Thirteen years ago, I was fresh out of graduate school when I started teaching Composition in the community college. I had brought with me a list of reading materials made up mostly of fiction. I still feel the greatest lessons of my life have come from travel and from reading books with “staying power”, the kind that last decades and centuries, or risk lasting that long. The vast majority of those are works of fiction, the importance of writers like Sigmund Freud or Mary Wollstonecraft notwithstanding.
I started teaching books that had hooked me on literature at a young age, but I soon learned how unusual my enthusiasm was. Everyone knows the story: students don’t care about Huck Finn or Seymour Glass. They won’t spend time with Darl or Sethe, mostly because they don’t have the reading skills to follow As I Lay Dying or Beloved. Sadly, a lot of students just can’t feel any empathy for “fake” characters living on the edge of sanity.
A mentor had warned me against using fiction. The departmental syllabus suggested readings in non-fiction, and I soon gathered that seasoned instructors had been using collected texts of only 800-1500 words. I ended up joining them, in a way, assigning collections of essays like Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons and Sasha Hemon’s The Book of My Lives. Books like those allow for the kind of concentrated reading lesson possible with a single essay, but they also allow for practice in sustained reading, a skill so many students fail to develop in high school.
Still…there are things even brilliant works of nonfiction just won’t get to, effects they can’t have. The kind of empathy and imagination one uses to animate “real people” (such a farce) operating in a “true story” (such a lie) is quite different from what we employ when we read a work of fiction, especially one like The Brothers Karamazov, where characters might be speaking to devils, or they just might be talking to themselves. The “ultra-violence” in A Clockwork Orange allows us a space to imagine and negotiate—for as long as the book exists—an unfathomable future, while the brutality in a genius work of journalism, Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life leaves us horrified over the sins of the past as we remember people we might have never learned about.
That difference is important and worth learning.
Even if we take the dolt’s point of view, that fiction is “lesser stuff” than the “trained and true” work of non-fiction, our view is dumber still if we eliminate an entire aesthetic from consideration. So in this New Year, I aim to bring fiction back to the Composition classroom, albeit carefully and with strategy.
While talking to friends in the publishing world, I came across a novel by Lavinia Ludlow, to be released in March, titled Single Stroke Seven. An excerpt, Lost Boy, can be read here at Atticus Review. I’ll be very excited to read it and consider it for the classroom. The reason I think it might be a good novel to use in a course like English 101 is because it critiques our attention deficit culture but does so from the POV of a young, talented and obviously dedicated musician.
…I head to my studio where an eight-year-old boy whose mom uses me for cheap daycare tells me that I’m “a boring lady who sucks” because I’ve made him do nothing but hit quarter notes into a drum pad since he started taking lessons. Out of protest, he spends forty-five minutes kicking the wall in conjunction with his pad strikes, and every so often hurls his sticks toward the drums in the corner of the room.
This is, frankly, how many teachers feel these days. And it’s also how students feel, kicking and screaming their way through education. So maybe it would resonate…
Another book I’m considering is Stephanie Kuehnert’s Ballads of Suburbia, which is about a pair of girls who grow up not far from where I currently live. I’ve also thought…fuck it…why not go completely nuts and pick something like W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, perhaps test my colleague’s theory that the best books make people loathe literature.
I’ve also thought about doing something rash to throw all care and strategy out the door, assign David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I have not yet read, tell the students we’re going to read a long book together just to see what it’s like. That way, I’ll get paid for reading a book I want to read, will be able to set aside class time for the purpose, and the only benefit will come to those student who take away lessons no matter what’s on the syllabus. Now they’ll be able to claim, for the rest of their lives,that they finished Infinite Jest in a community college class, or pretended to…
Image provided by Lavinia Ludlow.