Adam Ash

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bookplanet: the lit anthology biz

From Radical Middle Newsletter: The politics of Literature 101: Did father know best?
'00s hip needs '50s depth
By Mark Satin

In the early 1960s -- culturally and politically, the tail end of the 1950s -- my father edited one of those massive multi-volume anthologies for first-year college literature courses (Reading Literature, Houghton Mifflin, 1964). I wasn’t particularly impressed by his efforts at the time, in my 15- and 16-year-old wisdom. I kept bugging him to include more women along with some of the contemporary writers I found hip and disturbing of the status quo, such as “Jimmy” Baldwin and “Killer Kurt” Vonnegut. But he took those comments just like he took most of my other uninvited comments in those lamb white days -- as not even worth responding to.

A couple of years ago, I needed a good instructional book to help me in my fiction writing. It never even occurred to me buy an old copy of my father’s book. All I could remember about it was it was full of boring, “irrelevant” short stories, including one spectacularly out-of-it story about dwarfs.

Instead, I happily paid top dollar for X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s massive multi-volume anthology for first-year lit courses, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (Longman, Third Compact Edition, 2003).

The Kennedy / Gioia anthology (hereafter “K&G,” not to be confused with “A&P”) is the most popular Lit 101 text in the United States today, and is well known as the epitome of hip -- it not only includes Jimmy and Killer Kurt but today’s versions of same in multiple genders and hues. I told myself I was buying it for a different reason: the stories in the “Fiction” volume are arranged not chronologically or by types of fiction, but by topics of concern to actual fiction writers (point of view, character, setting, etc.), and each topic gets its own introduction.

The introductions helped me, but with some exceptions the stories themselves did not move me, I did not know why. I supposed it was age, or impatience, or a greater passion for nonfiction -- few of the stories seemed to be saying anything that sociologists like Andrew Hacker or psychologists like Melody Beattie or journalists like the ones in Harper’s Magazine aren’t also saying, and saying more directly and with real evidence.

Last month I was browsing in a used bookstore and came upon the “Fiction” volume of my father’s old anthology. I immediately recoiled at the sight of the inimitable lime-green cover, and I didn’t want to look inside.

But they were only charging 50 cents for it. I bought it, though not before trying to get the price knocked down to 25 cents (my monthly allowance during my senior year in high school).

Maybe I could compare it to the K&G anthology and say something useful about how the politics of Lit 101 has changed over the last 40 years.

And maybe I could see if that exercise taught me anything I didn’t already know about my crabby old dad, now in his 84th year.

After getting the book home, I read it from cover to cover over three days and nights. I couldn’t put it down.

The hip v. the not-so-hip

I had resolved to do an objective comparison. And at first, none of the comparisons went my daddy’s way, not, at least, on the surface of things.

K&G are famous poets who’ve taught at fabulously with-it places like Michigan and Wellesley, Johns Hopkins and Sarah Lawrence. My father taught at unbelievably out-of-it places, West Virginia University, Moorhead State College (just across the river from Fargo, North Dakota), and when he edited his anthology he was at Midwestern State University, so called because it’s in the midwestern part of Texas. I couldn’t believe he had them put Midwestern right under his name on the title page.

K&G’s anthology is aimed at all college markets, and in a special Instructor’s Preface they make sure you know it’s been adopted at highly selective schools like Barnard College and UCLA. It would be unkind to say my father’s anthology was targeted at the mid-to-bottom portion of the academic market. So I won’t.

K&G’s anthology helped Gioia become head of the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts. My father’s anthology helped him become an administrator at Fresno State University, in California, whose rep at the time was that it provided the handymen and maids for graduates of USC and UCLA. My father had gotten it into his steely, arrogant head that he wanted to change that.

There is a lot of razzmatazz in the K&G anthology that my father would not have wanted to replicate, even if it would have been within the budget or technical capacity of Houghton Mifflin c. 1963.

For example, in the K&G anthology every author gets a picture preceding their short story -- usually one making them look “literary,” debonair -- along with a lengthy and affectionate biography. Even K&G get pictures and bios. At the very front of the book.

My father provides no bios of his authors or himself, let alone any pictures. He doesn’t even tell you what countries his authors come from or when their stories were published. His brief introductions to each story deal with other things -- the techniques used by the writer, the work the story does.

It’s as if he’s saying that what’s most important (most compelling, even) is Literature, not the writer’s physical or ethnic appearance or the hold the writer’s personal bio might have on the reader’s imagination. Can you imagine an approach less suited to our image-saturated and personality-driven age?

The bean-counters v. the purist

As soon as I began reading my father’s anthology, I noticed something I’d completely forgotten: His stories, just like K&G’s, were grouped under fiction writers’ concerns. In fact, my father’s anthology covered every single one of K&G’s concerns (plot, point of view, character, setting, tone, style, irony, theme, symbol) and included two more -- allegory and satire.

And my father’s discussions of those concerns were just as acute as K&G’s. Sometimes more so.

The vast majority of the stories grouped under those concerns were by white males, though -- just as I’d remembered.

Because I wanted to be minimally fair to my father (and to his generation of Lit 101 anthology producers), I drew up a list of all the short stories in the Fiction volume of his anthology. There were 29 stories and they occupied 330 pages. Then I drew up a list of all the stories in the front or “teaching” part of the Fiction volume of the K&G anthology. Conveniently for this article, it had the same number of stories (29), and they occupied virtually the same number of pages (324).

The first thing I discovered when I laid the stories side by side was that nine of K&G’s stories are by women. Only five of my father’s stories were by women. (It is also true that four of K&G’s women are not exactly heavyweights. But let’s not belabor that here.)

The second thing I discovered was that five of K&G’s stories are by authors from outside North America and Europe. None of my father’s were. (But of K&G’s five non-Westerners, two were born over 1,500 years ago, one was in fact born in the U.S. to Chinese parents, one decided to remain here while on a student visa, and one has been a cosmopolitan all his life, teaching and working in places as varied as Switzerland, India, Cambridge MA, and Cambridge England -- “but he always,” K&G hasten to reassure us, “returned to Mexico City.”)

A third thing I discovered surprised me. Six of K&G’s stories were written by non-U.S. authors (eight if you care to count mid-life immigrants). But 15 of my father’s stories -- more than half -- were written by non-U.S. authors. All of them from Europe, but from countries as diverse as Portugal and Ireland, Germany and Russia.

Still, there’s no way around it. You’ve got to admire K&G for the greater ethnic, racial, and gender balance they achieved in their selections. Surely it is admirable -- surely it teaches what we in the 21st century wish to teach most -- when any keen-eyed student, looking at K&G’s 29 stories, might be tempted to mock Professor Kennedy’s and Professor Gioia’s thinking as they made their final selections:

“Let’s see now, harrumph . . . one black male (Baldwin), one black female (Alice Walker) . . . one Asian male (Ha Jin), one Asian female (Amy Tan), first generation, close enough . . . one Jew (Isaac Bashevis Singer) and no more Jews fer Chrissake, gotta be fair now . . . wait, wasn’t Shirley Jackson a Jew? . . . nah, she only married a Jew, guy named Hyman, one of those dumpy little New York intellectual Jews with the horn-rim glasses, but she swore she was a Witch and all her friends believed her, so she gets into our anthology . . . you looked it up? . . . of course I looked it up, this stuff is important . . . one ancient Greek (Aesop), one ancient Chinese (Chung-tzu) . . . one Hispanic (Octavio Paz), or maybe we should try for two, Dana, especially if you want that government appointment. . . .”

Whatever you might care to say about K&G’s methodology, though, you’ve got to admit it “worked,” in the sense that it produced a more diverse gathering of 29 stories than my father’s.

But did it really?

When you total up the number of stories by women, minorities, and non-U.S. citizens in each anthology, the number is exactly the same -- 18 out of 29.

K&G has more racial and gender diversity; my father had more national diversity.

And there’s another difference that merits mention here.

I’m no professional literary critic. But I know enough to know that at least 12 of those 18 stories from my father’s anthology are unusually complex and rich and deep -- those by Dostoevsky, Huxley, Joyce, Kafka, Lagerkvist, Lawrence, Mann, Mansfield, Maupassant, Porter, Spark, and Wharton.

And I know enough to know that only four of those 18 stories from the K&G anthology can compare in richness and depth -- those by O’Connor (two), Paz, and Porter.

K&G have traded the joys of reading Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoevsky for the joys of reading Ursula LeGuin and Alice Walker. So have many other contemporary Lit 101 anthologies.

From Barnard College to Bakersfield State, most 18-year-olds are undoubtedly overjoyed that their Lit 101 courses are cool, man.

But what happens to a republic when the souls of its educated citizens shrink from decade to decade?

Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or does it fester like a sore and then run?

We’ll find out.

The impresarios v. the critic

Numbers aren’t the half of it. The differences between K&G’s anthology and my father’s anthology go way beyond numbers.

According to K&G, there are basically only two categories of literature: excellent and not excellent. Both categories are immense and there’s not much point in trying to distinguish among degrees of excellence, particularly since your gender and ethnic background will probably play a large part in determining what you'll read. The point is to be able to recognize what’s excellent and then enjoy it.

To my father, bless him, the vast majority of literature is not worth reading, and there are hierarchies of excellence even among the good stuff, which you'll need to be able to figure out. Otherwise, how will you ever be able to target those stories that are worth devoting quality time to?

So his anthology gives pointers on this throughout, and sometimes he just tells you what’s what: “In general . . . the finest stories are those in which these various elements [e.g., the unfolding of plot, the revelation of character, the embodiment in the narrative of a truth about life] achieve balance.”

Many, perhaps most, of the stories in the K&G anthology are interesting mainly for their quasi-sociological insights into our ethnic, gender, and racial dilemmas. Virtually all of the stories in my father’s anthology are interesting mainly for what he’d call (I blush as I write this) their Large Truths about Life.

This difference is reflected in the four to 10 questions the editors pose after each story (some things haven’t changed in Lit 101 texts over the last 40 years!). In K&G, the questions often relate to the facts of the stories -- “With what specific crime is Mr. Chiu charged?”; “What is Mr. Chiu’s initial reaction to his arrest?”

By contrast, in my father’s anthology, the questions relate much more frequently -- almost to the point of obsession -- to the deeper meaning of the stories: “What symbolism do you discern in the caterpillar’s journey (second paragraph)?”; “How do these symbols form an allegory of their own?”

Many of the stories in the K&G anthology deal quite directly with issues of racism, sexism, classism, poverty, and injustice. The stories in my father’s anthology generally deal less directly with such topics.

But there’s no more penetrating study of class differences -- in either anthology -- than Katherine Mansfield’s story “The Garden Party,” in my father’s anthology.

And there’s no more penetrating study of personal and social responsibility than Thomas Mann’s “Mario and the Magician,” in that same anthology.

The power these stories achieve comes partly from the fact that their perspective is less combative, more holistic, more integral.

The cheerleaders v. the pearl fisher

Not surprisingly, the anthologies offer students radically different reasons for studying literature.

According to K&G, it’s great a way to satisfy our sociological curiosity: “What is it like to be black, a white may wonder? James Baldwin . . . and others have knowledge to impart. What is it like to be a woman?”

More generally, literature teaches “a knowledge of humanity.”

Literature can also provide satisfying entertainment: “Not that a great novel does not provide entertainment. In fact, it may offer more deeply satisfying entertainment than a novel of violence and soft-core pornography.”

Above all, though (in terms of the amount of space they devote to it), the K&G anthology emphasizes that literature can be useful to our careers. For example, a way with words can help us find jobs -- and better jobs. “Times change, but to think cogently and to express yourself well will always be abilities the world needs.”

My father would not deny this, of course, but it had nothing to do with why he edited his anthology or why he passionately recommended it to his readers, often students who had to work their way through school or whose job prospects were not gleaming bright. Here is what he told them:

"The plain truth is that literature may never make you richer in the pocket, but it will certainly make you richer in the mind. For it multiplies the necessarily limited experience of the individual life, and it deepens understanding of others and of self. It is a source of interest and pleasure when other sources fail. And it creates a store of wisdom which can become a reservoir of strength."

How strange these words sound today. Literature as consolation? Whom are you kidding? Literature is about constructing, reinforcing, or deconstructing identities, not about helping sensitive people cope with a heartbreakingly insensitive world.

And as K&G also know, everyone is wise in their own way. It is undemocratic and elitist to suggest that reading literature can make some of us wiser than others, though it can of course give us facts and perspectives to draw upon.

Later in his anthology, my father compounded his heresies:

“Fiction of stature reflects many facets and many layers of truth, the deepest of which can sometimes be discerned only after re-reading, thought, and careful study. Such truth becomes part of your own permanent knowledge of life and human nature, your share of that great heritage which literature can bequeath to your time and generation.”

For K&G, literature is a kind of glorified sociology or social psychology, providing useful insights that can help us all get along -- and get ahead. And it’s entertaining too.

For my father, literature is all that, but it is more. “Great” literature, as he would insist on putting it, is our most precious heritage as human beings, even though it’s off-limits to most people, including privileged people who don’t give to a text what a text requires. Great literature is almost unbearably rich and complex; dangerous and strange; deep.

Father and son

As you can tell from this article, my father and I did not communicate well, not an unusual situation among fathers and sons in the Sixties. We still don’t.

In all my years growing up, this multiple-award-winning English teacher never once sat down with me to discuss a book I was reading or he was reading. Hence my lack of interest in his anthologies.

So I was taken aback when -- after devouring his fiction anthology last month, at the age of 58 -- I realized that at least two stories had been meant for me.

In Per Lagerkvist’s “Father and I,” a terrifying train, symbolizing everything manic & discontinuous about the late 20th century, suddenly appears on the tracks from out of nowhere.

The father realizes he can’t possibly prepare his young boy to cope with what that train portends. The boy senses his father’s limited capacity to protect and to nurture. Both father and son understand that they’ll soon grow apart.

And then there was that dwarf story, the one that convinced me (at age 16) that my father’s anthology was haplessly out-of-it.

I hadn’t remembered anything about it really. I hadn’t remembered it had been written by Aldous Huxley, about whom I’d learned a good deal over the last 40 years.

I hadn’t remembered that “Sir Hercules,” the chief dwarf (after whom the story is named), was lord of a manor in 18th century England.

Although he was only 3’4”, he was sensitive, and brilliant, and strong. Once he inherited the manor from his ordinary-sized parents, he set about constructing a miniature world-within-a-world there, a world focused on art and beauty, a total contrast to the horrible real world that the ordinary-sized people of England (whom Huxley calls “lubber-heroes” and “men of war”) had manifested for themselves.

Sir Hercules searched Europe until he found an equally sensitive, equally smart, and equally small bride. They populated the manor with other sweet dwarfs and lived happily for a time writing things and hunting small game and keeping the “lubber-world” at bay. It didn’t last.

With this story, I believe my father was showing me his life as in a dream. My father’s separate and miniature “manor” was, of course, the obscure, out-of-the-way campuses where he always chose to teach.

I believe the story was also meant to be his prophecy for me. And it came true. My separate and miniature manor was the New Left and New Age, into which I poured my heart and soul for over three decades.

It is sad that it took me 58 years to “get” that at some visceral level I have so very much in common with my father. While Lagerkvist may have been right that my father and I would fail to connect on the usual frequencies, Huxley’s fable shows that we shared -- and share -- a deeper bond, special and wonderful in its own way.

And it is beyond sad -- it is a national tragedy -- that most Lit 101 students will not have access to these realms; these consolations of literature.

After immersing themselves in the K&G anthology or similar anthologies for a year, chances are good that you won’t find them as adults reading Aldous Huxley in their spare time, or Per Lagerkvist, or Katherine Mansfield, or Thomas Mann. Or even Alice Walker.

Chances are good you will find them at the movies.


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