I’m spending a week on Kelly Link stories this semester, and looking at contemporary literature always poses a challenge. I’ve taught my students to read stories from an academic angle, to conduct secondary research, and to produce their own scholarship on a topic. But when they read a story that is so shiny, funny, and weird, as, say, “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” most of them will simply enjoy the ride, experience the story. Of course, this is wonderful, but I also need them to think critically about the text. I’ve urged them, in their readings of Link’s stories, to consider the nature of narrative and the nature of the storyteller–how we create stories as a society and also individually just to get through the day, also how narratives may be in competition with one another. Connected here, as well, is the larger question of why we need narrative, what inside a narrative creates resonance that draws us in, comforts us. It’s obvious to my students why the Igbo in Achebe’s work “need” narratives in their society or why Langston Hughes’s work is important to our nation.
“But what about a story written now that fits you now? What about the now?” I ask. They don’t know; they don’t know about the now…and I hope there is more introspection going on in that sea of faces than they let on.
In “Do We Need Stories?”, in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks addresses the impetus to creative a narrative of self, the position of the novel, and the notion of need.
Maura Kelly, in The Atlantic, makes an argument for a Slow Books Movement.
Reading the slow-books manifesto makes me resolve to get off my ass and re-begin Moby Dick, a novel I have tried twice and failed twice to finish (and neither time have I made it to the whaling section which everyone skips). I also (now, again) want to read the last book of the Snopes trilogy. Faulkner is a sterling example of so much, of course, but he’s also a sterling example of an author you have to slow-read–an author for whom much heavy lifting is required.
As for the contemporary lit question, I don’t have a good answer. When I teach lit, I do teach several modern poets (contemporary is probably the better descriptor). The main obstacle I face in the classroom is a lack of reading, period, not just a lack of reading modern writers, so I do what I can to show them that poetry (and other genres) can be relevant and interesting and meaningful and still be enjoyable.
Moby Dick shall be on my Slow Reading Movement list as well (hangs head in shame). I agree with re-reading Faulkner as well…how can one ever be “finished” with it?
I, too, see “a lack of reading” as a big problem, which is one reason I love throwing in some Kelly Link near the end of the term.
This is where I think it helps to teach as a writer rather than as a critic. Why does the story work? How is it put together? How are the characters constructed? If you liked it, what did you like? Great stories do not necessarily need pages of foot notes to be understood. We academics have to understand this and incorporate this into the classroom, otherwise some of the best literature cannot be studied, then lit classes become stale and useless, and students will justifiably reject them.
I agree, Andy. “How is it put together?” is always a good one, especially if we have several layers of story.
Getting students to articulate what they liked is sometimes challenging, especially when their first response is “It’s funny.”
I spend time trying to teach how to examine how humor works on the page; but, just as accomplishing humor on the page is so darn difficult, so is deconstructing how it works.
Opening up the story to resonant themes (the nature of narrative) appeals brilliantly to the hungry student mind, as students are always seeking how they can relate, trying, for example, to relate their own narratives to those of the character…Then sometimes in those grand and deep discussions it’s possible to sneak in more local technique through the back door (i.e., “Notice how the writer uses hyperbole in the first two scenes to establish a humorous tone”), and that way, the story isn’t in danger of being deprived of its life, or, all the “experience” students get out of it!
‘Scuse me: e.g.
If I made that mistake in class and then had to go back and correct it, students would never again confuse the two, ha, ha!