Tag Archives: *mfeatured

The Case Against Huck Finn

18 Feb

Short Story

“I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.”
— John Updike

The first real book I can remember reading was J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I may have been 11 years old. I was banned from watching TV for some negligible crime involving the family dog and a bucket of paint. My allergies were acting up and I couldn’t go outside. My parents were fighting, and so I pulled a book at random from a box I’d found in the attic, and went into my room to disappear.

I remember thinking: “This book is really interesting. It’s about people even more messed up than my family.”

And also: “I wish they would stop yelling.”

About an hour later, during a lull in the domestic warfare that came to define my childhood, my mother entered my room, and found me under the covers reading the same moldy paperback she’d kept in her possession since she was around my age. She thumbed nostalgically through the first few pages, found this line, and read it out loud:

The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.

“What’s going on in that sentence?” she asked me. (My mother worked in education, and was skilled at these sorts of cold interrogations.)

“It’s a bunch of people, standing around a train station,” I answered.

“Mm.” She licked her finger, turned the page. “And the word matriculate. What does that mean?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea.

“It means go to college.” She closed the book. Sighed. “If you don’t know a word, you should look it up in the dictionary.” Then her face softened. “But a lot of the time, you can figure out what a word means, by the words that are around it.”

She gave me back the book. I noticed, for the first time I think, how veiny her hands were. And I realized that she had been crying. “So you learned a new word today. Good for you. You should learn two words every day, for the rest of your life.” Then she went out of the room, latching the door shut behind her.

I think I learned more about books, and writing, and the bizarreness of people, from that five-minute exchange with my mother, than from the many thousands of hours I spent in English classrooms and writing workshops from first grade through college.

*  *  *

“And Joyce was a poor sick fucker who probably died with his balls somewhere up around his navel. None of that for me, thanks.”
— Hunter S. Thompson

A few years ago–five? ten?–there was a major controversy involving the teaching of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as part of a standard high school English curriculum. The controversy stemmed from Huck’s relentless (and distinctly naive) use of the word “nigger” to describe his friend Jim, an escaped slave with whom Huck travels, on a stolen raft, down the Mississippi River.

I was never required to read Huck Finn in high school. I read the book on my own, some time after Franny & Zooey, and was sufficiently moved by the novel that when Halloween rolled around, I dressed up as Huck. That summer I wore the costume, or a modified version of it, as I explored the woods by my house with my dog. I don’t think I wanted to be Huck. I think I just wanted to be his friend. To find him in the woods somewhere.

Huck Finn is a lot of things–sad, funny, brilliant, maudlin, offensive, warm, clumsy, tedious. What it is not is an easy book to read. It’s a downright difficult book–and not just because of its folksy, racially-charged language. The book has no engine, no narrative thrust to keep the audience engaged. It is rather like the raft Huck and Jim travel on–meandering downstream, pausing to grill fish, occasionally finding adventure. Twain himself tired of the book midway through, put it in a drawer, and spent the next few years in bed. It is also a book with a famously bad and unwieldy ending.

Now, am I seriously arguing that children shouldn’t be required to read Huck Finn merely because it is a challenging work of literature? Yes, that is precisely what I am arguing–especially when there are shorter, equally rewarding books dealing with the same subject matter–many of them written by Twain himself. Tom Sawyer, Detective, anyone? Pudd’nhead Wilson?

*  *  *

“If a child does not like a book, throw it in the trash.” — Maurice Sendak

It makes no fucking sense to force children to read books they don’t want to read. It’s actually quite cruel–a lazy, yet elaborate form of torture. It is the equivalent of making a child work hard for a gift, over the course of many years, only to rob them of that gift just as they’ve developed the wherewithal to enjoy it.

Of course, that’s how school works. The point of school is to spread the gold from the sand, and identify and validate those students who are willing to fall in line with arbitrary rules and requirements, while penalizing those children who are unable or unwilling to march in lockstep, thus sentencing them to various low-paying vocational tracts, or worse, state universities.

Which is why students are assigned The Catcher in the Rye and not Franny and Zooey. Or Grapes of Wrath and not Travels With Charley. Or Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Or Hemingway and Henry James instead of Kafka and Camus. God forbid children derive actual joy, and even original thought, from crawling under a tree and engaging deliriously with a work of fiction. We have them reading The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake. The Great Gatsby!

Which brings up a somewhat problematic question that’s been weighing on my mind for some time:

Why require children to read novels at all?

*  *  *

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” –Edgar Allan Poe

Recently I was asked by a fellow writer to provide a quote supporting the idea that short stories–despite the apparent rapid-fire disappearance of journals like Ontario Review and Grand Street–are still a viable medium. Leaving aside that this question presupposes, a priori, that short stories are still valuable, I will attempt to answer the question in the context of the short story-vs-novel educational dilemma.

First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form. I should know; I spend a grotesque amount of time submitting to, and being rejected from, practically all of them.

What is disappearing is the average person’s–and even the above-average person’s–tolerance for writing that does not engage the imagination on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page basis. In such a stifling literary climate, it is a wonder that people read any books at all. What the novel has become is a niche interest, nothing more. An eccentric, though still well-regarded hobby. The novel’s value in shaping today’s culture, or in clarifying its vision of itself, is questionable at best.

The short story, by contrast, is unique in that it packs all the pleasures of long-form fiction into a savory, aromatic dish that can be ingested and enjoyed in about the same time as it takes for you to leash up your dog and go looking for adventure in the woods.

*  *  *

“The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.” — Oscar Wilde

My ideal high school English curriculum looks something like this:

9th Grade:

  • Roald Dahl, Skin and Other Stories (short stories–student picks any two)
  • Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (short story)
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (short story)
  • J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction (two novellas)
  • Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (short novel)

10th Grade:

  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (short story)
  • Stephen King, Different Seasons (four novellas–student picks one)
  • Alice Munro, Runaway (short story)
  • John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (short novel)

11th Grade:

  • Albert Camus, The Stranger (novella)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground (novella)
  • Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (long short story)
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel)

12th Grade:

  • Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel)
  • Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (novel)
  • Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (film)
  • John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (novel)
  • August Wilson, Fences (play)

There. Now isn’t that a colorful pile of literature? Doesn’t that look like a damn fine way to spend each school year? Aren’t these books more dynamic, more relevant, more beautifully written and joyfully consumed, than crap like Jane Eyre and Washington Square? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if kids came home with these books, and their parents snagged the books for themselves.

It may be a random list. It may be an incomplete list. But it is an undeniably lively list, and if a kid can’t get excited about at least a few of these books, then what you have on your hands there is a dyed-in-the-wool simpleton, and no amount of lovingly rendered prose is going to prevent him or her from working in a gas station and watching The Big Bang Theory.

Note: This reading list is obviously lacking in non-Western voices, for the simple reason that I myself am somewhat of a simpleton, and have a limited interest in anything that doesn’t involve vodka, puppies, or football. My list is also notably light on female authors; I could have–and perhaps should have–included Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, or Ayn Rand…but high school students already read those authors, and I wanted to do away with the old, established curriculum and create something new here.

You may also notice that my list does not include such “classics” as The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, or Romeo and Juliet. You may even have a problem with this. To which I say: fuck the Classics. They are impossible to get through without massive quantities of wine and weed. The Classics are what college is for.

High school is for discovering the pleasures of reading serious fiction, and developing and refining those tastes, and experimenting with queer fashion choices, and sneaking cigarettes and blow jobs in bathrooms, and other worthy, wholesome pursuits.

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Cowboys and Astronauts

24 Jan

Antioch

I used to collect butterflies. It was just something I did for a couple of summers, when I was nine or ten years old. I had a blue butterfly net, a few dozen jars, a cork board, some pins. I’d go out early in the morning, when it was still foggy and cool, and catch not just butterflies but beetles, sawflies, grasshoppers, ladybugs, and even bees.

As far as I know or can tell, I was the last American child to collect butterflies as a hobby. It’s one of those things you hear about kids doing, or read about in books, but never actually see in real life. Like helping old ladies cross the street; or obtaining merit badges in archery. Or reading.

*  *  *

When people tell me they don’t read books–better still, that they “hate reading”–I don’t understand what the fuck they are talking about. How can you hate reading? That’s like hating air.

For one thing, reading is one of the most relaxing things a person can do. In this age of nonstop stress and stimulation, when it seems like life is just a series of panic attacks, or one giant, prolonged panic attack, reading is one of the few activities you can engage in independent of family, work, or other horrific and loud distractions. It’s so relaxing, in fact, that it puts you to sleep. I know I can’t personally lay down on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, even a great book, without winking off in less than an hour.

The other thing about reading is that it’s an aggressive, and even a competitive, activity. There are very few books that can keep your attention the whole way through. At some point–usually after the first 140 pages or so–there is always a temptation to put the book down and never pick it back up. The book may begin with an intriguing premise, but then the author makes a questionable decision, goes off on an ill-advised tangent, fails to properly braid the strands of his story into a cohesive, suspenseful whole–and then you have a decision to make. The author has challenged you; and now it’s you against the author. So you power through. The book will not defeat you. You finish the book, you put it on your bookshelf, and you say: “I read that.” It’s a mini-accomplishment. You did that shit. It’s hard to read a book. It takes time. Time–the one commodity that all of us have, and don’t have, in spades.

*  *  *

More and more it occurs to me that people simply don’t give a fuck what I’m doing with my writing. I tell them about a conversation I had with my agent, or the revisions I’m making to a story, or an idea I have germinating in my head, or a magazine I am thinking of sending my work to, or this blog, and they politely nod their heads and try to think of a way to steer the conversation down a more fruitful, less conflicted path. They never know what to say. I might as well be talking about ET tubes and CVP waveforms and indwelling catheters and runs of v-tach. There are a few people who I would call friends who know, more or less, what it means to have a story accepted by a magazine; but from the rest, even from the most well-meaning of friends, the best you can hope for is that polite, uncomfortable head-bobbing, a kind of grim acknowledgement of semi-success.

Used to be, someone would introduce me to a group of people, and begin by saying: “This is Ernesto, he is a writer.” What it meant to them, I dare not say, but it would mean something. These days I’m almost embarrassed to tell people I write–and downright mortified to describe myself as a writer. I might as well say I’m a cowboy, or an astronaut; it’s a carved-out area of the American jobspace that doesn’t really exist anymore; at once too specific and too vague to count for anything. I’m sure there are people on this planet who earn their livings wrangling cattle, or getting shot into space, or dreaming up stories and poems and plays out of thin air, but I don’t know them, you don’t know them, and so, do they really exist? Are they real?

*  *  *

There was this little weird guy who used to come into the Beehive, who I was always kind of afraid of. He was even shorter than me, and waifishly thin, and he always wore a three-piece suit with a pocket watch and a tie, and he had a pencil-thin mustache that looked like it was drawn on, and I think he would walk with a cane. I was afraid of him because it always seemed like one day he would walk into the Hive, with his beta-male rage, and instead of a cane he would have an automatic weapon, and just open fire on the place, just wipe us all out.

I mention this freak because, at the time when he was coming around, I had just gotten a story accepted by Morpheus Tales, a little UK horror magazine that is actually one of the bigger horror markets. He came in one day, I gave him his coffee, and he said, almost as an afterthought, “Congrats on Morpheus Tales, man, that’s really cool.” It was so out-of-the-blue that for a few seconds I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. I hadn’t told anyone about the acceptance, after all. (Adding an extra layer to my confusion is the fact that I write under a pen name.) Yet somehow he had seen my story–it was about a vampire masquerading as a tattoo artist, who uses a special tattoo gun to collect blood from his clients–and he’d kind of put two and two together and realized that the writer who worked behind the counter at his favorite coffee shop had published a story overseas; and we had a moment, him and me, a moment of understanding between readers. And the moment conveyed: I got you, man.

Few weeks later, I banned him from the Beehive. I had to. He was running around the back room, goosed on acid, hitting girls in the legs with his cane.

*  *  *

One day I went out to the garage to retrieve my blue butterfly net and it wasn’t there. It was the first day of summer vacation, and I wanted to get a head start on all the glorious insects that had descended on our humid enclave of Philly. I asked my parents where my butterfly net was, and my mom handed me a brand new basketball, and my Dad said coldly: “You’re too old to be running around chasing butterflies like a fairy.”

And the thing is … he was right! I was too old to be prancing around in some meadow, swinging my faggy blue net around. He didn’t have to be such a giant dick about it, but even then, I knew what he meant. It was developmentally inappropriate.

Many years later I came home from San Francisco to announce my intention to write fiction for a living, and it was as if I was coming out of the closet to them. I am lucky my dad didn’t throw me out of a window. I think my mother cried. “You were always so happy running after bugs in the yard, with your little net,” she said into her tea. “You could have been an entomologist.”