As someone who teaches young adult fiction at a university, I am troubled by the recent crop of opinion pieces about adults who read this genre. At Slate, Ruth Graham wants anyone over 18 to be embarrassed to enjoy YA (as those who study, catalog, or publish the genre call it). And on the opinion page of The New York Times, in a piece plaintively titled “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Joel Stein writes “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Over at The New Republic, at least, Hillary Kelly thinks you should have the courage to read whatever the hell you want.
I like Kelly’s commitment to seeing some continuity between adulthood and childhood. However, both those who defend the adults who now read YA and those who attack them seem to assume that such readers have suddenly departed from a long-established norm of adults reading novels written for adults only.
Whatever you think of YA’s mixed-age readership, there is one thing you should know: there is no 3,000-year history of fiction written for adults. There is barely a 100-year history of such fiction. The adult novel is a relatively new invention, one that is not much older than YA itself. So all the adults now skulking or striding proudly down the ever-expanding YA aisle are not in fact breaking with a long tradition of adult reading. If we look back a couple of centuries, we find that in many ways YA’s mixed-age readership is perfectly normal for the Anglo-American novel. Fiction about young people triumphing over adversity in morally satisfying ways has long been default reading for people of any age who read fiction at all.
Look at the title page of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 breakthrough novel Pamela, which shattered sales records and inspired Pamela fans, teacups, and a multitude of other consumer tie-ins. It proudly announces that the book was written in order to improve “the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.” And its protagonist, Pamela Andrews herself, is a beautiful and indomitable 16 year-old who confronts the perils, sexual and otherwise, of a hostile world, winning a resounding finale of emotional and material rewards. Sound familiar?
The winning adventures of one plucky young protagonist or another play out through two centuries of the Anglo-American novel. And it’s not just these characters and the arc of their plot that resemble YA, but the ages of these novels’ actual readers as well. From Pamela’s day through the end of the 19th century, these novels were devoured by readers of all ages. They promised to teach moral lessons to inexperienced young people, and we have records of children as young as nine weeping over Pamela. But masses of older people read them as well.
Until recently, even boundaries between more specialized children’s literature and what we now see as literature for adults were quite blurry: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden first appeared in The American Magazine, whose other contributors include Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; E. Nesbit’s Adventures of the Treasure Seekers was first serialized in the similarly eclectic Strand. When Little Women came out in 1869, lawyers, merchants, and office clerks happily chatted at work about the tribulations of the March girls.
People who are shocked by the fact that The Fault In Our Stars has mixed-age market appeal, even after witnessing the sales of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, will be equally shocked by a list of turn-of-the-century American best-sellers. Heidi, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, and Little Lord Fauntleroy topped the charts between 1865 and 1914. Ever since T.S. Eliot, critics have tended to draw a bright line between Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which Eliot called a "boys' book," and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Eliot insists "does not fall into the category of juvenile literature." However, through the first decades of the 20th century, both books were praised as equally fabulous for "boys of all ages" — which meant that they were good for a male of any age whatsoever. Gender, not age, was the criterion for identifying appropriate readers. The "great works of American fiction," the prominent literary critic Leslie Fieldler wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), "are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library."
So what is “adult fiction” and why do we now use it as our standard? Adult fiction has never been a description of what most adults actually read, but rather a fairly new aesthetic and psychological standard riding the coattails of a trendy political ideal. In principle, adulthood is an egalitarian idea. The claim that everyone has the right to vote when they turn 18, for example, implies a more leveling view of the world than does claiming this right as the exclusive property of a few people who own a lot of property. Coming into adulthood is now supposed to mean coming into power, in your personal life and in the wider world. But until quite recently, most people, most of the time, did not expect age alone to bring them much power over much of anything.
Late 19th- and 20th-century public policy and the emerging discipline of psychology charted a new path through life. In particular, universal state-sponsored education structured lives according to a new sense of age. Everyone became part of a cohort: we now read — as we reason, play, and love — at, above, or below grade level. From kindergarten eligibility to child-labor restrictions, from voter registration to old-age pensions, this path created newly precise and standardized age distinctions and invested them with meaning. And the apex of all these developmental schemes is adulthood, which in the 20th century became not only a key legal status, but also an always-out-of-reach personal aspiration — the golden moment when we transcend our lousy judgment, sexual confusion, self-centeredness, and other woes. And in this sense, far from being an egalitarian, leveling sort of idea, adulthood becomes a deliciously elite one: most adults, it turns out, are not adult at all. Modernist novelists of this era like Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and the critics who valued them, were the first writers to rely on “adult” as a synonym for “good.”
In playing down plots that reward good deeds and punish bad ones (and in playing up ambiguity, formal complexity, and explicit sex), the Modernists were not writing for an existing adult audience. They were calling it into being. They were fighting to demolish the mixed-age audience they had inherited: "Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing is so much to be borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls," lamented Henry James. Eventually, the Modernists prevailed — in ideals about reading if not actual practice. Their new idea of the adult novel meant that other kinds of novels became suddenly and conspicuously non-adult, enabling all the guilty pleasures of the self-consciously crossover reader that flourish so vigorously today.
Modernist ideas about adult reading were especially appealing to mid-20th-century English departments. They took root in part because they were helpful in establishing the profession of literary criticism as an adult affair, a proper part of the intellectual life of the university, in contrast to the poorly rewarded child-centered work of primary and secondary education.
So, as a market phenomenon that cashes in on a high-stakes, intensively calibrated sense of age, YA is indeed a late-20th- and 21st-century thing. But there is nothing new at all about great numbers of fully grown people reading fiction that was not written for adults. What is fairly new is the value we place on a particular sense of adulthood. There are lots of interesting arguments to have about what makes any novel bad, good, or great. Using age as shorthand for aesthetic quality is not the best way to frame these arguments. Since the ideal of adulthood is now so important, whenever another YA book tops the best-seller lists, the opinion pieces on mixed-age readership will continue to fly. But awareness of the complex history of age and reading may help to deepen the discussions we have about the place of YA in an English department’s curriculum.
We may be turning and turning in a polar vortex, with April, or what folks in the creative-writing biz call poetry month, seeming like an impossible dream, but poetry is nevertheless in the air right now. In Walt Whitman’s case, it’s on the air: Apple’s ad for iPad Air, “Your Verse,” which debuted on January 12, includes lines from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” — as read by Robin Williams in a monologue from “Dead Poets Society” — ending with
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—what good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Two shorter 30-second versions — “Light Verse” (possibly the first time in literary history that the word “light” has been used in reference to Whitman, and a misrepresentation of the opening of “O Me!”) and “Sound Verse” — which begins with “To quote from Whitman, ...” have since aired.
This series represents Whitman’s second starring role in contemporary advertising: a 2009 ad campaign for Levi’s featured excerpts from two Whitman poems, “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” recorded by Will Geer for Folkways Records in 1957, and “America,” read by Whitman himself in an 1890 wax-cylinder recording.
It isn’t so hard to imagine Whitman embracing subsequent new technology. The opening alone of his “Song of Myself” — “I celebrate myself,” later revised and expanded to “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — marks not only the start, as a number of critics have argued, of modern poetry, but also arguably the start of social media.
If the ego of that I drives and sustains the work, there is also room not only for his sprawling catalogs of life but also for “you,” the reader, who appears as early as the second line. The point was, always, connection: Whitman believed that poetry could heal a nation torn apart by financial concerns and ugly politics and policies (see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography). To adapt Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, “London, 1802”: “[Whitman], thou should’st be living at this hour; / [America] hath need of thee: she is a fen/ Of stagnant waters...”
Whitman isn’t the only poetic presence evoked this month; another 19th-century giant — the one who said, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” — has also made a public appearance.
Here’s Emily Dickinson — showing up ironically and wonderfully — in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” in Rebecca Mead’s essay on the Dickinson projects of poet and visual artist Jen Bervin (“Back of the Envelope” Jan. 27, 2014). What an image: Dickinson, dressed in white and wearing oversized sunglasses, arriving in Manhattan among fanfare, being driven to a borrowed townhouse, then shutting the door, pouring a glass of wine, and reading about herself in The New Yorker.
Why do I find these recent appearances of Whitman and Dickinson so exhilarating — so hopeful? Aside from the pleasure I take in finding any mention of poetry outside of the time frame of April/Poetry Month, it’s heartening to come upon these references in the midst of reading article after article on the death of the humanities.
For, if there have been times of personal and/or professional doubt when I wanted to say, with Marianne Moore, “I too dislike it” (“Poetry”) or when I wanted to side with W. H. Auden’s pronouncement, early in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there have been many more instances when I have had to acknowledge the truth that Auden arrives at by the end of that same poem: it is poetry that will “Let the healing fountain start.”
As Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is the news that stays new.”
The news is mixed, of course. It reminds us, as Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Poppies,” that “of course, / loss is the great lesson” — but even in its — and our — darkest moments, poetry continues to answer one of our deepest needs, summed up by a character in Amy Tan’s novel TheJoy Luck Club: “I wanted to be found.”
That is the secret of poetry’s fresh (psychic) news: quite simply and quite complexly, poems find us, and then they encourage us, as Jorie Graham says in “Afterwards,” to “begin with the world.”
We are in the car, for I am driving my three children somewhere — in those years I was always driving them somewhere — when my 7-year-old son asks me from the back seat, “You like poems, right?” I tell him yes. After a beat of several moments, he asks me, “Do you like bugs?” “Some” I say, suspecting that he has a secret agenda. Several weeks later on Mother’s Day, he brings me the gift he has kept hidden in his room, his pick from the “Reading is Fundamental” Program, which allows students to select a book to keep. He chose, for me, Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of 14 poems about insects. I use the book, along with Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, for years in writing workshops in elementary schools.
It is early on Thanksgiving morning — 3:00 a.m., the dark night of the soul. I am sitting with my father in a cubicle in the ER. He came in here over two hours ago, in pain. The nursing home called me just after midnight, and I told them that I would meet the ambulance. Now my father is sleeping peacefully; I study him: his still-beautiful hands and the striking high cheekbones of his face. I let my mind empty, and lines from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Testing Tree” arrive: “The heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” And then I remember hearing Kunitz himself reading the lines and how the members of the audience, a good-sized crowd on a warm September day, wept. Now, my father is sleeping; across the city, my mother lies awake, waiting for my phone call.
One spring break, I go to the private facility where my sister is a therapist, to conduct a writing workshop. The facility has a program that reunites women with their young children. I prepared for the workshop by gathering several poems about mothers and children, and then, at the last moment, I added William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls.” At the workshop, I hand out copies and read the poem. There is a moment of silence, and then one woman asks, “Are we supposed to fill in the blanks?” A second woman says, “Wait, it’s already a sentence.” And then a third woman looks up — she is tapping the end of the poem, the image of broken but shining “pieces of a green / bottle” — and she says, “It’s us.”
My father’s favorite poem is by Billy Collins: it’s “The Country,” the one about the fire-starter mouse, “the creature / for one bright, shining moment / suddenly thrust ahead of his time.” We always start with this. Then I say, “Here’s another one I think you’ll like, and he says, “All right,” and he folds those (beautiful) hands in his lap, as I read “I Chop Some Onions While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ” which never fails to bring me, like the speaker in the poem, close to tears, and my father says, “That’s a good one. Thank you.”
On another day, I compliment Katie, a young woman working at my father’s nursing home, on her striking new tattoo: it’s a delicate feather, on the inside of her wrist. I ask her what made her choose that design, and she starts to explain that there is a poem that she has always loved. “Yes,” I tell her, “Emily Dickinson! ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ ” and Katie’s eyes light up. “That’s it,” she tells me, “that’s exactly it.”
Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.
It’s that time of decade again, when randomly selected departments at U of All People are faced with assessment. The administration brings in a posse of NAAAAAA experts with credentials bought from the people who sell fake IDs, and has the faculty entertain them for three days while they poke their noses into everything, including Professor Winkle’s Dryden seminar, which no one has disturbed in years. Here’s how the process works, at least in the English department:
Three months before the assessors arrive, the department is galvanized into action by the chair, acting on directives from the dean, obeying the orders of the provost, who bows to the president. “The assessors are coming, the assessors are coming!” shouts the chair from the comparative safety of the rostrum at the semester’s first departmental faculty meeting while everyone else dives for cover. After this warning shot comes the collective indignation of the faculty -- How dare they judge us? We’re in the humanities! -- as the professors go through the Kübler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When everyone has settled down (except for Professor Winkle, who’s settled in for a nap), the chair starts planning the arduous task of self-judgment. The task consists of recruiting three faculty members who blinked at the wrong time, including Professor Winkle, who opened his eyes after his nap. The disgruntled three are assigned to gauge how much the students aren’t learning from the department’s courses.
What are the standards, criteria, methods? The Renaissance contingent proposes noble goals, such as achieving wisdom and learning to appreciate a Shakespearean sonnet, but no one wants to set the bar too high, or the assessment will be that this department needs to pull up its socks.
The faculty debate setting the bar absurdly low: for instance, that students should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee of students passing that bar, either. After several more meetings and the formation of a committee to oversee the assessment committee, the proposal is that each student should be familiar with the terms literature and irony; must know how to put together an argumentative essay proving that Shakespeare was a great writer; and should have enough literary history to realize that 1800 came after 1564, and that both are before 1922. These arbitrary criteria, once insisted upon, achieve a solidity as satisfying as trompe l’oeil papier-mâché walls.
The methods for data collection are decided by the assessment committee, eager to pass on responsibility to other, unwilling faculty. The methods involve snatching away student essays for disappointed analysis: counting how many times the words in my personal opinion and irregardless appear in the essays, seeing whether the arguments hold water (Professor Winkle performs that job over the sink in the fourth floor men’s restroom), and checking for spelling and grammar, assuming that the faculty are up to it.
As an extra concession, the department tracks alumni/ae to see whether anyone actually used the English major to wangle a job; and contemplates giving an exit exam to department seniors, though the offer of free pizza to anyone who’ll sit for the exam gets only three takers. The sample questions include references to periods, movements, literary terms, authors and works, and seven questions on Dryden. The sample size of all the data varies from a dozen to one faked reply by Professor Winkle.
Other creative assessment methods involve tossing the student essays downstairs to see which go farthest, and throwing the I Ching. To tabulate the results: charts with percentages look good, as do bulleted lists, though the superimposition of one over the other is probably (too late) a poor decision.
Tension mounts till the assessors arrive, at least one in a rumpled brown business suit, all looking as if they haven’t slept since the start of the fall semester. The assessors ask a lot of questions, visit classes, and interview people whom no one ever thought to talk to previously, including Clarice, the custodial supervisor for the liberal arts building. Eventually, they write up a report that recommends a 15 percent reduction in adjunct labor, greater funding for core courses, less departmental internecine warfare, and more attention paid to Dryden.
The report is circulated down the ranks until, months later, it reaches the English department faculty. Since the administration has ignored the implications of the report, the department restricts discussion to only 17 hours, spread out among four faculty meetings.
What rides on all this? Not much till next decade’s visit, when the department scrambles to recall what it did the last time.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
Submitted by D.G. Myers on January 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Earlier this month I stepped into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring.
The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox conservative politics and hard-to-credit publication record.)
My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the "I Quit Academe" genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be "Academe Quits Me.")
Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university, gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me.
The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. (In case you're wondering, I had tenure at Texas A&M, where I was for 21 years, but relinquished it to come to Ohio State.)
A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university -- at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed — no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to 7 percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up 45 percent of the faculty.
The imbalance cannot last. Doctoral programs go on awarding doctorates to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university — a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report — pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line, a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach 13 courses a year.)
If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, 9 of every 10 Ph.D. programs in English should be closed down — immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
Poems About Cities
Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
The Image on the Page
Bodies, Selves, Texts
Consumer Culture and Globalization
The Western: Looking Awry
Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
I could study the major texts of Latin literature, to say nothing of higher-level philological pursuits, all the time. Do you know how much that excites me? Not having to do classes whose subjects are hugely, impossibly vague — like World History, like English [like Literature of Public Life]. You know, to anchor them? So they don’t dissolve because of their meaningless? I’ve looked through the sample [U of C] catalog. Holy fuck! Satire and the Silver Age. The Roman Novel. Love and Death: Eros and Transformation in Ovid. The Founding of Epic Meter. I salivated when I saw these names, because they indicate this whole world of knowledge from which I am excluded, and which I can win my way into, with luck and endurance.
That’s it exactly. The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’70s is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously anymore, nor does anyone ask the obvious follow-up. If English literature is not a common pursuit -- not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title -- then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so-called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After 24 years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge -- plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context” -- I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed.
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For 24 years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be?
My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers — within the decade, I’d say.