NAVIGATING LITERATURE: A FEW POINTERS

The students in my new elective on SF have turned out to be mainly absolute beginners in this genre. I am, therefore, using the first weeks in the course to examine how we become familiarised with authors’ names, titles, periods and even whole canons. Here are a few ideas that have come up for discussion and which extend beyond the particularities of SF to any other genre and, certainly, to (English) Literature.

Nothing seems to have changed much from the year I graduated (1991) to last year when a student attending the course as an auditor graduated, as we both agreed that the task of making sense of authors and titles begins after graduation. As I studied for my ‘Licenciatura’, I read the then very popular The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (1982-1991) by Boris Ford–yes, the whole nine paperback volumes, still to be seen on my office shelves. I certainly was not the only student to go through so many study hours under Prof. Ford’s tutelage, though I just cannot see current undergrads reading the bulky collection. I used Ford’s elegant books to get a better hold on a History of English Literature which I was not being taught in chronological fashion (in my Department we start with the more accessible 20th century English and reach the Middle Ages in the third year). Even so, I recall reading quite a few introductions to English Literature in the year when I started teaching, right after graduation, for I needed a less detailed, more schematic, reliable mapping of the whole field of (canonical) English Literature. And making lists…

I started keeping a list of what I read and a list of what I should read around age 14. I still keep with strict discipline a record of all I read, a consequence of being unable to recall having read certain books… memory cannot be trusted. I have no idea what good this can be but the list seems to work well as an aid to fix names and titles in my scattered brain. I abandoned, however, long ago the list of what I should read (to fill in the endless gaps, you know…) because it made me feel terribly anxious that I was not reading enough. Self-defeating is the word.

Nevertheless, I know for certain that list-making is an indispensable tool in the process of learning Literature, whether the list in question is based on the general canon, or whether it explores the canon of a particular genre. Yes, the first thing I taught my students is that whereas a degree in English tends to focus on a certain literary canon, there are all types of canons in all genres, and sub-genres–some surprisingly specific. For instance: I was going with my students through the long list of SF sub-genres in the website BestScienceFiction.com and one of them was amazed that there is something called ‘Christian SF’. Thinking we might find weird Christian fundamentalist stuff in it, we took a peek and soon saw this was a quite solid sub-sub-canon, with names such as C.S. Lewis at the forefront. This is always my point: you may think that by reading, for example, ‘feminist utopian fiction’ you are shattering the old-fashioned canon focused on dead, white, male, Western authors but you are actually participating in the formation of a sub-canon with Pamela Sargent and company as unavoidable top names.

To recap my argument here: there is no way around to making lists of names and authors to help you memorize and, yes, memorizing, old-fashioned as this may seem, is indispensable in Literary/Cultural Studies. Actually, in most disciplines (think Medicine). You may have noticed, by the way, that I refer to ‘making’ lists, not to ‘reading’ lists; my own experience suggests that while you may borrow someone else’s list this will only work for you if a) you make the effort of copying or editing it, b) you modify in your own way.

Of course, my students and I agreed that the best way to learn a national Literature, canon, sub-canon or sub-sub-canon is… reading. This is why we teachers focus courses on a selection of books supposed to be significant, introductory works, whether they are five plays by Shakespeare or five South-African novels. Time, alas, is always too short and not even keen readers can manage the feat of reading all they see named as worth reading. This is why, here we go again, you need some kind of list–if only to abandon it. I do this all the time: I start lists to teach myself a particular canon and then once I have read a few titles, I file them away. I need, so to speak, the lists as mental scaffolding for reading in a particular genre. Guides, like the one right now on my table, Miquel Barceló’s Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura, are no doubt useful–mostly as instruments to expand my lists.

As I explained to my students, there is no way, at any rate, you can fix a canon, no matter how marginal to that of general English Literature, precisely because all genres evolve. In the case of general English Literature what evolves, of course, is the perception of what merits being included in the canon–Aphra Behn’s plays, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the case of a genre like SF, the problem is not so much the disputes that affect the erosion of the white, male, dead, Western A-list (though there is also some of that) but the proliferation of interesting texts. I have just gone through the canon/chronology of SF that Sawyer and Wright offer in their volume Teaching Science Fiction and you can quickly see how biased our choices are towards the more immediate decades. This causes works that were regarded as the ‘best’ in the 1930s, 40s or 50s (even 80s) to sink without a trace. One can always joyfully ‘rediscover’ them and wonder why on Earth they are not better known… (I’m thinking of all the post-apocalyptic 1940s and 1950s dystopias I read last summer). To recap my argument here: lists, guides and canons are always a testimonial documenting a particular stage in the history of Literature in any of its sub-genres. Always transient, never final.

Finally, a third problem I have considered with my students is how much is enough. I gave them a list of 100 SF films (95% in English), concocted using different sources, and a list of 50 great SF novels in English (borrowed from Forbidden Planet’s website). I started with the films, as I assumed my students would be familiar with many of them since SF is currently one of the most popular Hollywood genres. Not at all!! Two of my students had seen only 4 of the 100 films and the ones who scored highest had seen at most around 40, if I recall correctly. This may have to do with other factors unaccounted for, such as a) my students’ young age, b) the decreasing popularity of cinema among them (they prefer TV series), c) their habit of not seeing films other than the ones currently released (students tend not to watch films on TV, either).

Whatever the case, I spent the whole 90 minutes going through the list, to extrapolate from it the main topics in SF. I ended making a much shorter 15-film selection for them to give themselves the most basic education in film SF. The 50 novels were simply totally unknown for most of them… What a challenge for me! As I joked, I can give them whatever version I want to sell them of SF–just as, well, I was given the version of English Literature which my own teachers preferred (one strongly biased in favour of Modernism…).

The basic question I am asking here boils down simply to: how do we acquire an education in Literature? The obvious answer is that by reading but, as we know, it just cannot work that way. With just 7 semestral core courses, and a maximum of 6 more electives in the third/fourth years, the numbers of texts a UAB graduate student interested in Literature is asked to read amounts to about 65 volumes (and I am assuming quite optimistically an average of 5 volumes per course). Compare this to the hundreds, even thousands, which Harold Bloom has listed in his Western Canon and you begin to see the problem. If for each of these 65 (ideal) volumes a student learned in addition, say, 5 titles, this would give us a nice figure of 365 authors who should ring a bell at the end of four years. Maybe we should ask them to take a graduation quiz… Just kidding!

I’m beginning to realize that for an elective course, a teacher should be extremely happy if, in addition to the 5 set books, students can name 25 other authors. 50 best novels? 100 best films?… I wonder.

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