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My sister's class, or Triumph Of The Swill [May. 4th, 2007|10:30 pm]
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Well, I attended my sister's English class (your basic frosh composition class) and answered questions about Under My Roof.

The class was absolutely scandalized by my work. Indeed, about half the questions asked had, as a subtext, "How dare you write this book!"

Explicitly, I was asked several times if I didn't think that a kid might read the book and build a bomb or become a racist or anti-American. Often, I was asked questions structured like this: "In the book you call poor people sad fuckers. Isn't that anti-poor?" And I'd explain that in the book a character calls some poor people he encounters sad fuckers, and that is different from me saying that of all poor people. Then the next question would be, "In the book, you say that Muslims are terrorists..." and then "In your book, you say that soldiers are dumb..."

But make no mistake, this wasn't some uber-PC crowd. Indeed, one woman went off on a long tangent about making English the official language of the United States — this was of course prefaced with "I'm totally not racist, but" (you know, racist throat-clearing) and then her friend said that yeah, she'd read a study that predicted that in a few years New York would be 75% Spanish and that "we'll be the minority." And I said "We who?" and she said "We, you know, us, normal people." (I shared an eye-roll with the Nigerian and Pakistani students in front of me at that point.)

There were also aesthetic complaints. For example, the book "wasn't even in order." "Are kids supposed to understand this?"the "we" woman asked. I said "Well, advanced kids" and she really got upset at that. (Hee hee!) The character of the mother was wrong because as "a New York woman" she would have just beaten up her husband. Also, this book "isn't in the majority; I want to know how many books you sold, and what people have been saying about it! Did anyone like it??!?" I mentioned the starred Publishers Weekly review and the raves from the LA Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and The Believer, then I was told that Harry Potter outsold me. Well yeah, he did.

Finally, someone said, "Well, what were we supposed to learn from this book!" and I said "Nothing." Later I was able to explain that good novels ask questions; they don't provide answers. Someone complained,"If a kid reads this, he may start thinking." (I should say that that last was from an ESL student; he may not have meant to express his comment as an eventuality to be dreaded.)


Then someone asked "Well, what if I was really into shooting men! Should I write a book about that?" I said "Sure, go ahead" and the classroom erupted. Then someone boiled the last hour down to, "What do you think a writer's responsibility to society is?" and I said "None," and the class erupted again as, apparently, my sister had spent the past fifteen weeks filling their heads with this vile lie.

But the best was when someone asked me about research and telepathy and I explained that I didn't research telepathy as it doesn't exist, so I just made the powers up and one woman finally blurted out, "So...this book is a FANTASY!!"
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[User Picture]From: wordweaverlynn
2007-05-05 02:17 am (UTC)

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Someone complained,"If a kid reads this, he may start thinking."

I hope you got a signed release, because this is the best possible blurb. In fact, half the quotes from the class would work.


"What do you think a writer's responsibility to society is?"

Pay your taxes, vote, and write what the fuck you want. The second two are optional. The state would be happier if 98% of writers worked at McDonald's, because then we'd do more of the first.
[User Picture]From: kameron_hurley
2007-05-05 02:28 am (UTC)

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That is fucking AWESOME.
[User Picture]From: osito71
2007-05-05 03:03 am (UTC)

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You took what I was gonna say.
[User Picture]From: zoe_trope
2007-05-05 02:34 am (UTC)

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God, none of my classroom visits were nearly that exciting. Way to stir things up, sir!

Did your sister think it went well?
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2007-05-05 02:36 am (UTC)

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No, she was disappointed and annoyed. I figured it went about as well as it could given that it was a population of students who have never read a book in their lives and who had never been told anything other than "Shut up, keep your head down."
[User Picture]From: danjite
2007-05-05 02:35 am (UTC)

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So, uh... have you been fired as her brother now?

I wish I could say I was suprised, but I think I took that class with similar stdents 25 years ago.

So, by a quick feat of ratiocination... did they think Jo Rowling, I dunno, visited Hogworts in the name of getting the details right in her expose of the underworld of teen magic?
[User Picture]From: laurenpburka
2007-05-05 03:02 am (UTC)

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I read your account out loud to my spouse. He laughed a lot.
[User Picture]From: slit
2007-05-05 03:45 pm (UTC)

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Me too! That was hilarious.
[User Picture]From: mothwentbad
2007-05-05 03:05 am (UTC)

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You're such a *controversialist*, Nick! Next you'll even be saying that actors and professional athletes don't have any special responsibility to society, either!
[User Picture]From: carneggy
2007-05-05 03:59 am (UTC)

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I am reminded of the time a good friend's subletter turned to a bunch of theatre professionals and asked them (wholly seriously) why they were wasting so much of their life, because instead of making art they could be doing something actually useful to society instead.
[User Picture]From: gushgush
2007-05-05 04:48 am (UTC)

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Fantastic!

Kinda' like shooting fish in a barrel, although I've never actually seen anyone doing that either.
[User Picture]From: shalanna
2007-05-05 05:01 am (UTC)

Par for the course

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*ROTFL, STC*

The same kind of thing happened to me a couple of years ago when my sister-in-law had her Reading Group in Fort Worth (a cosmopolitan cowtown) get my novel _Dulcinea_ for one of the monthly meetings. Her group was made up of professional women (nurses, social worker, admin-ass, lawyer). One woman, a lawyer, started off by saying, "Well, I had some questions. [pages through book] Did you ever describe Raz? Did you tell what he does for a living?" My sister-in-law and one other group member pointed out the description and the discussion of what he does on an early page. The lawyer looked flustered. "But . . . well . . . I didn't understand."

What's not to understand? Which word didn't you understand?

"Well . . . you say here that magic is a profession."

"Yes." I'm waiting to hear her profound analysis.

"It isn't."

"This is a fantasy," said my sister-in-law. "It's like Harry Potter."

The lawyer looks blank. "That's what it says on the spine . . . but this isn't about a magic school. It didn't SELL like Harry Potter, because I'd never heard of it until now!"

"I loved the Da Vinci Code," said someone else. "Why didn't you write one just like that one?"

*etc.*

They also made the mistake of assuming that I believed EVERY "BAD" SENTIMENT that ANY character expressed. A group member who wasn't a lawyer berated me for having "an agenda" and "such a bias" for about two minutes without stating what the agenda/bias supposedly was, and then she searched the book for statements that characters had made (showing character, or indicating ignorance, or what-have-you) that "I" supposedly "believed and wanted to promulgate." *sigh* I smiled and gave the speech about how authors aren't their characters, that characters may be saying things that aren't true, or things that the reader should perceive as ironic. I then blundered into giving the example of Mark Twain having Huck Finn say that he knew he was wrong in wanting to help Jim escape, and pointing out that Huck Finn is all about ANTI-SLAVERY and how society was WRONG and Huck's views were right, and of course (everyone say it with me) everyone yelled, "THAT AWFUL BOOK IS BANNED BECAUSE IT HAS THE N-WORD!" (They couldn't accept that this was the word in use during that historical period or that possibly it was good that they were sensitized to it while reading the book.) It seemed hopeless at that point, so I just answered dumb questions like, "What is it like being a writer?" (Boring) and "Why did you write this book?" (To piss you off)

So we can pretty much write off the concept of deep, articulate discussions of literature or popular fiction or ideas of any kind at all those Reading Groups Across America. Unless the Ghoddess Oprah told them to read it and told them what it was FOR, they don't understand it.

**facepalm** I feel so sorry for English literature teachers across the country right now.

Anyhow, surely there are readers out there who kind of get it. I think. I mean, *I* get it . . . I *think* I get it. And as far as our responsibility to society, it's to make people think and question authority and make them see things from another POV, at least temporarily, so that they might develop empathy and a more tolerant and loving outlook on life. Or to make them buy more books.

Our LiveJournal readers are of much higher caliber--or at least have much higher reading comprehension. I love my LJ readers.
[User Picture]From: elffin
2007-05-10 04:23 pm (UTC)

Re: Par for the course

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...

Aside: Your writing (of fiction) has no responsibility to society. You write what you write what you write - every single reader will read a different work when they read your words, and feeling responsible for what they bring to the table is unfair to yourself. Also, I second megpie71's sentiment(s) below.
[User Picture]From: megpie71
2007-05-05 05:51 am (UTC)

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Gods above, below, before, behind and beyond. That is *scary*.

I have to admit, my answer to "What do you think a writer's responsibility to society is?" is something along the lines of "to reflect society back at itself" - and that this holds true for *all* forms of creative endeavour. I'd also run a slight digression and point out that no legal code anywhere in the world has enshrined such arcane rights as the right not to be made uncomfortable, or the right not to be offended. So if they're made uncomfortable, or offended by your work, maybe they should look a bit further and try to figure out *why* this work makes them uncomfortable, or *why* they're offended.

The problem is, the question of a writer's responsibility toward society is one which has a very strong subtext of "what people write should be controlled", and that is, in its essence, censorship. I've grown up in a regime which permits censorship (I'm Australian, we don't have freedom of speech) and which does restrict books and films from entering the country. The most common criticism of our censors, oddly enough, is they've been too lenient, and allowed the Australian public to see/read/hear (usually see) something which is "immoral". My own thought is that people need to be offended, upset, challenged and questioned about things like "why is X wrong?" or "what is disturbing about Y?" or even "why does our society permit Z?" or we stagnate. The point I'm trying to make, however, is that no matter how much censorship you impose, there will always be *someone* who is dissatisfied, and who will think you need to add more control. (I should add, the most regular response to the wowser's complaint is to turn something which would have been a minor event into a major one... a trick which several struggling artists have turned to their own advantage by including one rather controversial piece in an otherwise dull collection).
[User Picture]From: buscemi
2007-05-05 05:51 am (UTC)

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Oh, noes! People might start thinking! We can't have that now. ;)
[User Picture]From: joxn
2007-05-05 06:04 am (UTC)

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Just bought a copy.

I wonder what they would have thought of Sewer, Gas, and Electric?
[User Picture]From: solarbird
2007-05-05 06:12 am (UTC)

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Or, for that matter, Dad's Nuke?
[User Picture]From: jenlight
2007-05-05 06:38 am (UTC)

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Was this college or high school?
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2007-05-05 02:46 pm (UTC)

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Community college, Long Island's own version on Quincy College!
[User Picture]From: ohilya
2007-05-05 07:47 am (UTC)

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Bloody hell. Those students need to develop a sense of humour STAT.
[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2007-05-05 12:18 pm (UTC)

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ROFL. This is why I'm not planning to teach English.
[User Picture]From: marlowe1
2007-05-29 08:10 pm (UTC)

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Seconded.

My masters in English is not going to send me to a school. No. No. No. It's going to be useless.

Oh wait.
From: impysh
2007-05-05 12:45 pm (UTC)

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Suddenly I feel that I need to buy this book...

I take it none of these students have ever read the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
[User Picture]From: jenlight
2007-05-05 02:47 pm (UTC)

Off topic, but I feel the need to tell you this.

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I had a dream about your LJ last night. You had made a post telling everyone who was posting incessantly about some basketball player and his wife that they had 30 minutes to stop or you would de-friend them. The funny part was the post had the offender's icons and as you removed them you bothered to have an image 100 pixels by 100 pixels replacing where their icon had been with a diagonal "removed" stamp in red. I remember thinking that was a lot of work to go to and normally you'd just make fun of them. My-head-Nick is a serious drama queen.
[User Picture]From: adriennelily
2007-05-05 03:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Off topic, but I feel the need to tell you this.

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Haha, that's the funniest thing I've read all day!
[User Picture]From: rimrunner
2007-05-05 03:08 pm (UTC)

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Heh. All this makes me move the book further up my to-read list.
[User Picture]From: jtylerblue
2007-05-05 05:23 pm (UTC)

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"normal" people....shocking. this reminds me a little of when i lived in LA and (then) Gov Pete Wilson came up with Prop 187 and my mother (a banker) was supporting it because "they come over here and take our jobs" - the "they" being mexicans and other's from central/south america and "our" i guess being those lucky enough to be born on a latitude line that is north of the US/Mexico border. i asked her if she really feared that a columbian was going to take her job at the bank. she said, not her job, other jobs that "americans" might want. like what? grape picker? yeah...what every boy dreams about becoming.

if people are really worried about population displacement - have more kids of your own.

[User Picture]From: ms_daisy_cutter
2007-05-10 01:42 pm (UTC)

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if people are really worried about population displacement - have more kids of your own.

Xrist. Don't encourage them.
From: ex_blue_verv849
2007-05-05 05:59 pm (UTC)

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I was told that Harry Potter outsold me.

I eagerly await a day that will never come in which that statement could be aptly applied to something I wrote.

That would rock.

Community college? Please tell me this was an intro course that everyone has to take. If it's not, lie to me.
From: coldfyre
2007-05-05 07:47 pm (UTC)

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Those reactions are incredible... reading this makes me want to be an author. I hope what you said has a lasting impact on at least some of them!
[User Picture]From: rjcrowtherjr
2007-05-05 10:48 pm (UTC)

Mamatas made me eat my mother!

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I laughed so hard when I read this, until I discovered the age of the students, and then I wanted to weep and tear out my hair. I hope you made a few students quake enough to crack the foundations of their dominant paradigms.

And, ya know, Jack Ketchum promoted child abuse and teen rape in "The Girl Next Door," and Stephen King revealed to the world in "The Shining," "The Stand," and "The Green Mile" that African-Americans have secret magical powers. William S. Burroughs encouraged an entire generation of disaffected, homosexual youth to get hooked on Mugwump jism.

As for the comment, "So...this book is a FANTASY!!"--maybe you should have whipped out a copy GWB's last State of the Union address, and whispered knowingly--"People are dying for a good fantasy."

Always love reading along,
Rob
From: hangedwoman
2007-05-14 10:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Mamatas made me eat my mother!

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Your comment about The Girl Next Door is made even more ironic when you consider that it was based on actual events. And quite frankly, Ketchum softened it up a bit; of course he pretty much had to in order to make it readable.
[User Picture]From: jonhansen
2007-05-06 01:46 am (UTC)

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It sounds like it was a triumph. Well done.
[User Picture]From: martyn44
2007-05-06 08:34 am (UTC)

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It is the writer's duty to pander to the prejudices and insecurities of everyone who might possibly read their work and portray the world as being perfect and where life is beautiful all the time...

Which is why we're all such failures.

And what about the reader's duty not to be an idiot?
From: ex_14thedit
2007-05-06 07:08 pm (UTC)

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Suffolk Community College -- my alma matta. Glad to see nothing's changed.
From: (Anonymous)
2007-05-06 08:18 pm (UTC)

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It was the barely legal anal part. They didn't wanna admit they Googled it too.

"So...this book is a FANTASY!!"

Well you had nuclear science in there. Damn writers always mixing genres. How's a gal (or dude) supposed to know fact from bullshit?
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