Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The thing with feathers -- and very sharp teeth

Every year around this time I get ready to teach a week-long novel writing course for high school students. Every year, without fail, I dread it so much I can hardly sleep. It isn’t the students—they are always a pleasant surprise, intelligent, humorous, eager to learn. Of course, they are voluntarily enrolling in an English Studies camp in the middle of their precious summer vacation, so there aren’t a lot of rolling eyes or entreaties to be let out early. Some days I can hardly get them to leave the room when the time is up. No, the problem is that they truly are enthusiastic about this subject—and I’m not always so. In the current state of the world, it has become increasingly difficult for me to believe that writing fiction is a good use of time—or even a benign one.

Oh I already know all the arguments. I’ve used all the arguments, trying to justify the study and practice of literature to people who think books are useless. I can name hundreds of books that made an enormous positive impact on the world, and an enormous personal impact on me. But for each of those, there are countless others that did no such thing. They were entertaining, sure, and that’s not nothing. The mind needs nourishment just as much as the body does. But these books don’t just spring up out of nowhere for the sole purpose of providing fleeting stimulation. There’s a whole lot of money at stake, and whenever that’s the case, well, reader beware.

Have you ever been reading and stopped to wonder why you happened to be reading this particular book? If you’re fortunate at the moment, you’ll say “because it’s good”; if you’re slightly cynical, you might say “because the writer got lucky.” If you’re really cynical, a.k.a. me, you’ll say “because it tells you what you want to hear.” You couldn’t stand in a Barnes & Noble, if there are any left, and throw a copy of one the heavier Harry Potter books without hitting a popular piece of fiction featuring a young protagonist who discovers special abilities, becomes a powerful leader, and instigates a successful rebellion against an evil tyrannical regime. Cool! But which part of that do we really enjoy the most, the overthrow of tyranny or the fact that a seemingly ordinary being is plucked from obscurity to become famous and powerful? In other words, is it the politics or the personal wish fulfillment?

We can pretend all we want that it’s both; we can say these books are motivating young people to care about important social issues; we can even point to young activists in the news lately who have definitely taken a stand and risked a lot in doing so. But I would argue that those are different things. Those young activists were directly affected by the issue they’re fighting. The rest of us just read about it. And if even factual news coverage of an event fails to move us to take action, do we really think fictionalized dystopian versions of our world will do so?

Time for me to commit a possibly unforgivable act of blasphemy, at least in certain circles: Take The Handmaid’s Tale. “Terrifying!” say readers. “Sure!” says Moffitt. “But so was Jurassic Park, and yet we still go on about our lives without worrying about velociraptor attacks!” Every time someone raves about Atwood’s brilliantly nightmarish world and what a tremendous lesson it provides for us about misogyny and oppression, I think, well yeah, but you know what else does that? This world. No, in this world women in Massachusetts aren’t named Of-man’s-name and forced to wear Flying Nun hats and habits, so our outrage about those particular details are a little unnecessary. However, I do believe there might be one or two other things to consider in their place. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a great many of Atwood’s novels and I full well realize that she is also an activist and not just an author. Yet there is still something disturbing to me about how delicious it feels to be outraged by a work of fiction—compared to how exhausted and hollow I feel to be outraged by the world around us.

I’ll get over it. I’ll rally my psychic forces and go in there and get them so fired up with excitement for the craft of writing they’ll want to hug me. Some of them will hug me. Some of them may stay in touch with me years later, like the young man who interviewed me for a school project and, thanking me for my answers, added “You’re the reason I want to become a writer!” And I’ll have to smile and pretend like a dinosaur-sized chunk of my soul hasn’t been ripped out and chewed to bits, because I can’t do it, you see, I can’t take this away from them, this hope. It is still hope, however misguided, and I guess I have to be glad they still have some.

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