A mea culpa for my intemperate comments about the classics

Have been reading Sarah Shulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Great reading experience, strongly recommend. The book is about the cultural tendency to perceive opposition as abuse. It’s clearly written with the cancel culture, trigger warning crowd in mind, but it’s not limited to that. It also writes about how dominant peoples’ can perceive opposition as abuse, and how they can use that rhetoric to lock up and harm marginalized people.

Anyway, the book has given me food for thought. It argues that in a lot of online arguments people are speaking from very emotional places, rooted either in past trauma or in feelings of entitlement, and this leads them to misinterpret and mischaracterize what people are actually saying. The example Shulman gives is that during a talk when she was advocating, essentially, more due process for campus sexual offenders, a woman raised her hand and said, "So you’re saying that when I was ten years old and being beaten by my dad, someone should’ve said, oh you’re misunderstanding him, his offenses are rooted in inequality and patriarchy."

Shulman responded, "No, I was not saying that. I think someone should have stopped your father. But I don’t think that, for instance, expelling a campus sexual offender, releasing them into the crowd of women who aren’t in college and don’t have the protections afforded by privilege, is a solution either." (I’m paraphrasing).

Shulman can come off idealistic, implying that most conflicts can be worked out through better communication, but she does give examples of people who weren’t willing to engage in good faith, and of times when it’s better to just leave people alone or cut them off. I think there is an extent, which she does not underline, to which conflict can become abuse. And then calling out the resultant abuse as abuse is warranted.

But I was less interested in the societal implications of her hypotheses and more interested in the personal ones. I personally hate fighting online, but I also routinely find myself making intemperate remarks. Most recently (yesterday) there was a blow-up about the classics, again. The conversation was about overrated classics that shouldn’t be taught in school, but I instantaneously misinterpreted it as being a conversation about why the classics in general are overrated. To be fair, many people do believe in that. But there are also gradations of the point: some equate the classics with the Western Canon and can’t look past the racism and sexism of some of the works in the canon.

In general though the conversation was about high school, and to be honest I do not care what, if anything, students learn in high school. I have absolutely nothing invested in that point. So there was really no reason for me to weigh in.

However I just have complex feelings tied up in loving and not loving classic literature (which I’m essentially calling every literary work that’s not from the here and now, whether it’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Fantomas or Tale of Genji or even obscure books that never really broke out, like Belchamber).

When I was a teenager I was a kid who had no time for the classics. I didn’t do basically any of the assigned reading in school, from 10th grade on. I read only science fiction and fantasy, and I found it very frustrating that my teachers didn’t respect what I was interested in.

After college, when I decided I was going to seriously pursue writing, I was like, I cannot do this if there is anything about this subject that I don’t understand or am scared of. So I bought one of those self-education manuals that were so popular in the 20th century (in this case it was The New Lifetime Reading Plan) and I worked my way through a lot of its recommendations (I still occasionally refer back to it when I’m looking for a new adventure).

For a long time I felt a sense of insecurity when it came to the classics. I thought other people understood much better how to read, and that they were better educated than me. It wasn’t until I started my MFA, four years after finishing my undergrad, that I realized this was false. To get an English degree, you need to take thirteen courses (under a quarter system). Each course might involve reading ten books. That’s it. All a degree means is you’ve read 130 books and sat in a classroom for 500 to 600 hours. By the end of my first year of self-directed reading, I’d surpassed that. By the time I started my MFA, I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, much of Shakespeare, Willa Cather, Euripides, a substantial amount of Nabokov and much more. I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of or insecure about.

But none of this explains why I react angrily when I perceive an attack on the canon. The uncharitable notion would be that I’ve invested quite a bit in the canon, and when someone treats it as a false god, they’re undermining my self-image. There might be some truth to that, I think. But it also doesn’t go far enough.

My relationship to the canon is a rare one, and it’s also a little old-fashioned. People don’t buy the five-foot shelf anymore and work their way through from Aeschylus to Zora Neale Hurston (okay she probably wasn’t on the five-foot shelf, but I needed a Z name). My reading has shaped my tastes, and it’s shaped my work, and my perception of what is new and worth doing. But I think because my reading is idiosyncratic, my aesthetics are also idiosyncratic.

The way I am and the way I read is the way I assumed all serious and ambitious writers were. But it’s not like that. Some immense proportion of writers stopped reading anything but contemporary literature the moment they left college. They are very au courant. Most of what they read in a given year came out in the last five years. And it just leaves me feeling very cold.

There’s no harm in reading only contemporary work, but that’s not me. That’s not what I do. I write with a knowledge of what has already been done. I don’t know if there’s a way to say that without sounding snobbish. There’s certainly a value judgement therein. I’m not sure how it’s possible to talk about fiction without making value judgements: what is interesting, what is not, what is worth doing, and what isn’t. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile project to write books that treat their subjects without nuance, that have stark, Manichean views of right and wrong, and that are often written in an ornate style that is clunky and uninteresting.

But these are views that you cannot agree with if you don’t have the (self) education that I do. If you’ve only read contemporary fantasy, then you can’t know about the complexities and ambiguities of the Mahabharata, where bonds of loyalty keep Bhishma and Drona tied to a king they hate, and where caste prejudice and transgression against the social order ultimately results in Karna’s death. If you’ve only read contemporary YA, you can’t know about the strange morality of A High Wind In Jamaica, where a group of kids is captured by pirates, adopted by them, goes native and joins their crew, and then ultimately commits murder, only to cheerfully and effortlessly reintegrate into British society when they’re found.

To me an attack on the classics, in any form, feels like an attack on everything that is timeless and complex in literature. And I know that is not how people mean it. But I also know that when people criticisms of the canon, they often conclude "I have nothing to learn from anything written before the current moment." And I deeply believe that this isn’t true, and that it’s impossible to write good literature unless you understand more than the preesent moment, because the literature of the moment (any moment) is, well, kind of shallow. It flatters modern prejudices. What survives is what has the ability to speak to a different moment, a different people.

I guess I just feel alone. The world is not what I thought it would be, and I’m left with a sense of aesthetics that isn’t really shared by most people, not even most writers, whom I encounter.

But there’s no reason for me to channel that feeling into anger at a bunch of random people on Twitter who hate The Catcher In The Rye.

2 thoughts on “A mea culpa for my intemperate comments about the classics

  1. Margot Harrison

    Yeah, I feel what you’re saying. I used to teach “Great Books” courses at Case Western Reserve (yes, they were actually called that). Semester after semester students would tell me how irrelevant these books were to their lives, or judge the characters harshly by their own standards. (Many seemed to want to erase conflict from the books and have everyone be a role model.) But there were always other students who got immersed in the classics the way I did.

    I think erasing the guilt (over not having read enough) and the knee-jerk reverence around the classics is key. I just started Anna Karenina. I have a PhD in Comp. Lit., focusing on Romanticism, yet I never got around to Tolstoy or really any Russians, and … that’s okay? I’m still enjoying this book. As a writer, I can still learn things from it. (Telling vs. showing, for instance — there’s a lot of flat-out telling in this book! It works because it’s in the context of vivid scenes.) What I love about being out of academia is being able to read with absolute freedom, across eras, genres, and cultures, just learning new stuff.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I agree! What did it for me was when I realized I could read the classics exactly the same way I used to read science fiction novels. Just read them for fun, and to get what I could! I love being out of academia. My MFA theoretically makes me eligible for professing jobs, and I sometimes tease my wife and her friends (they’re all professors) that I’m going to go on the job market, but it really really wasn’t for me. I just hate having any element of compulsion involved in my reading. It’s one reason it’s hard for me to blurb books.

      Funny you taught at CWRU–my parents both did their masters there, and my dad was a trustee for eight years =]

Comments are closed