You find what you look for


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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7 thoughts on “You find what you look for

  1. I would answer, Sometimes….
    I think there can be a message consciously placed in a story, while readers often see something not consciously put there (or that isn’t there at all.) BUt I definitely think that the writer shapes both the intentional and the unintentional…

    • This is a good reading. My favorites, though, are John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and William Peter Blatty reading The Exorcist. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done. I’m really liking it a lot.

  2. Although I basically agree with you – I’m no fan of most academic criticism, which is both dismissive and frequently little more than overwritten gibberish – I will say this: It’s hard growing up in this society as anything other than a white heterosexual male. Most of what’s thrown at us in the arts is so overwhelmingly slanted at proving how powerful white men are that you can begin to cling too hard to things that question that bias. A typical example of the culture: When I was a kid, I loved STAR TREK…but I really, REALLY hated that Lt. Uhura was the only character on the show who would say shit like, “I’m frightened, Captain!” And STAR TREK was a progressive show.
    Add that up over a lifetime and it can lead to some pretty intense bitterness…or it can lead to awareness and small efforts to make change. But academics seal themselves away in their little cliques where it’s safe to rant, and where they can pat each other on the back and call themselves “enlightened”.

  3. Feminism? Really?
    Wow! One of the things I like best about being your friend is that you always help me see things from a different perspective.
    And, when I read this paragraph it simply reinforced that notion:
    “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.”
    Yes, I do fall into that progressive side of politics, but I never equated that with my appreciation of Barbara Kingsolver (who is definitely on my top ten list of favorite authors)
    I love her lavish description and her ability to transport the reader into a completely different world that is familiar, yet at the same time, completely foreign by showing us things we had never considered. Though I know this won more prizes, Prodigal Summer ranks higher on my list than the Poisonwood Bible. I also enjoyed Pigs in Heaven and the Bean Trees. So, yeah. I’ve read quite a bit of Kingsolver.
    I guess what struck me most about the Poisonwood Bible was the idea that America might sometimes do the wrong thing. I hadn’t ever really considered that before, so it was a real eye-opener for me. I know that sounds kind of naive, but it just wasn’t something I’d given any thought to before reading this book.

    • Re: Feminism? Really?
      Hi Gayleen! I know I told you in e-mail that I finished the book and what I thought of the ending, but I’ll recap some of it here for the sake of the conversation, in case anyone else is reading. I thought it should have ended after the women walked out of the village. The death and them leaving was just too big. Everything that came after, and this was like 1/4 of the book, was anti-climatic and too Uncle Tom’s Cabin for me. I get it. America was involved in some shady dealings in the Congo. I think she hurt her story with all that. A simple epilogue would have sufficed. I didn’t need the “Dear Reader, let me tell you what is really happening because I think you’re too dumb to get it from the events of the story.” Okay, Kingsolver was a little more subtle that Stowe, but you see what I mean, right?
      Her writing is beautiful and powerful. The death of … well, for the sake of spoilers I won’t name her. Anyway, it was perfectly done. Her descriptions of the jungle, of the things they brought with them, how they adapted (or didn’t), etc. was all excellent writing.
      How old were you when you read Poisonwood Bible? I’ve known you for, what … 12 or 13 years and I have a hard time imagining you as naive. 😉

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