Full disclosure: in an attempt to act like an adult human being, I stayed up all night last night so my body would go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight. This never works, and yet I always forget that - anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying I’m tired and cranky. And when I’m tired and cranky, my mind wanders to things that I find upsetting. Warning: any Fitzgerald, Dickens. Bronte, or Franzen fans should avert their eyes from the following.
Caught up in my thoughts about how terrible I think the Great Gatsby is and how it’s just bad art, I found myself wondering why we still force high schoolers to read it. Why do we read that heavy-handed masturbatory piece of crap and not any Virginia Woolf? Or Sylvia Plath? Or Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison? Why the hell are our high schoolers reading Charles Dickens, some hack who was paid by the word? The only reason you should ever read Dickens is to learn how NOT to pay your writers. Honestly, it’s an enormous stroke of luck for all of us in the US that we have to also read To Kill A Mockingbird (which, though much better in representation and substance than the aforementioned authors, is generally taught by white teachers to their majority white students as a tale of how awful racism WAS, and aren’t we so glad that unpleasantness is firmly behind us!). And there were about five minutes on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance in the curriculum too, I guess.
And all of these questions are rhetorical, of course. I know why. We all know why. It’s pretty obvious why these mediocre white men writing about mundane, self-involved crap get undying praise and fame - to the point of being forced on a captive audience - and one of the only woman-authored books required (Jane Eyre) glorifies abusive relationships and embracing one’s place in the patriarchy.
It’s because those are our social values, plain and simple. And that’s why Jonathan Franzen’s garbage novel Freedom is lauded as an incredible portrait of the all-American family, but Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a sexy summer beach read. We teach our students that for writing to be “important literature” rather than “chick lit” it just has to be mediocre, white, and male.
I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT LITERATURE AND PUBLIC EDUCATION AND I’M JUST REALLY TIRED, PEOPLE.