While I enjoyed writing my first carnival article about the state of American education, and I equally enjoyed writing the follow-up article giving better explanation about how I feel about the state of American education, I decided I'd like to step away from education a little bit since there are things that are a much bigger part of my life that I'd like to address here.
You all know I'm a literista, as apparent from my previous articles. And as passionate as I am about writing and language (linguilitist), I am equally as passionate about literature and reading (literista). And I'm a bit of a snob when I get to Barnes & Noble and it's time for me to pick out a new book to read.
I have always loved reading. Even when I was a kid and was supposed to be cleaning my room, I would clean a little, then spend the next forty-five minutes organizing the books on my bookcase (and then reading them).
When I got to college, I loved my literature courses. My professors generally chose pieces I really enjoyed reading, and even if I didn't enjoy reading the material, I appreciated it within an academic context.
One of my favorite professors once told me "Literature rewards rereading." Her claim was that "books" are not necessarily "literature." James Patterson, for all his readers, is not a writer of literature. Neither is Janet Evanovich. Generally, when you read one of those types of books, you get all you can out of the reading the first time around, and then you move on to other titles (or other authors).
Literature is different.
One of my favorite novels is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read it twice in college and taught it to my junior classes last year. And I intend to read it again in a few years. It's a great book. And one of the wonderful things about Gatsby is that, despite all the dated elements in the story, it has a lasting power that makes it a book you can read more than once. When you reread Gatsby, you find things you didn't notice before, you relate to different things based on your life experiences, and it's just as great a story as it was the first time you picked it up.
That's literature. You're rewarded for having read it more than once.
When I'm in Barnes & Noble I like to wander through the stacks, looking at the different books available, letting my eye wander to whatever author or title it will. Sometimes I find new favorites that way, and sometimes I look at a book and (carefully) cram it back in its spot muttering, "How the hell did that get published?" I'm sure other writers have thought the same thing as they've seen or read about different books.
A book about surviving zombie attacks? Really?
While I greatly dislike that so many books are published with seemingly no respect for the quality of work contained within the brightly-colored cover, I know these books will continue to be published and sold because there is a market for them. There are people who are not avid readers or graduates of English or writers who want to escape into the pages of fiction, but don't enjoy some of the titles I do.
Just as different genres have developed to appeal to different readers' interests, different qualities of work have emerged to appeal to different readers. But come on. Zombie attacks? Really?
I try not to be too judgemental when it comes to reading material because I know how varied people's tastes are. And yet, I can't help but think there should be some sort of standard for what gets published. As a writer, it frustrates me that people stoop to such levels to be published. I understand writers' attempts to appeal to a certain reader base. I understand publisher's attempts to sell books and knowing that, yes, people want to read "fluffy" fiction.
But to step back to my anti-illiteracy stance in American education, does it really help American readership when writers and publishers write to the lowest denominator of reader? In classrooms teachers try to push their students to read at or above their grade levels. Some high schools teach novels that are considered college-level reading, knowing students may not get everything, but at least they'll be forced to stretch their reading a little in an attempt to understand what they're reading.
And yet, when they get out of school and are finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, Romeo & Juliet, and The Jungle, they turn to formulaic fiction and "chick lit" to fill a desire for intellectual advancement, and these new titles fall short. Why push yourself to read more difficult pieces if there's no incentive (grades, homework, etc.)? And the brain is like any muscle: if you don't exercise it, atrophy occurs. And the less readers push themselves, the less they want to push themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Meanwhile, many writers spend years perfecting novels that don't get published. I have writer friends who write and revise and rework and rewrite to meet the high standards of the literature they read, and while their novels get passed over, someone published a book about how to survive a robot uprising. Yep. Robots.
Where have the standards gone? Is our culture so far gone that someone will publish anything? (And if that's the case, why haven't I gotten published?) I suppose it speaks to our readers more than our writers and publishers that this is the case. After all, if there wasn't a market for schlock, it wouldn't be published, right?
What do we do?
I appeal to the readers of the world to help raise the standards of writing. When you visit Barnes & Noble to pick up something to read, choose carefully. Don't immediately pick up a book from the first display you see. Wander the stacks. Look at your options. Think about what you want. Do you really want to spend $25.00 on a book you'll read and then donate to a local rummage sale? Or do you want something with substance, staying power, and something with what it takes to draw you to the book over and over again with that little extra something that makes you feel like you're reading it for the first time?
Help eliminate the need for schlock! Show writers and publishers that fiction and literature can, in fact, be one in the same! And just because it's labeled "Romance" or "Chick lit" or "Crime novel" doesn't mean it can't be literature.
I urge you to read. But I urge you to be discerning in what you read, as well. I urge you to care about what you put into your mind as much as you care about what you put into your mouth. Have respect for yourself when you look for something to read!
And whatever else you do, keep reading!