Scriptures, Cautionary Tales, and “Inappropriate” Literature

Students often complain that some of the novels I give as options for reading are “inappropriate.”  There certainly is such a thing as inappropriateness, and I avoid it whenever possible; when such a title pops up, I remove it from my lists and/or allow students to change what they’re reading. 

But most of what my students label as inappropriate really isn’t, not by any useful definition.  Most objections aren’t to excessively explicit depictions of sex, violence, and profanity, which would be understandable, but merely to the inclusion of such things at all.  Along with those items, another major target of criticism is how negative and “depressing” most classic books are. 

It’s sad that so many people react to classic stories with revulsion because they have so little experience with great, meaningful literature.  As I’ll show shortly, this ironic hesitancy to engage darker literature stems from an ignorance of the Bible, rather than a devotion to it. 

As most objectors are Latter-day Saints, like me, I could respond that the most devout saints have never shied away from grittier depictions of reality, as long as they are ultimately artful and useful.  Plenty of people and schools have banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for its coarse language, violence, and cynicism, yet President Thomas S. Monson obviously loves it and has quoted from it frequently, for example.  As a vocal book lover, he must understand that artificially pristine stories are neither powerful nor useful.  As in Huck Finn, the most meaningful victories come after periods of darkness.

But there’s an even more substantial body of work than that which students are clearly ignorant of: the scriptures.  Perhaps no work in history is as thematically vast, sympathetic, realistic, and all-encompassing of human experience as the Bible.  And, as such, it is also one of the most violent and negative books in the world. 

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Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

38480424When Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few weeks ago, a colleague reminded me that some of her AP students had recently gotten to have a luncheon with author Elizabeth Strout and talk to her about her book.  I’m told that the students’ primary question was why her book was so depressing, and that Strout retorted that her book wasn’t depressing, but realistic. 

With that personal connection in mind, I read Olive Kitteridge.  Strout is right: the book isn’t depressing.  But it is plain, ordinary, and underwhelming.

Olive Kitteridge’s closest kin in the American literature canon is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; each is a collection of related short stories, which taken together form a mosaic of a town and offer several perspectives on a principal protagonist, in Anderson’s case, Joe Welling, in Strout’s, the eponymous Olive Kitteridge.  In that sense, the novel also bears a resemblance to another, more recent work with this same conceit, David Shickler’s excellent (and superior) Kissing in Manhattan

Anthologies of short stories typically don’t sell well, and most authors avoid them.  The copyright page for Olive Kitteridge shows that many of its chapters were published alone over more than a decade.  This feeling of discontinuity–or rather, a forced continuity–is apparent throughout.  The chapters where Olive isn’t the main character yet she pops up anyway, sometimes only in a throwaway reference, stick out as desperate attempts to make the conceit work.  One wonders if older versions of these stories were lightly revised to include Olive’s name just so this could be published as a novel as opposed to the collection of short stories that it is. 

As it is, Olive Kitteridge isn’t bad, but blandContinue reading