Friday, January 29, 2010

A Variation on "Humiliation"

In Changing Places, David Lodge describes a game that his professorial characters play, which involves owning up to those classics of literature that one hasn't read. As The Guardian page to which I linked summarizes, "Players name classics of literature that they have not read, the winner being the one who exhibits the most woeful literary lacuna. In Changing Places, Lodge's obnoxious American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet - and thus wins the game (but loses his job)." This is a classic moment in that novel, and a hilarious one. And even if we weren't explicitly playing that game, I'd bet a good many of us have had that conversation amongst friends in which we admit those books we ought to have read - and maybe even that we were assigned to read - but didn't. (Or maybe it's just English types who do this?)


What's interesting about the exercise is that there's a kind of elitist pride that goes along with each admission. Somebody who is not widely read wouldn't play this game, or if they ended up in the middle of it, they'd feel ashamed, or, as the name of the game indicates, humiliated. But the trick of the game, and what makes it fun and not actually humiliating, is this: if you're going to play this game, you're kind of boasting about what you haven't read. You're basically saying, "Oh, I'm so fancy and widely read that I can admit to having skipped one of the classics with a smile on my face and a drink in my hand. I'm such an impostor (except obviously I'm in the club, and I'm not an impostor at all)." This is not the same thing as just plainly stating that one hasn't read a particular book. Rhetorically, it's a lot more interesting. You can't just state the title that you haven't read, or the game wouldn't be any fun. You've got to provide a narrative, something like the following:

"Oh, GOD. I've totally never read Moby Dick! All of that whaling jargon!"

"Surely nobody has ever actually read the entirety of Ulysses! It's just Joyce masturbating on the page!"

"Of course I was assigned Milton's Paradise Lost, but after the first 100 or so lines I just figured, 'is this really necessary'? I mean, who doesn't know that Lucifer's the most interesting character?"

"I know I should have read Kate Chopin's The Awakening, but late 19th-century suicidal housewife angst is so boring!"

What you'll notice about the above is that the admission of not having read the book is always accompanied by an authorizing statement. In other words, I might not have read the book in question, but I am nevertheless a Subject Who Knows, and so in fact it's that I'm so wonderful that I don't need actually to have read this Important Tome in the Canon of Western Literature. If you don't have the authorizing statement, you not only embarrass yourself but everybody else in the room, too. Game over.

All of this came to mind as I read the comments over at Historiann's today, to her post about J.D. Salinger's death. With one lone exception (me), everybody pretty much either a) admitted never to having read Catcher in the Rye or b) said they'd read it but of course they didn't like it because Holden's whiny, because it's boring, because it was irritating, because it's dick lit, whatever.

Now let me just state this clearly and for the record:
  1. I am not some huge Salinger fan, and never was, not even at 16. This post is so not about whether Salinger is "important" or something. Honestly, I have no idea whether he's an "important" American author or not. I think that his status as a recluse has obscured whatever literary merit his books might have, quite honestly - much in the way that Sylvia Plath's suicide has obscured the literary merit of her novel or her poems.
  2. People have the right to read or not read, to like or not like, any book out there in the world. I am not disputing that.
What I am interested in, however, is the discourse of not liking, or of not having read, particular books that one "should have" read. It strikes me that there is an element of braggadocio that comes to the fore whenever conversations like these come up, whether because an author has died or because it's an anniversary of some book's publication or because a movie is being made or whatever. (Note: this doesn't only happen with books. It's also pretty common when people talk about music, for example. Just think of that moment in Juno where Juno tells Jason Bateman that Sonic Youth just sounds like noise. That moment gets a laugh only from Subjects Who Know, who understand how "important" Sonic Youth is as a band.)

And in large part this is interesting to me because it's totally the thing I fight against with my students, because at its heart it's totally anti-intellectual. Again, this isn't to say that one can't dislike certain books, and that there aren't good reasons to dislike them. Nor is it to say that one should read every book one "ought" to have read. But the cocktail party "Oh of course this is stupid and not worthy of my attention" thing drives me a little bit batty. Because here's the thing: I guess deep down I really believe that one should be a little ashamed, a little humiliated, if one doesn't read it (whatever "it" is) or if one reads it and doesn't see why having done so, even if one disliked it, matters. I don't really think that any amount of authorizing statements really let us off the hook for not engaging, or at least noting that our failure to engage is really our own personal responsibility. Again, let me make this clear: there are lots of entirely valid reasons not to like a book, or not to have read a book that one ought to have read. And there are a ton of books that I can name that I've read and not liked, and a ton that I ought to have read that I've either tried and put down or just outright ignored. But that doesn't mean that I don't see the value in them, or at least see why they've been seen to have value. Ultimately, whether one likes a book or whether one enjoys it or whether one agrees with its philosophy or not is totally beside the point.

Of course people think Holden Caulfield is a whiny git. He is. He's an anti-hero, people. You're not really supposed to like him. (Though, of course, I did, because I was a whiny git myself when I read Catcher in the Rye.) "Liking" him, or "identifying" with him really isn't the point, whatever you think of that novel. Similarly, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Ulysses totally is Joyce masturbating on the page. But that doesn't give anybody a pardon for not having done the reading or for saying that the novel is worthless. Obviously, the novel has worth, even if I didn't personally read it or even if I did read it didn't like it. (Or even if I had a more complex response: that I liked some parts and didn't like others. Complex responses are possible, or so I keep trying to convince my students.)

The bottom line is this: there is pleasure in confessing that one didn't like a book that is supposed to be great or that one didn't read a book that one ought to have read. But that pleasure shouldn't obscure the fact that disliking or not reading a book does not equal the book not being worthy of attention. If we believe that either of those things does equal that, we're basically saying that no books are worthy of attention, because, seriously folks? There is at least one reader (or non-reader) of every single book in the world who would dismiss it, and might even congratulate him/herself for doing so. If this is how we're going to judge literary merit, we may as well give up and say that there is no such thing.

18 comments:

Anastasia said...

I'm one of those people who had been walking around saying I didn't like Catcher in the Rye. The thing is, this is not a bored I didn't bother to engage because it's all so tiresome kind of thing. This is not a pose. I hated the book. Loathed it. Threw it. Put it down. Picked it back up. Argued out loud with the character. Shouted. Threw it. Hated. Hate hate hate. That's engagement. And that's a novel that works, on some level, even though I hated it and will gladly tell you so.

I haven't heard anybody saying the book isn't worthy of attention but I suppose I haven't been part of that many conversations about it. I have heard a good deal of "If you read it when you were a teenager" or "if you read it as a person who felt alienated" or "if you were a rebellious youth" or "if you read it on your own, not as an assignment." If any of those things, you must have identified with holden and you must have loved it. Well, I was about 17, I read it on my own, and I was an alienated and rebellious as the come. Hatred. I'm allowed that and I don't feel very allowed it in some conversations, which is why I'm saying no. You're a bunch of phonies! Just kidding. :P

I guess I'm saying the fact that I didn't like it is not intended to be evidence of its lack of literary merit. But it doesn't make it great literature if a bunch of people liked it (ahem da vinci code) or identified with the character (ahem twilight). I feel required to like it if I think it's good literature, as if hating it and thinking it good are mutually exclusive.

Ann said...

Dr. Crazy--for the record: I said "I liked the book when I read it at the age of 15, but I didn’t think Holden Caufield was a particularly interesting literary voice (although I found him entertaining.)" I was responding to the linked stories, in which three male writers and two male scholars/teachers rhapsodized about how unique and special was Caulfield's literary voice. My post wasn't so much about the literary merits of Catcher in the Rye as it was about the media discussion about it, which was dominated by male voices yesterday. (Although I think Salinger's creepy fascination with teenaged girls, and therefore his creepy portrayals of postpubescent women in Catcher deserves some consideration.)

I was kind of surprised by the unanimity of "meh" among my commenters. (I count only one admission of not having finished the book--everyone else had to read it or read it anyway in high school.) And, of course you're right that we don't have to *like* protagonists for there to be literary merit in the books. Rabbit Angstrom, Milton's Satan, May Welland, Daisy Miller, Scarlett O'Hara, and the masterwork of the most fascinating and morally repugnant protagonist of all time, Humbert Humbert--all pretty unlikeable or even loathsome.

I think you make a great point that "his status as a recluse has obscured whatever literary merit his books might have, quite honestly - much in the way that Sylvia Plath's suicide has obscured the literary merit of her novel or her poems." We'll have to see how the freak factor works postmortem, but I really wonder how many more years Catcher will remain on high school syllabi.

Historiann.com

Shane in Utah said...

Okay, here's a confession, complete with authorizing statement: I've never read anything by David Lodge, or Smiley's Moo. I live an academic satire, why should I read one?

FWIW, I must have enjoyed Catcher when I was a teenager, because I went on to read Franny and Zooey and the short stories. I've never been tempted to read any of it since, though; I think I refocused my existential angst on Beckett and Camus instead...

I've been wondering the same thing that Historiann asked: will Salinger continue to be taught in high schools for much longer? There was a piece in the NY Times a few months ago, before he died even, to the effect that teenagers no longer find Holden Caulfield compelling or interesting in the least.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I have to admit, I am one of the people who read Catcher because I knew it was in the canon, and felt I should. I'm also one of the people who cannot at all understand why it's in the canon, except perhaps that it held a particular sort of shock value for the time. There is nothing about it, plot, voice, or characters, that I can see value in. OTOH, I read Middlemarch for the same reason: it was in the canon Well, that and LDW mentioned he loved it. I cannot think of a greater contrast. Middlemarch is terribly painful to read; many of the characters are as unlikeable as Holden Caulfield. Yet there is a beauty in the prose, and a reality in the story that, at least in my mind, signals a sort of greatness that Catcher never approaches.

I do understand your discomfort with what really is anti-intellectualism. But I have to say that I do often wonder if Salinger's life as a recluse imbued his books with greater import than they deserve.

FrauTech said...

Oh Dr. Crazy, how often do I find myself disagreeing with you. Thank goodness or my blogroll would be pretty boring :) I get your point about the danger of it being anti-intellectualism. But at the same time, MY point on that thread was not that I didn't like it (I didn't like other books I had to read in HS) but that it should possibly not be a HS standard book.

What would be your criteria to determine whether a book should be part of the repertoire? For instance, my school never read Jane Austen. Later when I read some, no literature from that era (no Bronte sister, no George Elliot) seems pretty lacking, as was my exposure to female authors. But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?

Seems like to me Catcher in the Rye is more like a pop hit of literature. Some might even argue the Austen novels are as well. When I read a book, I tend to think in terms of whether *I* could have written the book. I'm not a professional writer so if both the writing and the story are less compelling than I'm probably capable of that's not a good sign. I can't remember the details of Catcher in the Rye enough to judge it based on this, but from what others have said it could have been one reason I didn't like it. Then again, I read Lolita because everyone talked about it being such a great book/classic/well written, and while I'll admit his use of the language was brilliant I was so utterly disgusted by the subject matter it's the only book I've ever thrown away in my life. (yes yes I know, people will say that authors "imagine" murder all the time, and that this author was just "imagining" the motivations for the main character, but I don't buy it. I think we all have the capability for violence, and many of us admit we could be capable of murder under the right circumstances. I think it took a twisted individual to write Lolita...I'll try not to go off on a Lolita rant here).

Anyways, thanks for keeping me thinking. Would still like your thoughts on what should constitute the HS line-up if you have time for a followup.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks so much, all, for your comments. First, Historiann - I got what you were getting at in your post - *my* post was definitely a tangent and not a direct response, though it was to some extent a response to my take on the comments (though I'll admit I didn't go through them carefully while writing) as well as to some other conversations I've heard in the past few days. Thanks for weighing in and clarifying where I muddied what went on over at your place.

Anastasia: I agree that hatred can be engagement. I was definitely calling out a certain sort of "Oh, I *hate* [insert author here]" sort of discourse that I think happens, and (I tried to articulate this though I'm not sure I succeeded) not *actual* and *legitimate* hatred, if that makes sense. And I entirely agree with what you say in your last paragraph. Liking or not liking are so not the point, if we're trying to figure the merit of a work. I suppose that's the big question: what IS the point, in those determinations?

As for whether Salinger will remain in the high school repertoire, who knows. I will say this. I think that CitR DOES work well with Huck Finn and Gatsby (typical suspects in an Am. Lit. high school curriculum). You can see a progression in how narrative works between those novels, and you can make a lot of great connections between them.

But you know why I think CitR has been such a staple of HS curricula really? It's short. Seriously. I think that's it's main draw. This is not unlike the draw of teaching Billy Budd (as opposed to Moby Dick), The Scarlet Letter (as opposed to The House of the Seven Gables), Great Expectations (as opposed to Hard Times or David Copperfield). A lot of what drives curriculum is what you think you can reasonably expect students to read. And the bottom line is that CitR is a coming of age novel that is short and fairly easy to get through. Pragmatically speaking, that makes it work on a high school syllabus.

What I really think is that Salinger's work needs to sit a while post-mortem, and we need to figure out whether it really is a "representative" teen novel. That's what it's been used as for about 40 years, but does that hold? I don't think we've been able to figure that out while he's been living. I think we CAN figure that out now that Salinger's dead, but it's going to take some time.

As for high school lit curricula, I'm so the wrong person to ask! I teach all inappropriate for high school audiences things! But I'll think on it, and maybe post about that tomorrow.

Jackie said...

I guess I will be the only one in the thread here who actually does teach high school? And has recently taught the book to teenagers? Not to disagree with the NYT, but I know a good number of high school students who still respond to the book and find it relevant.

And as far as why we teach it, yes, it's short, and it's a coming of age novel, and it introduces some useful concepts: the unreliable narrator, the ways to flesh out a character, distinct voice and point of view, and easily identifiable symbols that all connect to a theme (the glove, the ducks, the loss of innocence). But I also teach it because students still respond to it, and because I do think it's worthy of teaching on its own merits.

Dr. Crazy said...

Jackie - thank you SO MUCH for your comment! I didn't respond to whether high school students still respond or not to it because I just didn't know, not teaching high school. I suspected that it may still resonate with HS students, but I didn't want to say that without any sort of experience with whether that remained true. (And I agree with you that on its own merits it's worthy of teaching, but I wasn't sure whether that was because I myself found it worthwhile to read, or whether it was because it was really true.) But seriously, thank you for weighing in. Nothing more irritating than a bunch of college professors talking about what should be taught in high school! (Although, by reader request, I'll be doing just that tomorrow :) )

David said...

To the whole letting it rest comment. I wonder how this discussion might be altered if Salinger's death actually brings with it the publication of a hidden corpus of work instead of his 50 years of silence.

Dana said...

I wonder if reading this is the context of a class helps make it an interesting book. I read this on my own with no one to point out what was "supposed to be significant" about it and found it incredibly boring and unexceptional. I find this to be true of many supposed classics. Sometimes the plot or characters or writing is amazing but often I can't figure out what makes these books worth so much attention. How much is just context at the time they were written?

Ann said...

Dr. Crazy--I'm with FrauTech in that our questioning of this book and its commemoration relating to Salinger's death has to do with Catcher's place in the H.S. canon, along with lots of other books that dwell on male adolescence and (at least 25 years ago) a total absence of books that deal with female adolescence. Over in the comments at my place, one commenter said that hir daughter recently read Joyce Carol Oates's Foxfire alongside Catcher, which seems like a really great idea. I also think that Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi would be excellent companions to Catcher that would offer other views on American adolescence in the 1940s and 1950s.

I'm sure you're right about its brevity being a chief virtue! I too read Billy Budd and not Moby Dick, but I absolutely have to disagree with you on the Hawthorne books: Scarlet Letter is shorter but it's also in every way the superior book compared to Seven Gables. The latter book is a sprawly mess with a dopey herione and a silly, obscure ghost story, whereas the former is a taut exploration of guilt and the tensions between modernity and the individual versus traditional society and its focus on the communal. (I cry every time I re-read it!)

p.s. The commenters who say they didn't read Catcher are people who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, and so were in H.S. before the canonization of Salinger. (That seems to me to be the reason, anyway.)

Historiann.com

RPS77 said...

I came over here from Historiann's blog - I'd just like to thank you for articulating the things that bothered me about some of the comments there in a much more thorough way than I could have.

Rose said...

Thank you for this post, Dr. C. I read Catcher as a young, non-rebellious adult and liked it very much. You helped me see why I might have. I also see myself in your portrait of the cocktail party chatter, when it comes to Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.

Flavia said...

I have no particular opinion on Catcher or on Salinger--like Shane, I liked the book (and Salinger's other books) fine when I was in high school, but never regarded them as personally formative and have never gone back to them.

In fact, it's weird to me that almost all the comments here are still engaging with Catcher, and at least partly ignoring your larger argument--that there is, or can be, a PLEASURE in claiming dislike or ignorance, esp. when it's accompanied by a "bit" explaining what or why one disliked the thing.

I completely agree with this assessment (and completely plead guilty to just such behavior). And you're right that this isn't just a kind of snobbery ("I don't know what it is. . . that story just feels so precious and MFA-workshoppy"), but can sometimes be a form of anti-intellectualism.

Not always, to be sure, and maybe not even most of the time, among people who dissect things for a living and want to get to the bottom of their dislike. But definitely sometimes.

FrauTech said...

Oh yeah, Caged Bird Sings, we did read that. So at least TWO examples of female authors in four years.

I hope I'm not anti-illectualist when I criticize certain things like CitR, or even the reverse in being too elitist. I'll shame myself publically by admitting I enjoyed reading the Twilight Books. Yes, that's right. The writing was juvenile, and the plot had all sorts of bad messages for teen girls, but I was intrigued by the romance (if you can call it that) and wanted to know what happened next so I read them all in short time. Yes I'm a loser. If only I could cop to reading Harry Potter or something less embarrassing/trivial. *hangs head in internet shame*

Prof. Koshary said...

I also appreciate the analysis, Dr. Crazy. I was one of those high school students assigned to read CitR, dutifully read it, and hated every single page of it. One of the things that has always bothered me about it is that I could never understand *why* people -- generally, people much older than I -- loved it so; I'm content to like and dislike things as I encounter them, but I always want to understand why someone else feels differently about the same materials. (My karmic penance is to experience the other end of this spectrum every time I declare myself a fan of the Coen brothers to those benighted souls who don't recognize the genius of No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.)

Apropos of FrauTech's last comment, one could do a fine blog post on "embarrassing admissions" of things people actually loved, despite critical opprobrium; it's the flip side of hating the classics, is it not so? You start off with literature, and I'll gleefully pick up the thread with music. *hint hint*

Dr. Crazy said...

Prof. Koshary,
I'll think about a post about things I love that are "embarrassing," but I'll be honest here and note that I'm one of those people who unabashedly loves things in public that other people would shy away from admitting. My students would confirm this: I spend a lot of time talking to them about my love of a "Kroger book" and that my non-work reading is pretty much all stuff that I'd consider crap. I am not one of those people who reads things that are "worth" reading in my down time. Nah, I read trash and am proud of it :) (I'll note that these admissions usually shock my students, given the sorts of things that typically end up on the syllabi in the courses that I teach, which pretty much nobody would ever read for "fun".)

15 weeks said...

Thanks for pointing out that Holden is deeply and revealingly obnoxious. I thought it might just be me.
I would read almost anything and everything, but there's not enough time. I have read everything you mentioned at least twice, except for The Catcher in the Rye (so where's my tenure-track job opening? --never mind) and I feel nothing but regret that I haven't yet gotten around to, say, The Aeneid, Rob Roy, or Underworld. That's why there's summer, I guess.