Modernists Vs. Zombies, the Rematch

“J’accuse!” shouted our daughter last night. No, not really, but she did hold us sternly to account for misleading her. Our dinner table conversations had given her the impression that science fiction and fantasy were high-prestige literary modes. Now, in her junior year AP course, the most seriously literary English class of her life, she has learned this is not, in fact, true. Poor child, raised by evil spiders in a sticky web of lies.

It’s that pre-Halloween grading-like-a-demon season—what northern hemisphere English professor has time to blog, excepting my insanely prolific spouse, who dragged me to Carrie for a Saturday night study break? Still, I feel provoked enough by an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed to jot a few words of protest over my leftover sweet potatoes. The author, Adam Brooke Davis, seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative writing students. The comment section, while full of fascinating and very smart responses, also brims with the usual ad hominem attacks (“this is so stupid!” “no, YOU’RE stupid!”), and he doesn’t deserve them. Still, as a serious poet and a serious speculative fiction reader, I find “No More Zombies!” seriously depressing. Since the article is paywalled, here’s the opening: “I banned alt-worlding from my advanced creative-writing workshop. Told my students that their fiction had to take place in real environments with real people, facing problems that are actually likely to confront us (as opposed to stories involving international spy rings, penal colonies on Proxima Centauri, or aliens).” He goes on to describe the sf premises of a series of student stories, some of which sound hokey and some kind of interesting. He then laments their reading practices:

“On their own, students were reading The Hunger Games, Twilight, and World War Z, and most of their experience of narrative came from time-constrained, market-determined, sponsor-vetted, focus-group-tested, and committee-created television and movies. I tried to provide some other models, including contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver.”

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this list strongly implies he knows full well that the best contemporary literary fiction is full of ghosts, mutants, dystopian futures, and gothic horror. (Come to think of it, what is my daughter reading for that English class? Morrison’s revenant tale of undead American history, Beloved.) Strong writing can address any kind of story in any milieu; it just requires skill and understanding of the precedents, qualities a good workshop can cultivate in any student who is willing to work hard and read widely.

The sentence that drives a stake through my heart, though, is Davis’ assertion that “I gamely acknowledged the potential for allegorical treatment but tried steering the class toward the real world—what people want, what obstacles they face, that sort of thing.” What a reductive way of reading, and what a narrow way of understanding what’s real! I’m right now preparing to teach a wonderful essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,” in which she argues, “true fantasy is not allegory.” I’m not sure what Davis is getting at near the end of his piece when he alludes to the “purposes” of writing, but as Le Guin insists, books are not tracts. “Relevance,” one of those values realism is supposed to achieve, doesn’t equate to literary power, but even using that benchmark, I can testify that alt-world tales, when they’re very good, can be at least as relevant to our lives as realism. I admire Faulkner, but Tolkien has been of more use in helping me consider what I want and what obstacles I face, to use Davis’ criteria. Fantasy’s engagement with the “pre-human and non-human,” as Le Guin puts it, is more ethically challenging to me than anything I’ve found in Fitzgerald or Hemingway—though I’ve taught their work often and love much of it, their visions do not alter how I live. Le Guin’s vision, however, sustains me.

I’m all for challenging students. Make ‘em read books they don’t like; give them assignments that feel unnatural. I love rhyme, but I’ve created temporary bans against chime when faced with rhyme-addicts in my workshops, just as I try to kick against my own poetic reflexes. And I wouldn’t object to a workshop teacher pointing out that our literary culture has a strong prejudice in favor of realism, and students should get to know this dominant mode, whatever they want to write eventually. Davis projects a sense, though, that realism is somehow the basic, fundamental thing, rather than a fashion from which genre fiction only diverged a few decades ago.

Of course, there are moments in Le Guin’s essay that rankle, too. “The modernists are to blame,” she tells us. “Academic professionalism is at stake—possibly tenure.” Well, yes, I’m a modernism scholar with tenure and I do see justice in Le Guin’s claim. But realism=academic, fantasy=populist is too simple a binary. As I keep saying, my modernist poets are actually pretty fantastic. Eliot, Frost, H.D. and others find poetic power to be essentially mysterious. No more zombies, no more “Waste Land.” If we can’t overthrow our own prejudices as teachers and really see the weirdness latent in the canon we love, how can we expect to open anyone else’s mind, either?

There, a 1000 word rant in a lunch hour. For more considered prose in which I contemplate my father’s likeness to T. Rex, see my recent essay in Verse Wisconsin, “The Dinosaurs Are Breeding.” If you’ll be near Fairmont, West Virginia this Saturday, too, I’ll be reading some poems at Heston Farm Winery from 2-4 with other Kestrel contributors. I’ll try for a selection that’s literary, serious, and not mundane at all, because man, you should see my email in-box. Life is realistic enough: bring on those magical elves.

Those awful middle-aged women

Somehow I keep finding myself perched on a table in front of a bunch of perky twenty-year-olds, stirring up a conversation about some dreadful woman in a poem or story who is too sexual, or even just too friendly, for being so damned old.

For a while, my avoidance of those conversations was quite skillful. I neatly sidestepped, for instance, the artist-collecting salonnière in Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: I mentioned the modernist practice of staking one’s literary claims by tearing down some less than perfectly brilliant not-young female person, quoted the bit in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” about the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” and moved on. After all, that was our first session on international modernism, so there was “A Retrospect” to discuss, and “In a Station of the Metro,” and “A Pact,” and those translations based on Fenollosa… Having managed this clever escape from my poetry students, I landed in a composition class for which we’d read the Grimm version of “Snow-White” and various contemporary revisions. Uh-oh. I had some ideas about whiteness to throw around, especially given Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully disturbing retake in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” but we couldn’t evade that persistent stepmother (or mother in the earliest versions), driven by an unholy desire to remain beautiful when she should be ceding her place in the spotlight. How does the original differ from the Disney version? I asked, so we proceeded to the gruesome ending in which the stepmother is shoehorned into red-hot iron footwear and forced to dance herself to death. Yes, we agreed, she wanted to be a spectacle of gorgeousness, and according to fairy-tale logic she’s punished by this grotesque-mirror version of being the belle at the ball. Feeling myself the center of all eyes in the room, I shifted uncomfortably. The subtext became even more glaring when we moved to Anne Sheldon’s poem, “Snow White Turns 39.” One of the students proposed, reasonably enough, that the final line could suggest a death-wish. Aw, I lamented, having to admit he could be right—I wanted her to become empowered by smashing that mirror! They all laughed surprisingly hard, as if my plaint were extremely funny. I scowled at them suspiciously.

Yesterday, back to the poetry class. Assignment: Prufrock and Other Observations, which crackles with failed broadcasts between men and women. Sometimes a youngish speaker can’t quite manage cocktail chatter, as in the title poem, or romantic silence seems to authorize artistic creation, as in “La Figlia Che Piange.” Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” though, brings that problem of the talky, lonely, desiring older woman to the forefront again. There I am, a middle-aged woman who just wants to talk about art, teaching a poem to college students that’s ABOUT a tiresome superannuated Juliet trapping a bored college student with her embarrassing speeches about how much she values his conversation about art. The speaker’s “self-possession gutters”—he feels moments of sympathy, guilt, self-doubt—but he ends up more or less fantasizing about her dying already. Kind of a Mrs. Robinson situation, one student remarks.  I’m thinking: kind of like me.

Poems change on you from decade to decade—it matters who you are when you read them. Who you are also matters in the classroom. Long ago, a friend told me about teaching English in Japan. She asked her supervisor why her students were nearly all male. It had been arranged that way because sexual chemistry helps students learn, she was told. That assumption is wrong in so many ways—it assumes universal heterosexuality, for one thing—but it’s not entirely crazy to assume that the ages and sexes and characters of students and teachers affect their relationship. There is an emotional intensity to teaching. It’s appalling when teachers abuse their power and become sexually involved with students, but of course parties on both sides of any lectern have feelings about their interactions, ideally enjoying each other’s intellectual company very much. Literary people find literary conversation exciting. I’ve had many enduring friendships spring from the intimacies of teaching: who gets my English-nerd jokes better than the student who’s taken my classes, read all the same books, learned everything I think about the works that matter most to me, and mused with me about writing as twilight deepens past the office window?

So it gets to me now, when I see some version of myself in a text I’m teaching and she’s ridiculous. I’ve always had some privileges in the classroom. My mostly-white students don’t get angry or fall silent when I bring up race, for instance, because I’m white—some of my colleagues get much, much more resistance to that necessary topic. I also appreciate how aging has conferred authority, some of it earned, some of it just a side effect of looking more like my students’ mothers now than their sisters. I did have a senior undergraduate ask me on a date once, when I was his TA in grad school, and it was terrible—I should have explained seriously why I couldn’t say yes, but instead, assuming he must be mocking me, I laughed, and then his feelings were hurt and my chances of teaching him effectively for the rest of the term were pretty much blown. It’s a good thing to have achieved immunity from propositions!

I really don’t need to be the fairest in the land. In fact, it’s very clear from this vantage that I did my future self a big favor when in my cute-as-a-button twenties I staked my self-worth on intellect and art. But I would like to continue to be interesting to all kinds of people despite? because of? my literal and metaphorical gray hair and avoirdupois. I’m still the heroine of my own tale, ambitious as ever. More so.

If I ever write another fantasy story (I just found Joseph Harker’s review of the last one here, by the way), the protagonist will be female, on the better side of forty, and well-rounded in every sense—no adorable Narnian moppets, disenfranchised warrior sons, or thin fierce adolescents like Katniss. In the meantime, maybe I have a poem to write. Don’t worry, all you woman-leery hobbits out there: “Portrait of a Lady My Ass” is just a working title.