize and disdain all the SF and Fantasy on my list (not to mention Hammett and Chandler), it would be pretty hard to say that the rest of it isn't "adult" or "literary."

So I am not at all in the camp Ruth Graham decries.  You might even think that I'd agree with her.  But you'd be wrong, though perhaps not for the reason you might think.  I disagree with her because she doesn't have an argument at all.

Her claim about embarrassment is debatable to begin with, as a simple quote from C.S. Lewis' essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children makes clear.
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Now, as always, Lewis puts things well.  He was a very clever, immensely learned man, and a fearsome debater.  And he has a valid point here, but as he phrases it, it's little more than a put-down: "Critics who ... cannot be adult themselves."  It's very like an ad hominem attack, and that's precisely what it would be if I chose to turn it on Ruth Graham.  To say that she must not be an adult herself if she thinks like such critics, would be no different than her saying that adults who enjoy reading books written for children should be embarrassed.  It's a claim, an assertion, a personal attack, which is always a sign of desperation in an opponent.  The one thing it's absolutely not is an argument. And since it's not an argument, let alone one supported by evidence and reason, there's no reason to pay any further attention to it.

What of Graham's other statement, that YA novels like The Fault in Our Stars "are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers?"  I find it hard to take this claim seriously.  Graham adduces no evidence or argument anywhere in her article to justify this statement.
If you want me to believe that a claim is plausible, I'll need more than your assertion that it is so.  Graham further avers that YA fiction is "replacing literary fiction" for these adults.  Does she really mean  -- can she really believe -- that these adults would have been reading John Updike, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, and Charles Dickens if not for John Green and Rainbow Rowell?  Or is it even worse than that, as her use of "replace" here and "substitute" elsewhere suggests -- these poor souls used to read "literary fiction," but were somehow seduced and corrupted by "maudlin teen dramas?"

The serpent beguiled me and I did read?

I have worked full time in a bookstore for the last seven years.  In that time, I regret to say, no one has ever asked me for John Updike or Edith Wharton.  Until Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize no one had ever asked me for her books; and now they've pretty much stopped doing so again.  Only rarely has anyone who was not a student or the parent of a student asked me for Dickens. Now I know what riches these writers have to offer in "adult" and "literary" terms.  I completely agree with Graham when she says that "literary" works are subtle and complex and often ambiguous, just like "real life."  Quite true.

But it's also quite true that the tastes of the vast majority of readers don't run that way.  Most people who are coming into my store to buy "adult" (i.e., not Teen) fiction -- whether Fiction, Mystery, Romance, or Science Fiction and Fantasy -- are looking for straightforward narratives, driven by plot or character to a satisfying conclusion. The good guys win; the bad guys lose; reader, I married him. That's what most people want.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

Graham praises quite highly a recent book, a "very literary novel" called Submergence by J. M. Ledgard.  And I am perfectly willing to believe that she's right about how good a book this is.  Her description makes it sound intriguing, to me.  But being literary and being popular are not now and never have been the same thing. Submergence is, as I write this, ranked 50,702 in sales at Amazon and 132,761 at Barnes and Noble.  Is that John Green's fault? Is it John Green's fault that I sell just enough copies of Swann's Way every year to make it worth my while to keep one or two copies on hand, but never more, and none of the rest of In Search of Lost Time?  Nothing in my experience makes that seem the least bit plausible to me.

The adults who have a taste for YA did not acquire it because John Green beguiled them.  Their tastes already ran to apples.  They are not, as Graham puts it, "substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature." ("Maudlin" is her word, not mine.) They were not interested in what Graham deems "great adult literature" in the first place.  If they were not reading YA, my experience tells me, they would be reading something else that would be "adult," but which would likely not be "literary," at least not according to Ruth Graham (or probably me for that matter).

And there's nothing wrong with that.  It's better that people read than that they don't.  And people should read what they enjoy.  I read those "big boring hard grown-up books," as someone commenting on Amy Sturgis' blog rather caustically called them, because I enjoy them.  If I can choose to read what I enjoy, why not you?

I won't blush if you don't.

16 July 2014

Arrakis Rising -- Free Dune Course at the Mythgard Academy

As I mentioned previously, Corey Olsen at the Mythgard Institute will soon be offering a free online course on Frank Herbert's Dune.  The exact dates have now been announced.  The course will meet every Wednesday at 9:30 PM Eastern Time in the United States, starting on July 30th and running through October 15th.  That's 12 weeks.  Sessions usually run between 90 and 120 minutes.  So we are going to have lots of time to discuss Dune in depth.

Now, wait a minute.  Isn't this Olsen guy also known as The Tolkien Professor?  What does he know about Frank Herbert?  What does he know about Dune?  Dune is true SF, not Fantasy, not Myth.

I'll tell you this much, if you have any doubts.  This past Spring the Mythgard Academy had its first free class not dedicated to a work by Tolkien.  The book we voted to read was straight up Science Fiction: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Now I had already read this book, and, quite frankly, I was scarcely impressed. It was okay.  I thought it was decently written as far as the way the words were put together is concerned, and the plot worked, and it had a nice little twist at the end. But that was about all.  I didn't think there was much else there to look at or think about.

I was wrong. And it was the detailed analysis and discussion of the text which Corey Olsen led us through for six weeks that convinced me of this.  A theme runs through the book that I had not paid much attention to the first time around, of what it means to be a human versus what it means to be a monster; Card does an interesting job of exploring it; and we had great fun discussing it.

Now I believe that Dune is a far better book than Ender's Game.  If I had to choose one book as the best SF novel I have ever read, and perhaps the greatest yet written, my choice would be Dune, without question or hesitation.  It explores not only the idea of children thrust into roles beyond childhood, as Card's book does, but a whole world beyond that. Science, Politics, Religion, Family, Community, Society, Economy, Ecology, History -- all of it is there in this very fully realized world.  It is full of memorable characters and drama. With this much material to work with, and twelve weeks to discuss it, I have no doubt that this course will repay every moment we put into it.

So you must not fear.

Fear is the mind killer.

When the course is done, only we will remain.

So just go sign up here now.


You can also watch/listen to the class on Ender's Game here, subscribe to it at iTunesU > Signum University, or subscribe to the whole podcast feed for Mythgard Academy at iTunes > Mythgard Academy.


15 July 2014

Outside In

When you have loved someone for a long time, it's crushing to find you're wrong. This love of yours -- this part of your very idea of yourself -- would not go the distance.  When the door has closed, and her face is gone, you turn inward alone. And learn the weight of lost hope.

Where do you go from there?

For me it was mostly to books.  I took my refuge there.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

At first I told myself that this was my choice.  I was doing the wise thing.  I was allowing myself to suffer the loss for once.  At first I think I really believed this, just as the speaker in the lines above believes himself when everyone who hears him knows better.  There's no protection against this kind of pain.  No armor.  No choice. It just overwhelms you.  For years I sat there on my couch and did nothing but read because I couldn't do anything else.

For years.

In time the pain subsided into a silence, and the silence into a solitude that I had no wish to break. Or rather that I wished not to break.  And I knew that this meant loneliness as well as solitude.  When, several years in, a very kind woman I know asked me if I were interested in being set up on a date, I declined, charmed and a little sorry, but quite sincere.  There wasn't enough of me for a date.

For years.

And I have asked myself how much of this position was a pose.  Self-pity can wear the face of sorrow. And I have asked myself if sometimes self-pity is just the best we can do when the idea of putting on the actual sorrow is unendurable.  For the silence and solitude that follow the pain are not a void, however empty they may seem at first. There's more to come, even now.

Then one day when you least expect it you meet someone you find bright and funny, charming and attractive.  Only by now you've become so used to the solitude and the silence that it throws you off to hear your own heart suddenly beat.  You never knew it still could.

This is not the beginning of some new tale here.  This post doesn't end like Jane Eyre.  That meeting was by chance, not repeated.  But the hope of Spring it gave provoked more than surprise.  It stirred the memory of the face I may never see again.  The past, the only thing that is actually real, is all jumbled up with the present and future.

Nothing's ever over.


I Am A Rock, © 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon

08 July 2014

Still Falls the Rain

Still Falls the Rain
The Raids, 1940.      Night and Dawn
Still falls the Rain —
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter's Field, and the sound of the impious feet
On the Tomb:
                      Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.
Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us —
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.
Still falls the Rain —
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man's wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds, — those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear —
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh … the tears of the hunted hare.
Still falls the Rain —
Then — O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune —
See, see where Christ's blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree
Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world, — dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar's laurel crown.
Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain —
"Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.
Edith Sitwell

If you have ever been in the ocean and overwhelmed by the rush of a breaking wave, buried by it, sent end over end breathless and tumbling, you will have some idea of how this poem first struck me.  I don't remember when that was or where I found it, but it has lived in a text file on the desktop of every computer I have owned since then.  I take it out and read it like it's a photograph of an old dear friend, full of memory and longing.

I am not at all devout nor what most believers would consider a believer, but poetry that is spiritual or religious moves me.  There's a yearning in it, as when you have loved the sea since youth, or when you look at that long ago friend in the photo. Though years may pass the sea and the friend are still the same, and so is the love and suffering of Christ in this poem.  And something within the writer, and in my case the reader also, is reaching out for whatever it is that has remained the same despite our losses and our sins, wanting the promise of the sea, and the dream of friendship, and the love and the suffering of Christ to be true still.

Not true in the sense that, if it is and I believe it, I will go to heaven.  No, that's not even close.  No, true in that someone could love us that much, that love could accomplish that much, no matter what we've done, no matter how little we deserve it, no matter how many years of nails we drive into that cross.  The love that the Christ in this poem feels denies that we have to deserve to survive.

And in this poem we do not deserve it.  We are shown at our worst.  Though she had written little or no poetry for a decade, Sitwell was inspired to write this poem by the 57 consecutive nights of bombing London suffered through in the late Summer and Fall of 1940.   The rain is at first a rain of bombs, falling dark, black, and blind.  But through the sacrifice of Christ it becomes the rain that falls on the just and unjust alike.  It becomes the blood that flows from the heart that bears all wounds, the wounds of the suicide and of the hunted rabbit.  It streams in the heavens that we cannot reach on our own -- "O Ile leap...firmament" comes from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, at the end where Faustus looks to save himself, and fails. It becomes in the end the light that Christ lets flow from his heart, for us.  Thus the night and the dawn of the subtitle.

The ceaseless anguish and shame of humanity, embodied in war and murder, suicide and cruelty, are met in this poem by a grace and love that become incarnate in sacrifice, and are as relentless as the rain.


Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 1462-69:

O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop.  Ah, my Christ!
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ! --
Yet I will call on Him -- oh, spare me Lucifer!
Where is it now?  'Tis gone.
And see where God stretcheth out his arm
and bends his ireful brows!

03 July 2014

Inside Out

But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?
The Return of the King 5.viii.867.

For a long time I lived in a place I hated with a woman I loved.  And, as hatred does, that hatred poisoned everything.

I wish I could explain why I hated that place so much, because that would mean I understood where that feeling came from.  I don't.  The easy thing to do would be to blame it on the place, on the way it was and on the people who lived there.  But that would be false.  Like every other place I've ever lived, it had good and bad, smart and stupid, educated and ignorant, open-minded and prejudiced, polite and rude.  And of course the bad, stupid, ignorant, prejudiced, and rude people we meet are just so much more memorable.  How convenient, and incomplete.  It leaves me out of it entirely. Whatever precisely made me hate it there so much, my reaction to it was no less to blame.

People are so glib about hatred.  Haters gonna hate, right? They have no idea. Like love, it takes over your life.  But it throws shadows on you.  It murders sleep. Unlike love it does not feed you.  It wastes you. It's only worse when it's a particular person you hate; and having a good reason to hate that person is no help to you "alone, in the bitter watches of the night."

Once you have learned true hatred, the word seldom crosses your mind lightly again. When it does, and you catch yourself saying you hate a movie, a song, or a book, you feel a little embarrassed, like you've trivialized something at once sacred and terrible.

But that hatred made me dark and sad and smoldering all the time, and I didn't bear any of it with as much strength or grace as I would have wished.  There was one year near the beginning where I bore it like a fool, and said far too many foolish and angry things.  Pain can make you do that, but pain cannot excuse that.  By the time that year was over, the gap had already begun to open between us. She went quiet and hurt.  We could never really talk again afterwards.

The house grew silent.  The desultory, trivial conversations we had about work, the dogs, the cats, and what color we wanted to paint that room could not fill that silence.  All the talks we once had, about books, and thoughts, and life, and us, talks full of laughter and feeling, talks full of time, the talks that gave the trivial conversations meaning, were buried.  The house grew lonely.

And yet I could see her right there, every day, morning and night, in every room, in the garden, in my wood-shop, right there, but there was this silence I just could not break through.  She was so bright and lively around everyone but me.  I remember seeing that movie, The Sixth Sense, in which the character played by Bruce Willis keeps talking and talking to his wife, but she never responds at all. It's like he's a ghost.  I felt like him.  At the end of the movie I wondered if maybe I should take my pulse.

It was a special kind of loneliness which hatred brought where none should be.