This Week In My Classes: Marching Along

February break is only a memory now: even this short distance into March, it feels as if we’re hurtling towards the end of term. I usually find this an invigorating time in my classes, as all the ‘getting to know you’ stuff is over, we’ve developed some routines and, ideally, some rapport in the classroom, and we’re far enough along in the material that usually students’ confidence for engagement is greater.

I’m not feeling quite this surge this term. One reason is that the attendance in my Introduction to Prose and Fiction section has not been … robust. I’m trying not to take it personally; it helps that I’m hearing plenty of anecdata suggesting that absenteeism is a conspicuous issue for my colleagues and maybe more broadly around campus these days (“I’m glad it’s not just me,” said yet another colleague as we chatted about this on the stairs on Friday). I have been speculating that a discussion-based class might seem particularly expendable to students because of the excessively results-oriented culture they are currently steeped in: if they aren’t intrinsically drawn to the material (which is likely, in a course often taken to fulfill a requirement) and the results of attending (or not) aren’t overtly quantifiable, other things might well take priority. Naturally, I think that’s a shame: one day they may look back and realize that they missed a fairly rare (and potentially transformative) opportunity to get involved in a conversation with at least one person guaranteed to be “listening very intently to everything” they say. But who knows: maybe I (inevitably, egotistically) overestimate the value of spending that time in the room with me following my lesson plan! I have tried hard in recent years to make quite explicit the ways I see our classroom work feeding into the assignments on which they will be evaluated (and the skills and objectives both of these aspects of the course serve). But if they don’t see the pay-off  (or they aren’t even present to hear the peroration) and don’t care about the discussion for its own sake, there’s not much more I can do. Once again the gym analogy seems apt.

road

For those Intro students who are coming to class, we’re working our way through The Road. I put a lot of work in preparing materials when I taught it for the first time last winter, so it’s nice to have a file of ideas and notes and handouts to draw on this time around, and to feel more certain what are useful lines of inquiry. For tomorrow’s class, where we’ll be focusing on McCarthy’s style, one of the most useful resources I have is my own blog post from last year, in which I asked (not disingenuously) whether McCarthy is a terrible writer – working through the post and then keeping up with the discussion that ensued was very stimulating, and as I’ve been rereading the book this year I’ve kept trying to figure out if there’s any way to answer the question more confidently than I could then. I’m still not sure, but I will say that on this rereading I’m taking what I can only describe as a tactile pleasure in his writing: I pause to read individual words or phrases out loud and enjoy their crunkly feeling, their resistance to easy reading — “rachitic,” “gryke,” “kerfs,” “claggy” — or, more rarely, their rhythmic poetry: “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” I also found, a bit to my surprise, that having spent more time intellectualizing the novel has not distanced me from it: rereading the final section this afternoon I found myself weeping uncontrollably. As I remarked on Twitter, I realize that crying over the book does nothing to settle the question of whether McCarthy’s a “good” writer. I wonder what value, if any, does attach to this kind of visceral response. There’s a way in which being moved to tears by a book is inarguable proof of at least something — but is it something about the reader or something about the book? It’s about the connection between reader and book, I suppose, that mysterious alchemical combination by which language becomes meaning and feeling of a particular, and sometimes particularly personal, kind. I value that kind of emotional connection: surely you would hardly choose to specialize in Victorian literature if you didn’t! But at least when I’m wearing my ‘professor’ hat I try to retain some skepticism about it too. Just because you can make me cry doesn’t make you right!

In my Women and Detective Fiction seminar, I’ve also been fretting a bit, not so much about attendance (though this group has not been as reliably present as I am used to in upper-level seminars) as about participation. Last week’s classes were pretty sluggish. But yesterday there was an up-tick in energy, so for now I have deferred my cunning plan to use some of the strategies I’m more accustomed to deploying in lower level classes: “think-pair-share” exercises, break-out groups, and so on. We are currently reading Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi: I had the sense on Friday that they mostly hadn’t even tried to do more than just read it, and I wonder if at first they were lulled into passivity by the fast-paced prose and suspenseful plot and forget to apply the critical frameworks we’ve been developing. By tomorrow we’ll have read to the end, so I expect we’ll talk a lot about [spoiler alert!] what it means that Kinsey turns out to have been sleeping with not just a suspect but one of the murderers: the novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about the temptations and risks of submission and the ways sexual desire can undermine a principled commitment to independence. The novel focuses especially on sexual politics as played out in marriage, but Kinsey’s role as a detective also prompts us to consider how these “private” issues intersect with wider questions of justice and accountability. I haven’t taught Grafton in a while and I’ve appreciated getting reacquainted with her tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. I kept up with the series for a long time, but my interest in it has flagged over the years, partly because the humor that keeps this first one so fresh gives way to a much more sententious style. I should probably hunt up the latest ones just to see where things have gone. We start Indemnity Only next week and at this point I’m one Sara Paretsky behind as well.

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men: “They are not some other way. They are this way.”

NCFOMNo Country for Old Men is stylistically enough like The Road that I feel retrospectively justified in having taken the later novel as provisionally representative. There’s the same accumulation of terse, practical sentences propelling the story forward; there’s the same obscure yet precise vocabulary; there’s the same scrupulous, almost tedious, recounting of physical and technical actions; there’s the same eccentric punctuation; there’s the same unflinchingly graphic but never quite voyeuristic violence. The books don’t sound exactly the same — The Road, to my ear at least, is much more poetic, not just in its cadences but in its tendency towards symbolism — but I think it would be easy to guess, if somehow you didn’t already know, that they come from the same literary mind.

The two books also present a similarly dichotomous moral universe, with paternalistic caretaking on one side and ruthless amorality on the other. But in The Road that paternalism has a luminosity that it does not have in No Country for Old Men. In fact, I found it quite difficult to identify where, if anywhere, the balance of insight falls in No Country for Old Men. Most of the time I was reading it, I assumed our guide was the sheriff, whose memories and ruminations break up and add layers to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward crime / thriller plot. But the sheriff is such an uninteresting character — worse, such an uninteresting thinker — that I started to wonder if we were really meant to take him at his word. If he’s the moral center of the novel, then for all the novel’s literary display, at its heart is a simple cliché, the lament of every passing generation that the world is going to hell in a handbasket:

I think I know where we’re headed. We’re being bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs. There is fortunes bein accumulated out there that they dont nobody even know about. What do we think is goin to come of that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I dont think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people dont just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions. I dont have no answer about that. In particular I dont have no answer to take heart from.

The sheriff is right that he and his values appear quaintly old-fashioned next to Chigurh’s stringent and wholly selfish realism:

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to  live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to a small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. . . . You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world.

 The sheriff’s sections are a lament against the onslaught of such men and such values, of the end being (as it is over and over in this novel) “Then he shot her.” As the body count goes up, as scene after scene ends in blood,  it’s tempting to sympathize with the sheriff and bemoan this kind of unmeaning savagery (“It didnt make no sense”), which seems to represent the horrifying future of a country unmoored from love and justice and idealism. Even if the sheriff’s philosophy seems trite, it’s hard not to be on his side against Chigurh, hard not to appreciate his efforts to save Moss and Carla Jean (“You got a dog in this hunt?” “Not really,” says Bell; “A couple of kids from my county that might be sort of involved that ought not to be. . . . People I’m supposed to be lookin after”). In this world, we’re going to need all the “lookin after” we can get.

But the sheriff’s simplistic nostalgia seems so deliberately simplistic and nostalgic — he’s such a folksy “good ol’ boy,” such a token, too, of a particular type, that it seems equally plausible that he’s being deployed ironically:

I got set next to this women . . . And she kept talkin about the right wing this and the right wing that. . . . Finally told me, said: I dont like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. and I said well mam I dont think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.

 Maybe he’s just an old fool, right to retire, right that he doesn’t have the answers. But if the novel overall is positioned against him, then why is so much care and attention lavished on him? And why does he get a closing peroration that not only embellishes his painful sense of defeat (“It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death.”) but comes close, with its haunting images of continuity and safety, to the memorably poetic resonance of The Road?

Maybe he’s neither heroic nor foolish, just inadequate. Against Chigurh, who would be a sufficient antagonist? I don’t think Chigurh is offered as our protagonist, though, or as an anti-hero, though if he is the latter, it makes sense to me to see him as a cousin of the hard-boiled detective, a vigilante operating according to his own principles, a kind of Sam-Spade-Gone-Rogue. The strength of the hard-boiled hero is his moral independence (along with his fearlessness, of course), but we accept his disregard for law and order because we trust him to be in pursuit of the right, however idiosyncratically defined or defended. Chigurh is perfectly clear on his principles, but they have no chivalric undertones, no saving graces.

As I puzzled over how to read the novel in general and the sheriff in particular, I looked up a few reviews. At the New York Times, Walter Kirn asks, “Is this countrified bleak fundamentalism a spoof?” He never really answers his own question, and I can’t answer it either. On Twitter, Jonathan Goodwin suggested that reading Blood Meridian would help me out:

Though I’m a bit discouraged by how unpleasant I found the (apparently milder) violence in No Country for Old Men, I do still intend to read Blood Meridian. But until then, I’m left puzzling over No Country for Old Men on its own: your comments and interpretations would be welcome.

Is Cormac McCarthy a Terrible Writer?

roadFor the record, I don’t think so. In fact, I think he’s brilliant. Mind you, so far I’ve read only The Road. [Update: now I’ve also read No Country for Old Men.] Still, though I had my doubts when I began it for the first time, by the time I finished it I was under the spell of its strange, difficult, deeply poetic language. I’ve been reading and rereading it as I work through it with my class, and for me it just gets better — I find McCarthy’s prose weirder and more interesting and more affecting on each pass.

At the same time, paradoxically, as I reread it I’ve also been very aware that my admiration is a decision on my part, and that it’s one that could quite conceivably have gone the other way: I can see perfectly well that the same prose could be experienced as awkward, pretentious, and affected. I’m not sure I can objectively justify my own belief that it is written with integrity and redolent with artistic significance. There are certainly moments in the novel that I don’t like, sentences I can’t make sense of or that seem to me near misses, if not outright failures. “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” is one. The last sentence of this passage is another (I’m quoting the whole bit to give it its best chance):

He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms soaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

But despite the bits that make me stumble or wince, The Road reads to me like writing that matters, that deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t mind the sentence fragments, or the eccentric punctuation (though I do find the absent apostrophes distracting). I enjoy the dense vocabulary and the occasionally florid imagery. I find the oscillation between severe minimalism and poetic expansion exhilarating. This week I did an exercise with my class on “found poetry” in the novel. One reason I thought it would work is that we accept or forgive irregularities and difficulties in verse to a degree we don’t, typically, in prose; reading The Road as poetry freed us up to appreciate its peculiarities without fretting too much about lucid intelligibility or standard syntax. Consider the novel’s first sentence, for example:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Or, just a bit further along,

Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

The cadence of the lines makes poetic sense of them, doesn’t it? I also think they’d sound just right read in an Irish brogue – again, it’s something about the rhythm, the rise and fall and slight excess of them. Yet I can see how they could strike another reader as mannered, almost self-aggrandizing: look at me, writing!

I haven’t done a systematic survey of critical responses to The Road, but what I have seen shows judgments divided over just this problem of whether the writing is good (even brilliant) or bad (awful, even). In the NYTBR, Janet Maslin is appreciative:

Since the cataclysm has presumably incinerated all dictionaries, Mr. McCarthy’s affinity for words like rachitic and crozzled has as much visceral, atmospheric power as precise meaning. His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that “The Road” will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.

In The New Republic, James Wood argues that McCarthy’s “dumbly questing, glacially heuristic approach matches its subject, a world in which nothing is left standing. . . . Short phrasal sentences, often just fragments, savagely paint the elements of this voided world.” He doesn’t find it entirely successful:

The second register is the one familiar to readers of Blood Meridian or Suttree, and again seems somewhat Conradian. Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful — and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. . . .

Yet McCarthy’s third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. (Blood fustian, this style might be called.)

Closer to home, one of my colleagues said she is convinced McCarthy is a genius (to be strictly accurate, she was speaking about Blood Meridian, but the stylistic features she described sounded very familiar). But wise Colleen at Bookphilia maintains that The Road “is bad because the writing is bad and because the plot in no way makes up for this deficiency”, and others express the same opinion with less economy, as in this blog comment I turned up while idly googling opinions on the apostrophe issue:

 I just tried to read this book and had to put it down after around thirty pages due to the absolute atrocious writing style and complete disregard for language structure. Fragments, overuse of conjunctions, lack of multiple different kinds of punctuation. Overall it makes the book a very slow read due to having to re-read passages multiple times.

Language structure is there to aid communication, it should not be modified willy nilly by some hack author as a literary device in a way to inject what he is unable to convey through language. In this case all you have is a clumsy, choppy, piece of sub-par writing.

And speaking of language, the text reads like it was written by a freshman with a thesaurus. There is excessive use of bizarre adjectives and over-description. Simple sentence structure with over use of a inappropriate descriptors just reeks of poor undergrad writing.

 Or there’s this post:

McCarthy’s writing is full of incomplete sentences and anastrophe, completely lacks quotation marks, and frequently embeds dialogue in the middle of paragraphs. What truly annoys me, though, is McCarthy’s inconsistent use of apostrophes for contractions. Each of these conventions is a barrier to straightforward reading (though I finished The Road in only a few hours). If they made me stop and think about the language, characters, or plot, I wouldn’t object, but they’re merely distracting.

We’re looking at the same evidence but drawing very different conclusions. I wish I could assert confidently that I’m reading right and the naysayers are ill-informed, mistaken, or obtuse. I do think that fixating on non-standard grammar, unfamiliar vocabulary, or other technicalities is a superficial way to evaluate the quality of literary writing. And McCarthy’s odd prose did make me stop and think — not so much about “the language, characters, or  plot,” but about the themes and values of the work, and also about the role of language itself, in making meaning and in creating aesthetic and emotional effects. Can I do better, though, than saying “it worked for me”? Can the haters really get past “it didn’t work for me”?

This is the reason I think debating “literary merit,” or ranking or rating books, quickly becomes an exercise in either folly, futility, or bullying. If you’re going to ask “but is it any good?” you need to flesh out the question: good at what? for what? for whom? There are myriad ways a novel can be. A much more interesting discussion will come from asking “what does McCarthy’s prose do?” or “what are the connections between McCarthy’s literary strategies and the central ideas of The Road?” then from asking if he is a good or a bad writer. Why would you even ask those questions, though, if you didn’t think the work was worth spending that kind of time and thought on? By assigning The Road to my class, I’ve implicitly endorsed it as good writing, haven’t I? And, to return to where I began, I think it is good writing. Good at what? Good for what? Well, one of the things it is unequivocally good at, or good for, is provoking discussions about good (or bad) writing.

Update: More Critical Views

Ron Charles in the Washington Post:

even with its flaws, there’s just no getting around it: The Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don’t want to go, forces us to think about questions we don’t want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy’s mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy’s prose and the simple beauty of this hero’s love for his son.

Jennifer Egan in Slate (the review overall asks thought-provoking questions about the novel’s “literary masculinity”):

There is no limit to the devastation, only new forms of its expression, and McCarthy renders these up in lush, sensuous prose that belies the inertness of its object and keeps the reader in a constant state of longing and alarm.

Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe:

Unfolding in a spartan, precise narrative that mirrors the bleakness of its nuclear winter . . . even with his lapses into grandiloquence, McCarthy is too seasoned a writer to over dramatize what may be the last drama of all . . . he has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most.

Mark Holcomb in the Village Voice:

[McCarthy’s fans] should be satisfied with the current offering’s characteristic helpings of hypnotic, gut-punching prose and bracing depictions of emotional longing (“She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned” )—qualities McCarthy’s detractors seem bizarrely content to underestimate or overlook.

Sycorax Pine:

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift,claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world

 Further Update (2/18): A thoughtful dissenter:

In setting The Road in a post-apocalyptic world where plot is beside the point and the two main characters are — given their hazily remembered past, monochrome present, and probable lack of a future —inevitably archetypal, McCarthy overuses the stark-but-somehow-simultaneously-baroque tone that eventually threatens to send all his work off the rails. McCarthy is a writer who could make a casual brunch read like the end of the world, so when he’s actually writing about the end of the world, his grandiosity grows numbing. In this sense, his language fails The Road, distracting from the emotional potency it might have had. (Clearly, there are many who disagree.) [from John Williams at A Special Way of Being Afraid]

And yet another update (2/27): At least two commenters (so far) in this FlavorWire thread are not fans.

This Week In My Classes: Cranford and The Road

roadThe honeymoon is over. At the beginning of every term things putter along easily enough while I wonder why I felt so stressed out at the end of the previous term … and then marking starts to come in, and the new assignment sequences dreamed up over the break loom on the horizon and require planning and handouts and Blackboard drop-boxes, and forms for the letters of reference I forgot I still needed to do appear in my inbox, and the thesis material I made my students promise to have ready duly shows up. And that’s about where I am now, staying on top of things but with effort. It doesn’t help that it’s winter (when has winter ever helped with anything?). It takes more energy to do everything in the winter, from driving away in the morning (bundling up, scraping, clearing) to just staying warm (even my LL Bean fleece slipper socks are just not enough this year, down in my basement office with the cold, cold floor).

So that’s how things are going, in a general way. It’s a good busy, mostly, especially the class prep for the novels that are new for me this term: I enjoy figuring out what I want to do with them and trying out my ideas in the classroom. I’m out of time for Cranford now: next time, I think I’ll allow more than four classes, because it feels like our work on it ended too abruptly. But then, I don’t typically have more than six classes on any but the longest novels! I’m going to miss its subtle good humor, which has been a good antidote to the relentless gloom of The Road in my intro class. One of my favorite bits on this read was the Great Pea-Eating Challenge:

When the ducks and green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted, for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.

I’ve always found peas quite inconvenient myself — and not particularly tasty, though I do occasionally serve them now that I’m All Grown Up (my parents could testify that this is a sign of maturity beyond what they would have predicted, given my childhood aversion to most green vegetables). Next up in this class is The Mill on the Floss. It’s not cheerful (well, the first part is pretty funny, but after that … ) but I’m really looking forward to it, especially after having worked up my essay on it for this month’s Open Letters.

In Intro to Lit, we had our first general class discussion of The Road today, and the students seemed quite engaged with it. We warmed up by talking about things like the title (I always start there with novels!) — why “the” road, why not any road in particular (especially considering they have a map), why just “the man” and “the boy,” what seems to have happened, what matters to them now, what is their relationship like, and so on. There’s lots more to talk about, but for Wednesday I want us to focus on the language of the novel for a while. I am aware that admiration of McCarthy’s style is not universal, and I’m not altogether convinced about some aspects of it myself, for all that I find the novel both gripping and moving. It’s a conspicuous style: there’s no illusion of transparency and there are a lot of what could be considered affectations, from the eccentric punctuation (argh! the apostrophes!) to the use of obscure words (obscure to me, anyway — words I had to look up for today’s installment included “rachitic,” “gryke,” and “kerfs”). Most sentences are very short, and indeed many are fragments, but some are longer and more elaborate, even florid. Because the novel is quite suspenseful, it’s easy to read along quickly and not fret the details (I didn’t look up any of these words on my first reading), but that’s obviously not good enough. I think we might try an exercise on “found poetry” in The Road. I think that this would focus our attention very closely on details of wording, including not just meaning but also sound, placement, and relationships to major themes. It would also probably prompt some useful discussion about what we think makes prose “poetic.” So! A handout for a group activity along these lines goes on the to-do list for tomorrow.

Teaching Texts: Taking The Road into 2012-13

Book orders for the fall term were due April 1. Apparently this early deadline helps the bookstore know which books are being re-used and thus which books they can buy back from students to re-sell next year–which makes sense and is a good thing to do for students! But April 1 is still very early to have worked out what you want to do next year, unless you are happy to just do exactly what you’ve done before and aren’t teaching any new classes. You know those legends about professors who show up with the same yellowed teaching notes they have used for 100 years? None of us wants to be that professor, honest! But this is the kind of bureaucratic thing that discourages innovation. When you are in the thick of one term, the easiest way to meet this deadline is by repetition. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that! You can in fact teach the same books over and over (cough *Middlemarch* cough) and never feel you are just going through a tired routine. There’s always something new to learn, new to say–or a new way to say it, or to try to engage students with it. But I do try to shake up every reading list every time, if just by a book or two, so that the new juxtapositions will keep me fresh.

Anyway, April 1 has come and gone and I’ve only submitted two of my three fall term orders. Sorry, bookstore! The course I haven’t ordered for yet, English 1000 (Introduction to Literature)  is not a repeat for me, though: the books I’ll be probably be ordering have not, to my knowledge, been assigned by anyone else this year, and I haven’t taught the class myself since 2000-2001 in its full-year version, though I have taught a half-year introductory class three times in the past decade. It’s really the shift back to a full-year version that has slowed down my ordering: you can do so much in full-year classes, and they have become such rare creatures. I haven’t in fact taught a full-year class of any description in many years: I’m almost giddy with excitement about the increased chances of my learning every student’s name well before the class is over. And it’s equally dizzying to think of all the many, many different books I could conceivably assign…which, of course, is why it has taken me too long to make up my mind. Our intro classes are, deliberately, not historical surveys (we offer those at the 2nd-year level) but introductions to genre, to university-level writing, and to literary critical terms and skills. The genres we are supposed to cover are non-fiction prose, poetry, fiction, and drama–but it is entirely up to us how to do this. The range of different reading lists that results is supposed to be a strength of our first-year program: in theory, students can peruse the different offerings and choose a section they like the looks of. This almost never works in practice, as despite our efforts to publicize the variation, students (and advisers) usually assume all the sections are the same, and they choose based on timetable more than anything else. As a result, it is not uncommon to have a conversation that begins with a student saying things like “But my friend in Dr. Flumberly’s section of English 1000 isn’t reading any novels, only short stories. It isn’t fair that we have to read this long book.”

I don’t actually think there are any sections of English 1000 that assign no novels at all (possibly, just possibly, students’ reports of what goes on elsewhere may not be 100% accurate). But absent any particular principle about which novels to assign, it’s always hard for me to decide which ones to go with. Over the years I have assigned Hard Times, The Wars, A Christmas Carol, A Room with a View, Saturday, and The Remains of the Day – always along with an array of shorter texts. I was thinking of going with A Christmas Carol again this year (it’s fun to teach it in December just as holiday madness is breaking out) but I wanted to do a more contemporary novel as well, since I do have a whole year. English 1000 is the teaching assignment that gives me the most latitude, so it’s a great chance to get outside my comfort zone. I mentioned this on Twitter and within about 10 minutes I had a whole array of tempting suggestions, most of which I had heard of but not read. I couldn’t possibly consider them all by April 1!

As the tweets were flying back and forth, Mark Athitakis asked an important question: what makes a novel a good choice for teaching?’ This is obviously a key issue: you can love reading a book but still conclude that for one reason or another, it would not work in the classroom, or at least in a particular class. For an intro class, what are the desiderata? It will vary for individual instructors, I know. Those of you who also teach similar classes, what are the factors for you? For me, one issue is length–shallow, maybe, but I think realistic. 200-300 pages seems to me about right, though I have colleagues who regularly teach Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in their intro sections and it seems to go fine. Then there’s significance. It makes some sense to me that you would pick a book that either has some standing (why? is something you’ll want to talk about) or that you think deserves some standing — this helps you begin what you can hope will be a life-long engagement on their part with the puzzle of literary merit and reputation, and it gets them into an ongoing literary conversation. Merit itself is also a factor — I can’t see teaching a book you can’t in some sense get behind, as you are going to have to bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the classroom day after day, and it’s hard to do that for material you don’t think is any good. Sometimes it’s still important to do it, mind you: I teach novels I don’t think are great qua novels all the time, but in courses where coverage is a requirement in a way it is not for our intro classes. Then it has to be a book that gives us something to talk about and then something to write about — it needs to require and reward interpretation. Doesn’t every book? Well, no, at least not in isolation. Some very formulaic novels are much more interesting collectively than they are individually (from variations on repetitive patterns and tropes as in [some] romance or mystery novels, for instance). But I think that a certain level of complexity (thematic as well as aesthetic) makes for the best teaching texts. You want the feeling that the book is about something, and not just a simplistic, obvious single something but a problem, a crux. And you want the language and form to be related to that problem or crux in an interesting (and, again, not simplistic or obvious) way. Finally, it helps if you can see ways the book will create interesting conversations with the other texts you’re teaching in the course.

I looked up a number of new (to me) books, online and in the library. I started a couple and read two all the way through. One of these, The Talk-Funny Girl (recommended by D. G. Myers) was extremely interesting and gripping, but I felt in the end that not only was it a bit too alien for my purposes but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The other one I read in its entirety was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is a book I have deliberately avoided until now. Not only did it sound very depressing but it sounded gimmicky, cheesy even. Well, as those of you who have read it will know, it certainly is depressing! I was teaching Jude the Obscure the week I read it and I announced with some perturbation to my class that I had finally found a novel that made Jude look optimistic! But gimmicky? I don’t think so. From the beginning, it interested me, and though it horrified me, it also moved and surprised me. The father-son relationship is intense but stripped bare of sentiment, as is everything in the novel’s landscape: we’re left with just the essentials, and that simple idea is what makes the novel so powerful. What does matter? Why – how – do we keep going? The language put me off a bit at first, as it seemed unduly self-displaying, but ultimately I thought it provided the art, the artifice, that made the story bearable. It also highlights its literariness: we are clearly in allegorical territory here. I couldn’t stop reading

When I finished the novel, I was struck by the glimmer of optimism it offers at the last minute  (I don’t know yet if I think the ending undermines the novel) and I found myself thinking about it a lot. At first I thought there was no way I would assign it. I couldn’t imagine spending hours and days in that world — or making my students come along with me. Poor things! Isn’t their first term at university hard enough? But then I began to reconsider. At the heart of the novel there is something that is anything but depressing, isn’t there? The father and son talk a lot about “the light” they are carrying. It’s a metaphorical or symbolic light, and it’s something the novel carries too. Then I thought about one of the non-fiction texts I’m assigning, Eli Wiesel’s Night. Night is also about surviving devastation, hanging on to shreds of humanity. One of the moments in Night that is particularly haunting and terrible is the selection scene:

‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.

This scene breaks my heart. I expect every parent has felt the magic of a little hand in theirs, realized the awesome, beautiful, devastating weight of the innocent belief that if we say it’s OK, if we go there, if we hold hands, it is OK.  “It’s OK,” the father in The Road tells his son over and over. “It’s OK.” And the son goes along.  Now I can’t stop thinking about that resonance between the two texts. The underlying theme of my sections of Introduction to Literature is usually something as simple as “words matter.” One way I think I can show this and make it meaningful and alive to our students is to work with texts that are about things that really matter. I’m not sure yet how the pieces will fit together or what exactly we’ll talk about, but at any rate I’ve decided to order The Road and see where it takes us.