Books depict more than reality

Here I go again, sharing what’s on my “short list” of concerns in a bi-monthly column for my favorite newspaper at my favorite university.  I seem never to grasp that elusive skill of saying “no.”

The fall semester’s behind us and the spring is well underway, so I am girding up my loins to cope with the inevitable student complaints about my classes.  Happily the “class climate evaluations” continue to be positive, even occasionally hyperbolically generous, but there are two recurrent complaints:  first, she makes us read too much. (I ignore that one; what could my students possibly be doing with their time that could be more valuable — even enjoyable — than reading superb contemporary fiction? That my students do anything other than focus on my course baffles me —as do their priorities.)

The second inevitable complaint, which I will [re-phrase] with my usual discrete censorship, goes something like this — the books are “too dark.”

Apparently, my current students grew up reading the same books I did.  Those texts almost always ended with some variant of these satisfying, albeit vague, words, “And, they lived happily ever after.”  Humbug.

I don’t teach novels with those endings.  Last fall I did attempt one “romance novel” in my 2308 class, but I was so nauseated throughout the teaching and discussion that I dumped the sucker from this term’s readings.  My health was suffering.

Each semester, in a so-far -futile effort to discourage students from whining about “dark” stories, I read aloud the marvelous Margaret Atwood’s succinct essay, “Happy Endings,” which you can find readily online.  She elucidates plotting in fiction and in “real life.”  (i.e., “John and Mary die.”)

The students ignore this wisdom, but I persevere, and, when the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro, appeared last week on a streamed program that NPR labeled “Symphony Space” in conversation with her friend, Margaret Atwood, these two literary geniuses addressed my topic.

Atwood questioned Munro about readers’ complaints that Munro’s characters were “too mean or bad.”  The Nobel Laureate responded, “Has anybody ever written a book that was really good with people who were nice all the time, or even part of the time?”  I hollered at my computer screen, “My students are desperately seeking that book.”

It gets better: Munro acknowledged complaints about her “less-than-sunny plots” and readers wanting to read books that “make them feel good, make them feel happy.”  (These are my students!!!)  But, Munro admitted that she couldn’t write such novels, partly because her favorite books were those such as Wuthering Heights.  Then, she stated (as I will henceforth also state), “I didn’t understand that you read books in order to feel that the world is better than it is, and so I was offending without really understanding it for quite a while.”

I select the required readings for my classes primarily because of the superiority of the writing, but I also read, recommend and require texts that, I think, achieve verisimilitude in the depiction of “real” life — ones that capture the joys and triumphs of life as well as the sorrows and losses.

Most significantly, I prefer readings that do not try to trick me into seeing the world as better than it is, but ones that remind me of what really matters, what makes a positive difference and challenges me (and my recalcitrant students) to work hard to “become all that you were created capable of being,” as Carlyle put it.

It is my humble view that a Trinity education should help one do that; I welcome a new semester and another opportunity to move toward that goal.

Coleen Grissom, english professor.