Relating to the Journey of Change

by Rachel Wicks

First, I would like to take a moment to apologize for the posting inconsistency during the past few weeks. I have been extremely sick for the past month and it is unbelievably difficult to compose literature articles with a 101 degree fever.

I’m still not recovered in the slightest, but I refuse to let my responsibilities towards this blog slip through the cracks during the end-of-semester rush. Therefore, without further ado, I would like to discuss active reading strategies.

During my time as the intern for the CLTL blog, there has been one main idea that I have seen continuously referred to again and again: putting one’s self in the shoes of a fictional character. I first encountered this idea when I personally attended one of the CLTL meetings held at UMass Dartmouth, which you can read about here.

When I first started working for the CLTL, I was still rather uncertain on how exactly literature was being used as a means of alternative sentencing. I did not see how reading books could have an effect strong enough to be a form of sentencing in the first place, but on the day I attended the CLTL meeting in person, I finally understood that what makes reading such a powerful method of change is that the readers are being encouraged to actively identify with the characters in the story.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that members of the CLTL program, both attendees and facilitators alike, undoubtedly benefit from directly employing active reading strategies.

The main strategy in place by the CLTL, of course, is the aforementioned character relating. Most books are written so that the main character is set up to be someone that anyone can relate to, whether the reader is identifying with the situation of the character, the personality, the background, the dialogue, the emotion, etc.

More often than not, the main way that writers can make their characters relatable is by placing them in situations of failure. For example, The Old Man and the Sea would be pretty boring if Santiago had caught that fish on his very first try. It’s through this character’s struggle to succeed that we relate, as opposed to the success itself, since struggle is far more universal than success is.

However, there may one day be a case where relating to a character may be particularly difficult. If this is the case, it can probably be safely assumed that this is a purposeful choice by the writer, but even so it may be necessary to actively force oneself to think from that character’s perspective, instead of being able to slip into their shoes and see out their own two eyes with ease.

Forcing oneself to relate may be difficult at times, but I would argue that stories that are a little harder to relate to can be some of the most powerful. Throughout my readings over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. When an author writes a character to be particularly unlikable, to the point where one cannot see themselves as the character, this character often undergoes a catharsis throughout the course of the story, and suddenly the reader, who was once so against this character, finds himself sympathetic to the character as they undergo emotional change.

Perhaps the character starts out cold hearted but, in the end, finds love. Perhaps a character begins with an embedded idea that no one is to be trusted, but as the story goes on, they learn to trust and understand that it’s okay to rely on others.

No matter the case, if you encounter a character who, unlike other stories you may have read, is essentially a gaping void of where human empathy should be, watch how they change over time. It’s quite possible that you might find yourself changing with them.

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Why men opt out of the (women’s) fiction world

by Leonce Gaiter

Fewer and fewer men read fiction. They compose only about 20% of the fiction market according to surveys. Some lay this off to genetics, suggesting that the way men’s minds work discourages them from entering into another’s experience the way fiction demands.

“Boys and men are, in general, more convergent and linear in their thinking; this would naturally draw them towards non-fiction,” wrote author Darragh McManus, pondering the question.

Others, like Jason Pinter, suggest that the overwhelmingly female publishing industry simply overlooks books that appeal to men because they fall outside the female experience. In other words, men now suffer the same fate women suffered at the hands of a male-dominated publishing industry for so many years.

Others suggest that boys are discouraged from reading at a young age by children’s books that fail to engage them. Give them the proper material, the story goes, and young boys will engage with reading. They point to the fact that young males were principal consumers of the Harry Potter books as proof. “More boys than girls have read the Harry Potter novels,” according to U.S. publisher, Scholastic. “What’s more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys’ reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement ‘I didn’t read books for fun before reading Harry Potter,’ compared to 41 percent of girls.”

I always balked at these rationales because I read fiction all the time. However, thinking on it, I had to admit that I avoid modern fiction like the plague. I have tried the popular plot-thick page-turners and the feel-good tearjerkers and the occasional cause célèbre with a literary reputation. So many have left me so cold, that I simply won’t shell out the cash for a paperback or e-book version, much less a hardcover.

Trying to assess what I find lacking in most of the current novels I attempt, I believe their utter reliance on the world around them (and me) is supremely dull. So many work so hard to place characters in a world I will recognize. Too many work hard to create characters with which I (or their prime demographic audience) will ‘identify’ with and recognize as someone they could be, or someone they know.

It then made sense that men would ask why they should read something “made up” about this world when there is plenty of factual reading material on that subject. I have never approached fiction to re-visit “this world.” I’m already here. Instead, I want an alternative—a vision of this world exhaled through the writers’ and characters’ hearts, minds and eyes. Exhaled with the distinction of the smell of an individual’s breath. Fitzgerald’s Long Island in The Great Gatsby is his own creation, no kitchen sink recreation. Fitzgerald’s people and prose warp this place into something utterly unique.

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles is his distinctive projection of that city. You don’t pick up Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me with the idea of identifying with the protagonist. You don’t grab Faulkner to meet the boys next door or titter with recognition of your kith and kin. You don’t visit Patricia Highsmith to look in a mirror. You pick them up to enter worlds as fantastical in their way as Harry Potter’s. I read fiction to meet characters I otherwise would not. I read fiction for the larger than life—not a retread of this one. I want to watch and think with characters who are nothing like me, who dare what I never would, who experience in ways that I cannot.

In an article titled, “Why Women Read More Than Men,” NPR suggested a biological reason why women read more fiction than men, quoting Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. “The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.”

Reading fiction does not require that you empathize with characters in the sense of “ascribing… feelings or attitudes present in oneself.” It requires that you regard and grow intrigued by characters such that you may come to a greater understanding of them—perhaps even to the point of empathizing with them. However, you need not imagine yourself as them, or believe that they behave as you or as members of your social circle would. That’s not reading; it’s narcissism.

Perhaps more men stopped reading fiction when fiction stopped regularly presenting unique, literary revisions of this world, and settled for presenting a photographic facsimile such that readers (most of them female) could better “empathize.” Maybe we’re too megalomaniacal and obsessed with grandeur for that, and thus want words recreated and re-imagined, instead of rehashed.

“Shall I project a world,” asks Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Somewhere along the line, in tandem with the female domination of the publishing industry and fiction readership, the ideal of doing so fell from vogue. Instead, writers rely more and more on identification with this one. Male readers seem to have checked out.

Leonce GaiterLeonce Gaiter is a prolific African American writer and proud Harvard Alum. His writing has appeared in the NY Times, NYT Magazine, LA Times, Washington Times, and Washington Post, and he has written two novels. His newly released novel In the Company of Educated Men, published by Astor + Blue Editions, is a literary thriller with socio-economic, class, and racial themes.

Is Blogging A Threat to Quality Writing?

Literary expression takes many forms; from short stories to expanded documentation covering myriad subjects.  Throughout history, authors have set themselves apart offering written works as diverse as romantic novels and epic tales of adventure, spanning several volumes.  Within each genre, sub-specialists write in styles running the gamut from concise academic form, to sprawling embellishments of everyday encounters.  Thanks to technology and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, there is a relatively new player on the field, begging the question:  Are bloggers a threat to literary integrity?

Motivation Dictates Value

Before people had pencils and pens, drawings and symbols left on cave walls were effective communication.  So who took responsibility for preserving thoughts in this way?  The cave people skilled at drawing most likely bore much of the burden, but lesser illustrators surely weighed in too.  As communication became more important to society, formalizing language and alphabets, more and more people took up writing as a form of expression.  Early writers were not necessarily highly-skilled. But they wrote anyway, because they could. So the slippery slope of unskilled writers sharing ideas, whether or not they have the slightest clue how to do it properly, is nothing new.

It could even be argued that the same motivation existed for cave drawers as for some of today’s bloggers.  Fame and recognition, the desire to be heard and remembered, are motivators for taking pens to paper, charcoal to cave walls, and most recently, fingertips to keyboards.  What has changed over time is the relative importance of fame, heightened in an information age placing great emphasis on celebrity and adulation.

The evolution of the World Wide Web continues to change the landscape for fame-seekers.  An instant audience, perhaps millions, is a powerful draw for those committed to being noticed.  As a result, many bloggers put the cart before the horse; adding to the blogosphere, before they really have something to say.  Blogging’s greatest threat to quality writing is found among ‘vanity’ blogs, serving only their authors; rather than informative, relevant content shared by capable writers blogging online.

Blog Economics

In addition to personal rewards for bloggers, the practice of sharing online carries cash benefits, once bloggers establish followings.  Unfortunately, poorly written blogs yield returns for bloggers able to draw traffic, in spite of themselves.  When poor content is rewarded with cash, it might appear as though it undermines quality writing, but it may be too soon to judge.

Blogging is an evolving pursuit, subject to corrections as it matures into a long-term phenomenon. And just as competition influences other economic trends, bloggers face free market influences, which may eventually serve to elevate good writing and take incentives away from bloggers spewing drivel.

Purely promotional blog content, disguised as education, is increasingly being called-out for what it is, filtering-out blogs without intrinsic value. Spam gives blogs a bad name, but it also makes legitimate content shine amid the noise.  In other words, bloggers with something meaningful to share will prevail, but only with a firm commitment to high quality content, and perseverance sharing their messages.

Discouraging signs may show themselves in the short-term, but blogging is not a threat to quality writing over the long haul.

 

This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for Backgroundchecks.org. She welcomes your comments at her email: GrayRebecca14@gmail.com

Does reading really make us better people? Some questions on ethics and literature

by Patrick Fessenbecker 
 

photo by chalocuaz on Flickr.

In recent posts, both Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall have laid out some of the explanatory work behind what I take to be one of the central claims of the CLTL project: namely, that reading books – especially good books – helps one to be a better person. 
 

“Deep” reading, according to Waxler, allows us to “break free from our single lives…from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence.”  For Hall, it is essential that this reading take place within a community: “Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.”
 

Hall and Waxler are in some good company here. Both in thinking of art as enabling individuals to break some of the limiting bounds of their egoism, and in thinking of the community of artistic reception as contributing to ethical life and personal happiness, they reiterate positions recognizable in the history of literary and aesthetic theory. George Eliot, for instance, in The Natural History of German Life, offers a view of reading that bears a close resemblance to Waxler’s view: as she puts it, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with out fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” 
 

And – just in case we were missing the ethical implications – she tells us “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”   In other words, by enabling to see past ourselves, to see outside of our “linear and local perspectives,” literature enables to live a different and better kind of life: one that is in closer contact or “sympathy” with others, to use Eliot’s terms, than the life which our natural egoism would lead us to live otherwise. 

 

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What Do We Mean by Changing Lives and, Anyway, Why Literature?

photo by voxtheory on flickr

by Jane Hale 
 

All students in the Changing Lives Through Literature program, without exception, need to make changes in their lives. In fact, they are all doing so, as do all of the rest of us, for to be alive is to change. While change is inevitable, though, its direction is not.
 

The CLTL students have typically experienced a number of changes for the worse in their lives, sometimes in their family situation, often in their behavior, and probably most recently in their status within the legal system. Some have gone from not having a record to getting one, some from minor scrapes with the law to a major one. Many of them have learned only two ways to deal with this kind of painful change: acting out in inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating ways or numbing their pain with drugs and alcohol. Making them aware of other, less self-defeating options that will redirect their lives in more positive directions is the purpose of CLTL.

 

What better way to explore options for one’s life than to read and talk and think and write about how others live theirs? And about how our experiences and choices are related to theirs? About how we might learn from their mistakes, learn to feel compassion for people different from ourselves, be validated by finding out that others experience the same frustrations, doubts, and difficulties as we do in their own lives, that we are not alone?
 

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Our Words, Ourselves

 

henrymiller1 rick bass

 by Christopher Eisenhart
 

Any time we communicate, we have an opportunity to invent ourselves for our audience. Literature is no different.  When we read a new story, just as when we meet a new person in our lives, we take cues from what they say and how they say it to see whether or not we trust their account, what their biases are, and whether or not we’ll decide to like them.
 

The following excerpts are taken from two short pieces of literature. They each carry the same purpose:  to begin the story and to introduce the antagonist. But along the way, what they also do is “invent” and tell us an awful lot about the narrators themselves.  And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention.

 
So please take a minute to consider each…and this’ll work all the better if you’re willing to read each excerpt aloud…

 

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