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On the Ingrained Biases of the Literary Canon

Image courtesy of CCAC North Library

The books of the literary canon were written almost exclusively by straight men of European descent. There are exceptions: a handful of Russian authors, a few white women, a smattering of hispanic authors, and so on. But these make up a fraction of a fraction of the list of “classic books.”

So, let’s just start by saying, you know, this is a problem. And it’s a problem not just because of the exclusionary qualities, but because it’s a self-perpetuating issue. We teach students that books of a certain nature are “good,” which informs the definition of “good books” for those who will define the literary canon as it continues on to new iterations. And not just a problem because it’s a self-perpetuating issue, but because it threatens to limit one of the core benefits of reading as a practice: The cultivation of empathy through increased awareness of experiences dissimilar from our own.

But let me step back for a second and talk at this from a few different angles.

My Experience with the Canon

I want to be clear that the books in the canon are worthy entries, and there have been only a handful that I’ve regretted reading. Some of my favorite books (Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, etc.) are classics written by white dudes. So, really, I’m feeling more like a concerned citizen here than a rioter. But I also feel I have enough perspective that I can speak on this issue.

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Reader Entry Point

Over the last six months, I’ve read about 10 books I didn’t like. Now, I’m not here to vent about the frustrations involved. And I’m not here to bad-mouth the stories; most of them failed by being mediocre as opposed to outright bad. But the experience got me thinking about what, for me, makes books “fail” in this way.

The Concept of a “Reader Entry Point”

I’m sure there are many different ways for a book to fail. However, the common thread I found in the aforementioned works was that they failed to engage me. Engagement is a complex topic, and I’m confident that readers will vary pretty greatly on when and how they become engaged with a story. However, over these last few months, I’ve tried to think through what need to find a story engaging.

I’ve decided to call this “thing” that makes me engaged my “entry point.” It’s the point in the story where I’m not just willing to be there but willing to become invested. Without that investment, I honestly don’t think a book can give me a satisfying experience. And the later in the story this entry point is found, the more I’m likely to find the book hard to push through.

Fundamentally, I think the entry point requires that I have something or someone to care about. And once I care about that single element of the story, I’m much more willing to follow the story, become emotionally invested, and be patient with the imperfections of the work. At that level, I’m confident that all readers are the same. But at the level below it — what sorts of somethings and someones will work for them — it’s likely to vary widely.

My Major Entry Points

Despite the highly subjective nature of this topic, I wanted to explore the things that tend to work well to get me into a piece.

  • A sympathetic major character.
    I don’t want or need this character to be perfectly good. I don’t want or need them to be charming beyond reason. In fact, I don’t even need to like them. But I do need to feel sympathy for them and the situation they’re in. I have to recognize something human in them that makes me want to push forward. If I have at least one key player who fits into this category, I’m much more likely to become engaged.

    In Neverwhere, I find the main character’s quirks, his mundane challenges, and his sense of the world to be highly relateable. As a result, the bizarre things that happen to him are far more intriguing, and it feel compelled to follow Gaiman as he presents the rest of his world and story.

  • A plot with meaningful stakes.
    I tend to disagree that every good story needs conflict, but I do believe that every great story needs something to be at stake. If you give me a plot where it’s clear what’s being risked, what might be gained, and those outcomes feel meaningful within the confines of the story, I’m likely to follow along even if I haven’t been won over on other fronts. And if you can do this starting from the premise of the story, it really amps up my engagement.

    In A Simple Plan, the early discovery of millions of dollars makes the stakes and the goal incredibly clear. I’m pulled into the story despite having no strong feelings about the characters or the setting, and that suspense follows for the remainder of Scott Smith’s story.

  • A fascinating setting.
    The setting has to be pretty damn good to win me over on its own, but it’s certainly happened before. Whether it’s the magic system of a fantasy world, the compelling politics of a sci-fi adventure, or the seedy underworld of a transgressive literary tale, the setting can do a great deal to win my patience while the plot and characters are gradually being introduced.

    The Name of the Wind got me interested through providing a well-developed setting. It took more than a hundred pages for the first intriguing plot point to happen, and it took even longer for me to like the lead character. Both eventually happened, but if the setting hadn’t interested me, I likely would have dropped the book before Patrick Rothfuss had a chance to introduce these other elements.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve started to pay attention to this question in my own work. Who are readers supposed to care about? Are the stakes meaningful and clear? Is the setting rich and developed enough to bring the reader in?

But I also know that this list is incomplete. As a result, I’m very interested in a discussion of how the experience varies for you. In the comments, let me know what gets you to buy into a story, and provide examples where you have them.

Write on,

Rob

Melanie Rae Thon: Advice to Writers and Other Q&A Highlights

I had the privilege to attend a reading, Q&A, dinner, and workshop with the fantastic Melanie Rae Thon. (Don’t know who that is? Check out my spotlight entry.) This entry includes some notes, highlights, and pictures from the reading and Q&A portions of that event.

Highlights and Notes from the Q&A

Beyond reading a variety of her work, Melanie had some wonderful insights to share during her Q&A. Here are some of my favorites.

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Poems Are Night Fires: An Interview with Rob Carney

I mentioned Rob Carney before when he was gracious enough to share a writing exercise with us a couple months back. Let me expand on what I said there.

Rob Carney is an astounding poet and a professor at Utah Valley University. When Carney’s class was recommended to me, it came with one of the strangest testimonials I’ve heard: That the class didn’t feel like learning but playing. Nevertheless, after the class was done, it was clear that students had improved their craft.

I had the chance to take this poetry class from Carney, to take another class on dystopian fiction, to read his work, and to see him perform in the local slam poetry scene. And now, I’ve also had the chance to interview him. Thanks again, Rob, for agreeing to this.

Now, let’s launch into my questions and his responses.


Rob Young / Blair

 

Rob Blair: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?

Rob Carney

Rob Carney: This might be an oddball way to answer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sometimes I’ve started readings by saying something along the lines of “I’ll start with a poem that tells you a little bit about myself,” and the poem is this:

The Person You Love Is 72.8% Water

I don’t know if I’m going to hell,
but I like toast for breakfast,

and I can eat breakfast
any time of day.

A woman’s slender arms
make me wish I was a painter.

Cats belong in every bookstore. They’ll make the words
seep deeper in your bones.

If God and I were on a rocky beach,
we’d search out perfect skipping stones.

I’d tell Him my favorite miracle:
water into wine.

My favorite mood is Angry. That’s a lie.
My favorite sin is lying. That’s not true,

but it dresses up the story
like a good storm dresses up the sky,

like fire and fiddles take wood and make it speak.
I know, I know—water isn’t wine.

But at night, when someone’s thirsty,
you can bring it, cold as heaven. They can drink.

RB: If someone has never read your work, do you have a recommendation on where they should start?

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Can we write without empathy?

ask a writer

This is part of the “ask a writer” series. I received the following message from an aspiring writer named Doug. A lightly edited version is reproduced here with his permission.

I’m in Suzy V’s Seductive Beginnings [writing] class, and Chuck Palahniuk is doing a Q&A for us. In one particular question, he talks about emotional stakes in writing:

“A clever idea is amusing, but unless you have a personal stake in it, the charm evaporates.”

I’ve got pretty severe Asperger’s. I recently took an empathy test with a health care professional and scored almost ZERO. So, I’m basically a robot with a heartbeat, and I hate it.

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6 Simple Ways to Kick Writer’s Block in the Teeth

So you’re struggling with writer’s block. Here’s the good news: You’re not alone. Great writers throughout history have had staring contests with blank pages. Here’s the better news: If you use the right strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. This article will teach you four simple strategies for kicking writer’s block in the teeth.

1. Write garbage.

Writer’s block happens when the complex and sensitive neurological process of creativity gets disrupted, typically by stress and fear. One way to overcome that anxiety is to dive into the work by writing as much garbage as you possibly can.

In other words, get writing in your project, regardless of how awful, useless, or nonsensical that writing is. This is useful even if all you do is spew words onto the page that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you will delete later. The point isn’t necessarily to find the right words but to get yourself writing. You’ll be surprised how quickly this breaks down anxiety and gets you to a place where writing feels natural again.

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