Finding what you seek


I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I mentioned it to another teacher at school the other day and she said she’d tried reading it twice and couldn’t get into it. Then she added that at the time, other teachers were “passing it around like crack cocaine” and that kind of turned her off. (We’ll ignore, for now, the fact she likes the Twilight books.) I asked myself why teachers would be passing the book around like that. The answer was pretty simple. But let’s go back in time first.

This past summer I went to an AP workshop at the University of Oklahoma. Because they made a typo in my e-mail address, I never got the memo we were supposed to read Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound. Every AP teacher there was herded into a room and for about 90 minutes a professor lectured to us about this book I hadn’t read. It may be a great book. I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever read it now. All the professor talked about was the oppressiveness of the white male characters and how brilliant Jordan is to have pointed out how evil white males are. Seriously. We had to evaluate the lecture afterward and one of the questions was, “What did you like about this presentation?” My answer was this: “I’m glad I was able to leave the room without having to sever my oppressive white male penis.”

Last month, at the Red Dirt Book Festival, I was seated next to a sophomore English professor from Oklahoma City Community College and I was lamenting the number of my 2009 graduates who’d gone to OCCC and were having to take remedial English classes. We talked about the problems of getting kids to read and I mentioned how closed-minded many of them are and how they claim that To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist book because it uses the word “nigger”. He countered by saying that it is racist because it presents a benevolent white man trying to solve the problems of the poor, dumb blacks. Yeah, I’d like to see him call Calpurnia that.

Ten years ago, during my last year of undergraduate college, I got into such a heated argument with a professor that I left about $700 of my own camera equipment in the room in my hurry to get away from her. We were arguing over whether or not Emily, from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a sympathetic character. This is the same professor that required we go to the movie theater to watch Oprah in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, then assigned an essay in which we could write about anything from the movie. I wrote about how it didn’t work as a ghost story and she counted off because I didn’t write about the feminine aspects of the story.

So, why were teachers passing around The Poisonwood Bible? Because most of the males are portrayed as dumb, at best, or overbearing and insensitive to the point of cruelty, at worst (so far). If you are indoctrinated in the “progressive” side of politics in which it is cool to like anything that is not heterosexual, white, and male, this book is another voice in your choir.

My question to my fellow writers is this: Do you think about such things when you write? Did Kingsolver mean for this book to be a statement against all white males? Is that what Jordan intended? Or did they just write the story they had in their heads, peopled with characters necessary to that one tale?

Of course, the argument can be made — as I tell my own students — that literature is not created in a vacuum. The authors are affected by their times and you can often see what was important to the author’s society by how he or she portrays various characters. This is what the professors will say to justify imposing their views on any piece of literature. My contention, however, is that you simply find what you’re looking for, and too many people in the academic world look for anti-white male attitudes in literature because it makes them feel better about themselves.

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