Is there a way to move forward in the era of literary cancel culture - and to preserve the importance of reading and the power of how literature helps shape who we are, individually and as a nation?
One book gives us some hope for the figuring out how America can avoid killing the intellectual pursuit of knowledge in a time when everything is under attack, Literature and the New Culture Wars, by Deborah Appleman.
The core issue here is how students are being taught - and which books they are being allowed to read. If a book was written by a white guy that didn’t speak well of one group or another, does the book get cancelled? Does it come with a trigger warning? Do students even allow themselves to read books that go beyond their comfort zone - ones that provoke, disrupt, challenge, and even anger them?
What’s at stake here?
We are looking at these issues:
Raising an informed
Encouraging the fulfillment
of literate lives.
The nation’s history and
If we will judge a book
by its author’s life.
What if any, accountability,
dead writers have for the time they wrote in.
· The freedom to read - and write - what we want.
Before we go any further, let me just state my
core beliefs on the matter:
- No book should be off-limits for the classroom
- We must look at a book separate from who wrote it
- Get rid of trigger warnings
- Teach students to be stronger, open to all kinds of
ideas and experiences, and to respect the voices of authors they differ
- Stop demonizing classic books but do teach about where
these books/authors may have fallen short of today’s standards
- No banning, censoring, canceling, or burning books
- If necessary, point out misogyny, racism, sexism,
homophobia, anti-Semitism, and any injustice in the books we read - but
don’t ignore that too many new books are in essence, ignoring or putting
down innocent people simply because that are white or male or straight
- Understand that you can read a book but not agree with
it, like it, or even endorse it
- Stop the oversensitive obsession with trying to cleanse
literature of real-life views, history, and events. Quite simply, bad shit
has and will continue to happen - don’t punish books for reflecting the
shortcomings of humanity.
- Stop the cultural tribalism that views contradictory
opinions with ignorance, violence, or shunning without
- Have faith in teachers and librarians to do what is right - but teach librarians and teachers not to overreact to the woke bullshit that is taking over much to America’s detriment.
Appleman, to be noted, overlaps with many but nowhere near all of my views. She certainly believes in a thorough review of the canon of books taught to students that some are no longer worthy of being on that list. She writes: “In these cases, it is not sufficient to merely ignore the controversy or to dismiss serious and sustained objections to the work or calls for the work to be removed from the curriculum.”
She is referring to some books where racist or misogynist tropes are so vulgar and ever-present as to render the book obsolete and harmful. She adds: “These texts simply are not deserving of our student’s attention. To put it more strongly, they are too potentially harmful to be taught,”
This will be debated for some time - book cancellations - but a good place to start is with Appleman’s book. For some interesting excerpts, please see below:
1. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”
2. “Additionally, cancel culture has given the rise to one of the most contentious clauses in literary contracts these days: the so-called morals clause, which allows publishers to back out of a book deal if the writer is simply accused of inappropriate behavior or holding offensive ideas. Here are some examples of moral clauses:”
3. “Herein lies the challenge. Teachers of literary texts need to find some way to strike aa balance between excluding texts that are demeaning, offensive, and downright harmful and retaining texts that include some problematic elements such as language, dialogue, and representation but have important value - aesthetically, historically, developmentally, and curricular. We also need to think about the differences between simply excluding a potentially troublesome text from the curriculum and thinking about how it can be taught, troubled, and even disrupted. A central tenet of this book is this: rather than omitting troublesome texts reflexively from the curriculum, we should consider how we can offer them in the classroom, not as a way of reproducing the troublesome content therein but as a way of teaching students and other readers resist that troublesome content by understanding and examining the source of it.
“A significant issue here is what seems to be an attempt to remove some of the grittier aspects of life from the literature curriculum and from the classroom so that students will not be exposed to them or troubled by them. Yet part of the function of literature is to provide a mirror for certain aspects of life.”
4. “I believe strongly in the windows and mirrors approach to teaching literature, a perspective that asserts that literature needs to be both a window that gives us insight into the realities of others and a mirror that reflects our own reality.”
5. “While there surely may be a case in some classes for some content to be introduced with trigger warnings, my argument here is that they are both misused and over used, to the detriment of literary education, often without any real benefit to the students. Let us reconsider the concept and the use of trigger warnings, and reaffirm the notion that true education is never safe and that our obligation to protect students does not outweigh our obligation to challenge them and offer them the opportunity to witness all that is part of the human condition.”
6. “To read literature is to learn to read the world in all of its complexities. The study of literature calls for a refocusing of thee intellectual and affective work that literature can do and argues that there are ways to continue to teach troubling texts without doing harm. Let us consider the larger purpose of aa literary education, what is it that we want students to learn from reading texts. In addition to encouraging the richness of well-written literature (even though we may not be able to agree on what that is) we also want students to glean a sense of history, to understand the interplay between social context and literature, to witness the evolution of social mores and ideas, to view things from multiple perspectives, to be able to inhabit the perspective of others, to develop empathy, and to acquire some aesthetic sensibilities.
“By teaching, rather than banning, troubled and challenged literature, we can help students learn to decipher the world inscribed within the texts we read together and help them read the world around them. Students can become the “enlightened witness” that bell hooks (1994) calls for, noting how power and privilege are inscribed all around us, and they can learn to read both texts and worlds with a nuanced and critical eye.”
importantly, we need to trust our students to be able to learn to read words
and words through a critical eye. We need to trust students to be able to parse
out the harmless from the harmful, to read the world for themselves, and to
develop both the critical strength and emotional resilience to notice harm and
to resist it without it being kept from them by well-meaning by over-vigilant
teachers. Perhaps what these troubled times need is for us to continue to teach
troubling texts, and trouble the ideologies inscribed therein, rather than
cancel or banish them. Our students deserve no less.”
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