Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

I'm ready to write the Great American Novel

"A-ha," I thought, when I read this in the NY Times:

WE are at that time of year when millions of American college and high school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence. How is this possible? The answer is simple and even obvious: Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are. Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.
Some one has finally gotten it; someone is hollering that we're doing our children a grave disservice by pretending that they don't have to learn the rules of good writing. (I can tell you that, as a lawyer, at least 50% of my contract cases arise because the contract is so badly drafted neither party can decipher its obligations.) I rushed off to show my friend. "Not so fast," he said. "Even content is going by the wayside." As proof, he showed me this:
Next fall, as part of a district change in English curriculum [in El Cerrito, California, teachers] likely will use an anthology that offers poems, short stories and excerpts of classic novels -- but no complete works. *** English teachers will have discretion to select two novels each year from a group of suggested works, Johnston said. And some of the time devoted to those stuffy old novels will be replaced with instruction -- don't fall over -- in how to read technical manuals.
I see an opportunity here. I've always wanted to write the Great American Novel, but have been hampered by the fact that I have no imagination and no narrative skills. Clearly, though, there's an opening for me here. I'll write the Great American Snippet's Novel, with bits and pieces from the works of dead white males (and females). Here goes:
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And with a beginning like this, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Indeed, many there were who said "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York." Many others, however, were still mired in discontent. Alice, for example, was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations? The consolation for Alice as she sat there was that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. This want will mean that he take a woman as his wife without caring whether or not she get get out that damned spot. And there'll always be blood, for if you prick me do I not bleed? Fortunately for Alice, as she sat there, there came to her a man with a modest proposal -- he proposed that, from every "shires ende," from England to Canterbury, they should wend.
Okay, my admittedly heavy-handed point is made -- and you undoubtedly appreciate now why I can't write a novel. The quotable quote and the charming chapter are completely useless when it comes to mastering the meaning of a great literary work. Without context, you have nothing. And so our children will be raised in a vacuum, learning nothing, incapable of saying anything, and unfamiliar with the great minds from centuries past. How sad.