Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
[Note: The student I describe is a composite character of many students I’ve met in my 20 years of teaching.]
A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said.
She wanted me to talk her into becoming a creative writing major. But she needed assurances.
Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?”
My heart broke a little then, because once upon a time, I dreamed about that building, too. “Well, there isn’t just one building,” I said. “There are thousands of buildings.”
“You mean publishing houses,” she said, nodding her head.
I hear this a lot from students: I want to work in publishing. Usually it means that they love the world of books more than they actually want to be writers—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
So I told her about a class we offered on Literary Editing and Publishing. I told her about the internship program in New York to which she could apply. “But Tracy, I want you to know that it’s hard to get a job in publishing. At least in the way that you imagine it.”
“It is?” She looked incredulous.
“Yeah, there’s this thing you might have heard of. It’s called ‘the internet.’ Traditional publishing—books, magazines, newspapers—it’s all shrinking.”
“But independent and small press publishing is growing.” I told her all about it.
“But you need to know this. Many people who do it have a day job and work on their publishing ventures on the side.”
“But what about…” She named a best-selling book by a self-published author.
“Yes,” I said. “There are some success stories, but that’s not what happens most of the time. The problem is that there are more people who desperately want to be writers than there’s a readership to completely absorb them.”
I shared stuff like the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing.
“Oh,” she said. “I figured with all things that are published, I could find a job as an editor.”
“Well, you probably wouldn’t search in terms of editor.” I hate saying this, but it’s the truth. “Search for words like communications and content.”
I did a quick Google search and found a full-time job in Connecticut for an English major to serve as a “communications specialist.”
Her face lit up. “What kind of company is it?”
I scanned the website. “They make welding electrodes and filler wires.”
“Oh.” Her face fell.
“It’s a full-time job where you would think critically, communicate clearly, solve problems, and apply your writing skills.”
“You’d get to travel to trade shows.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t see myself doing something like that,” she said.
“I’d feel like I wasn’t really using my degree.”
“But it says right here they’re looking for an English major.”
“I love books!” she said, “not welding.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but with a good job and good insurance, you’d have a stable life and money for books and maybe time to write, too.”
She looked around my office, at the books lining my shelves, the pile of stories waiting to be read, the three 20-page proposals that needed to be read by 3 o’clock for the College Curriculum Committee. “I’d really love to do what you do,” she said. “Teach English.”
“You want to major in English Education? Teach high school?”
“No, I want to teach college. How do I do that?”
I sighed. “Become a writer.”
Her eyes lit up again. “Yes, that’s what I want!”
“You’d go to graduate school.”
Tracy’s eyes practically rolled back in her head. “Yes!”
And even though she was still a [pre-professional major], not an English major, I pictured the day in the near future when she’d come to me asking for a letter of recommendation. Every time I write one, I ask myself: Am I contributing to the contingent faculty crisis in English?
In the last 20 years, I’ve written approximately 50 letters for students applying to graduate creative writing programs, and only two of them are currently in tenure-line jobs. The rest are pretty evenly split between those in non-tenure line jobs in academia and those working outside academia entirely.
When is the right time to tell people about their job prospects? In graduate school? Before they even apply to graduate school? Or sooner than that even—in their first creative writing class? Never? Let them Google it because it’s just too depressing otherwise?
I hadn’t even read a word of her writing yet, but I knew how Tracy’s story might go. I decided to be honest.
I took a deep breath. “Look, I need to explain something to you, Tracy. Last year, 4000 students earned a graduate degree in creative writing. And do you know how many tenure-track teaching jobs there were to which they could apply?”
“A thousand?” she guessed.
“A hundred.” I showed her the report from AWP to prove it.
“Oh.” She looked at the floor. “But what about Professor Jones? I had him for freshman composition. He’s a writer, and he teaches. He got one of those 100 jobs.”
That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones was one of our amazing full-time contingent faculty members. He’d published multiple books and had applied for hundreds of tenure-track jobs in the five years since he’d graduated with his MFA. “No, he hasn’t gotten one of those 100 jobs. Not yet.”
“But he’s teaching and writing, just like you,” she said.
That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones made half of what I made for doing pretty much the same job. I pointed to my computer screen, to the job at the welding company waiting in Connecticut. “You’d probably make as much there with your BA as he does right now with a graduate degree. Maybe more.”
Tracy pulled at her hair. “But it’s not fair! They told me to go to college and follow my dreams! Where am I supposed to work?”
“Please calm down. This isn’t the only job in the country,” I said. “It’s just the first one that came up on Google.”
But I knew why Tracy was angry. All my students are dealing with a post-employment economy and a trillion dollars of student loan debt. I recognize the looks on their faces. I grew up with a father full of the same righteous anger and disillusionment. He hired out on the railroad when he was 20 years old and fully expected that he’d have a job for life. But then the economy changed. The world changed. How many times did I find him quietly seething in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, shaking his head in rage and disbelief?
That look broke me.
I was Tracy’s age when I went to see my college professors to discuss what I should do with my life. Even though I was a first-generation college student, no one dissuaded me from majoring in creative writing or from applying to graduate programs. There was no reason to.
At that time, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country.
Today there are 592.
When I was in college (1987-1991), there were only about 50 graduate creative writing programs in the country.
Today there are 418.
And honestly, even if my professors had tried to dissuade me, I wouldn’t have listened. I wouldn’t have wanted to take that job at the welding company either. And because I was born at the right historical moment—before all this started to happen–and because I got my graduate degree just as the number of tenure-track creative writing jobs started to open up, I landed my first job (with no book) and have remained employed ever since.
If I was 26 right now rather than 46, maybe I’d say, Screw it, and do something else for a living.
Or maybe not.
Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work.
“Oh God,” Tracy says, “how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?”
I asked her how much she owed, and she told me. I swallowed. Hard. Also, I’d like to mention that Tracy had a child/a sick parent/a dying grandparent.
“Tracy, do you want to be a writer?”
She thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.”
I gave her the short version of this advice, which I’ve been giving for years. The job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer. And applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer. “If what you love is reading,” I said, “why don’t you major in literature?”
“Because creative writing is more practical.”
I almost choked on my coffee. “Oh my. What kind of classes do you think we offer in the creative writing major?”
Tracy paused. “Well, I figure it’s like the bookstore. There’s a mystery section, a young adult section, biographies, graphic novels. You know. And we learn how to write them.”
I patted her hand. “I’m so sorry. It’s not like that at all.” I explained that the taxonomy of creative writing was about choosing a genre.
“Right,” Tracy said. “That’s what I said. Choosing a genre.”
“Not that kind of genre.” I counted them off on the fingers. “Fiction. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Screenwriting. Playwriting.”
“So you’re saying I major in creative writing and get a job as a fiction writer or a screenwriter!” Her eyes got bright again.
“Or maybe something else.” I counted them off. Marketing. Teaching. Tech Writing. Non-profits. Publishing. I ran out of fingers, but I kept going. Library science. Law school. Student Affairs. Business. Publishing. Television. Peace Corps. Politics.
Tracy look frightened.
“We don’t give you the map,” I said. “We show you a sky full of stars to navigate by.” I broke out my horrible faux British accent. “’All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’”
“It’s a poem. About finding your way without a map.”
“Screw that. I want the map.” She raised her voice to me a little, using a tone I’ve come to call “buyer’s remorse.” Tracy said, “I want you to teach me how to get one of those jobs you just mentioned.”
“We will! We’ll teach you how to write and think and speak and read and analyze and empathize and imagine.”
“But then why don’t you change the major from all those genres to something I can actually beeeee,” she pleaded.
“Like this, you mean.” I pulled up my university website and navigated to the Department of Technology and its degree programs.
I explained that my brother had graduated from this very university from this very department twenty years earlier. He went straight into a good paying engineering job with a company that made automobile parts.
“In this major, they identify the things you can beeeee…” I counted them off on my fingers:
1. A computer technologist
2. A construction-site manager
3. A graphic arts manager
4. A manufacturing engineer
5. A high-school teacher of technology
I held up my other hand. “And they create a curriculum that tracks you right into those careers.”
1. Computer Technology
2. Construction Management
3. Graphic Arts Management
4. Manufacturing Engineering
5. Technology Education
I brought my hands together with a clap.
Tracy shook her hands in the air. “Yessssssssssssss! It makes so much sense! But here’s what you guys in Creative Writing do!” She ticked off the five genres on one hand:
3. Creative Nonfiction
And on her other hand, she ticked off five “random” careers that our students have landed lately:
1. Residence Hall Director
2. Associate Professor of Communication Studies
3. Staff writer for BuzzFeed
4. Career Adviser at a small, liberal arts college
5. MFA student/poet/reading series coordinator
Tracy brought her hands together crosswise. “They don’t match up. Well, except for that one guy who got into grad school for poetry. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to do when we graduate?”
“You turn the wheel,” I said, reaching over and rotating her crossed hands until her fingers aligned.
“How do I do that?” She’d never looked more serious.
“With your mind.” I touched the side of my head. “And transferable skills.”
“You have to teach us how to turn the wheel!” Tracy said. “You can’t just expect that we’ll know how to navigate on a starry night.”
“I’ll give you that,” I said. “We could do better. But that’s also what the Career Center is for. Have you ever gone there?”
She looked like she might punch me.
“Tracy, do you know what happened to my brother?”
“He became CEO of the company.” She crossed her arms sullenly.
“No. He changed companies just as the economy crashed in 2008. He lost his job, and there weren’t any others like it in the region. He needed to think of something else to be, but for a long time, he couldn’t. And do you know why?”
Finally, she got it. “Because he didn’t major in creative writing.”
I smiled. “Sort of.”
“Because of this.” She brought her hands together. “Because they only gave him one star to steer by.”
I wanted to hug her then. “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs,” I said. “That’s the real world.”
I told her to sign up for our Intro to Creative Writing class. “If you love it, then consider changing your major. Or stick with [her pre-professional major] and get a creative writing minor.”
Tracy thanked me and walked out the door. I’ve never seen her again, but I hope she found what she was looking for.
I really, really mean that.
Image: Kevin Dooley/flickr
As the media phenomenon du jour, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has put pressure on the commentariat to provide Potter-related context or controversy – anything to get readers to spend a few minutes with us, rather than J.K. Rowling! And herein lies a danger: in our zeal to ride Harry’s coattails (broomstick?) to glory, we Muggles are tempted to wave a wand over our own preconceptions and imagine them transfigured into news. In that vein, an article in last week’s Washington Post provoked our interest here at The Millions, while contradicting my own sense of how the Potter books function within the enchanted kingdom of childhood. I specifically remembered Cynthia Oakes, a middle-school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, telling me some years ago about a book her students had gone wild for, and recommending I check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hoping to get some ground-level perspective on Pottermania, I got in touch with her (which wasn’t hard; she’s my mother-in-law) and asked if she’d mind revisiting the Potter books in a bit more depth. I had misplaced my Quick-Quotes Quills, but she graciously consented to be interviewed through the magic of email. [Editor’s note: Scroll down to view Oakes’ post-Hogwarts syllabus.]Opening the Chamber of Secrets“There is a wonderful bookstore in Hyde Park,” Oakes told me, “57th Street Books, where my colleagues and I often go to buy the latest children’s and young-adult titles. The children’s buyer at the time, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper), told us that there was a new British fantasy novel out, and the word in England was that it was wildly popular. We bought a copy, read it, liked it, recommended it to a couple of kids, and put it on our summer reading list. By the end of the summer, the idea of our introducing anyone to Harry Potter was beyond laughable. That’s how quickly it became a phenomenon. Kids told kids, who told other kids, who told still more kids – and that was that.”Initially, adults were out of the loop – which was great! It was remarkable, from my point of view, to see any book capture these kids’ imaginations and hearts so completely.” Oakes offered some further context: “This was right around time that the term ‘digital natives’ was being coined. As school librarians we were being led to believe that the future, and especially our future, lay in the Internet – that students were no longer interested in print. Then the iPod came out; once again, we were told that the future lay in digital whatever… and suddenly our middle school library alone had to buy seven copies of Sorcerer’s Stone. All copies were instantly checked out and the hold list was huge.“Then kids learned that the sequel was out in England. It was unprecedented to have them beg their parents to plan summer vacations to the UK around the publication of a book. One family, who actually did vacation in the UK that summer, brought back a copy of Chamber of Secrets. We ended up buying four copies of the next two installments. After that, kids were buying the books for themselves so we didn’t need to invest quite so heavily in order to provide access. We now have two shelves of the library devoted to six titles. I’m not sure if we’ll need to buy more than one copy of the latest book, since the sales of this title have been astronomical. I can assure you that no other series even come close to it in popularity.”Apropos of families vacationing across the pond, Oakes said she couldn’t generalize about any connections between the books’ success and social class. But as Chicago’s Lab School is a well-regarded private school, she could attest to the books’ strong appeal to upper-middle class, affluent kids. That appeal, she noted, “doesn’t seem to be contingent upon gender or race.”A Hogwarts of the Mind“I think what makes these books so seductive,” Oakes told me, “is that the world Rowling has created is a world kids really, really, really want to live in. Actually live in, not just imagine living in. They want to eat the candy, ride the train, wear the uniforms, own the brooms, play the games, study the magic, get mail from the owls, look at the maps, and spy from the folds of an invisible cape. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Weasley family? And who wouldn’t want Ron, Hermione, or Harry for a friend? Or Hagrid for a teacher? I am always amazed at how even a 14-year-old will still harbor the secret hope that Hogwarts is real.” Oakes remembers “being quite surprised when a fifth-grader confided in me that he was not able to get the spells to work. He wondered what he was doing wrong and he looked so forlorn while furtively whispering all this to me.”From a literary point of view, I’m not the first person to observe that these books are unique in combining the most popular of children’s literary genres into one rollicking story: horror, sports, adventure, school story, fantasy, romance, animal fantasy, family problems, etc. That gives them appeal among a broad array of readers. In addition, they are page-turners for kids who love plot-driven books and have satisfying characters for kids who prefer character-driven novels. It doesn’t hurt that the central character is a misfit without parents… a key ingredient to most successful children’s lit. What child, tethered to family and home, wouldn’t love to step through a magic portal where she instantly becomes the hero of the universe?“One must also remark on their unusual length. A 900-page kids book? Unheard of. And equally rare is a sequel that doesn’t have an ‘our-story-so-far’ component. Rowling rightly acknowledges the depth of her fans’ understanding of all the previous books by jumping right into the thick of the story. It is very difficult to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without having read Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And if you are starting with Book Seven, forget it!”Dark Art“My experience has taught me that kids will rarely choose to read a book that isn’t entertaining and will avoid an instructive book as if it had spattergroit,” Oakes continued. “This isn’t to say that they avoid books with ideas. I harbor the belief that they prefer them. The Potter books are entertaining, but darkly so. They deal with real evil – Voldemort is crueler than the cruelest classmate. Harry has to wrestle with whatever part he may have played in his own parents’ death. Thoughtless actions in these books have far-reaching and horrific consequences.”This is also more psychologically nuanced fantasy world than many contemporary books offer, with every character suffering from his own particular character flaw. Yet a truly noble and ethical solution to every problem is always apparent. I believe that our kids long for that sort of clearly delineated ethical world.They are discovering that the adults around them, much like Dumbledore, are not perfect. They want their friends, just like Ron, always to return to them. And they want Harry to make the right choices (perhaps because if he does, then they will). The books instruct, then, in the way the best books do: by allowing the characters to fail. Whether or not the Potter books are helping to define anyone’s moral universe, I can’t tell. But contrary to the opinions of some commentators, they surely aren’t destroying anyone’s moral universe…”She ventured a critique: “I know the books are flawed, and most of the books – certainly Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, could have used a seriously talented editor. Or just an editor.” Still, she said, “They are remarkable. It’s not popular to admit it, but when I read the first book I had to get up at three a.m. to finish it. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, of course I love these books… I am a fan.”Fresh out of veritaserum, I tested the truth of this last assertion by asking Oakes some targeted questions. Her favorite character? “As a woman and an educator, I have to love Professor McGonagall.” Favorite villain(s)? “The dementors. I’ve certainly run across my share of soul-suckers and they scare me to death.” Favorite setting? “I love Hogwarts and wish that I worked there. It has an amazing library and I would love to recommend books to Hermione. And have her recommend a few to me! Not to mention the fact that I’d get to hide from and/or fight trolls, death-eaters, and so on.”Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s)“Most assuredly there is a social aspect to the Harry Potter phenomenon,” Oakes said. “Kids sit around for HOURS discussing all the ins and outs of the books. They join online discussion groups, download podcasts, and know every website devoted to Harry. They create group Halloween costumes. In fact, fans were so enthralled by the books that they rushed into the library (en masse) the second, the very second, the cover art for Book Seven had been revealed. We had to display it at the circulation desk. (I mean, our credibility would have taken a serious nose dive if we hadn’t.) Then, they congregated around the printout of the cover and discussed THAT for hours.”I asked her if kids outgrow Harry. “Some students lose interest (or say they do), but a remarkable number do not. I overheard many conversations in the high school hallway prior to Book Seven that centered around horcruxes, Harry, and death. Our high-school librarians have all the Potter books on the shelves. The fifth grade to whom we recommended the first book graduated last year. So most of these kids grew up reading Harry Potter. I’ve watched high-school students sneak back into the middle school library to keep up on their favorite series books and their favorite authors. And I say, good for them!” No Argus Filch, my mother-in-law.”As for the hoopla,” she said, “the books have been very good for children and for young-adult publishing… Their sheer popularity forced The New York Times to create a children’s literature bestseller list. (Ha!) These days our kids are reading just as much as – if not more than – they did before.”As we’d discussed, “J.K. Rowling came at a crucial moment… However, I do wish the publishers would realize there isn’t going to be another Harry Potter and ease up on all the fantasy that’s coming down the pike. I worry that really good young-adult novels are getting overlooked. The hoopla has also turned off many new young readers. Whereas the initial impetus to read the books came from kids, there’s now a huge media machine cramming those same books down our collective throat.”Flourish and BlottsI asked Oakes if she could elaborate on “the good stuff” by furnishing Millions readers with some recommendations for post-Hogwarts reading. “Middle schoolers love serial storytelling,” she said. “That is part of the success of the Harry Potter books. I can think of many recent series that have met with remarkable success: the Alex Rider series, the Warriors series, the Princess Diary series, the Eragon series, the Spiderwick Chronicles – to name a few off the top of my head. Students will request the next book in the series sometimes months in advance. Because of Amazon.com, they know approximately when the book will be published. We librarians are forced, more than ever, to stay on top of things. However, I can think of no other book or series that would compel students and parents to attend a midnight party in order to obtain the sequel. That is purely a Harry Potter thing. We’ve had kids counting down the days to publication since December.”I would love for kids to love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because they are such elegant writers. Certainly there are kids who read Tolkien and Lewis, and often prefer it, but it doesn’t follow that a Potter fan is automatically a Bilbo Baggins fan. Tolkien is much harder to read, for one thing, and the works of C.S. Lewis don’t feel as contemporary as Rowling’s do. The latest, coolest reading trend amongst my students is graphic novels.”When recommending a book to Potter enthusiasts, Oakes always asks, “What part of Harry Potter is your favorite part? The school, the family problems, the sports, horror, the magic…?” Then, she says, “I come up with some titles based on the answer. It’s surprising to me how often students want to read about boarding schools and about all things English… and I can’t resist recommending the great contemporary English author Hilary McKay. Read The Exiles and see if you can stop reading the rest of her work. It’s not fantasy, but it is quintessentially English.”She went on to offer a post-Hogwarts syllabus of fantasy books:Young Adult/Older ReadersUrsula K.Leguin. The Earthsea Cycle. (A quest series with wizards and dragons.)Patricia McKillup. The Riddle-Master of Hed. (A quest series with wizards and mysteries.)Garth Nix. The Abhorsen Trilogy. (A dark fantasy that features necromancy and romance.)Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials. (Parallel worlds that collide in Oxford. As much science-fiction as fantasy.)Middle ReadersLloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Prydain. (A quest series with an oracular pig; highly recommended byThe Millions.)Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl. (Contemporary magic which relies on technology. Spies!)Diana Wynne Jones. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. (Parallel worlds; magic; families in all their dysfunction and glory.)Jenny Nimmo. Children of the Red King. (Wizards go to a school quite different from Hogwarts!)”Many kids don’t want to be perceived as Potter groupies,” Oakes noted. “It’s interesting, though, how many will reluctantly pick one of the books up, then get sucked right in to the world Rowling has created. It is almost impossible to resist the spell of the Potter books. Having said that, I’ll be very curious to see how they age.”
I happened upon this story about a scheme to smuggle drugs into a Michigan prison using library books. From the Muskegon Chronicle:Inmates at the prison in eastern Montcalm County communicated with somebody on the outside, providing titles to check out from the Madison Square branch library on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. The outsider was to check out the books, cut open the bindings, tuck drugs inside, then reseal them. Then, the accomplice would return the books to the library and contact the inmates, telling them which drug-packed books to request.Luckily the plot was foiled before any books could be mangled in its service.
The cover of this past week’s New Yorker, “Shelf of Life” by Adrian Tomine, could be a visual entry in our “Books as Objects” column. An avid reader of the magazine (NOT our fearless editor and self-professed NYer junkie, Max) examined the cover art and observed that it carried a “cynical” message. It’s a panel cartoon depicting the progress of a young writer, her agent and enthusiastic publisher, the production of the book itself on an assembly line, its display in a store, a young man reading it on a park bench, then discarding it in a cardboard box, as you often do see – books in cardboard boxes sitting at the curb, waiting to be picked up by a lucky passerby and thus passed from one open mind to another – in places like Brownstone Park Slope. Except in the cartoon, the passerby is a scruffy man in an old army coat who takes the book, and, in the final frame, is shown tossing it into an oil drum fire, he and another man making warmth on what appears to be a dark, snowy night. Is this a cynical take on the commodification of art? A morality play? Or dark comedy, book burning for the general good? Or perhaps it’s just harsh reality: for some, a book’s best use is as fuel for a fire that will help them through a cold night when they have nowhere to go. I did notice that there appeared to be other potential tinder in that cardboard box, including the box itself. Maybe our homeless vet did read our young author’s work and found it worthy of the burnbarrel. Whatever the message, and I think the cover is open to a wide range of overlapping interpretations, it certainly says one thing with emphasis: books are objects to be consumed, one way or another.