Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obligatory Morals...

Apparently HARPER COLLINS has added some new language to their contracts:
New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them the right to cancel a contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you.

There is quite a wave of response to this in the blogsphere, including the an initial posting from Richard Curtis (quoted above), a spicy offering from Ursula Leguin, and a fun romp from Jock Stewart.  Steve Laube offers a somewhat different take, citing the standard MO of Christian Book publishers.

While I ruminate...what do you all think?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Huck's Audience

With all the flurry over the recent attempt to sanitize THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN for young audiences, one important element of the question seems to have gotten lost. Who was the intended audience? For that matter, consider the newly released film version of Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. It is being marketed as a fun "family" film, but Swift's work was carefully crafted political satire aimed at adults.

Now look closely at Twain's book. Consider when he wrote it, not only in terms of the historical time period but also in terms of the stage of Twain's own life.  Though he may have envisioned a boy's adventure book when he began writing it, his novel became something very different by the end.  The end of Reconstruction, the introduction of Jim Crow, and a flood of lynchings as well as personal tragedy led Twain to put the half-finished manuscript on the shelf for seven years before he finally picked it back up. And when he did, he came at the novel from a very different place. There is far more darkness in his tale than today's young people would understand. Does that mean they shouldn't read it? No.

However, it does mean that we should treat it as what it is.  This book has been a point of contention on school reading lists for decades primarily because of the language, yet teachers want to share this eloquent indictment of Southern Honor and Post-Reconstruction realities with students of all ages. Why? What abiding truth resonates with the young reader? I think the problem is that many teachers don't really answer that question, if they ask it all all, before they plunge in with a group of unsuspecting 8th-graders.  Does a popsicle-stick raft really demonstrate an important theme in the book?

I'm not saying we shouldn't include this in our school reading list or ban people from teaching it.  I'm just saying don't be careless with it because you think it was meant for kids to read and learn a lesson about racism and don't let a sanitized version of the text lure you into a complacence that fails to address the true issues in the book.  An adolescent main character does not always mean a book was written for kids.  Is THE LOVELY BONES a book for young readers?

You can look around and find a host of classics that have been turned into graphic novels or abbreviated versions for young readers and that is not a bad thing.  We teach books written for adults all the time.  But if you wish to teach a book like HUCK FINN, don't assume that because one offensive word has been extracted or painted a different color that it is somehow more relevant or more acceptable to a young audience.

Kids can learn a lot from HUCK FINN.  Don't boil it down to a single word and don't assume that it was written for kids.  Think about those abiding truths you want your students to glean and start there. After all, if we want them to learn how to think about the hard questions, we have to be good models and ask them ourselves.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You"

Yes, it's time for another round of literary sanitation in the name of political correctness.  If you haven't heard, an English professor at Auburn University is protecting us from ourselves in order to preserve a classic for generations to come.  How does he plan to do that?  He has replaced the word nigger with the word slave in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.  All 243 times it appears.  His hope is to make the book more palatable and less taboo to parents, teachers, and young readers alike in order to preserve a classic.

While I understand his aim, I have mixed emotions about the ramifications of such a cleansing.  My guts tightened and my brain shuddered when I heard the news.  Who would dare?  But I'm sure many teachers have grown weary of explaining and testing the cultural climate before attempting to teach the text and have abandoned it altogether in the name of job security.  It's a delicate business and believe me, I understand. But there is something more to this issue beside censorship and the political conscience of a modern audience.  For me, it's as simple as integrity.

I taught HUCKELBERRY FINN in the 90's and my students truly "got" it.  Now, keep in mind, I didn't just fling the book at them and dive into it without any context.  That would be ludicrous.  But then teaching any classic without context is not only asinine, but borderline criminal.  In his New York Times article, Michiko Kakutani sums up a crucial point here:

Never mind that today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past. Never mind that attaching the epithet slave to the character Jim — who has run away in a bid for freedom — effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape.

I was teaching high school juniors at the time, and when I announced our next project, several sighed and said, "We already read that in 8th grade."  These were gifted students, mind you, and they had little tolerance for repetition let alone something that has been dubbed a "kid's adventure story."  Yes, that is how it was presented to them the first time around.[shudder] Of course I set them straight and then presented the historical and cultural context, complete with disclaimers about language.  Also consider that the demographics of this school were 49% caucasian, 48% African American, and 3% other (Indian, Iranian, etc.) Moreover, the socio-economic scale reached from the poorest to the wealthiest (children of pro football players and heart surgeons, etc.) who made their own cliques to often surprising ends.  When we had finished, several students remarked that they had read a completely different book. They had no idea that that is what the book was about.  They loved it and each one of them took in the truth that they found there.  

Prof. Gribben hopes to introduce more young people to Huck by sterilizing part of the very social comment that Twain was addressing.  Of course we have seen the term pass through different usages and through its evolution, we have cringed and cursed at the sound of it.  But what is really at the heart of good literature?  Truth.  No matter how ugly, uncomfortable, or embarrassing, if we seek it earnestly, we shall find it.  As teachers, isn't that a large part of our job, to help our students discover their understanding of the world and its naked truth?  

The primary problem is not the text.  The problem is that so many teachers get it wrong.  If you think that boiling down a social commentary like HUCKLEBERRY FINN to nothing more than a jaunt on the Mississippi, than you should not be teaching it to anyone.  The rich, beautiful, harsh story says so much about Twain's understanding of a country that had just come through a firestorm, not unscathed, not instantly wiser, and certainly not romantically mussed up, but truly, brutally scarred.  This isn't a book about friendship and acceptance.  This is a book about honor and truth and clarity.  Where is the honor and truth and clarity in eviscerating the text and subjugating the context? 

In the end, Huck doesn't necessarily see all slaves as equals, but he does see Jim as a man—an honorable, brave man—and a friend.  Mark Twain simply asked that we look at him, that we look at ourselves, that we see this country as it was, warts and all and consider the truth.  Don't look away now because it makes you uncomfortable.  You'll miss the most important parts.