Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Before Shaughnessy by Kelly Ritter

Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960
by Kelly Ritter


“Imagine, if you will, a first-year program at Equitable University that looks like this: A first-year writing curriculum with a menu of course options for incoming (and transfer) students, each with equal course credit, each with a small course capacity (of twelve to fifteen students), and each with a simple, objective name. One course is called “Writing 1.” The next is called “Writing 2.” The next is called “Writing 3.” Each course is regarded publicly—in all marketing for the institution as well as in communication with prospective students and their parents—as college-level, and incoming students are encouraged to choose, through a process of guided self-placement, which course along the sequence meets their initial needs. No student is called remedial or basic and certainly not precollege.”[i]

In Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960 Kelly Ritter proposes this “broad, utopian vision” [ii] as a replacement for what she states is a disjointed and stigmatized undergraduate writing curriculum; a writing curriculum that unsuccessfully sorts out basic writers and places them in separate, “special” classes. The above model, she asserts, would remove the stigma and rigidity of current basic writing courses and resolve system flaws that have “effectively kept underprepared students at a disadvantage for resources and funding given to other, “regular” students—as these underprepared students represent to legislators an uncomfortable and frustrating result of the always-present weakening of secondary and postsecondary educational outcomes. We need to level the playing field,” Ritter states, “and we need to do so now.” This is her call to action.


Before Shaughnessy is an exploration of the definitions and limitations of basic writing courses, historical account, critical analysis and call to action. Ritter, a fifteen year veteran of teaching first-year college writing, uses the analysis of the basic writing programs at Yale and Harvard during the years 1920-1960 to support her potentially controversial call to action—the elimination of basic writing programs.

Ritter’s discussion of the location and development of basic writing courses adds new layers to previous discussions of the location and development of first-year writing courses. She explores the differences and similarities of basic and first-year writing courses across time and across institutions. One well developed point is the idea that despite the fact that they share the same labels (basic, first-year) at the majority of colleges, they do not share the same content. Both basic and first-year writing courses are institutionally defined. Interestingly, although content of the courses vary, the purpose remains consistent—to acculturate the student into the college’s rhetorical and cultural values.

She moves from those concepts to present a historical overview and analysis of the basic writing programs of Yale and Harvard during the earlier half of the 1900’s. She uses her analysis of these programs to support these points as well as to provide an new look at what a basic writer has been, is now or could be in the future. Her research shows that basic writers have been found and served at elite institutions in the early part of the 1990’s. This fact complicates the typical view of basic writing, one that begins to take shape after the publication of Shaughnessy’s canonical work.


This well focused handling of a specific topic would be of great interest to administrators, including WPAs and those “above” them and instructors at both the secondary and post secondary institutions. These individuals would find that Ritter’s analysis and call to change provides a rich collection of facts and ideas. These facts and ideas will generate reflection, assessment, and future planning. This holds true regardless of whether the reader agrees, disagrees, or is undecided on Ritter’s ultimate suggestion. Additionally, educators from or historians of elite educational institutions would find her research of the basic writing programs at Yale and Harvard illuminating and fascinating. For these individuals, the text might serve as a starting point for future historical compilation or interpretation.

[1] Ritter, Kelly. Before Shaughnessy: basic writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), p140-141.
[1] Ibid., p 141.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fight Club the Ultimate Abstraction

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is one of those books that people like to talk about, argue over even. I asked five people what Fight Club is “about,” you want to hear what they said?

• 19 year-old male: “consumerism and the destruction of the human spirit.”
• 41-year old female: “good and bad of a person, person confronting their own reality.”
• 49-year-old male: “gay cruising.”
• 21-year-old female: “dude who had insomnia and that was how he fell asleep.”
• 32-year-old male: “what happens when people go to support groups.”

Actually, I asked six. The sixth person, my 16-year-old son. His response, “I don’t know, is there anything to eat? When’s dinner?” Ironic when you consider one of the things people say Fight Club is about is the emasculating effect mothers, who smother their sons by providing too much for them and not allowing them to get tough, have on their sons in post-modern US.

Who’s right, you want to know. What do I think the book is about, you ask. Here’s what it’s about. Whatever you want it to be. Just like that. You read it one way and you get nothing. Because you didn’t try. You didn’t want it bad enough. You read it another way, and it’ll blow your mind.

But making a book like that, a book of possibilities for everyone who wants it bad enough, isn’t easy. There are three things: One, don’t waste time with fancy narration. Talk right to the reader. You’re the one I want to talk to right now, so I’m talking to you. See? It’s just you and me. No time-wasting physic distance between us.

Two, even though you’re talking right to the reader, don’t spoon feed. That’s depressing. And it takes away the reader’s chance to fill in the blanks, make the words their own. Check this:

“The second rule about fight club,” Tyler yells, “is you don’t talk about fight club.”
Me I knew my dad for about six years, but I don’t remember anything. My dad, he starts a new family in a new town about every six years. This isn’t so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise.
“What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women.”
Tyler standing under the one light in the after-midnight blackness of a basement full of men.(i)

You get what’s going on with Tyler, that’s concrete. You get that something went on with the narrator’s dad, that concrete too. But see how not being concrete about the relationship between the event from the present and the event from the past leaves the thread untied? You feel me. The reader ties them how they want. The reader makes the connection. Not sure it’ll work? Check rule six.

Three, pick one big thing, something key that a lot of people think about, maybe care about, maybe love, maybe hate, and drop it into whatever’s going on in a bunch of different ways. Inconsistent. Juxtaposed. Mix it up. The reader will work it out, make the abstract concrete. Maybe use God.

Bob’s big arms were closed around to hold me inside, and I was squeezed in the dark between Bob’s new sweating tits that hang enormous, the way we think of God’s as big.(ii)

A real doctor grabbed my bare foot and hefted it into the face of the other real doctors. The three turned it and poked it and took Polaroid pictures of the foot, and it was as if the rest of the person, half dressed with God’s gift half-frozen, didn’t exist.(iii)

If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose? ... The lower you fall, the higher you fly. The farther you run, the more God wants you back.(iv)

And don’t.

If you’re male, and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And sometimes you find your father in your career.(vi)

Our maybe point your finger right at the stuff in people’s lives:

IKEA furniture
Air Mattress beds
Dear Abby columns
National Geographic magazines
Prince Charmings
Xanax tablets

What’s the big deal about stuff, you ask. Why does naming names matter? It isn’t the name that matters, its what the reader thinks about the name. That’s the variable, the thing that makes a concrete object abstract. Listen. What do you think about when I say the word Xanax? That’s not what I’m thinking. Reader’s Digest? We’re not thinking the same thing. See, when you mention a particular thing, something so specific that the reader has experience with it and that experience means the reader attaches some idea or belief to it, you don’t get a specific response—you get a custom made one. Custom made by the reader.

See rule five. It’s all real. Readers know what they know. It’s their truth and their truth is what matters to them.

See rule six. Reader will decide what that truth means and—because rule six, like all the others, can’t be broken—whatever the reader decides the meaning is, that’s what it is.
And since you are the writer—who writes the words—not the reader—who reads them—you don’t get to interfere with the truth. It won’t be tolerated.

i Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996, p50.
ii Ibid., p16
iii Ibid., p104
iv Ibid., p141
v Ibid., p165-166.
vi Ibid., p186.

Monday, March 15, 2010

These are the rules for write club.


1. The writer writes the words.
2. The writer writes the words.
3. The reader reads the words.
4. There are no excuses for not writing.
5. There are no lies in fiction.
6. Trust the reader.
These are the rules for write club. 
Write club isn’t for everyone. Not everyone can understand what it’s like to put yourself out there, get beat down, and get back up. Every time you get up, someone will be there, ready to take you down. Whether or not you keep getting up, keep fighting, is up to you—but no matter what you have to follow the rules because there is no other way. No other choice. It isn’t publishing that matters, its writing. Writing is everything. It is everything and other people, people who don’t have the courage to write, try to publish, will try to stop you. Because they can’t stand that you are doing it. Getting back up and swinging. But interference won’t be tolerated.

How do I know this? Chuck Palahniuk. He wrote Fight Club, the ultimate metaphor of writing.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Who’s Listening?: Audience in Fiction, Wolf Hall

I recently read Walter J. Ong’s essay, “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” in which he analyzes the concept of audience and the relationship of writer to audience. This essay caught my attention because he applies fiction techniques and concepts to essay writing. While this practice is now common, especially within the genre of creative non-fiction, this article was written thirty-five years ago. Perhaps Ong was among the first wave of academics to introduce fiction techniques into non-fiction writing. As I considered his essay, I wondered, though, if his blending was intentional. The reason I was not convinced that he did indeed mean to bring fiction concepts into non-fiction writing is because he backed his analysis of audience in essay with poetry and fiction examples without later coming back to clarify how or why those examples, from fiction, are reasonably applicable to non-fiction. Even though he did not clarify the connection, it was a meaningful one to me. In particular, his discussion of the tradition of fictionalizing audiences, and his assertion that, “A history of the ways audiences have been called on to fictionalize(i) themselves would be a correlative of the history of literary genres and literary works, and indeed of the culture itself.”(ii)

This statement reminded me of John Gardner’s analysis of point of view in contemporary novels. In The Art of Fiction Gardner states that contemporary writers may do anything they like—as long as it works. The writer, for example, my make sudden shifts without alerting the reader to the presence of the shifts; contemporary readers are accustomed to such uniqueness. In support he offers, “That is part of the built-in expectation and pleasure of ‘contemporary’ or at-once-recognizably-innovative art. But in every age, including our own, some literature…uses traditional methods, and here a certain correctness is beyond dismissal.”(iii) Gardner then continues to give an overview of point of view as it relates to audience and asserts that third-person-subjective has limitations and depends too greatly on irony for meaning. He also comments on its additional limitations.

When the fiction is judgmental, and for some reason much third-person subjective fiction is, the writer commits himself to nothing except by irony; he merely exposes the stupidities of mankind; and except insofar as he misses the point, the reader stands apart from the action of the story, watching it critically, like a grumpy old man at a party. …even when the fiction is benevolent, the third-person-subjective point of view can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through the keyhole, never walk through an open field.(iv)

I disagree with Gardner’s point that third-person-subjective relies too often on irony, achieves little grandeur, and depends upon sentimentality.(v) Perhaps my disagreement stems from the fact that I am one of the many Ong refers to; I am one of the audience members who has unknowingly fictionalized myself and therefore intuitively understand what is expected of me as a reader. Perhaps because third-person-subjective is so common in contemporary fiction, a point Gardner would agree with(vi), I have “grown-up” with it and therefore accept it, understand my role as a reader within it.(vii)

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is an example of a book that is a reflection of its time. While the setting—Henry VIII’s England, a time period rich in political, spiritual, and human conflict, a long-standing favorite of readers—is not unique, Mantel’s casting of the audience is. Her approach is intimate but not dependent on sentimentality; indeed the very success Mantel’s reversal of Cromwell’s long-standing negative reputation is dependent upon the reader’s emotional connection with him. The intent of writing a novel that will draw readers in and challenge their perceptions of a historical figure is not singularly contemporary but the way in which Mantel has crafted it is. Mantel crafts the story so that the reader is walking side by side with Thomas Cromwell, experiencing his life in real time and accepting whatever is said as truth(viii). For example, after being beat by his father Cromwell has left home, then left the home of his sister, and left Dover:

He adds up what he’s got and what he’s spent. Deduct a small sum for a brief grabble with a lady of the night. Not the sort of thing you could do in Putney, Wimbleton or Mortlake. Not without the Williams family getting to know, and talking about you in Welsh.(ix)

The choice to use a grammatically inconsistent sentence fragment and the use of the word “you” are significant. Both of these choices assume that the reader as audience will 1) accept the non-traditional language use and 2) accept being spoken to directly. Mantel’s successful fictionalization of the audience depends on the acceptance of these factors; she maintains the role of the audience by continuing using both grammatically inconsistent sentence fragments and the word “you” to speak directly to the reader. Consider this reference to the queen’s daughter:

Her own pain-racked little daughter. She may smile, but she doesn’t yield an inch. Julius Cesar would have had more compunction. Hannibal.(x)

And later, very near the end of the novel, following the outburst during court:

The jury had not liked it: you never know what a jury will like.(xi)
The use of grammatically inconsistent sentence fragments and the use of the word “you” run throughout Wolf . These are only two pieces of the whole approach Mantel uses to connect with the audience.

It seems reasonable to me that the dynamics of writer, as person who tells the story, and reader, as the person who accepts the story, do not change, yet the audience as a fictionalized entity does. To me it isn’t a matter of any one approach to reaching the audience being better or of greater value than another; it is simply a matter of difference and change. The selection of point of view and the roles the reader is cast into are examples of such change. If Hilary Mantel had written Wolf Hall in early the 1900’s instead of the early 2000’s, would it have been published? If it were, would it have been prized?

According to Ong, two things are required for the audience to fictionalize itself. One, the writer must cast in his mind a role for the reader, entertainment seeks, for example, and two, the reader must be willing to play the role the writer has cast for him.
Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” Modern Language Association: PMLA 90.1 (January 1975): p14.
Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p155.
Ibid., pp156-157.
Sentimentality in the sense that the work depends upon emotion to deliver the desired effect rather than on real depth. I believe that is what Gardner means when he writes that third-person-subjective thrives on intimacy; it thrives on the close emotional contact between the character and reader, thus is thrives on unanalyzed emotion.
Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p156.
This statement is based on Gardner’s literary references in Art of Fiction and in On Becoming a Novelist.
Perhaps this automatic is what Gardner is referring to when he says third-person-subjective, “peeks through the keyhole.”
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009, p13.
Ibid., p 372.
Ibid., p 525