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"That Would Never Really Happen" and Other Fictions

Respecting the imagination in the age of "reality" media The other day, I heard a high school English teacher talking about changes her department was considering in their literature offerings. Grapes of Wrath was on the table. The students found it hard to get through, and so they were thinking of having..


Respecting the imagination in the age of "reality" media

The other day, I heard a high school English teacher talking about changes her department was considering in their literature offerings. Grapes of Wrath was on the table. The students found it hard to get through, and so they were thinking of having them read excerpts instead. They would choose just the documentary-ish passages, and supplement them with images and historic documents on the Great Depression.They wanted to keep Steinbeck still on the syllabus, though, because, she said, "what we really value about Steinbeck is that he's an authentic voice. He really lived through what he described. He followed the Okies. That he is authentic is very important to us."Hmmm. There are several lamentable trends in this school's thoughts about Steinbeck, and they all relate to an impoverished view of fiction. Chopping up Grapes of Wrath and having students read chapters here and there compromises the aesthetic experience involved in reading a complete work of art. One would not have students only look at the bottom right of a painting in order to understand Rembrandt's work. Part and whole are interdependent.But more distressing is the degradation of fiction to documentation of reality, and the vaunting of "authenticity"-in this case, the author's actual lived experience with the subject of his work-as a main criterion for the work's value in the curriculum.The "Real" is vaunted above all, still, proving Lionel Trilling's decades-old thesis that "In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant."Literature is a form of understanding history, yes. But it is refracted, transformed. The path does not go in a straight line from author/experience to some transparent translation into words that are then filed in a reader's head.Nor is the lived experience of an author a prerequisite for literary excellence. If it were, Anna Karenina would be shelved, to pick one of a zillion possible examples.But we know all this, don't we? We are post-modernist ironists, are we not? We know that reality is not always verifiable, empirical, documentable, right? Of course. We watch reality t.v. well-aware much is scripted, edited, honed to bring us to the reveal, only to cut away to a commercial. We know, but we do not act as if we know.What we seem to have is a failure of the imagination. Fiction means making things up. The imagination is as prized and teachable as dates of the Great Depression. We need to understand how to teach students to read and talk about reading in ways that do not require discussions along the lines of: "Is that the way it really was?" or "I can relate to that." Instead, we need to value reading as an act and process of understanding others, emotions, values and experiences that are alien to us yet still true, and unverifiable yet still historical.Perhaps the spate of faked memoirs-an inversion of Grapes of Wrath as historical evidence-is making teachers jittery, and causing the question of whether "that really happened" to become a criteria for aesthetic excellence. Well, if it takes Lord of the Flies off the curriculum, perhaps it is not such a bad thing.I promise not to continue in this vein of cranky crumdudgeon for much longer.