Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Writing Classes

“The Obama-Clinton Squabble Continues” bemoans the Post this morning. It’s only January, and most of us, I suspect, are weary of the escalating verbal violence. I’m leery as well, fearing the consequences of each assault when reincarnated in Republican attack ads this summer and fall. Negative remarks, hostile attitudes, even scornful looks can permanently undermine a candidate or cause.

I’ve noticed the same kind of sniping and denigration in the publishing world. In my main field, children’s books, there seems to be a fairly clear hierarchy defining success. Picture book writers and literary novelists are at the top, nonfiction writers at the bottom. One writing teacher I know, with one published picture book, dismisses the diverse output of another local writer, author of adult romance novels, children’s nonfiction, how-tos for writers and others, and spiritual entreaties, because “she hasn’t done any quality books." This same teacher patronizes nonfiction as “easy to sell” and “a great way to break into the field.” Huh, I thought. I guess Rachel Carson was just treading water with Silent Spring until she could come up with a picture book idea.

The hierarchy is somewhat complicated by snootiness about where you’re publishing (New York-published nonfiction may sometimes trump regionally-published fiction). But the ranking itself, rather than the specific details, bothers me. Such hierarchic attitudes undermine training in my little niche (children’s writers conferences treat publishing picture books and novels as the Holy Grail, ignoring or sidelining a wealth of other creative possibilities). Still worse, this class system constricts teaching and reading of all kinds of literature. With poetry out of fashion in most high school English classrooms, teachers focus on novels, with maybe one Shakespeare play and perhaps a dollop of short fiction. Not Walden, not Sojourner Truth’s Narrative, not Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought, not A Sand County Almanac are deemed worthy of analysis and discussion.

Conversely, the power of fiction is ignored in educating environmentalists. Those students learn about Thoreau, Leopold, Jared Diamond, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert, and maybe read The Monkey Wrench Gang for comic relief. But which teachers explore the power of fiction to tap emotions, develop sense of place, or challenge ethical and social conventions that underlie our environmental crisis? By ranking and partitioning writing—and therefore reading—we are hampering the causes of literacy and conservation. We are limiting the common vocabulary of our arguments and shrinking the audience we can effectively address.

This diatribe all stems from a cozy evening at home, watching Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey Sunday night. In Austen’s time, intellectuals viewed novels as the print equivalent of persona non grata. Coleridge said, “where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind.” Austen regularly defended novels and novel reading, (admitting to a correspondent that she and her family were “great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so”). Given the ascendance not just of novels but of Jane’s in particular (on film at least), Coleridge has lost the day. But I think we all lose when we fail to respect the many values of diverse forms of writing that have evolved and are still evolving (yes, including blogging). Literature, to my activist soul, is any writing that can challenge, inspire, or, yes, simply inform toward better thinking and behavior.


Dave said...

Hear, hear!

If I were teaching environmental literature, I'd start with George Orwell's Coming Up For Air.

pinenut said...

Hi Dave,

I've never read that! Thanks for the tip.

From all I've read on your blog, you should teach environmental literature. . . .

Chrissy said...

If I could write the way Peggy Somers does, I wouldn't need a writing class thats for sure!
Have you read her new book called Gianna?
Romance novels are my addiction. Especially the ones that leave you wanting more. Like a great series or soap opera with a bang of an ending and leaves you wanting more and more!

Swamp Thing said...

After 8 years of college and 3 degrees, I can honestly say that biology and wildlife professors are incapable of allowing fictional works into their classrooms.

Same is true for geography professors - they let in some amazing, cutting edge "pop" non-fiction, but never cross the divide.

You raise a great point that I had not thought about before.