Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Girl’s Souls

A poor little rich girl, alternately neglected and abused by her uncaring father; an awkward “fat girl,” mostly disliked by classmates and shunned from the “better” lunch tables; a lonely, bored teenager experimenting with lesbianism with a lonely, bored teacher; a competitive Asian; a diversity-minded African; and a delicate, beautiful dancer who inspires all around her; these are the characters a reader is likely to expect to find in a book about an exclusive—expensive—private high school in New York’s Manhattan and these indeed are the characters that characters the pages of Christine Schutt’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Fiction finalist All Souls.

The characters of Souls orbit Astra Dell, the dancer at the center of this senior-year story, defining themselves in relation to both Astra’s illness and mid-year recovery. At the opening of the story, early September, Astra is hospitalized with cancer; by the end, graduation in May, she is in remission and back in school. Even by the end of the novel very little, other than the fact that she was Dance Club President, had lost her mother to accident several years earlier, and possessed a thick, bright red head of hair, is revealed about Astra. She remains undeveloped and static. Her unchanging character emphasizes the personalities, thoughts, and actions of the other characters.

In one particular area the contrast is most sharp: the contrast between Astra’s very possible death and the worries that others assume accompany it and the typical trials that go along with a senior year of high school and the worries that those characters express. Schutt draws attention to this contrast, for example, in the reflections of, Kitty Johnson a mother of one of the students; Car Foresstal, Astra’s best friend, and Lisa Van de Ven, a fellow senior at Siddons School:

  • What other conversations were there? Was there still talk of the Dells, Astra Dell especially? Was the subject of her cancer old, or simply avoided because it diminished all the other griefs a healthy person felt? Here was a body dangerously sick: Astra Dell, that pale girl from the senior class, the dancer with all the hair, the red hair, knotted or braided or let to fall to her waist, a fever, and she consumed.(i)
  • Astra occurred to her and how weird it was that she, Car, who smoked and drank, was healthy while her best friend was sick. Good could be wrung from dwelling on Astra. Comparatives were meaningful. (ii)
  • Lisa remembered the numbers and was pretty sure her mother had the news as well; her mother had been in school in the morning giving a parent tour. Her mother knew all about the top 2 percent, which explained her mother sending flowers to Astra Dell—a sick girl was less a disappointment probably. (iii)

Although Astra’s illness is the defining line for the events of the story, the intent of the novel extends beyond the complex concerns of death and the mundane concerns of everyday teenage life. Schutt also explores the possibilities of personal change and how that change can occur in unexpected ways. The contrast between Astra and the other characters is effective, particularly in regard to Marlene, the character who changes the most. In the beginning Marlene is awkward, unkempt. Consider:

Marlene picked her nose and sent what she found in it flying across her room. She was a dirty girl, she knew that much, and whatever the girls in school suspected her of—stealing, farting, lying—was true…Look at her messy room, the unresolved of such disorder. She had no ambition but to dizzy herself into absence. (iv)

Marlene, more than anyone else, visits the hospital and devotes time and energy to the sick girl. She reads to Astra and brings her her homework, making sure the sick girl is able to stay caught up with assignments. As a result of her time with Astra, Marlene changes; she begins to do better in school, “Marlene had reviewed for exams with Astra and done well. Marlene was not dumb after all; she had only been lazy as some of the teachers had always suspected.” (v) and becomes concerned with her appearance, “Marlene would walk down the aisle of the church wearing a white A-line satin dress—not exactly summery, but a white dress that might serve a couple of occasions was hard to find—and a seed pearl necklace. And her hair? She pinned her hopes on a hairstylist…” (vi) It is clear that her time with Astra is the reason for the change, “…Marlene nevertheless felt like she was Astra, growing ever more like Astra. Astra had faith; miracles were possible.” (vii)

The contrast between Astra’s simple days in the hospital and the complicated lives of the other characters and the development of the characters, particularly Marlene, is compelling and unique; however, the distant, non-emotional voice and distracting figurative language counteract the interesting contrast of characters and life issues. The distant, non-emotional voice, which can be seen in all the examples included above, is consistent throughout the novel. It is not the voice of a teenage girl. The voice must have been an intentional choice for Schutt. Perhaps Schutt meant for this voice to establish clear psychic distance between the narration and the reader and thus give the reader more of a bird’s eye view of the events rather than the opportunity to experience living life as a teen. It is more difficult to determine a reason for the distracting figurative language. On several occasions the similes and metaphors seem out of place. For example, “Even the language behind her silence was worn and uninspired and whapped the way balloons did without surprise or weight.” (viii) The image behind that language is confusing. Perhaps that is the point? Yet, if that is intent, other examples cannot be resolved with the same logic. Consider, “The little girls had hands as small as starfish.” (ix) Beside the fact that not all starfish are small, the reference to them has no relation to the character, the scene, or even the story. Overall, the voice and figurative language were problematic.

I was curious about the publishing history of All Souls, so I looked it up on Publisher’s Marketplace. The book deal for All Souls is not listed, but the film option sale is. The option rights were sold this past May to Anabel Graff, who said, “My screenwriting is super commercial and teeny-bop…All Souls is like a literary Gossip Girl.” (x) Given that Souls is peopled with many of the same teenage archetypes as Gossip Girls that statement is right on. I will look forward to the release of the film adaptation of All Souls, as a project that started out as a possible Pulitzer prize winner and is later refashioned into something as highly commercial as The Gossip Girls is of great interest to me.

[i] Schutt, Christine. All Souls. (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2009), 11.
[ii] Ibid., 33.
[iii] Ibid., 45.
[iv] Ibid., 12.
[v] Ibid., 149.
[vi] Ibid., 212.
[vii] Ibid., 151.
[viii] Ibid., 19.
[ix] Ibid., 204.
[x] Fisher, Wally. The Miscellany News. “Artist of the Week: Graff Rewrites Limits of Authorship.”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Media Literacy: Taking advantage of critical moments to give students voice

As an instructor I have found that using pieces of popular culture, particularly ones my students immediately relate to, always generate student engagement. YouTube Clips, discussions of current FaceBook posting trends, and conversations of topics such as, ‘How musicians embody or subvert cultural values,’ are examples of such pop culture topics. As do many composition instructors I have spoken with about this practice, I move from the topic, to analysis, to asking ‘what observations can we make,’ to explorations of ways in which the observation could be structured into an essay. I recently attended a Liberal Arts Network Development Conference (Port Huron, 2010) presentation and discovered that there is a name for this practice: Spectacle Pedagogy. Underlying assumptions of this pedagogy are that the impact of our mass-media environment is constant and unavoidable. It makes sense then, as our student’s identities are embedded in this inescapable, ever-present culture, to embrace that culture and make it work toward classroom goals.

Also at the LAND conference was an ongoing discussion of the changing make-up of our students. Many seasoned instructors stated their belief that in the past five years the student population has changed radically—not just in terms of social or economic class, but also in terms of learning style, educational goals, and attitudes towards and preparation for college. While the new ever-evolving media is part of the reason for this change, there are additional factors. These factors include both internal, cultural, and external, institutional, barriers. Mike Rose’s book, Lives on the Boundary, is a vivid illustration of one man’s successful educational journey through these barriers. After describing how he overcame his own educational obstacles, Rose applies the lessons he learned about education and learning to his own work as a teacher. One of the dilemmas he encountered as a teacher is a dilemma that spectacle pedagogy seeks to address, that of connecting the curriculum to the student and the student to the curriculum. Specifically, he mentions that the curriculum was self enclosed. “While it did not prohibit the children from drawing on their interests and the events in their own lives, it failed to elicit creatively the tales and folklore and genres that were part of their various families and cultures.” (p 108-109) I believe that creativity he mentions is, or is directly related to, the type of critical thinking spectacle pedagogy seeks to generate.

The need to teach critical thinking in a relevant context is constant, while the type, nature, and needs of students today is changing. Despite the flexing of the student makeup, there are some commonalities that are useful to explore. Keith Gilyard, in analyzing James Berlin’s 1993 discussion of the post-Fordist economy, points out that the job market is shifting to place a greater emphasis on successful, collaborative creative thinking and excellent written communication. These needs spring not only from the new, global economy but also from the new—ever-changing—mass media. In order to participate and have a voice, students must connect with the world in a thinking, coherent way. If they cannot do so, they will be disenfranchised—silenced, and Gilyard suggests, underemployed. The mass media that influences students and is constant in their culture is the same mass media that requires them to think critically and write with purpose. These skills can be developed in composition classrooms by encouraging students to connect with content. Locating critical moments is one way to foster that connection.

In his discussion of identifying and making use of critical moments, Gilyard expresses the belief that social issue discussions need not be excluded to large events such as 9-11. Instructors who seek to introduce social issues into the classroom should do so. He proposes that, “Tentative yet rigorous examination and dialogic engagement are key forms of discourse despite the specific political concepts being addressed.” (Bloom, p 235). And later, “…embracing dialogic exchange and interrogating language are parts of a long tradition, a critical tradition, in the liberal arts.” (Bloom, p 235) As composition is part of the liberal arts, this encouragement and validation speaks to the need for composition instructors to embrace the opportunity to engage students with their own truths. According to the underlying assumptions of Spectacle Pedagogy, pieces of our student’s truth can be found in the components of our multimedia environment.

In their article, “Toward Critical Media Literacy,” Douglas Kellner and Jeff Shane present a definition for media literacy and put forth the idea that to be relevant education must include media literacy. They state that in our multimedia environment such literacy is more important than ever. Additionally, this literacy requires unique skills. “People need to critically scrutinize and scroll tremendous amounts of information, putting new emphasis on developing reading and writing abilities.” (p370) I would add in addition to reading and writing, media literacy requires critical thinking. Kellner and Shane do more than offer an awareness of media literacy issues, they call the educators to action, stating that it would be irresponsible to ignore the need for media literacy because students may be unaware of how they are being “taught” by forces such as the Internet and popular films. (p 370-372)

Media literacy has a natural tie with Spectacle Pedagogy in that it fosters the connection of student and curriculum while addressing the needs of today’s ever-changing student body. Spectacle Pedagogy takes advantage of that connection by utilizing critical moments to bring students into the larger educational community, thus validating that they are in fact part of that community. That validation in turn encourages students to develop and maintain their own voice.
Burdette, Curtis. “Utilizing Spectacle Pedagogy.” LAND: Port Huron, 2010.

Bloom, Lynn; Daiker, Donald; and White, Edward, eds. Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

Kellner, David and Share, Jeff. “Toward Critical Media Literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy.” Discourse: studies in the cultural politic of education. Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 369-386.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fiction Fun in Writing Class

This semester I am using Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative memoir Never Let Me Go (2005).
About the novel:

“The novel describes the life of Kathy H., a young woman of 31, focusing at first on her childhood at an unusual boarding school and eventually her adult life. The story takes place in a dystopian Britain, in which human beings are cloned to provide donor organs for transplants. Kathy and her classmates have been created to be donors, though the adult Kathy is temporarily working as a "carer," someone who supports and comforts donors as they are made to give up their organs and, eventually, submit to death. As in Ishiguro’s other works, the truth of the matter is made clear only gradually, via veiled but suggestive language and situations.” (wikkipedia)

I selected this novel because it:
• has an accessible first person narrative
• has only three main characters
• has a focused plotline
• deals with cutting edge issues in a familiar setting

Sample essay prompts:

How do you define family? What are the characteristics and responsibilities of family members? How does your definition relate to your community and/or cultural identity?

Is there a difference between bullying and teasing? If so, what are those differences? Explore aspects of each, such as: Is one or the other or both acceptable? Who has the responsibility to stop excessive bullying or teasing—the individual or members of society? Do you know someone who was bullied or teased and suffered as a result? What were the consequences?

What is creativity? Is everyone creative? Who benefits more from creativity, the individual or the culture in which that individual lives? Explore different types of creativity; consider different types of creativity and how society responds to them.

Consider what, if anything, a person’s prized possessions reveal about that person. Do the possessions tell you what that person values or do the possessions tell you more about the life that person has lived? Consider how which possessions are considered to be prized possessions change over time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Devil’s in the Details

“Specific, definite, concrete details—these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness.”(i)

Details and Psychic Distance in Fiction
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway makes a point of emphasizing that details in fiction must be both sensual and significant.(ii) Additionally, she points out that the reader is dependent on the details for story meaning and ownership of understanding. Details are essential to engaging and involving the reader. A higher level of significant and specific detail brings the reader into the story—the sharper and more sensual the detail, the less psychic distance, ergo the greater the intimacy. This relationship of detail and intimacy can be seen clearly in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story not only built on details but dependent on them.

Reader Intimacy in The Handmaid’s Tale

It is clear that Atwood aims to engage the reader intimately in Offred’s, the main character of Tale, story. This can be determined by the use of first person narrative and the immediate density of sensory detail. Take, for example, the first three sentences; sentences which clearly intend to provide the reader with a complete sensory immersion:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in one place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.(iii)

This vivid use of description is coaxes the reader into the story, and the continual use of detail, particularly to regard to places and things that evoke olfactory or kinesthetic responses, holds the reader firmly in the fictive dream. That the intimate connection with the reader is intentional is further made clear when the character addresses the issue of audience.

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
…But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say.
You can mean thousands.
I’m not in any immediate danger, I’ll say to you.
I’ll pretend you can hear me.
But it’s no good, because I know you can’t. (iv)

While it is later revealed that the story is a pieced together recording of Offred’s tale, when the reader encounters this passage it works as a direct link between Offred and the reader. This intimacy forces reader involvement.

Details in The Handmaid’s Tale the Link to the Reader’s Intellect

It is apparent that the details in Tale constantly engage the senses, but with close reading it can be seen that Atwood does more than tap into the senses; she intentionally juxtaposes the senses and intellect by contrasting images and ideas. The result of these frequent contrasts is a reality that is as clear and understandable as it is unreal and disturbing. This impossible contrast of truths is achieved through well crafted and carefully selected details and a circular narrative that works through the time the story action is taking place, shifts to the past, then comes back to the time of the story action. This unusual narrative is necessary for the intent of the novel to be fully realized.

As an idea driven story, it is essential for Atwood to engage the reader’s intellect, something that can only be accomplished through the skillful use of details. Speaking as a reader, Burroway states, “…if you (the writer) let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”(v) This type of response-based participation is Atwood’s intent. The beginning of Chapter 16 is one of many examples that show Atwood’s:

• continual use of sensory details to engage the reader.
• dependence on reader intellect to achieve full intent.
• use of a circular narrative that takes the reader through the unreal and disturbing, to the real and known, and then back to the unreal and disturbing.

The ceremony goes as usual.
I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cotton underdrawers. What I could see, if I were to open my eyes, would be the large white canopy of Serena Joy’s outsized colonial-style four-poster bed, suspended like a sagging cloud above us, a cloud sprigged with tiny drops of silver rain, which, if you looked at them closely, would turn out to be four-petaled flowers. I would not see the carpet, which is white, or the sprigged curtains and skirted dressing table with its silver-backed brush and mirror set; only the canopy, which manages to suggest at one and the same time, by the gauziness of its fabric and its heavy downward curve, both ethereality and matter.
Or the sail of a ship. Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems. Bellying. Propelled forward by a swollen belly.
A mist of Lily of the Valley surrounds us, chilly, crisp almost. It’s not warm in this room.
Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.(vi)

The impact of this scene in which the Offred is taking part in a bizarre sexual ceremony is dependent the very specific details which pull the reader into the fictive dream and force intellectual engagement. Then, as in many other such passages throughout the novel, the narrative contrasts the disturbing new world with the “before world” by moving from the action, into the past, and then back into the action. The resulting juxtaposition delivers the intent of the novel.


There is very little action that takes place during the events of the book; much of the story has actually already occurred before Offred’s telling of the tale. As a result, the success of The Handmaid’s Tale relies on evoking an emotional response from the reader. That emotional response, made possible by the full immersion into the fiction dream, is dependent on the details—details in this instance that are truly eerie and disturbing. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the devil is in definitely in the details.

End Notes
[i] Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction. (New York: Longman, 2003), p75.
[ii] Ibid., p 76.
[iii] Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’sTale. (New York: Random House), p3.
[iv] Ibid., pp39-40.
[v] Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction. (New York: Longman, 2003), p76.
[vi] Ibid., pp93-94.