I was surfing on We The Armed (which believe it or not, has a great creative writing section for all of you aspiring writers looking for a place to post samples to get feedback) and I came across this thread:
http://wethearmed.com/index.php/topic,12410.0.html called Ever read a “must read” just to go “And”?
It was about how some books that are “classics” really aren’t that special, or even good. I wasn’t surprised to see a bunch of smart, educated, intelligent folks chime in about some of the awful trash that they were forced to read when they were in high school. I’ve got pretty strong opinions on this and it seems that I’m not alone. I quickly posted the following rant (edited here because I cranked this out in 3 minutes and can’t spell) :
Don’t get me started on high school English. The garbage that gets force fed to kids in the guise of education is why so many Americans do not read. We beat it out of them. We club them over the head with boring tripe that is only a classic because some professor declared it to be a classic a hundred years ago. We force them to read these things, until in their mind reading equals tedium, and then we’re shocked when as a nation we don’t read as much. FRIGGIN’ DUH! You ignorant literati sluts! You are too busy giving each other awards to realize that nobody reads your nonsense.
True story. A friend of mine is a successful fantasy novelist. He was asked to speak to a creative writing class about his first book. The teacher asked him what it “meant.” He gave her the plot synopsis. No. What does it “mean”? It is a fantasy, about magic, and– NO. What is the real “meaning”? You see, college English is the only place where Freudian psychology is still legitimate. Everything has to have a deeper meaning. A book just can’t be a story. It has to be an analogy for some social commentary. And heaven help us if it wasn’t, because then all those no-talent hack English professors wouldn’t be able to write 1,000 page commentaries on what the whale in Moby Dick REALLY represented.
I’m a professional writer. I’ve made a career out of it more than 99.9% of the English majors in the US will. Because what they are being taught is mostly crap. And. They. Just. Don’t. Get. It. The education establishment hates people like me. We’re pulp. We’re trash. And at the end of the day, I will have one thousand times the readership of the most prestigious literary journal.
If I wanted to win some awards, I’d remove the humor, put in more bleakness, despair, depression, and then maybe have somebody get raped, and then have a thinly veiled reference to the evils of something liberals hate. Boom. I get an award. If I’m going for a sci-fi award instead, I’ll do that, only I’ll have a robot get raped. Everybody cries. The end. I get an award and sell fifteen whole copies.
And some of these books mentioned here really are good, but they shouldn’t be FORCED onto fourteen year olds! Pick books that these kids will actually, I don’t know, something crazy… ENJOY?
Worst book for me was the Scarlet Letter. I almost became illiterate after being forced to read that piece of crap. Suffer. Suffer. Suffer. More suffering. Oooh, look, suffering. Tedium. Bored. Suffer. Oh, now let’s make her horrible child a bad analogy. Didn’t see that coming. Oh, please is it almost over? I can barely read through the tears of boredom. Please let it be over soon. Suffer. Whine. Suffer. Everybody dies. The End.
Okay. So that was the rant. Yep, I was sitting in my angry chair on that one.
Afterwards, I got to thinking about it, and I want to address this some more on my blog because I’ve been thinking about this topic, of what is literary and respectable and wins awards and gets critical acclaim but nobody actually reads, versus the kind of stuff that I write that is wildly popular and makes piles of money but gets sneered at by the literati elite. This also relates directly to the crap that is foisted on kids in school in the guise of an English education.
Oh, but Correia, we need to expose our kids to the classics of literature! Okay, sure. What makes some book a classic?
Uh… It just is?
Why is the Scarlet Letter a classic? Reading it gives you a sensation similar to repeatedly giving yourself paper cuts across the cornea. Let me ruin it for you. Spoiler alert. A woman has to wear a big read A. People suffer. All the light will flee your soul. Puritans are jerks. Yet, it is a classic because at some point in time, some dude with a doctorate in English proclaimed it to be a classic.
One definition says that these are pivotal or influential works that influenced society… Uh huh… Pivotal because an English professor said so. If being influential was the official definition for a classic then my kids would have to read the screenplay for Star Wars in school, and my grandchildren will have to read the collected works of Twilight.
Maybe we should have our kids read books that are award winning! Well, except that just because a book won an award doesn’t mean that it is good either. (though many people can’t seem to make that distinction). Literary awards are usually circle jerks of like-minded people giving each other awards. It doesn’t matter how good or popular a book is, if it doesn’t fit the mold of what that group wants, it doesn’t get an award. And in some cases, it doesn’t matter how bad a book is, because if it fits the criteria or some tiny group of judges is fond of it, it wins.
I remember getting in trouble in high school English class because I had a disdain for “good books”. I was too busy reading awesome DragonLance novels to really give a flip about James Joyce. (who just goes to show that if you want to sell a bunch of books, you just need to get banned somewhere!)
Let me explain what I was like at the time. I was probably the most well read kid in school. I lived way out in the boondocks, was the first one picked up in the morning, and spent close to three hours a day on the bus reading a novel. I had read every single book (not an exaggeration) in the tiny El Nido public library before I ever went to high school. I had read something like 90 Louis L’amour novels. My favorite book in 6th grade was Dune. I was that kid.
Yet, despite the fact that I read way more than most adults, I got terrible grades in English. I had a finely tuned BS detector at an early age. Since I was extraordinarily well read for a fourteen year old, I already had a grasp on what a ‘good’ story was. I recognized that most of the books we were being forced to read were just plain boring, and then we were expected to read these terribly dull books and discuss them for like a month! Sorry, there just isn’t that much to talk about. I would normally read the book in a day, and then by the time the rest of the class was done reading The Great Gatsby and discussing the “hidden” symbolism of a bunch of hedonist socialites and their tedious existence, I’d have read ten other more enjoyable books.
The one good thing about being forced to read The Great Gatsby was that I discovered Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft afterwards because I figured that not everybody from that time frame could have been that incredibly annoying.
My sophomore English teacher dismissed those works as “pulp” not “literature”. Really? Because who has influenced more people in succeeding generations? Cthulu or Gatsby? My money is on the big squid.
So, at the end of my education, I hadn’t done most of the assignments, thought most of my teachers were dolts, lost all respect for academia, got mediocre grades, and slept through class. I did everything absolutely wrong according to my teachers, yet, I’ve gone on to read thousands of books and have a successful writing career despite teachers doing their best to make me despise the written word. Yay, school!
You want to get kids in high school to like reading? Don’t force them to read the same old tired crap. It isn’t educational just because it was written by a sexually-frustrated Victorian woman. Let them read other things. Let them read modern books. Let them read from different genres. Give them a giant list to chose from. News flash, not everybody likes the same thing. I know that is incredibly difficult for academics to swallow, but it is true.
Is the purpose of a education to teach you to think, or is it to check a box saying you read X number of approved books? If the purpose is to check a box, then congrats most teachers. You win. Sure, these kids grow up and hate reading for the rest of their lives, but whatever. You checked that box real good.
I loved Don Quixote. I enjoyed Silas Marner. Count of Monte Cristo is bad ass. I like a lot of Shakespeare, with MacBeth being my favorite. Those are classics by most accounts… And not a single one of them was enjoyed because of an English class. Odds are that if I’d been forced to read any of those in English class, then months of discussing the hidden themes (that may or may not have been there) and then getting tested on it would’ve beaten any enjoyment right out of those works.
I’ve been surprised how many e-mails I’ve gotten in the last couple of years from mothers telling me how excited they are that their kids liked my books. It is usually some variation of “Johnny hates to read, but he read your book in three days! He’s never liked a book before.” Well, that’s probably because the other books Johnny has been exposed to just aren’t interesting to him.
Teachers, there’s nothing wrong with that! Some people hate fantasy but love thrillers. Some people have an affinity for romance novels but would never touch a western. Let them find their niche. Believe me, once reading becomes a habit, they will expand into other things… But nobody, and I mean nobody, likes bullshit written by angsty whiners about their laudanum fueled binges of pathetic boredom. Even the literary geniuses at the finest universities foisting this crap on us only skim it. They say the love it, but they lie. They just read the Cliff Notes to impress chicks from the Art Department.
I’m not saying that my work is a classic. Heck no. By no means. I’m proud to be a pulp writer. I don’t write books with themes or hidden meanings. A gun is a gun and werewolves are not a symbol of feminist liberation. Most normal writers are in the same boat. We don’t have literati pretensions of smug superiority. We write to get paid, and the more entertaining we are, the more we get paid.
Now, if you don’t want to be one of those boring old writers that make a living off this stuff, and instead you are in this for the “art” and to win prestigious literary awards, let me give you some helpful hints on things you need to put into your book to get awards. The more the better.
- Make it dreary and impossible to understand. The more befuddling the better.
- Don’t resolve anything. Resolutions are so bourgeois.
- Somebody has to get raped. If it is sci-fi, rape a robot.
- Suicide is good too.
- Humor is not allowed, unless it is ironic hipster humor that mocks the establishment.
- If there is an antagonist, make him a thinly veiled version of Dick Cheney.
- Right-wing dystopia OR evil all-controlling religion. (bonus points for both!)
- Gay cowboys eating pudding.
- Make every single character unlikable. If you accidentally create a likable character, see #3 or #4.
- Moral compasses are so passé. Have your protagonist sexually assault a horse or something.
- Drug abuse is fun for the whole family. Somebody better be huffing paint.
- Global warming. Award juries love dying polar bears.
Seven or more gets you a Pulitzer. Get 10 and I guarantee you’ll win the Nobel prize for literature. All 12 might just get you on Oprah.