Monday, May 5, 2014

Completed: How Fiction Works


Have you ever had it happen that an unfortunate  (or fortunate) juxtaposition of reading material illuminates something interesting in a book?

In this case, I read this blog entry by Junot Diaz at the New Yorker, called MFA vs. POC. Diaz discusses just how unrelentingly *white* his experience was, and how the whole process grinds down men and women of color. You should read it if you haven't already.

A few days later, I picked up How Fiction Works. As you know, I had a moment of panic about only having read 2 books. Since I had started this one a few months ago, and it's pretty short, only about 200 pages, I figured it would be something I could knock off the list. It helps that I got stuck in the car dealership for a few hours on Saturday morning.

Here's the problem. I've got Junot Diaz in my brain, and it doesn't take me long to notice that that Wood is discussing is a white man. At some point, it actually became comical. You're going to write a 200 page discussion about how fiction works, and every single example is a white guy? Come on!

By the way,  lest it seems I am exaggerating, I counted. Wood mentions or discusses 68 authors. Of those,  59 are men and 9 are women (and one of those is him reading Beatrix Potter to his daughter. I wish I was fucking kidding).  He discusses: 1 black author (Ralph Ellison); a few British authors that are ethnically non-white (VS Naipaul is from Trinidad, or Kazuo Ishiguro, who is Japanese);  one Latin American author, Roberto Bolano (Chile); and a few dudes from other European countries.

I mean, really? Honestly, it was so amazing that I started to marvel at the chuzpah of the entire enterprise.

As for the actual book. It was fine. It's organized into mini-chapters, some lasting only a paragraph, and none more than a few pages. Those chapters are loosely organized into bigger umbrella categories, such as narration, characters, language, etc.

Wood is a compelling writer himself, and he does nice work illustrating the power of the close read. When I read books like this, it's because I think it keeps me sharp as a teacher. Even though I teach 7th graders, I still find myself using a lot of what I  know to lay the path for their future as readers. Given that, there was one line that made me laugh out loud, "You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers" (63). Heh. And I'm pretty sure he's talking about college kids! But, it is true, the things that seem so interesting and meaty in a text are the very things that kids are most likely to miss. They don't really attend to the details at all. I often point out that to kids, reading means something like I ran my eyes over all the words on the pages. I READ it. Only it is so apparent how much they miss. They are just learning about close reading, but it's all teacher-directed: HERE. LOOK AT THIS! I'm the Mama Bird, feeding them close-reading. It's actually kind of fun, but it is also difficult. You can see that some kids just get it, while others are going to need a few more years.

Anyways. I think the myopic look at literature presented in How Fiction Words would have become apparent either way; yet, it was still painful to see Diaz's point "In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male" proven so ruthlessly. 


Friday, May 2, 2014

Completed: A Problem From Hell


I actually read this book a few months ago (time flies when you're incredibly busy), but haven't had a chance to write about it yet.

As you know, this was another of my depressing genocide reads. The best part about it was that I read it with my friend Marjorie on a reading schedule, and then we discussed in on Facebook. Because I'm lazy, I'm going to excerpt my major points here: 

1) The first time I tried this, I didn't make it any further than the first chapter, but I put it down after the prologue. There's something about the framing of it----despite the title, so I should have known better!---that I just found myself sort of annoyed by. I mean, I get it, we're Americans, the worlds policemen, yada yada...but clearly we actually don't do that great of a job of policing the world. So when she ends that prologue by talking about how genocide elsewhere is a product of American foreign policy failures, it just sat with me the wrong way. I would like to talk more about this. I don't necessarily think that I am a knee-jerk isolationist, but maybe I am!?! Why are we always the ones responsible for intervening? 

However, this time around, I pushed through and read more. The initial chapters were about a man named Lemkin who made it his life's work to pass international laws about genocide. I found his story quite interesting and ended up admiring, for the most part, his fortitude and insistence that something had to be done. It was hard to read. He was fighting all alone, and it was such an impossible task to be the lone voice in the wilderness. What an inspiring and ultimately tragic figure. 

In general, the whole first part, about the role of international law, and what it can and can't do was super interesting, which I didn't expect. After those chapters about the history of the UN treaty, the book shifts to a one-chapter-per-genocide model, covering Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Those chapters were interesting and depressing. I learned more about each conflict, but the whole thesis, that American foreign policy was slow to respond, was sort of difficult. Yes, we knew what was happening and did very little to solve it, until Kosovo, when we flew air strikes that helped stop the killings. just was a weird take. Maybe because I didn't know enough, but it felt like sort of strange. The closest I can get to describing it would be this: a few years ago, a book came out that was about the American Civil War, but it was about how the British Empire responded and reacted to the war. I mean, that's pretty abstruse, right? You'd need to already know A LOT about the Civil War and ALSO about the British Empire in order to have a book like that make sense. And this book had the same feeling. I had the feeling while reading it that America was to blame for genocide in these countries, but that's patently ridiculous and honestly also full of hubris. How can it be that American foreign policy is to blame for bad shit happening *all over the world*? 

This book was a struggle. 
If you're remember, I also read Philip Gourevitch book about Rwanda, which I reviewed here. There was something in that book that really stuck with me, which I'll quote here, too: "Just as the state's police swear to prevent and punish murder, so the signers of the Genocide Convention swore to police a brave new world order...The authors and signers of the Genocide Convention knew perfectly well that they had not fought WWII to stop the Holocaust but contain fascist aggression. What made those victorious powers, which dominated the UN then even more than they do now, imagine they would act differently in the future?" (149).

As I read A Problem From Hell, I have found myself thinking of this idea time and time again. It's easy to say "never again" but the political will to actually stop genocide is missing. It was frustrating because in some chapters, she'd mention things the US could have done, but later, when they are tried, they almost never work! My take away was perhaps not what it should have been. I think it's supposed to be a call to action: we can make it better! But what I actually took away from it was something more like: complicated shit stays complicated no matter what we do. 


PS. I'm having a moment of panic. It's MAY and I've only read 2 of my books (and abandoned a third). I need to get to it! I'm going to start reading one of these other ones right now. Maybe How Fiction Works, which I started a few weeks months ago and put down.