Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Happy Happy, the grad school version

Several years ago I linked to a post on that was written by a film critic after he'd been to the Cannes film festival. Unfortunately the post is no longer there, so I will tell you what I remember about it. He talked about the disconnect of sitting in a theater watching the dark, gruesome films that all the critics were touting as the best films of the year, and then walking out of the theater and seeing those same critics sitting out at cafés laughing, talking, drinking three hundred dollar bottles of wine and eating great food. In their work, they were unanimous in their opinion that only films about incest, drug trafficking, domestic abuse, and any other aspect of the dark side of human nature could be "real," but in their own lives, reality looked pretty good.

This odd contradiction exists in the literary world as well. We've talked about this before. If you want your writing to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, it can't possibly have a happy ending, and really it should be about alcoholism, addiction, divorce, child abuse, and misery. Happy people don't get taken seriously by intellectuals.

Here is writer Charles Baxter, in the headnote to a story in the anthology You've Got to Read This: "In America we secretly tend to think of happiness as rather dull and banal, middle class, unworthy of our attention, possessed by the likes of Ozzie and Harriet." (I might contend that we're not so secret about it.) Laurence Perrine, in the first chapter of the eighth edition of his venerable Story and Structure, distinguishes between escape literature, which he kindly acknowledges "need not be cheap or trite," and interpretive literature, which "deals significantly with life." He opines rather grandly, "Escape literature pretends to give a faithful treatment of life as it is--perhaps even thinks that it does so--but through its shallowness it subtly falsifies life in every line. Such fiction, taken seriously and without corrective, may give us false notions of reality and leads us to expect from experience what experience does not provide."

Egads.  I've learned plenty from Perrine, but his condescending moralizing in that statement just makes you want to smack him. We're back to the "I'm only telling you not to read that because I'm concerned about your moral welfare" argument, which we've talked about before.

I've been thinking about writing fiction again. I even tried to do NaNoWriMo again this year, thinking that if I was writing blog posts every day, writing would beget writing, and I might as well do it all. (the literary version of "if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.") But it didn't work, and at least part of that is because I can't figure out how to write fiction anymore. I made it to about 4,000 words and my idea died so dead that I found myself forgetting about it for several days at a time, which is unusual for me. At the very least, I should have been beating myself up with guilt about how badly my novel was going, but I couldn't even remember it enough to do that.

Granted, that may have had more to do with my lack of ability as a fiction writer than with any larger problem with the literary world. But what I can't figure out is how to write something that's really real, if you'll pardon my obscurity. If I choose certain elements of my own reality and stretch them all out of shape, someone (maybe me) could make it into a great literary novel about loss of faith and betrayal and childhood sexual abuse and yadda yadda yadda. But that wouldn't be real, because it's also just as true that I had a great childhood with parents who surrounded me with books, let me read whatever I wanted, were proud of my academic and musical achievements, scrimped and saved so I could have a really nice flute to play and go to an expensive college, and so on. There's just no way to make the plot true to the reality of what I experienced and also fit inside the lines of what a literary novel is supposed to be. Isn't a literary novel all about exposing the dark "reality" under the pretty façade? But who's to say what's under the façade is more real than the façade? (Isn't that what theory is all about? It's all a construct, none of it is "real.")

All this has given me a different understanding of why genre fiction is so successful. Genre fiction is patently not real. Nobody reads Patricia Cornwall or James Patterson or Nora Roberts because their life is just like that. Nobody's life comes to neat, organized, well-plotted resolutions every three hundred and fifty pages. But in some ways, what happens in genre fiction is closer to most people's reality than the dry, clinical, despairing mood of most literary fiction. Maybe the reason why genre fiction has become so popular is because by patently acknowledging your intent through the un-lifelike structure of a genre fiction plot, you can free yourself from the limitations of  having to explore the dark underbelly of every single human emotion. A romance novel, a mystery novel, a horror story-- all of them are set-pieces. The structure is a commentary in and of itself about the difficulty of writing something true.  The depressing literary vs. the glib un-truth that speaks its truth in spite of its cookie cutter structure.

Whoa, that sounded really profound, didn't it? But I'm not sure it actually says anything.

I've been teaching a class on the short story, and happiness is not generally a characteristic that one associates with short stories. Their writers probably wouldn't want you to. Maybe you might have a moment of enjoyment or pleasurable insight along the way, or maybe you might experience some sort of intellectual happiness at the rightness of the plotting or the writing, but the story itself sure as hell wouldn't end in happiness because everyone who is intelligent knows that happiness is for people who don't know any better, people like those children playing in the dirt in that photograph, who don't realize that they are oppressed and marginalized and victimized.  They only think they're happy, they aren't really happy. Or so we're told.

I guess there's no point in continuing to number the "Goodbye Grad School" posts on up to part 37, because apparently I still have quite a bit to process. Another thing I still think about from grad school is this attitude on the part of many in academia that the analysis of our culture's faults somehow means that anyone who hasn't done such an analysis is naive and doesn't really understand their experience. If they think they're happy, they're just too stupid to know that they're in denial about reality.

I find this a little off-putting. But it doesn't really matter to the rest of us if they think that way. While they're over there analyzing the hell out of every little detail of our culture, the rest of us will go ahead and live. And sometimes, dammit, we're happy--even when we're still marginalized, exploited, and victimized by the capitalist-materialist hegemony.

The study of literary theory sometimes creates a false moral high ground from which to feel safely and deservedly superior, and from which a critic can feel free to condescend toward those who are less aware. We spend vast reservoirs of energy analyzing all the ways our world is awful. The critique of our culture's continuing sexism, racism, orientation-ism, etc is brutal, finely detailed, and (of course) also sometimes well-deserved. But it's also only part of the story--the rest of the story includes people who are generous and capable, who have conquered their addictions or never had them, who do their best to be good parents, who occasionally laugh themselves silly.

Obviously I can't be too critical here because what is this blog if not an attempt to analyze my experience? But still, at some point you have to just play the cards you're dealt and live your life. Yes, I've been the victim of sexism and sexual harassment and abuse. But I've also been able to heal from a great deal of it, and spending the rest of my life analyzing in ever more minute detail just how bad it really was doesn't interest me all that much.

Maybe that's the line right there. You have to do enough analysis, enough meta-thinking, about your life so that you're not caught blindsided and blinking when you're confronted with sexism or racism or whatever it is that is attempting to squash you. But not so much analysis that you get off in some perceived pseudo-safe space where the messiness of life doesn't touch you.

Well, this has been all over the place. You can probably it tell it was two different posts that I squished together into one, but I was trying to minimize the number of grad school posts.


  1. It just seems to be where those ivory tower intellectuals want to live - very hipster-like, and feeling all superior to those of us who have low-class fun like drinking beer and reading genre fiction. I feel like patting them on the head and saying, there, there, you're allowed to have fun too.

    1. To be entirely fair, I have to say that pretty much everyone I ran into in grad school knows how to have fun, even if their idea of fun is different. In fact, there was really only one person I met who would go quite as far as the position this post is arguing with (which, appropriately enough, was the professor who taught my theory class)(and it's occurring to me that maybe even she was adopting a role as a theory professor rather than stating what she actually believed/lived). I guess I'm reacting more to the logical conclusion of the theory way of thinking rather than the reality of the people I know in academia. Which means this whole post was META-THINKING, and I can't really point any fingers. Dang, I hate that.

    2. Yeah, so much more fun to point fingers! Happy Thanksgiving, girlfriend!!