Thursday, June 30, 2011

Let everyone speak

When I look for something to read for pleasure, my first requirement is that it be clearly written, whether it's about renewable energy in Scandinavia, medieval history or fiction. Having said that, I have my preferences; or, rather, there are areas of the book store I don't usually haunt. I'm not likely to check out the science fiction, horror or fantasy sections- what some people might now call "speculative fiction". I'm also not into erotica or young adult.

Those genres just aren't my thing, and that's fine. I wrote about that last week; we all have different tastes, and they're all valid. But what about... quality?

Quality is an issue that's been coming up more and more in conversations about publishing. Some of it is because of the huge crop of independently published authors, many of whom can't afford to hire an editor, and some of it is because some publishing houses aren't applying the same rigor to proofreading that they once did. (There is some discussion about whether or not this is happening on the scale people are complaining about. I can't speak to the entire industry, but I can say that I've noticed more grammar and punctuation errors in the past five years than I used to.) And some of it is about the stories themselves; the tone of one camp of the complaints is that publishing is too "trendy" or celebrity-driven, and because of weaker sales they don't want to take risks. Others are bemoaning that because it's so easy to e-publish, people are putting up all kinds of garbage that wouldn't have passed muster with their friends and family, much less an agent or an editor. (Please note: I said easy to publish, not easy to sell.) To hear some people talk, we may be looking at the end of a culture that values meaningful literature.

I may have strong feelings about meaning and quality as it relates to what I read or view, but I'm reluctant to force those on anyone. As long as we're not talking about snuff films or child pornography, I'm probably going to let it go. I may not feel that everyone is creating something worth reading or viewing, but I've learned through experience that value is subjective, especially when we're talking about art. I have a responsibility to highlight issues or stories I think are important, but I have to persuade you to agree through my writing, not simply through my insistence.

I don't read a lot of YA, but I'm still dismayed by the criticism Meghan Cox Gurdon offers up in the Wall Street Journal of the genre. It is not just that she flirts with the idea of censorship- and I don't mean by the parents; it's also that she questions the value of these books for children. I haven't read the contemporary books she describes, but I have read things others have found equally objectionable: Dracula, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and, oh yes, Machiavelli's The Prince. As I said, they're not the kinds of things I seek out, but what could I do? They were assigned reading in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades, and two of them were for my political science class.

You know what else I've read a lot of? Mythology. Having read Gurdon's descriptions, I can't think of how any of them are any worse than the story of Apollo flaying a satyr named Marsyas alive after he loses a music contest (and you felt bad for the American Idol losers!), a young nymph named Scylla being turned into a monster by a jealous goddess, a young nymph named Medusa being turned into a monster by an outraged goddess after she was seduced by a god, a boy named Pelops being cannibalized by his father as a sacrifice to the gods, a man named Odysseus who not only kills the suitors who have been harassing his wife but then kills the maids who helped them- after he makes them clean up the mess from the other slaughter, and a little boy named Astyanax who is hurled over the walls of Troy by the victorious Greeks. Let's not forget the king who kidnapped and raped a young prince and then later left his young son Oedipus to die. Then there's my favorite- the story of a young girl named Persephone who is kidnapped and raped by her uncle. (That her uncle just happens to be the god of the underworld has always made the story translate to me as "girl was raped and murdered by her uncle", but what do I know?)

I read all of these things when I was ten years old and under. Should someone have slapped Bulfinch's Mythology and d'Aulaire's Greek Myths out of my hands?

Oh right- remember King Arthur? Whether he existed is debatable, as Sarah Woodbury pointed out, but in the popular version of the story he does two relatively despicable things: sleeps with his sister Morgause/Morgaine/Morgan Le Fey and then kills all of the newborn boys born in one year to make sure he catches the child born from that. (And then he doesn't.)

Again, the Arthur stories were assigned reading- this time for the sixth grade. Should my parents have demanded that my teachers and principals lose their jobs over that?

I shudder to think what my world would have looked like if the answer to either of those questions had been yes. This may come as a shock to some, but I was able to incorporate those details into the larger story, even at that young age. If they did nothing else, they showed that no character- mortal or immortal- was completely good or evil. Again, what do I know, but in my opinion that is a valuable lesson for a child to learn.

The Supreme Court recently overturned California's ban on violent video games. I think our children are, indeed, too hyped up on electronics, but I approve of the decision, especially after reading the majority and dissenting opinions written by Justices Scalia and Thomas, respectively. Read what Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress has to say. I think she's spot on. More to the point, I think Scalia hits the nail on the head. (Forgive my shock: I don't usually get to say that.)

I cannot help but think of the dime novels and pulp fictions of the 19th century that Scalia references. Having read some summaries, I don't think I would have liked them either. Most modern readers would probably feel that those books aren't exactly high literature and that they aren't any worse for not having read them.

Fair enough, but I can't think of too many people who don't feel that there is some value in their contemporaries and immediate successors: Hawthorne, Whitman and Stowe, to name just a few. Those luminaries did not write in a vacuum. Hawthorne wasn't the first 19th century author to play with the motif of the holy man breaking his vows with the beautiful congregant, but he may have been among the few to invest the relationship with a deeper spiritual meaning. Stowe was not the first writer to call for abolition, but she married it to a literary sensibility that appealed beyond her "target audience". And Whitman... yeah, you're not imagining the pornographic imagery that was surely influenced by some of the pornography he had access to, but that does not change or dilute his themes of transcendentalism and even patriotism.

Imagine if the censors of the 19th century had prevailed and those earlier works had never come to light. Then there very well might not have been a Hawthorne, a Whitman or a Stowe. Bulfinch's Mythology was published in the 1850s. What if those same people had successfully fought against its publication? Would the world have been a better place because we did not have to confront the violent imagery those stories use?

I believe strongly that the world would have been a poorer place without those authors' works, and I believe I would have been a lesser person for not having read them. Oh yeah- censorship of literature would not have rid us of the real-life horrors and inhumanity those works describe.

Every day, with everything we do, we are part of a larger conversation, even if we believe we sit in silence. We talk about values, we talk about definitions, we talk about the past and we talk about the future. Let everyone say their peace- and then let everyone respond. For it is in those words, in that response, that we can not only find but create value.