Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Questioning the Paradigm

Poets & Writers recently published an article by Steve Almond on what he calls a "sense of entitlement" among the students he teaches in a university writing program. He takes his students to task for challenging his assertion that the "Best American Short Stories" (BASS) anthology represents the pinnacle of American letters. 

Here is my response:

I wish Almond had taken the time to ask his students why they felt as they did rather than assuming the students were reacting out of the arrogant brashness of youth and the desire to reject their "betters." As a long-term reader of the BASS series (I started reading them faithfully in 1988 and, with few exceptions, pick up each year's publication), I have found myself growing less and less enamored with the stories included in the publication (and more willing to let there be gaps between years on my book shelf) because those stories seems drawn from a particular aesthetic that is not necessarily one that resonates for me. 

With a significant number of the stories coming from The New Yorker, and Alice Munro included almost by default (even one year with a "story" that she said was actually a work of non-fiction, more an autobiographical essay than a short story -- I do not quibble with Munro's supremacy as a short story writer of a certain aesthetic, I do take issue with the idea that this particular aesthetic is fully representative of the best that has been published in a given year), I admire Almond's students for questioning the "Best" label given to these stories and wish he'd taken the time to understand their response and perhaps push them to a greater engagement with their own aesthetic (which is one of the reasons why we, as writers, read great literature in the first place -- it is not to marvel at the technical brilliance of the writer and sing his or her praises, but to understand how the piece works, to hone and refine our own sense of what makes a successful story, to butt up against work that challenges us to a new understanding of what writing can accomplish, to understand our own aesthetic and where we fit within the great conversation of literary work, to find what resonates and what doesn't and understand why that is so). 

Almond's reaction reminds me very much of a similar interaction my Lit 101 class had with our professor in reaction to Odysseus in The Odyssey -- it was 1983 and my class rebelled against the idea of Odysseus as a great leader. He sacked cities unnecessarily, he cheated on his wife, he was so full of ego and the need for glory he sacrificed the lives of every single one of his men while he returned to Ithaka enriched even beyond the plunder of Troy by the Phaeacians, and then wiped out an additional generation of young men once he got there. After trying valiantly to lead the class into a discussion of Odysseus the great Greek hero, my professor gave up and moved us on to Aeneas, who, driven by duty and a sense of responsibility toward his people, was much more to our liking. 

Years later, after re-reading the Odyssey (it is now my all-time favorite book, one that I reread every couple of years and am always stunned by and can see now how Homer structured the tale to both exonerate Odysseus by making his men's destruction a result of their own actions, while leaving doubt because the only version we have of events is the one told by wily Odysseus and his silvered tongue -- a master stroke of story-telling on Homer's part), I realized what had happened. As 18 year-olds in 1983, we were the post-Vietnam generation. We had been too young to fully understand the war, but we grew up with its aftermath, with relatives who had fought and suffered or died at the inept hands of their leaders, whose lives had been put at risk on a daily basis by commanding officers with no field experience who only wanted their combat rotation in order to earn a promotion, and who lived with the lingering effects of those failed decisions in PTSD nightmares and disfigured bodies. Of course we would rebel against the label of "hero" for a character who had put his men's lives at risk for the sake of his own glory. 

I don't know if we would have been able to articulate this if our professor had taken the time to ask, but I do think, if he had taken the time to probe our response deeper, rather than getting frustrated with our lack of respect for one of the great canonical works, it might have served the discussion of how to respond to literature better. We might have arrived at an understanding about the way in which our response to literature is always relative to our experiences and therefore fluid and mutable. Instead, he gave up and moved on, possibly blaming, as Almond does in this article, the arrogance of youth for not taking as gospel those works anointed by their elders and paying rote homage to the stories included in the BASS collections. 

As the mother of a college student, I know that this current generation is one that values diversity of experience, complexity and interconnection in history, and a respect for the narratives of people unlike themselves. They have grown up with a multi-cultural, multi-narrative view of the world and the people who live within it. They do not ascribe to or even believe in the dominance of a single narrative or aesthetic and have, under the best of experiences, been exposed to literature that encompasses work from Africa and Asia as well as Europe and America – an aesthetic that is rarely given space within the pages of BASS (though it shows up more frequently in the Pushcart Prize anthologies, diversity in literature and the need for a more encompassing publishing aesthetic is a hotly debated topic at the moment). Had Almond taken the time to question and push them into a deeper awareness of their response, he might have gained an insight into their aesthetic and creative impulses and given them the opportunity to learn more about themselves as humans and writers. Instead, he takes the role of aggrieved elder, railing against the arrogance of youth, and wonders why they have no respect for those who are “better” than themselves.