Friday, June 1, 2012

Focus on the Language, not the Content is Most Important for Teaching Students How to Read

Believe it or not, there was a time, some fifty years ago, when short stories were read carefully, and even respected, by teachers and students.  But because this was during that period of pedagogy known as the New Criticism or Formalism, the focus was on the explication of individual stories. Such an approach has been much reviled in recent years by critics who seem bound and determined to move farther and farther away from the story itself and more and more into studies of culture, politics, psychology, sociology, race, gender, ideology, etc.

I was reminded of this recently when one of my readers, Jim Friel, asked if I would make a few remarks on Katherine Anne Porter.  Jim said he had read William H. Gass’s review/essay on Porter in his new book (Life Sentences), which originally appeared in Harper’s January, 2009, but found it mainly a discussion of Porter’s biography.

I like it when readers ask my opinion about a certain writer; it’s the old professor in me, I reckon. It forces me to keep alert and to keep alive writers I have read in the past; it also compels me to revisit and reevaluate issues about the short story that have occupied my mind for many years. So I pulled out my copy of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965)—a significant book in the history of the short story, for it won both the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the National Book Award that year--one of the very few short story collections to win such prestigious prizes.

I also dug out my old manila folder on Katherine Anne Porter, which contains photocopies of some of the best Porter criticism, primarily from the 1960s, as well as notes on the Porter stories I have taught, which include: “Flowering Judas,” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “He,” “Noon Wine,” “Theft,” and “The Grave.” Here are a few of those, inevitably formalist, critical essays on Porter that influenced my teaching of her stories back in the day:

Brooks, Cleanth.  "On `The Grave'." Katherine Anne Porter. Ed. Lodwick Hartley and George Core. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969. 115-19.  Brooks says the story is about the paradoxical nature of truth, which wears a double face.  The secret of birth is revealed in the place of death, and there is both beauty and horror in the discovery.

Sister M. Joselyn. "`The Grave' as Lyrical Short Story."  Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1964):  216-21.  A discussion of the story's use of the devices of lyric poetry.

Warren, Robert, Warren. "Irony With a Center:  Katherine Anne Porter." Selected Essays.  New York: Random House, 1951: 136-56.  Warren says Porter's fiction is characterized by "rich surface detail scattered with apparently casual profuseness and the close structure which makes such detail meaningful."

Welty, Eudora, "The Eye of the Story," Yale Review. 55 (Winter 1966):  265-74.  Claims that Porter's use of the physical world is enough to meet her needs and no more.  Welty says that what Porter makes us see are those "subjective worlds of hallucination, obsession, fever, guilt."

However, a brief survey of Porter criticism in the past dozen years—of which there is precious little—reveals the influence of the social/cultural trend that has dominated literary criticism and is, in my opinion, larely responsible for driving students away from literature. For example, there is an essay on racial and cultural difference in “Noon Wine,” an essay on racial issues in the seven interrelated stories under the title “The Old Order,” a discussion of cultural and gender issues in the Miranda stories, etc. etc

Of course, the problem I have with cultural/gender/ideological critics is that they seem less interested in the work itself than they are in how the work illustrates their own particular academic niche. I realize that literature professors have to publish to get tenure and get promoted—hell, I did it in my career.  I also realize that literature profs have to follow the lead of big name critics who suddenly discover or create a new approach. The academic study of literature always changes, if for no other reason than to give new assistant professors something new to write about in order to climb up the academic ladder.  But my experience in the last few years of my teaching career suggested to me that most of my younger colleagues were not really teaching their students how to read, nor were they teaching them about the unique characteristics of literature.  It made me glad to retire.  Probably made my colleagues and students happy also.

William H. Gass, whose approach to the study of literature I have always admired, spends much of his review-essay in Life Sentences on the relationship between Porter’s life and her stories, for he takes as his subject two biographies of Porter, as well as the new Library of America edition of her Collected Stories and Other Writings that came out in 2009.  Gass reminds us that F. O. Mattheissen observed back in 1945 that Porter had a “high reputation among all schools of critics” and was regarded as a “writer’s writer,” which usually suggests a “consummate craftsmanship” that other writers would be pleased to emulate. However, it is not a title that would make her appealing to the new social/cultural critics.

Gass notes that when reviewers take the time to compliment a writer on her style, they usually mean she has made it easy for them to immerse themselves into the account so that they “lose all touch with mere words” and feel as if they were present at the event described.  Gass contends that rather than praise authors for their ability to let us “see” the action, better, we should praise them for their ability to let us “read.”

I, of course, agree; I have no admiration for the hurry-scurry novelist who uses words to activate a little television screen inside our head so that we leap over the words to the so-called “content.”  I much prefer the short story writer who compels us to attend to the language of the story, which is solely responsible for “making” the reading experience.

In a bit of serendipity, when I was reading the Gass essay this week, I heard a report on National Public Radio about a recent psychological study on reading stories to children. Education researchers examined what reading behaviors helped children learn to read.  It turns out that although reading to a child helped build children’s vocabulary, it did not help them learn to read. So the researchers did some eye-tracking studies to determine what the children were looking at when someone read to them. They found that when you simply read a book to kids, they tend to ignore the print on the page. More than 90 percent of the time the children are focusing on the pictures, or they are looking up at the parent doing the reading.

Children learn to read incrementally, becoming familiar with letters, then words, reading from left to right, etc. But if a child's attention isn't drawn to the printed word, then reading to children won't necessarily make them more familiar with what it means to read. The researchers gave two groups of preschool teachers books for an entire school year — 30 weeks' worth of books. One group was told to read the books to the children normally; the other was given weekly cards with specific questions the teacher could ask — really just small phrases — that might momentarily draw a child's attention to the print on the page.

The teachers were told to read their books four times a week, and to point out the print between four and eight times, so that together the small phrases hardly added extra time to their reading sessions — maybe 90 seconds per book. They followed the kids for two years and concluded:  "Children who focused their attention on print ... had better literacy outcomes than those who did not.”  

I know the implications of this study for the teaching of reading are more complex than this brief summary might indicate, but the results of the study verify my own experience trying to teach university students how to read short stories.

One of the problems about the focus in the past few years on ideology, culture, gender, race, etc. when reading narrative is that the students do not learn how to read because they do not attend to the language of the story.

Good formalist that he is, Gass argues against the current common notion that “style” is merely a wrapping for what is really important—content.  Style, Gass protests, is the result of ‘exactness of choice” and then gives us this classic statement on the importance of style and form:

“Whether unconsciously or by intent, the writer chooses subjects, adopts a tone, considers an order for the release of meaning, arrives at the rhythm, selects a series of appropriate sounds, determines the diction and measures the pace, turns the referents of certain words into symbols, establishes connections with companionable paragraphs, sizes up each sentence’s intended significance, and , if granted good fortune, because each decision might have been otherwise, achieves not just this and that bit of luminosity or suggestiveness but her own unique lines of language, lines that produce the desired restitution of the self.”

As I have argued over and over here and any place I can find someone to listen, this kind of close attention to language is more often apt to occur in the short story than in the novel, which is one reason why readers trained to see content rather than attend to language would rather read novels than short stories and why young professors of literature nowadays are, in my opinion, failing in their primary task--teaching students how to read literature.  Gass ends his essay/review by reminding us that although writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter “obliged us by writing novels,” it is for their short stories that they are best remembered, in which more emphasis on style is expected. 

With this bit of polemic as background, I will return to Katherine Anne Porter next week and make some comments about what characterizes her as a writer of short stories and therefore—sad to say-- makes her of little interest to current academic critics/professors and their students, who while they crow that they know a helluva lot about culture, race, gender, politics, and ideology, their analyses suggest they know little about literature.


Anonymous said...

Hello - I've been reading your blog for some time now, and am finally following through on a familiar urge to comment and to thank you for your insights. (Alas, I didn't discover your blog until AFTER teaching your New Short Story Theories book for two semesters in an International Short Fiction course I developed. In fact, a student found your blog and told me about it!)

I'm writing now because A) it's summer and I have a bit of time, and B) this is topic I'm pretty passionate about. I'm a college professor and fiction writer, and I have an article forthcoming in an edited collection, New Formalisms and Literary Theory (Palgrave Macmillan), in which I argue that the renewed interest in Formalism and the rise of New Formalism corresponds directly to the meteoric rise of creative writing in English departments.

My title, "Reading Like a Writer: A Creative Writer's Approach to New Formalism," borrows from Francine Prose's book, Reading Like a Writer. I argue that creative writers always read and think and teach in formal terms - both structural and aesthetic. And the growing numbers of creative writing students and faculty members forces literary scholars to take note.

I also argue that novels and stories can conduct literary analysis (usually through intertextual explorations) and that scholarly articles might benefit from a bit of formal experimentation.

Anyway, that's the abridged version. I just wish I'd had your Gass quote to include in the article! Thanks for the great post.


Anonymous said...

Charles, I've been reading your blog since last year and I am moved to comment for the first time today, because your issue with "literary" criticism is why I did not pursue a phd in English. I love to read and I love to analyse literature by looking at style, word choice, metaphor, details, sentence structure, story structure, etc., but found that if I wanted to get a graduate degree in English in the late 1990's, my way of reading a story was simply not enough. I did well enough in college, but in writing my honors thesis, great emphasis was put on using literary theory (e.g., structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, marxism, new historic, etc.). You accurately captured my experience in your blog post today, and I wanted to thank you for saying out loud and so publicly what the problem is with some university English departments today.

Sandra said...

What a wonderful quote from Gass on style. I have posted it on my desk. Looking forward to your comments on Katherine Anne Porter stories. Thanks again for another great post. -Sandra