Literature v. Facts

Flannery11Sorry y’all, my blog is about to take a big turn because once you  spend your money to be a master’s student… you realize all the things you are reading & writing  you actually care about, and then they make their way on to your blog.  On Monday in my first class, “Teaching Literature in the Secondary School” I looked around at everyone on their laptops editing their blogs and I listened to class conversation and realized I’m in a cohort of 15 people who are  a lot like me. Sorry for those who will find this post dull:) I figured it would be beneficial to see the things I am writing about for the next year and a half.

To Flannery O’Conner,

  “I am writing as spokesman for three members of our department and some ninety university students in three classes who for a week now have been discussing your story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’  We have debated at length several possible interpretations, none of which fully satisfies us [..] Does the accident literally occur, or is it  a part of Bailey’s dream?  Please believe me when I say we are not seeking an easy way out of our difficulty.  We admire your story and have examined it with great care, but we are convinced that we are missing something important which you intended for us to grasp.  We will all be very grateful if you comment on the interpretation which I have outlined above and if you will give us further comments about your intention in writing ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'”

To a Professor of English,

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be.  If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology.  I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality.  This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia.  It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious […]

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.  If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.  Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious.  I am in a state of shock.                                                                                                                                                                         

My Response:

One of my creative writing teachers in undergrad, Dr. Sabrina Orah Mark, talked about what a strange experience it is to publish your work and then have your “babies” picked apart, critiqued or lauded. Writers of tales and poems are defensive over their creations. I remember that for one of my pieces (click here), A Grain of Sand, a small boy discovers a piece of sand that drips from heaven and in the object he finds the meaning to the answers he was seeking throughout the narrative. I wrote this tale after I had a dream and know that at one time the grain of sand had inherent meaning, but now the meaning of the piece has transitions and changed and I cannot even remember my original intent. It is ironic to me when people “discover” the meaning I no longer know myself. But that is the fun of writing, each person blends their experiences with the words and they have different interpretations for each person.

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In the O’Conner letter, the teacher and his pupils genuinely want to know the equation to O’Conner’s short-story, as if there was a hidden mathematical formula that one had to search out  like a Soduku or crossword puzzle. It has always struck me that literary analysis treats fiction and poems in this manner, because many of the people who sets themselves apart to be writers do not excel in mathematics or scientific processes. These people are the left-brained, feelings-over-the-concrete, jump-before-you-know-where-you- are- going- to-land type of individuals. I for one despise soduku puzzles. O’Conner is not interested in “abnormal psychology” and “tricks” or else she would have created a riddle. Her literature and a great deal of writing out there is meant to be felt, to be explored and enjoyed more than it is suppose to be outlined and interpreted.

I once heard that education teaches you everything about literature except how to enjoy it. I found this to be true of my experience. I went to a renowned high school in Princeton and was educated by exceptional English teachers, but I remember my freshmen year of high school I went to see the movie Elf with my friends. As they all laughed and enjoyed the film, I sat critiquing how the story was not one of “literary merit” and how the characters were one-dimensional and how the transitions of the story were contrived. I had gained the ability to pull-apart the story line and analyze the writing from all different angles, but had lost the joy to enjoy the writing. Don’t worry, I have since learned how to silence my thesis-driven English thoughts & have enjoyed Elf numerous times on DVD.

I remember everyone’s favorite English Teacher at my highschool was named Mr. Campbell. He was a brilliant Oxford educated  man but he never took himself too seriously. I remember the discussions we had in his classroom most vividly, because you could tell he immensely enjoyed characters like Holden Caulfield and Don Quixote as if they were alive. I more than once remember him reading a selected passage and chuckling to himself, as if he couldn’t help it. And every Friday’s after we took a vocabulary quiz, we would watch his favorite cartoon to “unwind” from the week. I had three amazing English teachers in high school that greatly improved my writing and gave me the ability to achieve a 5 on my AP Exam, but Mr. Campbell was the only teacher who demonstrated to us how to feel and enjoy books, a gift that one must protect in English courses of all kinds. He warned us over and over again that learning is not a vehicle to puff ourselves up and lord over others, but reading is meant to be enjoyable.

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I know from reading WiseBlood in my Southern Lit. Class that O’Conner’s works do make you feel and have a way of haunting you long after the reading. You don’t  exactly know the interpretation of the text, but you remember the eery images and  the eccentric characters. This is why I loved her letter when she said point blank,  “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.  If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.  Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it”

I completely agree.

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