Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Sassy Lawyer Strikes Back

The Sassy Lawyer has a new essay which can be construed as a continuation to her earlier, hotly-debated column (thanks to Ian Casocot for the link).

Here's my commentary on her latest blog entry:
Title: Encourage your kids to read…
So far so good...
… And never tell them that the only things worth reading are those labeled by the high-brows as profound.
This opening statement provokes me. Its presence leads me to believe that the author is indeed referring to her previous essay, or at least alluding to the reactions some people have made by the so-called "high-brows".

Taken on its own, without knowledge of her previous essay, it'll probably make me think "duh".

Well, first off, I don't think anyone is stating that the "only things worth reading" are text that are "profound". Second, assuming I was a parent encouraging my kids to read, I don't think my first concern is whether they're reading Hemmingway or J.K. Rowling. As a parent, my first concern is probably encouraging my kids to read in the first place, irregardless of the material. If it's a story book, a comic, a magazine, or anything else, so be it (personally, the first reading experience that I can remember was reading Bambi -sniff- -sniff-).

Whether this means I'm agreeing with the author or not depends on the context.
Alex reads a lot of manga online. There was a time when I worried that it might affect her reading pattern. Manga — or Japanese comics for the uninitiated — are read from right to left. She assured me she was okay, I trusted her judgment and look where her manga reading has led her.

Because the stories she reads borrow heavily from Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Norse mythology, she is slowly moving on to all that. She now knows terms and concepts that I haven’t heard since all those philosophy classes in college. She’s devouring all the mythology she can get online and I already promised her we’ll buy books as well — as many as she likes although perhaps not all at the same time.
In retrospect, her opening statement is a good lead for her succeeding two paragraphs.

Again, at an early age, reading the "right" material I think isn't as important as developing the habit of reading. And while we're at it, why stop at manga? Why not comics in general (be it America's superhero comics, Europe's Asterix or The Adventures of Tintin) or even local komiks (that's comics with a k!)? Personally, I was weaned on magazines. And since this is the age of the Internet, there are also other tools that can help facilitate the reading experience such as audiobooks and podcasts (The Bambi book I read was actually an audiobook and listening to the tape aided me in memorizing the words).

Also, in grade school and in high school, I expanded my vocabulary through playing Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game (CCG). I learned words like Taiga (what's a Taiga?) and Badlands (there's actually such a thing?) or even concepts like Diminishing Returns. Yes, books per se aren't the only ways to hone our reading skills. (I'd also like to add that stories are serialized in all sorts of places whether it's magazines like Playboy or -gasp- blogs.)

However, having said all that, reading something like a short story isn't the same as reading the same short story in comic form any more that a film adaptation is an exact duplicate of its source material. Different muscles are exercised although there is obviously some area for overlap. A manga is not the same as a short story. I'm not saying that either is "more" or "less" literary than the other, simply that words+pictures have a different effect compared to text that solely relies on text. So, is reading manga good? Yes. Is exclusively reading manga good? Not so much. It's a good starting place, mind you, but it can't end there, any more than a "reader" limiting himself or herself to a certain kind of text (i.e. reading nothing but poetry during a person's entire life).

A good story is like a good piece of art. Whether through words or paint or clay or wood, the creator is able to stimulate the mind and the soul even of people he has never met and never will meet. And a real work of art does not need a specific set of rules to make it beautiful and understandable. It simply evokes.

Consider this painting.

Link to Image.
Now this I find to be a precarious statement. The premise of the author--to my understanding--is that a good story should "evoke" something in you as a reader. Now evoking something in me is all well and good. However, not all good stories evoke something in me. At least at first reading. "Evoking" something in me is an emotion. What if I was having a bad day? What if my critical reader lens wasn't "on" that day (or worse, what if it was indeed turned "on")? Better yet, what if the piece did evoke something in me, but it's not due to the text but rather to an unrelated external source (maybe the work reminded me of my crush, my birthday, or simply a dream of mine)?

For example, as a kid, I loved reading Tom Swift novels. These days, after reading a wide variety of texts, I've come to realize that it doesn't have the same charm as it used to have. Usage of needless adverbs for example. Or repetitive formula. Sure, the text evoked something in me as a young adult, now not so much. Then take Jeffrey Ford's short story "Creation". It honestly didn't grip me when I first read it. Some months down the line, I reread it again. This time, it blew me away. My emotions towards it were the complete opposite. I started to value the technique he used and the details he incorporated into the text. It wasn't the text that changed, it was me. Did it evoke something in me as a reader? Yes. At a later date, when I had "matured". I'm sure if I give it to someone else, they won't all give a universal response. Some might come to like it a later date like me. Others might appreciate it the first time they read it. See the problem with using something like "it simply evokes" to gauge a text? If you qualify it ("this horror story evokes horror in me") it can work but not a broad statement like "it simply evokes".

I don't disagree with everything the Sassy Lawyer said. "Whether through words or paint or clay or wood, the creator is able to stimulate the mind and the soul even of people he has never met and never will meet." is a powerful statement that I agree. Is it true all the time? No. And neither is the statement "And a real work of art does not need a specific set of rules to make it beautiful and understandable."

In a craft like fiction writing, there are indeed some "rules" such as good grammar and correct spelling although of course, there will be exceptions (Flowers for Algernon comes to mind). And then there are some "guidelines" or "best practices" such as "don't use cliches" or "show don't tell". While "don't use cliches" or "show don't tell" are advice many writers give, there are various texts that break that rule and make them effective (Lolita for example is a good example of the former). However, just because there are exceptions to so-called rules doesn't mean you should arbitrarily break them. Part of the charm of sonnets for example is that they indeed have "rules". That's not to say they work solely because they follow the rules, but rather they work in conjunction of the rules associated with them. Does "real art" need rules? Some do. Some don't. It varies with the text, not just because they follow or break rules.
I was in the fourth grade when I first saw this image. I didn’t know what it was called, I didn’t know who painted it. But the image was so strong, and provocative, that I found myself interpreting what it could mean without really intending to.
No arguments here. However, I'd like to point out that the picture doesn't "evoke" anything in me, either when I initially saw the painting or after reading the essay. Does it make the painting "worthless?"
I was in second year in high school when I saw the painting again. It was an elective class, forgot what it was called, but it was mostly about visual and written art. In that class, the image was presented with a lot of information — it was painted by Salvador Dali, it was called The Persistence of Memory, that it meant a lot of things including life, anxiety and even Einstein’s theory of relativity.

As far as I was concerned, imposing those interpretations was limiting our young minds. Instead of allowing us students to look at the painting with an open mind, we were being forced to appreciate it based on accepted standards. Later on, I realized that the teacher, a Miss SantibaƱez, was just imposing her limited thinking on us. She did not have the capacity to give it an original interpretation, perhaps, she didn’t even know such a thing was possible, so she could only resort to published, and already accepted, interpretations.
First, are the teaching methods experienced by the author questionable? Perhaps. Let's assume "yes" for the sake of expediency. I'm not a fan of such teaching myself and experienced the results first-hand. However, having said that, I will not over-generalize that every educator practices such methods. I'd also like to point out that at the end of the day, sometimes it's more the fault of the school system (and not, say, the "high-brows", unless the author would like to give us her definition of who the "high-brows" comprise of because I'm working with the assumption that the high-brows are the Literati based on her previous essay). Not to digress too much, in a system which values "grading" rather than discussion, debate, or independent thinking (I'm sorry but while it is possible to have discussion, debate, and independent thinking in the typical classroom set-up, at the end of the semester, a lot of people--but there will be exceptions of course--are mainly concerned with grades and that can be achieved through other methods such as rote memorization or cheating), there tends to be a need to find an empirical formula for grading, or at least a firm and constant criteria for it (hence the value of a syllabus). That's well and good for some subjects which lend themselves well to empirical formulas (i.e. Math and Science) but not so much for more "abstract" subjects (English, Philosophy). Good teachers find a way to reconcile this fact (perhaps grading students based on their line of reasoning rather than the answers themselves). Unfortunately, not all teachers practice that method (or are trained that way) or even if they are, their hands are sometimes tied by their superiors.

Going back to the discussion at hand, was that a fair and just experience? Perhaps not. But again, we can't over-generalize. A second point I'd like to mention is that there's a limit on our interpretations. I do believe in the concept of valid and invalid interpretations. The painting isn't a Rorschach test--there is a limit on what answers are valid. I could for example reason that it is a dystopia, but I can't exactly interpret it as something as specific "the current state of affairs of the Philippine president's sex life".
Literature is no different. When academics insist that there are stringent standards on what constitutes literature, they set limitations on all of us. They stifle creativity and growth. They put our minds in cages. I wonder how many of them are just like Miss SantibaƱez — imposing accepted standards simply because they have neither the guts nor the brains to make their own standards and interpretations. Bato-bato sa langit, ang tamaan mabukulan sana.

It is something I do not want to happen to my children. If reading manga, rather than C. S. Lewis, stimulates their minds better to encourage them to explore other forms of creative work, then they should be free to do so.
The whole Academics/Literati thing is an important matter to discuss but I think the author misses an important aspect of such a system.

I will assume when the Sassy Lawyer talks about Literature with a capital L, she is talking about canon. For the record, with regards as to what works are considered canon and which aren't, there is a long debate on that and one that I think will never end (should we for example consider material exclusively for its quality or do we make concessions such as gender, ethnicity, time period, historical/cultural value, popularity, etc.?). Having said that, at the end of the day, when people talk about canon works, there might be some books that we like to be included but aren't, or dislike certain specific titles, but overall, they get more things right than wrong. I don't think there's any single person who'll agree 100% with the texts that make it to the canon.

Of course as individuals, no one is forcing you to read (or like) the canon. I certainly have my own opinions on what works are good and what aren't--and so should you. However, having said that, there are also works that I might not like, but I can certainly appreciate, respect, or understand why it made it to the list of canon (that's not to say I'm ignorant of the flaws of the work--it made it to the canon list despite its flaws). And unfortunately, the reality is that if for example I made a hypothetical list of canon books to read, no one will adhere to it (and why would they? Who am I anyway?), an undeniable influence the canon-makers wield in terms of the academia.

A canon list however gives common ground for everyone else. When I utter a name like "Shakespeare", at least I can be sure that people are peripherally aware of him (but yes, it does give rise to the effect "Shakespeare is good even if I've never read him") and most probably tackled him in high school English class (hopefully).

Moreover, if you absolutely abhor the canon list, then don't read it. Or better yet, bring it up with the institution that's forcing you or your child to read them. Remember, no one is forcing your kid to study in -insert school here-. You're the one who enrolled your kid in -insert school here-. If their educational standards don't meet yours, either look for a different school or home-school your child. If neither is an option, well, then you'll just have to make the decision whether to accept the good with the bad of -insert school here-.

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