In the past few days, I’ve been reading the crème of contemporary Irish fiction for my Focus portfolio (the second half of my comprehensives), which is Contemporary Irish Prose (1966-present), but I’m really concentrating on Celtic Tiger and post-Celtic Tiger work (1990-present). I’ve read Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (I’m going to have to read it again, I think, for pleasure), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship. I’d already read John Banville’s The Sea, but I skimmed it so I could remember that the prose is stunning (it’s Banville, after all), but I like other works of his better. This is Literature with a capital L.
(And as I’m reading through my list alphabetically, I ended up reading three in a row that featured child narrators…so I skipped the next one on the list, Frank McCourt, because I couldn’t handle another child narrator—which is why Toibin follows Donoghue.)
But I turned in my book orders for my fall classes on Friday, my Crime Lit 180 and my Micro 151H. (More on the 151H later.) But the purpose of the 180, as detailed in the Aims and Scopes, is that we question what constitutes literature, why we read, and how we talk about and value that written word. I could have chosen a reading list for that class that focused on canonical work of some sort, but for the most part, I’m not a canonical person. It’s not my forte. But as I started to consider what I might do for this class, months ago, I started with a maxim that’s become a staple of my classes (no matter if they’re comp, creative writing, or literature):
I don’t care what you read, just as long as you read.
I mean it. I don’t care if my students are reading romance novels or Twilight or whatever the New York Times bestseller is. You don’t have to read the latest National Book Award Winner, the latest Nobel Prize winner, the latest Pulitzer winner. You learn as much about what makes a sentence work (or fail) in a thousand other books, a thousand other writers. If you tell me you don’t like you read, I’ll tell you you’re not reading the right stuff. And then I’ll hand you a book.
You can learn as much from a mass market paperback—I can learn history, I can learn politics, I can learn what it means to be human from any of a zillion “popular” books on my shelves. But the point is not to make a distinction between Literature and other books—even though my literary fiction is separated on the shelf from my fluffy fiction—but to recognize the value (and the shortcomings) of popular fiction. When I taught intro to fiction these last two semesters, I deliberately started my class reading short stories, but we finished up the class with a novel. Why? Because while my students will probably sit down to write a short story, when they want pleasure reading, they’ll probably pick up a novel. So it was important to teach my students how to look at a novel like a writer.
Teaching literature, the flip side of that writing coin, offered a different challenge. What kind of literature (as in a group of books) did I feel was necessary to teach, and why did I feel that way? During my Fall 2011 fiction writing class, the novel we read was William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake, because it was his debut novel, it had won several awards, it was brilliant, and it was a mystery set in the wilds of rural northern Minnesota. I wanted to show my students that there are no boundaries to good writing, that you can write about anything and anywhere and it can be good—and you’ll find masters and mistresses of the brilliant sentence in all kinds of genres. The same goes for reading. (Ironically, in my Spring 2012, where the texts I chose were Irish, the cover copy of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea is described as a murder mystery. That was an accident…)
But when it came to figuring out how a class on crime literature could function, and more specifically, on place in crime literature, I needed to justify to myself what I was doing. I would teach Poe, because that’s where we start—and nobody does atmosphere like Poe. I hadn’t read any Sherlock Holmes myself, which seemed weird considering mysteries are where I go when I want literary entertainment. So we’ll read some Sherlock Holmes. He’s also getting some contemporary film and television adaptations (with Robert Downey, Jr. and what’s his name), so there’s an enduring quality there. I’d also never read Agatha Christie, even though I did see “The Mousetrap” when I was in London with my family in 2000. Dad had seen the play in 1975 when he was in London and so we carried on the tradition of participating in the longest continuously running play in the world. I thought we’d read some Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, probably)—but then I thought we’d watch the movie, add to the discussion of forms of literature—but I really dislike Hammett. Maybe if I hadn’t read Lillian Hellman’s memoir first I’d like him better, but I can’t. So I switched to The Big Sleep—and we’ll watch that one. I’ll photocopy a few pages of the book for my students, because Chandler is brilliant, and I kind of fell in love with him and his wit. And we’d round out the “classic” portion of the semester with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. After the midterm paper (wherever it falls in the semester), we’ll read Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (place-based urban) and Krueger’s Iron Lake (place-based rural), then finish out the semester with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (nonfiction).
But here’s the point, the reason why I think all of this is important to teach a class on: popular fiction, specifically crime fiction, plays an essential role in how we form discussions in real life. Because crime literature—in all its various subgenres—fills a gap in our entertainment, in our lives, that we can hardly acknowledge exists. There’s a reason that John Grisham is the force he is—and it’s not because of his luminous prose.
Crime literature allows us to have conversations and raise issues that literary fiction does not—and I’m not drawing a distinction, that crime lit can’t be literary and vice versa. In the books I’ve chosen, it’s easier to have a discussion about how place and class affects characters, like in Mystic River (which is a good movie, but should not be compared to the book, which is freaking brilliant and nuanced in ways the movie cannot be). It’s easier to talk about gender with Rebecca, how the narrator (the second Mrs. de Winter) is never named, how the character who provides the engine for the book—Rebecca—is dead, for crying out loud. We can talk about gendering with Chandler (book/movie) too, how women are represented in hard-boiled fiction. We can talk about violence against women being used for entertainment value. We can talk about the effect that place has on the characters. (I'm working on articulating a clearer vision of this, so stay tuned...)
But mostly, it’s because the world is a cool place that rarely makes sense, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes it’s nice to read a book that bears absolutely no resemblance to your own life. And it’s easier to have these kinds of conversations about books my students are more likely to pick up on their own, and teach them what they’re looking at and how to look at the book, how to talk about what they see and what they think. That’s what any good course will do.