It isn’t that I don’t like literature.
Maybe it is that I don’t like literature.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with my cousin and his son and talking about reading. My cousin’s son had been reading one of the Percy Jackson books, and I thought that was pretty cool. This surprised my cousin. He seemed to think that that kind of reading would be beneath my level, but I am the kind of reader who would rather see people enjoying books they like than forcing themselves through books they don’t like.
When I was in high school, I once got called out by my freshman English teacher for reading a book by Robin Cook. Junk reading, he called it. Beneath the level to which I should be aspiring. Although, that same teacher did recommend Ender’s Game for winter break reading, which is not exactly literature, though I would agree that it has more depth than your typical Cook medical thriller. (He was actually shocked that I read it – he had intended that suggestions to be “for the boys.”)
This semester, I am taking a literature course. In order to earn the degree that I am currently seeking, I am required to take a few courses involving the study literature. I chose to start with modern and contemporary American literature.
I’m really not sure why.
Other than that the schedule worked. I am allowed, technically, to take classes during my scheduled work hours as long as I make them up in the same week and have a pre-approved plan to do so. But I’d rather not if I don’t have to, so I’ve been sticking to evening and weekend classes so far.
To say that I was not thrilled to see Hemingway on the reading list would be an understatement. But at least we are getting him out of the way first.
It’s not that we didn’t have a good class discussion of the stories, or that I have trouble reading them. The writing just doesn’t appeal to me. I am having to force myself to get through the readings, and, because I want to be prepared, through multiple re-readings and the note taking that has never come naturally to me.
We touched on the “Iceberg Theory” last class. The idea behind it is that a writer who knows what he (or she!) is writing about may leave those known things out, and they will come through in the words that they do include. “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” writes Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. I really wanted to laugh. In the writing workshop classes that I’ve taken, the opposite theory is endorsed. The instructors (and students, since, of course, taking the class qualifies you as a critic/editor/judge) insist that readers need everything spelled out for them. Anything left out is a void to be filled by the writer. The only thing that you can give the reader are the words on the page.
No wonder so many of those stories lacked dignity, as we strove to follow directions and build our icebergs wholly above the water.
I am trying to learn from reading Hemingway, even as I dislike it. As with last semester’s class focusing on literature, I choose to take it less as a course in literature and more as a course in how to write stories. I already know how to write papers, after all. That won’t be the hard part. But if I can figure out, just a little bit, what makes all these literary stories tick and what about them makes professors swoon, then it’s worthwhile.
Even if I have to take on “Papa” to do it.