This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.
This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.
Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.
Direct clip from Harper’s article.
I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.
Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).
Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.
Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.
I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.