I asked a good friend of mine who’s a writer what she thought of the James Frey, A Million Little Pieces brouhaha; she said it didn’t bother her nearly as much as the poorly written and generally annoying article by Julia Keller that appeared in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. She showed it to me and I have to agree. (You can read it here, though the Trib, in their infinite stupidness require registration.)
Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is getting paid to take a college literature course on Jonathan Swift and write about it each week. Nice work if you can get it. (Of course, like a lot of the stuff that appears in the Trib, this isn’t a very original idea. David Denby made an entire book (Great Books) out of this concept, that came out about a decade ago.)
Anyway, this article, the first in a series of installments following Keller through the class, was the equivalent of reading a student’s paper when they have one page of content and a ten page requirement–in other words, so much filler. She doesn’t really talk much about the content of the class. Instead, she spends the article bitching about how the professor didn’t let them out early for the Super Bowl and about how much she dislikes Jonathan Swift. She’s going into the project, and the class, with a huge Swift chip on her shoulder, and she concludes her article by throwing down the gauntlet–Swift has one more chance to prove to her he’s worth reading:
Aided by the rhetorical glories and interpretive acumen of professor Parker, I will, over the next nine weeks, give Swift another chance. He will have one more shot at convincing me that his turgid paragraphs and paternalistic pontifications have some contemporary relevance, that his work is more than just a bunch of dusty utterances by the dead. One last opportunity to win me over.
Ack, if you ask me, this article is filled with “turgid paragraphs” and pontifications. Why Swift should have to prove anything to her, and why we should care, is beyond me.
About ten paragraphs in, I really started rolling my eyes as I read this:
I was here to give Swift a secondchance. I was here because I wondered if, after toiling long in thevineyards of daily journalism, I could lift my gaze to the sky withoutgetting a crick in my neck — the sky, in this case, being the vast overarching smear of classic literature that we seldom if ever actually read, once we depart from college and go out into the great world of jobs and responsibilities.
There’s a phrase you just don’t see often enough…”vineyards of daily journalism.” I could give her the benefit of the doubt here and say she’s going for humor, but it’s hard to tell.
The thing I really took exception with though was the idea that people past the age of 21 don’t read classical literature. Preposterous! I have many friends (and they’re not all in my book club) who love reading the classics and continually dip into well of classic literature, sometimes even re-reading their favorites time and again. As if having a “job and responsibilities” means you can’t focus your brain on anything other than American Idol and The DaVinci Code. And how is it that the classics are continually available in abundance in any book store you happen to walk into?
This article exemplifies the kind of magazine and newspaper writing, and in fact non-fiction writing in general, that’s become the norm–“I, I, I, me, me, me, me.” Ugh. I realize she’s taking the class and it’s about her experience, but I’m sure there’s a more clever way this could be handled.
I’ll do the reading. I’ll take notes. I may write a paper or two. If I become bored or disillusioned, I’ll say so. But if I become exhilarated and inspired, I’ll say that, too, even at the risk of sounding like a simpering brown-nose.
Most of all, I’ll engage in an intellectual arm-wrestling match with Swift, my old nemesis, and report on the results.
Again, why do we care? She spends a good portion of the article explaining what she’s going to do in future installments. Uh, that’s really not very interesting to read–just tell us, don’t tell us what you’re going to tell us. Isn’t that the number one rule of good writing?
I won’t receive a grade, but otherwise I’ll be a full participant in English 439. (The other students haven’t been told of my secret identity, and because so many studies show that the under-30 demographic never reads newspapers, they’ll surely remain
in the dark all quarter long, even as the stories appear.)
Secret identity?? In a class of ten grad students? Wha–? I think they’ll have pegged the forty-something stranger in the class in the first ten minutes. And if she thinks word won’t get out through the vineyard of the DePaul English department, then she’s more than a little clueless about the power of the Internet.
This kinda stuff belongs on a blog, not a newspaper. And if she was going for light-hearted humor, it fell very flat. Now, David Sedaris writing a weekly series on a college course…that I’d pay to read.