Monday, September 08, 2008

Literature and the Writer as Teacher

I found the following comments by John Updike very interesting and want to talk about it. Updike says:

The writer as hero, as Hemingway or Saint-Exupery or D’Annunzio, a tradition of which Camus was perhaps the last example, has been replaced in America by the writer as educationist. Most writers teach, a great many teach writing; writing is furiously taught in colleges even as the death knell of the book and the written word is monotonously tolled; any writer, it is assumed, can give a lecture, and the purer products of his academic mind, the “writings” themselves, are sifted and, if found of sufficient quality, installed in their places on the assembly belt of study, as objects of educational contemplation.

I find this interesting, as a writer and an educator. In classes, especially college classes, students want to know why certain stories are studied in class and what makes something literature. I think Updike answers those questions. For something to be considered “literature,” academics have to sift through the story, pick it apart, and find deeper levels. If it stands up to that, it can then be canonized. If it is not found of “sufficient quality,” then it’s considered popular writing and not worthy of academia. One thing that Updike doesn’t mention that is part of the process today is worldview. Living in a postmodern age, critics want the story to reflect their beliefs.

Some may ask, what does it mean to be postmodern? The best definition I can find is from PBS. “Postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.” Everything is relative. There are no absolutes. What’s right for you may not be right for me. For religion, this means that there is no one truth. All religions have some truth and we should pick and choose which parts of the religion fit the way we see the world. So, for a story today to be considered literature, it needs to be skeptical of any claims and focus on the relative truths of the characters.

Another part of the quote deals with the writer as educator. Now a lot of us are in the education field, which is a nice fit for a writer who isn’t able to write full-time. People today don’t want to read a story just for the sake of the story. This is the information age; they want to be taught something. This is one of the reasons Crichton is one of my favorite authors. He teaches while he tells the story. However, inevitably, readers want to know that an author is saying, what is the point, why did he/she write it? Publishers want us to be an expert on the topic we are writing about. Once at a writer’s conference I pitched a young adult novel to an agent. Her first question was: why are you the person to write this book? The question threw me off a little bit, and had I known she was going to reject the book, I might have said what I thought - BECAUSE I WROTE IT. It’s not non-fiction. I don’t have to be an expert. My job is to tell a good story. In her defense, she was just asking the question of the time. You hear a lot of talk in author circles about platform. The bigger and stronger the platform, the more likely a publisher and reader will take a look at you.

Here’s a last thing to think about: you have to be an expert in your field, but in a postmodern world, everything is relative, so it’s okay to think you’re an expert when you’re really not; you just have to make people think you are. And as a fiction writer, isn’t that what we do? We create a world that is believable, we speak with authority about that world, and we let people see the world through the eyes of our characters. So through that writing our worldview should come out and when people ask us what the story is about or what we meant by this-or-that, we can answer them and perhaps give them an understanding of some absolute truths in a provisional world.

The excerpted is from “Why Write?” by John Updike, from Picked-Up Pieces Copyright 1975 by John Updike and published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
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