Friday, January 25, 2008

Where do we get our ideas about writers? or Tales of 10th Grade Terror

The Incurable Logophile is reading Bleak House, and is surprised to discover that Dickens is funny. Ha ha ha! How could anyone not know that!

I know one way. My 10th grade English class used a reader that included a massively edited Great Expectations. The editors ruthlessly excised any element that was remotely comic, as unnecessary distractions that encumbered the plot. We would have been better off with an edition that squashed the plot and kept the comic bits.

No one confronted with this literary freak would have the slightest clue that Dickens was funny in any way, much less that he's one of the three or four greatest comic writers in English.

I don't remember when I overcame this prejudice. I know how I did it - I read Bleak House.

Where do we get our ideas about writers? I've never read Thackeray, and somehow picture him as some sort of blend of Dickens and Trollope. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote dreary novels about social issues, right? But then what is this, from Chapter 5 of Cranford:

"Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight by popping it into their own mouths and swallowing it down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste."

I've never read any Gaskell aside from this hilarious passage. My ideas about Gaskell are obviously completely wrong. Where did they come from? At least I know how to correct them.

This is why literary readers are always so neurotically worried about Reading the Wrong Book. It might be years, decades, before misconceptions are corrected.

Anyone else have stories like this? Irrational prejudices you're willing to confess? Bad teachers you want to blame?


  1. A great entry!!!! I hope I never completely mislead you by assigned reading in econ.
    Almost worse than your description where we were assigned readings from a "reader" but with no real reason ever explained why we were reading a particular piece. Anyway, we survive, to live on with our misconceptions, misunderstandings, etc. Dad

  2. My English-ex was a Hardy fan. Given my experience with Tess in high school, I could not fathom this until I magically read Far From the Madding Crowd and laughed and laughed.

    I'm ashamed that I can't keep Vanity Fair and Middlemarch straight and I'm not sure if I read both or just one. At least one of them was incredibly disappointing, partially because I was expecting a great Dickens Austen combination and partially because I had, from the get-go, an idea about who was going to end up together and was sorely disappointed to find out who was actually the leading man. So I'm not sure if I really didn't like the book (or books) or just read something other than my expectations, but I haven't read anything by either author since.

    My feeble defense is that I have owned both and they looked similar.

  3. Pa: I don't think you ever assigned anything with the best two-thirds missing.

    Exes are an important source of literary prejudices. Bad breakups = undying hatred for whatever the ex liked. Especially if you never thought it was that good in the first place.

  4. Interestingly, I haven't had a bad enough break-up to make me disavow an acquired prejudice. While I think that Hardy, Chatwin, McPhee, Brahms, Dougie McLean, Joni Mitchell, Shooglenifty, Vargo Llosa, and Monty Phython are all worthy of my fondness, I'll admit it was fondness for certain men that brought me to them.
    My boyfriend in college (then an classical bass player) hated Mozart and I picked that up as well, although I find that I'm losing vehemence and any semblance of reason for disliking his works.

  5. Oh, this is a song you have already heard, AR. Herman Melville's Moby Dick, for me. I love this book now. But in high school -- this was taught to me as some kind of manual on whale fisheries. Same for Heart of Darkness -- taught as a travelogue of Africa. I conceived in my heart a hatred of Charles Dickens based on a truly dreadful teacher I had in 9th grade -- a hatred I did not overcome until reading The Pickwick Papers in grad school while avoiding working on my thesis. Of course, the reverse of the ex-thing is also true -- it is one of my great joys that you taught me to love Pynchon and Dos Passos. Most of my exes either didn't read much, or only loved Ayn Rand, about which -- you know, whatever. No big whoop.

  6. Wonderful post! I have some preconceived notions about writers that I have no idea where they came from. Embarrassingly, I've subconsciously assigned various esteemed women writers into the category of chick lit along the way. Maybe from hearing their praises sung by people whom I know are fans of chick lit? Heck if I know. I've misjudged various male authors along the way, too. Now I just read everything and it all works out much better.

    And I think you definitely had the same text I used in high school. Ugg!

  7. I also read "Moby Dick" as a whale fishing manual. Can't blame a teacher, though. I used to read a bit more literally.

    It's common now, because it's partly true, to describe Jane Austen as the first chick-lit writer. So think how appealing she would be if that's all you knew about her.

  8. I'm an English teacher, and, oh lordy, I really hope I haven't ruined anyone's reading for life. When I teach Pride and Prejudice to 10th graders I open the discussion every day by asking who has a "ha-ha." Someone usually comes through.

  9. Well, for a teacher, it's all about the proportions, right? You can't please everybody. Also, you're not teaching P&P with the funny parts cut out, right?