Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Point of the Review

A couple of years ago, when writing a review of a rather thin offering by a respectable scholar, I found myself struggling to keep from becoming snide and catty. I had learned that writing a professional review is quite different from tossing off cutting remarks on a blog post; I felt I had a responsibility to give my readers information useful in their own decision-making and had come to understand that a review is not simply an opportunity to preen and attack. After all, no one is going to read a book review I write because of me; they are going to read it because they already have an interest in the subject or the author and want to decide whether or not to pursue the particular volume.
Bob Garfield, whose On the Media NPR show is a favorite of mine, has a snarky piece on the op-ed page of The New York Times today about BuzzFeed's decision to ban negative book reviews. He sees this as bringing "us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon."
He's got a point. But it really isn't quite so simple.
The only thing a bad review has ever done for me is give me a chuckle and drive me away. I've missed plenty of good shows and have delayed experiencing numerous fine movies and books all because I accepted the opinion in a takedown. These days, I ignore bad reviews as completely as I do raves. Neither tends to provide me useful information for deciding whether or not I want to experience the subject work; they both say more about the writer than about the subject. Few of them are any more useful that the comment on my book on Quentin Tarantino's movies: "It's not really a Bio type of book. It's a writer's interpretation of Tarantino's films. Basically a much of babling." 
I review occasionally for the American Library Association's periodical of short reviews, Choice. It's an interesting exercise and one I enjoy a great deal: The reviews are limited to 190 words and are expected to be informative, not negative. After all, these are used by librarians in making book-purchase choices and the question is whether or not the book could be useful or of interest to the particular clientele of the library. This has led to a new standard even for my judgment of longer reviews: If I am finding out too much about the reviewer or have to wade through too much of a particular reader's point-of-view, I will put the review down. Only in the rare case of a review by someone of more interest to me than the book/movie/play under consideration will I keep going when the article turns into attack or effusive praise.
Even when it is the reviewer who is of interest... maybe even more so then, we need to be careful as we read. Sometimes a review can become more famous than the work under question, doing damage to reputations of authors and works without even really addressing those authors and works. Somerset Maugham, though he remains one of the most popular of the 20th century writers in English worldwide, has never had his reputation revive in America since the time Edmund Wilson called him "second-rate" ("Somerset Maugham and an Antidote," The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, 96-99). And B. F. Skinner's provocative and useful Verbal Behavior has never recovered from a well-known negative review by Noam Chomsky that, as both Chomsky and Skinner have admitted, had little to do with the book itself.
At the same time, I do understand what Garfield is getting at. Certainly, on a site like BuzzFeed, which says it "powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment," there is room (or should be) for the negative... just as there needs to be on Amazon. What bugs Garfield, it seems, is that new BuzzFeed Book Section editor Isaac Fitzgerald says he "will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): 'If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.'”
There is certainly a time for cattiness. Alice Roosevelt Longworth's "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me" has an important place in our popular culture. But we don't need it everywhere, and the pan isn't a necessary part of a useful set of reviews. On a site like BuzzFeed, in addition, there is plenty of room for that in the comments.
Though I grant Garfield his point (we don't need to dumb ourselves down further by relentless pollyannaism), my sympathy remains with Fitzgerald. After all, it is much easier to smack something down than to discuss it reasonably, faults and all, providing enough for the reader to make her or his own decision without intrusion--and a section of reviews in any publication should encourage the difficult, not the facile, something I think both Garfield and Fitzgerald would admit to be true.
That review I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the one that I struggled with? It took a great deal of work, much more than if I had simply gone with my initial negative reaction--and, as I worked, I began to better understand the book I was reviewing, seeing that it did indeed have strengths as well as its obvious weaknesses. The journal editor wrote back, once I submitted my review, telling me that it was "informative, nicely written, and, I suspect, kind to the author."
That, to me, is what a review should be.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Real Thanks this Thanksgiving... Thanks to a Real Adult and Teacher

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link on Facebook to a story on the high cost of higher education and student debt. Someone responded that he had worked his way through school so had no sympathy with struggling students today. I was not surprised. Often, the people unwilling to help those in need pulled themselves from the same poverty. Their sympathy is guarded and their expectations measured on a balance scale.
They made it, after all, on their own (or so they believe)... so why can't others? Why should others get more than they got?
But let me move on:
One of the greatest and simplest expressions of the dangers of earthly ambition, greed and debt that I know of is Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (the link is to a David Grisman and Jerry Garcia version) which ends with these lines:
No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest
And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed
And muttered underneath his breath
“Nothing is revealed”
Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.
Many years ago, when I was teaching at Scattergood School, a Quaker boarding school in Iowa, I played the song (Dylan's original version) for breakfast reflection after a day of rancorous disagreement within the community. All of us, I think, were calmed and a little abashed--and we looked at each other with a little more sympathy and compassion, our angers abating in recognition one of the other without any concern for balance. I think we all heard the distinction between the 'little neighbor boy' who asked for nothing and revealed nothing and Judas Priest, who said to Frankie Lee, on giving him money early in the song, "my loss will be your gain," seeing things in a win-loss paradigm. He expects, as Frankie Lee finds, the favor to be returned.
On Tuesday, one of my best friends, a colleague in the English department at New York City College of Technology, died suddenly. He was to join us today, for our Thanksgiving feast. Charles Hirsch was compassionate, one of the most compassionate people I've ever known, easily hurt but always forgiving, never imposing his own standards, never judging, but always striving himself. Charles struggled at times, struggled mightily, but he never used his own travails as an excuse for not reaching out to help others. Even when things were difficult for him, he always smiled, and always extended a hand. Never did he use the excuse of the weight of his own load to refuse to help with that of another.
In a way, Charles was that 'little neighbor boy.' He helped, but never expected anything, not even gratitude, in return. In addition, and unlike me, he was able to let hurts slide away, never holding grudges, always able to treat even those who had slighted him with love and compassion. He often frustrated me: We would blow off steam to each other, but I would always retain pressure enough to power retribution. He would not, and I never understood how he could be so nice to those who had treated him shabbily... no, I understood, but realized I hadn't the strength of character to do as he did. Perhaps I am still too mired in the tit-for-tat of childish interactions to manage his adult reaction.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Charles had taken at least one course from the poet John Berryman. We often spoke of Berryman, whose work, for a variety of reasons, held resonances for both of us. I generally returned to "The Ball Poem," which I read to my classes almost every time I teach a literature course. It describes a little boy whose ball bounces into the water and whose expression tells of that first understanding of loss each of us experiences. It ends with these lines:
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . .I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
Nor was Charles just a little boy. A real neighbor, he was, yes. But, like Berryman's narrator, he had the expansive understanding and compassion that made him, unlike so many of us today who judge only by possessions and gain and loss, fully adult.
I am thankful that I knew him.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Like Democracy, Education Cannot Be Imposed from Outside

Last week, The New York Times published a piece concerning childhood reading--in this case, of Gone With the Wind. It appeared, oddly enough, while I was in the midst of re-reading a book I don't think I've read since I was nine or ten, The Grapes of Wrath. I read it then with such attention that, even now, over fifty years later, I feel almost a sense of homecoming, of familiarity--and I am learning a great deal about where my beliefs come from, at least in part, beliefs about religion, ethnicity, politics, responsibility. I am also, oddly enough, beginning to understand through it just why I react so poorly to things like the Common Core State Standards.
While writing my last book, I thought a great deal about three fictional families--for the book was sparked by my own background in the culture of those families, the American Borderer culture that grew from 18th-century "backcountry" experiences of a predominantly Scots-Irish people who had come to the colonies after a generation or two in Ireland's Ulster Plantation. These three families are the Joads of Steinbeck's novel, Faulkner's Snopes clan, and the Stampers of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. Each family had a distinct impact on me, and they show me now the importance of reading as a personal experience in the development of all individuals given a taste for it when very, very young. And they show the danger of a broader society trying to impose a standardized conception of "reading" (or anything else) on an extremely varied population.
The importance of reading should be universally understood but, sadly, is not. Too few of my students have ever been as engaged with a book, even a single book, as I was, almost constantly, growing up. In college, then, I find them unable to explore with the same gusto I enjoyed--and I try to make it my task to help them develop that. For reading with engagement, and not the ability to "return" facts on Scantron sheets, is the real center of education. No testing can help me develop that in my students, nor can any standards... but the problem with the Common Core goes far beyond an inability to help me build enthusiasm. Its problem is that, like democracy, education has to start with the self and with the family. Like enthusiasm itself, either can be imposed by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning.
My enthusiasm for The Grapes of Wrath helped develop my affection for the two men would would be my first real and personal heroes: Woody Guthrie and that other Oklahoman, Will Rogers. I can't say for sure that the book had any relation to that, but Oklahoma (where I have still never been) became an important source to me of what I saw as the real America. I doubt there were two other figures, outside of my family, who were as influential on my developing attitudes toward life and, yes, toward my country. They had nothing to do with my schooling, but much to do with my education. At least one of my teachers in high school understood: He arranged that I not be punished for missing school the day Guthrie died.
In college, when others were focused on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it was the story of the Stamper family that held my attention. I didn't know why, and my own family had little resemblance, but something drew me--just as the Joads had. Endurance, "never give an inch," resonated with me... not success, but never giving up.
In the late 1970s, some five years out from my undergraduate days, I still had no clue what I might do with my life. I was working in the parts department of an auto dealership outside of Chicago, drinking heavily and feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I picked up The Hamlet.
To say that Faulkner's novel changed my life might be going a bit far, but it did make me want to go to graduate school in English, believing I would find, there, a means of reading under the direction of experts--no more randomly picking up books, relying on serendipity. That's exactly what my graduate education became. There was no idea of career involved, but only the reading. When I was done, I felt I could turn to other things, to getting on with discovering my life's work.
As I was completing my dissertation, I was applying for Peace Corps, to work in agriculture. Though no farmer and an inconstant gardener at best, I wanted to experience village life in West Africa, where I expected to be sent (I had already spent two years there, but in a city). Plus, I could find out if a career in development would be what I should pursue.
It was not. And I drifted to New York City, eventually believing that I had found my niche as a retailer. But that, I discovered after more than a decade, was not to be.
Now, in my sixties, I know that I belong in academia where my education is on-going and unrestricted by "outcomes"--and I know it is the books I've read (and not my schooling) that brought me here, books that related in some way to my own experiences or those of my family--or that expanded my knowledge of the world, reversing the entropy that it often seems easy for life to drop into. There were many more books than these three, of course, but these come to mind as I look back and try to determine even more clearly just why I wrote my last book and why I am enjoying so much my current project, the one that led me to re-read The Grapes of Wrath.
Human activity, I have learned through a varied life filled with my share of dead ends and successes, is not only patterned but an attempt to establish pattern--or to throw a sense of pattern onto what often seems mere chaos. Reading fiction provides us some of the best tools for dealing with pattern, both in any actuality and in the case of belief superimposed. It opens vision up, too, allowing us to stand back from the fabric under construction, to see the warp and the woof rather than simply experiencing our motion as we are shuttled.
The Common Core State Standards now being instituted in so many of our schools demand that the "texts" studied be 70% "informational." Fiction can make up the rest. What strikes me so odd about this is that it is fiction, in my life, at least, that has provided more information about the world than all other "texts" combined--for it is fiction that has led me to see further and then to explore other texts... and even to write them. Fiction, for me, has been the heart of learning, and learning has come through those books striking chords of some sort inside of me as with experiences (or even imaginings) that I have had in the worlds fiction addresses.
There are different reasons for the teaching we do in different fields. Perhaps some can even be reduced to what they call "learning outcomes." The learning that comes from reading fiction, however, is highly personal, its outcomes different for each individual. We can't even demand those outcomes, for the texts we consider in any one course may not be the ones that light an individual's fire--and by making demands we dampen the kindling for the fire that might otherwise arise next time.
Finding passion only happens when the student takes control herself or himself, the outcome being personal to each just as life itself is. The problem with imposing standards is that they remove this possibility from the student, no matter how those standards are defined.
In today's The New York Times, Frank Bruni writes that the Common Core is "a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization." But what's analytical thinking if it doesn't expand possibilities and push one into speculation... if it doesn't foster thinking beyond established patterns? The Common Core is, at its heart, mass production, with "inspection" standards for each and every product (those things we used to think of as students). One of the important aspects of my exploration of Joads then Stampers then Snopeses was that it was my own, that it was not a path of reading laid out for me.
A common set of generalized goals, desiring students to go as far as they can and giving broad directions, would not be a bad thing--but these Common Cores State Standards don't do that. They try to control curricula telling teachers how much of this and that should be taught, and when. They don't understand that students in different areas and from different backgrounds learn differently--and often need to know different things. They don't understand that students are different, anyway, depending on things like family, economic background and ethnicity... but that each of those things brings strengths as well as weaknesses.
They don't understand the most important thing that I learned from the Joads, the Stampers and the Snopeses, that even the "lowest," the most pig-headed and the meanest have something to offer, one generation to the next. Real education, that is, effective education for the masses, starts with them, and with the personal relationships that are central to a school.
As we continue to learn (or should be learning) through failing attempts and colonialism and neo-colonialism, when outsiders try to impose their ideas, little good results. The Common Core is no different... it is nothing more than internal colonialism imposed from afar onto situations unknown to its arrogant and self-assured creators.
Just read those three novels: You'll see.