Tag Archives: literature

Diet for the Mind

When your child has an unhealthful, junk-food diet, you can either follow the encouragements of the mega-food industry (whose sole motivation is to get your money), and continue to feed him crap, since it’s what he craves and has become accustomed to, and after all, at least he’s eating something…

Or you can follow the advice of health professionals and put your foot down and say, “Enough! Crap is crap, and you don’t treat poor health by continuing to provide that which ruined it.” You fight (and it will be a fight) to restore healthful eating habits in your child, and perhaps to help other parents do the same by reducing the prevalence of junk food. A good way to do that last part is by refusing to buy what the purveyors are selling.

Sensible advice, right? The same holds true of the books we read and movies we watch. Perhaps your children crave the lurid, sensationalistic violence that pollutes media today, but that doesn’t make it less unhealthy. People defend this literary junk food by saying, “At least the kids are reading,” but that’s not good enough when it comes to food, so it shouldn’t be good enough when it comes to literature.  And how much is the desire for junk-reading due to it being the kids steady diet? The book-to-film industry insists they are simply providing what the people want, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate, but are they providing what kids want, or have the kids been conditioned to want it, for lack of any alternative that doesn’t seem as undesirable as brussels sprouts? Funny thing is, brussels sprouts are only unpalatable because they are so often poorly prepared. But there are some great recipes out there.

And there are great books; we just have to get kids used to the idea that conflict in a story doesn’t require physical violence, and the “stakes” don’t have to be death. Anyone who has had to eliminate salt or sugar or fat from their diets (I had to do one, and chose to do another) will tell you that at first it’s awful, that everything is bland and flavorless and makes you want that Bag O’ Calories all the much more. But gradually you adapt, and discover the amazing array of flavors that had been buried under all that sodium (I discovered the joy of black pepper when I reduced my salt intake). Subtle, delicate flavors that are far more rewarding. This is true of literature as well. When all you read is maiming and killing, anything else is boring, but eventually you can discover the much more profound strivings of the human heart and the human spirit, important things that were lost in the constant bloodbath.

I’m not all-or-nothing. There’s a place for tasty snax. But it’s a small place. I’ve always maintained that the key to healthy diet lies in two words: balance and moderation. Eat a variety of foods, and don’t eat too much of anything. Don’t deprive yourself of ice cream, but just have a small scoop, rather than the whole pint of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. It lasts longer, and you enjoy it more. Focus on quality: a six-ounce filet mignon is far more enjoyable than a two-pound porterhouse, and you are left feeling better afterwards.

But the interesting thing is, as far as the real junk food, the true crap, you find that, once you have reduced or even eliminated it from your diet, you not only don’t want it any more, you can’t even enjoy it. Once I got off salt, I became quite sensitive to its presence, and now I can barely stand salty foods. And this is as nothing compared to the experience of vegetarians who, having eliminated meat from their diets, find that if they do have meat, it makes them very sick.

I’m not advocating vegetarianism, although it’s a valid choice for people who know what they are doing. But I do think we should reduce or remove from our diets those things that make us sick once we’ve had a chance to step back from them.

And I think this can be true of media-literature as well. I hadn’t read much nor gone to many movies when I began my writer’s journey a few years ago. I’d been a voracious reader in years past, and once went to all the big movies. But I stopped, for reasons I’m unsure of. As a result, upon exposure to the media diet children subsist on today, I was literally sick, and, as you can tell, have perhaps not yet recovered. Had I been immersed as my fellow writers have been, the ones who responded to my horror with, “What’s your problem? I love that book!” I likely would have shared their enjoyment of these things. Yet a meager few actually listened and, taking a step back, looked at this stuff with clearer eyes and said, “Oh my God, this is awful!”

As I said before, some of my favorite movies were quite violent for their time, and I was concerned I was being a hypocrite. But that’s the key: for their time. Recent studies have shown that the ratings have changed. Movies that just ten years ago would have been solid R-rated for violence are now barely even getting PG-13. Dirty Harry, one of my favorite movies, was quite controversial for its extreme violence, and the glorification of it. But it would probably get a PG today. The level of violence in entertainment has increased, and continues to do so. When we feed our cravings, they are not satisfied. Drinking a sugary soda makes you want more sugar. Hyper-violent books and movies make you want more carnage. This has been confirmed in studies.

The junk-food industry isn’t going to stop producing Cheezy-Poofs, and the literature/film industry isn’t going to stop making carnage-filled movies, with higher and higher stakes, including younger and younger victims, and killers. So we have to be the ones to say enough. We must refuse to let them tell us what we want to read and to see. That’s the reason literary agents lie. They say they want something new and different, but they continue to go with vampires and zombies and dystopia and death. Something new and different is a risk, and there’s big money at stake. So they keep giving us more of the same, thinking it’s what we want, when in fact they are part of the conditioning to make us want it.

But if we stop, if we say, “I don’t want that, not matter how tasty you make it look,” then eventually they’ll have to do something else. As I said, there are good books. And there are good movies. Not just saccharine fare either, but rich, provocative stories that get awards, but rarely pack theaters or fly off bookshelves. Demand more of that, and less of the sick ugliness. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be healthier for it.

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The Movie of the Book

I’m frequently told by well-meaning fellow writers (and non-writers) that I shouldn’t be concerned about whether what I am writing is going to be a best-seller and make me the next J. K. Rowling, nor that it should be successful at all, nor even get published, especially in the age of self-publication.  I should write, they say, for myself, because I enjoy it, because I have stories to tell and all that sort of inspirational stuff that writers always tell themselves.

And I have no doubt some, perhaps many, writers really do feel that way: they write because it burns inside them and they have to get it out, and what happens after that is of less consequence. But the reality is, as in all things, it’s not really that simple.

The majority of writers have in mind the model of all the successful writers we follow.  We celebrate each others’ publications and sales milestones and eagerly peruse the bestseller lists.  We may write for ourselves a bit, but really we write because we want to be read.  And because we want to be able to think of ourselves as writers, rather than as teachers/lawyers/accountants/computer technicians/sales managers/lab workers/etc. who also happen to write in our spare time.  To quit your day job and be “A Writer,” you have to write a bestseller.  And yes, that’s kind of what I want.

Then what?  What about the writer of a bestseller that goes on to be made into a successful movie.  Some would say that’s sort of selling out, but most would consider it that much sweeter.  Most of us write with mental images of what we are writing, and, to some degree, have in mind what the movie might look like.  Who should play this part, how should that scene be staged, and so on.

I certainly have had those thoughts, but I also believe that what I am writing, even if it is published and becomes successful, is probably unfilmable.  Not because my vision is beyond the scope of film, but rather because of certain elements of story and character about which I would not want to compromise.  And I would be expected to do so.

Established, successful authors have some influence.  Perhaps they get first crack at writing the screenplay, or maybe some input towards casting, music and so forth.  But mostly, once the book becomes a movie, it’s out of the author’s hands.  I understand that, and I understand why that is.

The fact is, many of the things that make a novel great do not translate effectively to film.  Many of us have had the horrifying experience of seeing the movie based on a beloved book and bemoaning how “they ruined it!”  But to translate a book to film, changes must be made and compromises are inevitable.  Consider the films based on The Lord of the Rings, which endured significant changes.  Some were due to the tastes of the filmmakers: Peter Jackson favors elaborate battle sequences and action and spectacle and so emphasized those elements even when they were only alluded to in the text.  And it was often at the expense of the moments of tone and character that make the books so beloved. 

In some cases the changes arguably damaged the story.  There was great controversy about the complete removal of the “Scouring of the Shire” sequence near the end, a part of the story very important to J.R.R. Tolkien, that made a strong point about the aftermath of war and how it is worst when it comes close to home.  Jackson admittedly didn’t like that part and so left it out, at great loss to the story.  And yet, he may well have been right to do so.

Modern day audiences have little patience for a story that goes on for a long period after the Big Climax where the main villain is defeated.  They got to the place the story was going and are ready to move on.  To test this, next time you attend an action movie, right after the villain is blown away, start watching the audience; you will see them reaching for their jackets and packing up their popcorn empties and all that.  Because for them, the movie is basically over, so let’s get ready to go.  As it was, the third Lord of the Rings movie confounded its audiences by continuing on for nearly half an hour after the Big Climax, and that was with a lot of the subsequent story removed.

Another, even more justifiable change made by Jackson was the complete removal of the three early chapters dealing with Tom Bombadil.  Indeed, virtually every dramatic adaptation ever produced leaves out Bombadil, despite those parts being among the most magical, engaging passages.  Why?  Because it’s a total three-chapter digression that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story.  Had Tolkien been writing today, he would surely have been told by editors to lose that part, and also the “Scouring of the Shire,” probably.  Yet they make the book work.  But not the movie.

I have no illusions that, if my book were made into a movie, I would be faced with changes and compromise.  I’d be willing to listen in most cases, and actually have only a few areas where I would not give in.  My main action hero being a girl of apparent Polynesian extraction is one.  My youngest character having red hair is another, along with one of her most defining chacteristics: her preferred mode of (un)dress.  And that alone would be a huge impediment to film.  So I have no expectation that I’m writing the next summer blockbuster.  Just as well, because I have to finish writing it before it can be anything.

But there is one way it could be done, a way that might well address some of the stickier character elements.  I have come to realize that I see considerable appeal in the possibility that my book could be made into a movie… in animated form.  I’m a big fan of animation and would wholeheartedly embrace such a prospect.  Provided that the state of American animation could get past the assumption that animation is strictly for children.  Yeah, there’s the problem.

To be continued…


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Form Over Fiction

This summer I will be teaching a literature class.  Well, not exactly; it’s really a composition class that focuses on literature. What distinguishes this course from a literature survey class is the emphasis.  Survey courses, whether focused on a particular genre, period or culture, require a great deal of reading and a moderate amount of writing, whereas this class I will be teaching requires somewhat less reading and a great deal more writing. 

It’s not a class that a lot of students look forward to.  Having at most a moderate interest in reading, they see the class, with some justification, as one in which they will be expected to “love” literature, to listen to a professor read some incomprehensible poem to them and then breathlessly say, “Doesn’t that just touch your soul!” in response to which they’re thinking, “No.”

But of course, you can’t teach students to like something, nor should you try.  Rather, you teach them to appreciate it, but it should not be expected that such appreciation will lead to liking, although, again, some professors do seem to have that mindset: if you don’t like it, it must be because you haven’t studied it closely enough.  That may well be a big part of why the students don’t like it.

That’s why my focus is on the critical process.  I tell the students outright I don’t expect them to like the stuff they read.  To that end, the first work they read is a short story I expect many of them to hate, thus giving them permission to do so, something they may well never have gotten before in an English class.  They are then freed to simply examine what the story is doing.  Those who like it learn how to articulate why they do, while those who do not can articulate that dislike, but also understand why others have a different perspective.  And that’s the objective of the course.

I focus less on the literature itself than on the tools for analysis.  In other words, I introduce my students to the principles of Literary Criticism.  Now there’s something that strikes fear into many a student’s heart. Even my colleagues express trepidation about my emphasis on Critical Theory.  But, properly understood, criticism is simply the application of one or more different ways of examining how a work of literature does what it does.

I don’t teach the course all that often, but this time it will be an especially new experience for me: this will be the first time I have taught the course since I began my own writing in earnest.  I’m wondering how that will change my perspective.  I know it has already clarified something that has long puzzled me, the continued emphasis in the classroom on one particular critical approach: Formalism.

Formal criticism came into prominence about the middle of the last century and was also referred to as the “New Criticism.”  The emphasis is on the form of the work.  In poetry this meant things like meter, rhyme and stanzas; in fiction it refers to such familiar concepts as plot, setting, point of view, and so forth  This was revolutionary at the time, when previously the study of literature focused on understanding the author and period, and finding the author’s intended meaning.  

But Formalism flourished decades ago, and today is anything but “New.”  Criticism has moved on to other approaches and few established critics use it any more.  Sure, they make mention of things like plot and character, but you don’t find formal analysis in literary journals.  It exists today only in the classroom.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it does give us a baseline of concepts to help us name the things we examine.  But that doesn’t explain why the teaching of literature to non-majors tends to stop there.   I’d always assumed it was just old habits.  Then I started writing.

I have found that virtually every resource for writers I encounter focuses on Formal characteristics.  A recent conference I attended included an editing workshop that discussed plot and setting and point of view and could easily have been one of my lectures.  We were even shown the classic graph of rising action-climax-falling action.  It dawned on me that, while I already knew a lot about all those things, many of my fellow attendees perhaps did not, as they aren’t English teachers.  I realized how vital it is to understand those concepts when one writes.  And I understood one more reason why we emphasize them in English classes.

For many English majors, it’s all about literature; for many English teachers it’s all about creativity.  This is especially true at the pre-collegiate level.  In high school English classes the line between studying literature and creating it is often blurred, even eradicated.  Students learn about poetry by writing poems, about fiction by writing stories.  I’m not saying this is a bad approach, but it does indicate where many English teachers are coming from, and why Formalism lives on in the classroom.

What I am saying is that it is incomplete, that the objective of English education should be more than self-expression through creative writing.   And indeed it is, and I know I’m not giving my profession enough credit.  But there is a place for criticism, and it’s not something that should be feared or hated, but rather embraced.  Because in fact we use it all the time, we just don’t realize it.  My goal is for my students to understand what it is that they already do, and thus understand the real importance of literature.  It’s not just a good (or bad) story, it’s a way of seeing and comprehending the world.   They know that.  They just don’t know that they know.


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