Narrating Cries for Help

January 9, 2012

Before I criticize a book or film, I often feel obligated to permit it to speak in its own defense. For that reason, I went from reading Harry Potter, of which I am a devoted fan, to Eragon and Twilight. I enjoyed parts of each, raised an eyebrow at the sometimes-poor writing, and found other elements problematic. In 2010, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Blake; or The Huts of America. I wanted to understand the perspective that was deprecated in later publications.

This January, with similar misgivings, I picked up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Friends have recommended it; newspapers and online commentaries have alternately praised and berated it. Readers and thinkers whom I respect have excoriated the claim of a white writer to speak on behalf of and in the voice of black maids in the 1960s.

Narrative authority is one of the literary issues that I care most deeply about. Although I hesitate to make the claim that it is never possible to explore the voice of a character unlike yourself, the authors I most respect are those whose attempts to do so demonstrate a measure of self-awareness and self-critique.

For example, in Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee’s narrator writes, “I tell you the story of this morning mindful that the storyteller, from her office, claims the place of right. […] So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye” (104). I was looking for similar moments as I read The Help.

It is a page-turner, well crafted and, for the most part, well executed. A few passages came close to identifying the problems or risks of narrating on behalf of another. As Aibileen and Skeeter construct a book of the maids’ stories, they make editorial choices. “Let’s just move on,” Aibileen says in one brief exchange. “We don’t got to…count that one” (304). The story in question does end up in Skeeter’s book, but for me, this scene had the potential to problematize Stockett’s own role as an editor and narrator. To my disappointment, its potential never materializes.

Finally, in an afterword, Stockett describes her doubts about the project. She says, “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. […] I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity” (529-530).

On one hand, I agree with the sentiment, the effort to understand. I respect other books that have attempted a similar feat. The cover of The Help compares Stockett’s novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …If you read only one book…let this be it.”

It is true that both The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird rely in troublesome fashion on the intervention of a white character (Skeeter and Atticus, respectively) to give voice to their oppressed black communities. It is also true that in doing so, both books make an effort to tackle complex issues of racial perception and action. However, there is one key difference that I cannot brush aside.

In Lee’s novel, Scout attempts to understand racial segregation from the outside. She wrestles with what she can see, without being able to conveniently slip inside Calpurnia’s head, or Tom Robinson’s. Had The Help taken a similar stance, simply recounting Skeeter’s attempt to piece together a narrative that is not fully her own; had Stockett left the nested book Help unwritten and inaccessible to readers, I think I would have found the concluding commentary much more compelling. Unfortunately, the book itself is so consumed with telling a gripping story that it fails to reflect the doubt Stockett expresses in her closing remarks.

As a result, the book left me disappointed that a well-written story like this one wasted its potential to dig into the problem of narrative authority and, with the help of additional research and inquiry, to open a meaningful conversation about the narratives that were and were not allowed to emerge from the twentieth-century South.


As You Were Seen

November 7, 2011

This month, I have been reading the book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler. I had read the title essay earlier this year for a class and was deeply moved by it, so I wanted to read the complete work.

To call literary criticism or theory “moving” might seem like a contradiction in terms. This book is an exception.

The piece begins with the experience of grief and attempts, from there, to work out a better way of responding to violence, one that does not provoke further violence. The scope and breadth of the implications are compelling, but it is the interpersonal aspect that has been most poignant for me.

Butler writes this, “Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others” (20). As a graduate student intending to enter a career in academia, transience is a way of life I am learning to accept: moving frequently, saying goodbye to friends, adapting to new environments. Being a socially constituted body is difficult in that context.

Butler continues, “When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are…” (22).

Earlier this summer, I read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Lengthy, like most of his writings, the novel is nonetheless one of my new favorites. At one point, the narrator speaks about loss in a way that echoes Butler’s sentiments:

“…whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools” (510).

In this way, we give select others permission to tell our story. We grant them the right — for good or ill — to name us. In doing so, we acquire a stake in each others’ lives. To lose, or to grieve, reminds us that we are not autonomous and in control. As Butler says concisely, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23).

As painful as that experience can be, I think we receive from it a new appreciation for our own vulnerability, and perhaps a new humility in our relationships with others as well.

As I said, plenty to ponder here…

Making History Whole

January 7, 2011

I was struck yesterday by the similar concerns expressed by two rather different news stories, both of which are closely related to my own interests in the consequences of editing.

21st Century Expressions

The first has been circulating in the academic world this week. A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn removes the racial slurs and replaces them with words considered less offensive. (See “Taking the ‘N Word’ out of ‘Huckleberry Finn” from Education Week. Also check out The New York Times, NPR, and Publishers Weekly.)

According to the Publishers Weekly release, “‘This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,’ said [Alan] Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. ‘Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.'”

A Long History of Improving

The second is a piece of news from the inaugural session of the new Congress, which opened with the reading of the Constitution, but which left out now-amended passages like the “three-fifths clause,” which defined slaves as a fraction of a person for the census. (See “Should Congress Have Read the WHOLE Constitution?” from The Atlantic Monthly.)

According to Rep. Jackson, “The new Republican majority and their redacted Constitutional reading gives little deference to the long history of improving the Constitution and only seeks an interpretation of our Constitution based on the now, not the historic, broad body of law and struggle that it has taken to get there.”

Both of these stories question what it means to remember and respond to the uglier side of history. Both express a concern — I think, a legitimate one — that the past not simply be erased. I can’t help thinking of another literary parallel…

“He who controls the past, controls the future.”

The Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 is charged with the important role of modifying the historical record to reflect Party principles and Party versions of truth. Orwell’s novel depicts an extreme version of manipulated forgetting, but it underscores the significant impact perceptions of the past can have on the direction a nation takes.

(See articles on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid, among other examples, for further discussion of the balance between justice, apology, and reconciliation.)

I’m still pondering, and although I don’t think there is a simple answer, I do think  establishing a few bright lines might clarify the issues at hand.

First, we should attempt to distinguish between acknowledging that change has taken place and ignoring the fact that change has been — and is — needed. Second, we should be able to separate honest confrontation of derogatory language from a move to return it to everyday vocabulary.

If that requires a little extra effort and a little more conscientious discussion between students, teachers, parents, friends, and fellow citizens, I’m inclined to think it’s worth it, but I’d love to hear your opinions as well. To me, the most encouraging piece of this whole debate is seeing the conversations these stories have generated.

After all, it may be easier to sweep a few pieces of history under the rug, but such a silence is always awkward, rarely healthy for the community, and almost never lasts long before it begins to fester.


Trickle-Down Texts

December 15, 2010

In economics, the “trickle-down effect” refers to the phenomenon in which a costly good becomes accessible to more people as it loses singularity and status. In politics, it’s a popular explanation for why tax cuts to the rich ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also an interesting question to consider in relation to academics.

For the purposes of this argument, what I’m calling the “trickle-down effect” is a phenomenon used to justify the ongoing relevance of theoretical study in academics.

True, the average Joe may not benefit from Professor Doe’s extensive knowledge of dark matter and particle physics, but he will benefit from the implications of her research for nuclear weaponry and international relations.  If he takes her introductory physics class, he may learn something about force that will help him build a better bookshelf. Some day, her research may lead to an enormous breakthrough, and in the meantime, it’s justifiable to those who dole out funding to the department because some, well, particle, of that knowledge trickles down to a “useful” level.

Math and science are natural bearers of this logic. But does the “trickle-down effect” apply to literary study? Or, more broadly, to the humanities? To answer that question invokes a host of other questions about not only the purpose of literary study, but the purpose of teaching literature. Here goes.

Literary Study and Theory

One of the reasons I find literary theory appealing is because it breaks down a barrier between conversations about the content of literature and conversations about, for lack of a better term, “real life.”

I would be the first to agree that discussing literary characters as if they are real is delightful. Beginning to studying fantasy as if it were utterly strange to our world frees our thinking and can produce thoughtful consideration of the similarities and differences between them.

However, as much as we like to think of books as windows onto a world we’ve never experienced, those “windows” get fogged up by the limitations of language, the other literary texts the author is using as building blocks, the author’s biases and intentions, and our own preconceptions.  To my mind, an important goal of literary theory is to draw attention to the fog on the window.

Literary Study and Teaching

When it comes to teaching, at an introductory level it’s about developing a set of skills, a way of approaching the world. Scientists begin with the scientific method; literary scholars also have (often unwritten) methods.

For me, those skills include close reading — paying attention to the details of a passage, the language, the images; thinking about context; identifying patterns and links to other works; articulating ideas verbally and in written form.

Quo Bono?

As I’ve said before (see “Literature For…“), those skills do have practical relevance in a wide range of fields. In that sense, I suppose you could call them evidence of a “trickle-down effect.” After all, a student may struggle to read Fanon or Spivak and yet recognize that teaching Shakespeare in India in the nineteenth century had political implications. And perhaps the next time she looks at a newspaper, she’ll ask herself what stories did not receive coverage, how the story may have been shaped in transmission, and by whom.

Are the benefits from these skills more difficult to measure? Yes. Are they less tangible? Probably. Are they less important? I would argue that the answer is no.

Then again, this is my career choice I’m discussing.  These are questions I have the luxury of considering, and my answers do not provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or  better health care for the sick. Does that mean they’re not valuable? No. Does it mean they should be kept in perspective? Yes.

Given the fact that I have vested interests in this discussion, my perspective might be just a little skewed. Or is it? To quote the indomitable Paul Harvey, “That’s something to think about.”

Beauty and Tragedy

December 5, 2010

Why is tragedy in art beautiful?

I’m phrasing that question in a straightforward manner very deliberately, because I do see an element of beauty in artistic representations of tragedy. Last week I watched the film Dancer in the Dark: in many ways a brutal, bleak film about tragedy and despair. Yet, while it brought tears, there was something undeniably beautiful about the film as well.

Today I want to think a little bit about why, because if tragedy is by definition, well, tragic, it seems problematic to think it beautiful. And yet it would be a mistake to equate tragedy in art with tragedy in life; the two are linked in many ways, but to call them equals trivializes real tragedy and ignores the particular ways art can re-present the world.

In The Poetics, Aristotle calls Tragedy “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude […] through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” To Aristotle, character is of secondary concern compared to plot. With regard to character, he says “the example of good portrait painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.”

If we follow Aristotle’s logic, the “beauty” of tragedy is, first, its elevation of flawed humanity to poetic form, and second, its ability to draw out powerful emotions in a healthy way. In Aristotle’s model, however, genuine human subjects either are inappropriate for this type of elevation or would by their complexity weaken the tragic effect.

Written in 1949 for the New York Times, Arthur Miller’s essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” argues that genuine human subjects, regardless of status, are absolutely central to the expression of tragedy.

He writes, “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity.” He goes on to say, “Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless.” Most of us are in that category. But there are among us today, as there always have been, those who act against the scheme of things that degrades them,” the brokenness of the world around them.

The tragic hero, according to Miller, is not always a revolutionary; rather, it is someone who is willing to  challenge, to question: “The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of their ways and return to confirm the rightness of laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding his right and end in submission. But for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains ‘size,’ the tragic stature.”

Miller concludes by rejecting a pessimistic view of tragedy. He says, “For, if it is true to say that in essence the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity. The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. […] Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief–optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.”

Miller points to the hard-to-define quality that distinguishes, for me, between a book or film whose ugliness and grief is worth confronting and one that wallows in its ability to manufacture despair and hopelessness.

It’s the look on Selma Jezkova’s face as she sings, “This isn’t the last song,” and in the final words of the film, “They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” It’s in the characters who say, “There must be more. Better must be possible. I refuse to be satisfied with only this.”


Other tragic (to varying degrees) films and books I really appreciate:

  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Crash
  • The Interpreter
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Blood Diamond
  • Woman at Point Zero (book)
  • Everything is Illuminated (book)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (book)
  • The Vagrants (book)
  • The God of Small Things (book)
  • Les Miserables (book)

Vendler on the Arts

November 16, 2010

Tonight I’m reading Helen Vendler’s lecture “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar” in preparation for her visit to the university as part of the celebration of American poet A.R. Ammons, a Wake Forest alumnus. The 2004 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities draws on the poetry of Wallace Stevens to propose a more central role for the arts in our understanding of the “humanities.”

Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation–through the arts and their interpretations–of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination. Art can often be trusted–once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present–to make its own impact felt. A set of Rembrandt self–portraits in a shopping mall, a group of still lifes in a subway, sonatas played in the lunch–room, spirituals sung chorally from kindergarten on–all such things, appearing entirely without commentary, can be offered in the community and the schools as a natural part of living. Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far–reaching to be left out of our children’s patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention.

The Death of a Story

October 4, 2010

This morning, when I opened my Google Reader,  I saw a headline that I had to read. The title was, JK Rowling: More ‘Harry Potter’ books are possible.  Citing Rowling’s recent appearance on Oprah, the blogger writes this:

On “The Oprah Winfrey Show” Friday (Oct. 1), author J.K. Rowling says she could possibly write two more books in the series. “They’re all in my head still. I could definitely write an eighth, a ninth book,” Rowling says, setting Potterheads’ hearts aflutter. “I think I am done, but you never know.”

There is no shame in admitting that my heart gave a small flutter when I saw the words. For my part, it was half a flutter of consternation, half of excitement. Series that continue interminably tend to decline in quality and, like television shows, to “jump the shark” at some point. Restarting a series as beloved as Harry Potter strikes me as problematic in that regard.

What is more, as a writer, it would be difficult to distinguish clearly between fans’ expectations and personal impetus to write. I’m thinking of the prologue of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part II:

The general welcomes Tamburlaine receiv’d,
When he arrived last upon the stage,
Have made our poet pen his Second Part

On the other hand, more Harry and Hermione and Ron and Ginny would not be at all amiss…

What intrigues me about the article, beyond its powerful hook, however, is the tenor of the second part. Rowling talks candidly about mourning the completion of the series, and about the way the books work out and work from her own mother’s death.

It’s a provocative concept to think of finishing a book as a kind of death, not of the author, but to the author. I’ve spoken about turning in an essay or submitting a piece of creative writing as “sending a child out into the world” and feeling its rejection as your own; there is something about writing that lends itself to the metaphor of childbearing. But to think of the final keystroke as a moment of death has certain implications for the way we think about writing.

First, it lends a favorable light to the process of revision, which, in this paradigm, keeps the text alive and fluid. Although this practice fits well with academic and scholarly writing, reflecting the changing currents of thought and knowledge, it is not particularly conducive to fiction. When it comes right down to it, we want to know how the story ends.

To me, this bespeaks an underlying longing for finitude: and beyond that, for completion. If that longing is recognized for what it is, I think it can represent a healthy desire; if, however, it causes us to seek undue  or premature closure from our own relationships and in our own life stories, it becomes more problematic. I’m thinking in particular about romance novels that end, rather than begin, with marriage. The image of working out love loses something in story form.

Fittingly, as my thoughts are still in flux on this topic, I’m hesitant to come to a firm conclusion, but in closing, I’d like to refer back to Shakespeare and The Lord of the Rings.

“They have their exits and their entrances, and each man in his time plays many parts,” and “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”

However, “their exits” do not always designate the end of the play, and “his hour upon the stage” is but half the length of a typical play. What if the story does not end, but each of us must come and go in the telling?

If there is an element of death in a completed work, it seems to me that there is also a sense in which only by ending can that limited and incomplete story be drawn into the larger body of text and story that goes on around it and makes it new.