Not “Immodest” Proposal
We teach English literature courses not because they outline an ideal, nor because of the historical and historiographical significance these works pose. We teach these courses because they enable a means of exercising individual critical thought. They mightn’t focus on what a given argument is in a given work of literature, they mightn’t focus on plot. English courses—the most effective ones at least—are concerned with the method and the process itself. The question is not so much “what is happening?” but “how is this being done and with what purpose.” We examine the intentionality and out of it glean what constitutes the exemplary methods of storytelling. The identification of key works—so called “classics”—is fundamental to maintain this focus on the implicit elements in writing.
Current courses that focus on novels—specifically classics—tend to deal with antiquated literature. The “tried and true” volumes within the literary canon are just so. It is arguable that they have become too antiquated and old fashioned—at least some of them. We must ask ourselves whether there is a point in which certain classics “expire”.
What exactly is a classic piece of literature is widely debated. ‘Notoriety’ has become interchangeable with the term ‘classic.’ This, I fear, to be a common-held misconception. Popularity is not the sole indicator of a work’s being a classic. The defining characteristic is “shock-value.” Classics are read and taught with the intent of affecting students (and the greater readership) on level that inspires both critical thought pertaining to their own values, as well sparking their own creative processes. Works that are shocking must strike a balance between maintaining reader interest, establishing a believable reality, and providing some sort of surprise. Shocking stories become classics in their ability to arouse new thoughts after each reading. They are classics in their appeal to a wide range of audiences and their questioning of societal ideologies.
Classics are generational and generative. They are necessarily products from a single generation and therefore provide a glimpse, if not into the time out of which they were produced, of practices commonly employed in writing within a given era. Classics are generative in that they must spark discourse with regards to a greater context. They may seek to disprove a generational societal norm for example, or they may seek to provide a snapshot of that generation. Some solely ask questions as to why things are the way they are. In order to do all of these things classics must maintain their shock value.
Back to this question of whether classics can ever “expire” I find it important to consider that these works do not exist in a vacuum. The labeling of a piece of fiction as a “classic” doesn’t hinder time’s effects on it. Tastes change. Perhaps classics will not remain popular forever, but they should remain relevant. If classics are to remain relevant we need to focus on what maintains that relevancy otherwise students will lose complete interest as works become more and more remote in the past.
I’ve selected two works that I would consider “classics” by this definition in that they are shocking. The first: And Then There Were None written by Agatha Christie, comes out of a realm of fiction (crime novels) that seems to have become taboo in the modern educational system. The second: The Children Act written by Ian McEwan, deals with taboo directly in its contradiction of societal paradigms—blurring the lines between motherly and romantic love.
Inherent in both of these works is the capacity to stimulate conversation, not only relating to the stories at a plot level, but also on a level that questions the ways that society works. By questioning the role that society plays in our individual lives we are better able to understand where we fit within the greater society. It is for this reason that I would deem them both “classics.”
On the level of form, the two share many similarities. Both hinge on a central literary device as the driving force behind the story[*]. In And Then There Were None, it is the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem that reinforces the namesake of the book. In The Children Act it is the series of letters and poems written by one of the central characters (Adam Henry) to the protagonist (Judge Fiona Maye). Both stories rely on conveying a degree of rationalization for a certain judgement on the part of the killer in Christie’s novel, and by Fiona Maye herself in The Children Act.
Regarding questions that both works pose, chief among them is “what is justice?” All of the characters in Christie’s story have, to some degree, committed a crime, but all of them have forestalled punishment. The epilogue details the rationale behind the killer’s motives. In McEwan’s story the same sort of rationale is provided throughout the story as Fiona Maye—the protagonist as well as a judge—carries out several rulings while seeking to understand and justify her relationships. Both stories deal with the psychology of guilt after having committed a crime, but also, deal with the inherent psychological struggle that is present in the judiciary process. Most importantly, these stories address how death can be used either as punishment for the respective dead, or for those who held the deceased dearest.
Both Christie’s and McEwan’s works open themselves up to the sort of discourse I find to be the most valuable for students and the general readership, they force us to confront questions that we often not dare to pose ourselves, but that have the greatest impact on our daily lives.
I’ve said in the past that my mouth dislikes words. This remains true. The physical process of speech is challenging for me. The process of writing however, comes more easily. . .
During our expedition across the DU campus, we encountered a range of definitions for ‘writing.’ The concept that “writing is thinking” has been in the back of my mind for a long while. I suppose because this definition most closely aligns with my personal view of writing. “To write” is an act. ‘Writing’ is the physical product of having written. I differentiate between these two because I think that writing and composition, while intertwined, have different roles to play. Writing in the noun sense can be consumed, it is past and present. What has been written is, to a certain degree, permanent. The compositional sense of writing, writing in the verb sense, accounts for the present and future. It is in the moment and amorphous. Simply put, writing is tangible while composition isn’t.
When we write something down, there is a sense that something has been “stored” for later retrieval. Usually, things that are written down are intended to be viewed again later but with the intention of arousing certain thoughts or ideas that existed at time of composition. This, in a fashion, is the technological purpose that Ong notes. While we are doing the physical writing down (composition/writing as a verb), there is a degree of uncertainty and of malleability. In that instant, when nothing has yet been committed to the page, we must call upon our thoughts and organize them (or not), we must choose what will be written down. This is not to say that, at times, everything thought will be put onto the page, but it is to say that everything put onto the page has been considered before its having been put there. As soon as we shift from ordinary thought to the consideration of what will be placed on the (metaphorical) page, everything slows down. There is instantly more at stake. We must consider who will be reading what is written as well as how we want to come across to those individuals. Sometimes this takes a noticeable toll on the end result, other times it doesn’t and other times, there’s no knowing the extent to which entering a compositional mindset has on what is produced.
I say “compositional mindset,” because the same mode of thought existed before writing (as known today), was common practice. In Ong’s discussion of primary orality, he notes that formulas were relied upon to communicate. People relied on parables and clichés–banal “everyday speak” as it’s called today–to relay stories. Were people from the time primary orality entering the same sort of compositional mindset that we enter today when we write? It doesn’t seem outlandish to imagine so. The very notion that primary orality relied on formulas and “banal speak” suggests that primary orators were, first and foremost, concerned with audience and enabling a degree of accessibility to that audience.
In some ways, writing can be seen as a single-sided conversation. Ong points out that writing requires a level of foresight in order to be carried out well. He also points out that it allows for a greater degree of “craft” because of the ability to effectually, self-censor. When we write we must know which words to use and at what times to use them. In primary orality this holds true as well. Knowing when to use a certain saying, to employ a certain formula, in both modern-day written composition as well as orality is crucial to maintaining accessibility to an audience.
As technology has progressed and even overshadowed the traditional forms of writing, so too has the way we interact with audiences. Accessibility remains paramount and the level of accessibility has become a new problem that modern-day writers must face. In the age of “secondary orality,” where everything takes place through digital media, where technology is no longer a tool, but foundational to our existence, the question is not whether audiences will be able to access and understand a given work, but to what degree and in what capacity.
Nowadays, we can self-publish works online and instantly provide access to people across the world as a result of the internet. These works are taking all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are traditional novels, poetry and prose, but there are also new forms of media–social media chief among them.
At this juncture, it is important to note that writing takes on many forms, but at its core it always remains the same. Whether compiling a social media page or designing signs for a park, we enter into a state of composition. The questions posed in this mental state will always remain the same: “What am I trying to get across?” and “To whom?” Of course, other questions will arise that pertain more specifically to a project, but they will all stem off these two “bigger” questions.
The biggest question of all is, “What do I want to do?” Inherent in this question are many others: where do I want to go? how to get there? real or unreal? and on and on. Ultimately, writing is objective-based. It accomplishes something. The compositional component to writing is the time in which we search for the route to achieving the desired end.
Yes, my mouth still “dislikes words.” I suppose this is because words that leave my mouth don’t always serve an apparent purpose—they ‘die’ as soon as they leave the tongue. I prefer to contribute to something that endures, that is considered, that is collaborative and evokes critical thought. Whether or not the words written now will continue to be read indefinitely into the future is another question altogether, but writing that serves a purpose and achieves what it set out to achieve (achieving nothing when the destination is “nowhere” counts here as well) deserves to last.
When I was formulating ways in which to complete this assignment I posed myself the question “what is writing to me?” over and over again. I wondered how I’d go about saying this in words. I thought about what I’ve said in the past about writing. Between my actual reflecting on what to write and my writing it now plenty of time has passed and plenty of new information has come my way. I’ve read, a lot, some for school and for pleasure, I’ve written for the same reasons, I’ve also gone through life, but with a writer’s eye, eating, sleeping, walking, talking, playing, studying. The sun has set and risen several times over, but my mind has remained in this “compositional mindset”. I’ve considered more and more of my experience, I’ve become aware how foundational writing is, how often it goes by unnoticed, but also, that once noticed it cannot solely be passed by. In reflecting over the quarter and course overall I’ve come to the conclusion that writing is thinking–or, more precisely, thinking can be writing. All of the consideration before anything even gets put on the page, all of the questioning, wondering, reflecting, audience-identification, vernacular/formula selection; all of it falls into the compositional mindset–because writing is a state of being–it is a reflective and considerate action–and it is a byproduct of all these things. If anything, I’ve come away from this class with more questions than answers, but I suppose that is telling in and of itself.
[*] Supplementary Materials
What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean for something to be “right?” Are these ideals fixed or are they fluid? Who gets to say what is right or wrong? Who gets to say whether that “judge” was indeed “just”? All of these questions and many more will be covered in this course as we explore two classic works dealing with the very issue of justice: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act.
While grappling with the issue of justice, students will examine the literary and rhetorical strategies used by both author. The course will culminate with the creation of a personal definition of justice and a creative work implementing said definition.
Foundational Elements / Themes
And Then There Were None:
Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked him little self and then there were Nine.
Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight.
Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.
Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.
Six little soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.
Five little soldier boys going in for Law;
One got in chancery and then there were Four.
Four little soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.
Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.
Two little soldier boys sitting in the Sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was One.
One little soldier boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were None.
(6, 7, 11-12, *239-52)
Letters . . .
The Children Act:
My fortunes sank into the darkest hole
When Satan took his hammer of my soul
His blacksmith’s strokes were long and slow
And I was low.
But Satan made a cloth beaten gold
That shone God’s love upon the fold.
The way with golden light is paved
And I am saved.
“Down by the Salley Gardens” Benjamin Britten setting (song) to Yeat’s Poem.
The Ballad of Adam Henry
I took my wooden cross and dragged it by the stream.
I was young and foolish and troubled by a dream.
That penitence was folly and burdens were for fools.
But I’d been told on Sundays to live life by the rules.
The splinters cut my shoulder, that cross was heavy as lead,
My life was narrow and godly and I was almost dead,
The stream was merry and dancing and sunlight danced around,
But I must keep on walking, with eyes fixed on the ground.
The a fish rose out of the water with rainbows on its scales.
Pears of water were dancing and hung in silvery trails.
“Throw your cross in the water if you’re wanting to be free!”
So I drowned my load in the river in the shade of the Judas tree.
I knelt by the banks of that river in a wondrous sate of bliss
While she leaned upon my shoulder and gave me the sweetest kiss.
But she dived to the icy bottom where she never will be found,
And I was full of tears until I heard the trumpets sound.
And Jesus stood on the water and this he said to me,
“That fish was the voice of Satan, and you must pay the fee.
Her kiss was the kiss of Judas, her kiss betrayed my name.
May he . . .
May he who drowns my cross by his own hand be slain.
Christie, Agatha. And Then There Were None. Facsimile ed. New York: William Morrow, 2016. Print. Originally published: 6 Nov 1936
McEwan, Ian. The Children Act: A Novel. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014. Print.