Why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page? [Part Two]

(Preface: I wrote this back in May & forgot to publish it. & actually forgot to finish it. Oops! Apologies if anyone was waiting with bated breath. I also sincerely hope that it’s not too disjointed.)

A little while back, I conducted a completely unscientific and not very well-controlled survey on Facebook regarding people’s favourite colours. Results were varied: purple seemed to be the forerunner, with 32 per cent of the vote; blue followed with 23 per cent; those from the red family had 14 percent; green, nine per cent. Various others, including soup (I told you, very uncontrolled study), ranked in at four-ish per cent each. So. Who was right? What is the best, most favourite colour?

Okay, if you see the ridiculousness of the above question, you get my point. There is no right answer. There is no best colour. Just like there is no best book. It is absolutely and utterly subjective.

When people get up on their high horse and start telling others what they should be reading, it’s about as ridiculous as if they were to argue with you that green is really the only colour that matters (or orange, or pink, or teal). And yet, we’re all guilty of doing this. Or are we?

This story caught my interest: at a New Hampshire high school, students have been reading Jodi Picoult’s ‘controversial’ novel Nineteen Minutes. One girl’s father, feeling this material is inappropriate for his daughter’s age group, has protested to the point that he was arrested and forcibly removed from a school board meeting.

Instantly, people figuratively rallied around Picoult: copies of the book were checked out of libraries, flew off book shelves; teachers around the country Tweeted that they were going to include this book in their curriculum. A lot of words were bandied about citing the brilliance of this book.

I’ve read one Picoult novel. It was this one in question. I think I read it back around the time it hit mass-market paperback, around the time when it felt like everyone was telling me “You have to read Jodi Picoult. You’ll love her.”

Since I never, ever learn that when people tell me that I’ll love something, I actually hate it, I read this book. Loathed it. The writing was fine. I would describe it as TV-movie writing. You know, where you can see the TV-movie playing out in your head? Sometimes, I get so bored by these books that I cast the movie in my head.

The story is set in high school. There’s bullies, there’s kids who are picked on. There’s the adults who have no clue as to what’s going on in their kids’ secret lives. And then there’s “an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling’s residents”.

For me, everything was so stock, so clichéd, so done before, that I was in agony trying to get through it (this was years ago, when I thought giving up on a book was akin to forgetting your child in the bank). When someone asked to borrow it, I gave it to her. Please, don’t give it back.

This is my opinion.

Maybe red is the best colour?

When I saw that this was in the curriculum for a high school classroom, I was torn. On one hand, it’s valid for a teacher to want to use literature to open the lines of communication regarding bullying, peer pressure, and school violence. On the other, isn’t there a piece of literature better suited for this?

There we go. Literary snobbery at its best. But I will explain my thought process.

There’s a certain type of fiction that has no trouble selling. Highly accessible, TV-movie novels, usually optioned for a major motion picture. For some reason (possibly because they’re easy), these books are a staple of pleasure readers. Beach reads, by-the-fire reads, call them what you want, but these are the books that most high school kids will come across in the home, and seemingly, if these kids are going to read, this seems like a likely genre for them to stumble across.

Not helping my case am I? Well, let me say this: there is nothing wrong with wanting to read these books. There is nothing wrong with wanting to read highly accessible writing. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with liking the colour orange.

But what I do take issue with is the fact that it is included in a high school curriculum. If this truly is the best book to deal with school violence, bullying, fitting in, and these are topics that the teacher wants to address, great. But is this really, truly, ultimately the best book there is for this purpose?

The teachers one has in high school help to shape reading choices for their students, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The teachers one has in high school have the potential to introduce you to literature you may not otherwise come across. The teachers one has in high school help determine whether one furthers their education in literature, or stop when the province deems this education complete (in my day, not until the end of high school).

So. With that power, with that freedom, wouldn’t you want to find some treasure instead of this tripe?

But then, we come back to my brother’s question. Why am I not swooning over Picoult? Is she not literary windbag enough for my inner pretentious Lit major? Why am I casting about for another book to deal with teen bullying (Cormier’s The Chocolate War), teen violence (Hinton’s The Outsiders), peer pressure (again, Cormier’s The Chocolate War, or really, any book with people in it)?

I’m basically not convinced that Picoult’s is the best book. But possibly it is. Maybe yellow is the best colour?

A lot of the literature we’re exposed to in high school is at the whim of the teacher. I cited in my last post that my brother hated The Catcher in the Rye. I loved the book. I don’t know how my brother’s experience with the book went, but for the most part, English teachers left me alone in class — they knew I’d read the book and do the work. Class sizes were far too large to worry about someone like me.

As an adult, I wish we’d read more Salinger. Specifically, I wish we’d skipped Catcher and maybe read Franny & Zooey instead. Or both. I only recently read this book. It’s filled with all of Salinger’s dry wit and wonderful writing. Franny has a Holden Caulfield-esque breakdown. But here’s the rub, here’s what would convince my brother of Salinger, redeem him as a writer: Zooey tells her to get a grip.

Now, Catcher had a huge influence on my life when I was 16. I mean, let’s face it, as a teenaged girl, anything that reinforced my inner angst was my absolute favourite. Lie on my bed, listen to Nirvana and read Catcher repeatedly? Sign. Me. Up.

But I, as an adult, imagine if we had read F&Z instead. If I’d fallen into angsty empathy with Franny, only to have my face metaphorically slapped by Zooey? How much different would those uneasy teen years have been?

And with this question, I’m taken to Nick Hornby’s version of the chicken and the egg question: “Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” Because books, like music, change you, influence you. But books, like music, are sought out to fulfill a particular feeling that an individual may be trying to work out at a moment in time for themselves.

And perhaps that is actually the answer to my brother’s question. Perhaps it is less about who has written the book. Perhaps it is more about what the book accomplishes in terms of helping clarify certain intangibles that we all deal with in our lives. Perhaps the more believably a ‘windbag’ can ‘puke on a page’, the more ‘literary genius’ it demonstrates. Perhaps it’s just about a feeling that a reader can have at a certain point in time with a certain book.

Perhaps blue is the best colour.

Books This Post:

  • Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult.
  • The Catcher in the RyeFranny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger.
  • The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier.
  • The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton.
  • High Fidelity, Nick Hornby.

One thought on “Why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page? [Part Two]

  1. It’s true that personal taste is subjective. But for example, auxesis, consonance, point-of-view schema and story transmission are four of the many tools you can use to define good and bad writing. If some piece of writing truly does suck, there are ways to quantify that.

    Same goes for literature, though. “Tolstoy wrote it” isn’t a good enough reason to say “you gotta read Anna Karenina.”

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