Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Signs of progress in discussing literature

**Content note:  post mentions sexual assault scenes in literature.**

After reading the post over at nicoleandmaggie's and seeing the word "creeper," I got to thinking about a difference in discussing literature back in the day and now.  "Creeper" wasn't a word that was used back then, nor was "rapey," not just because those words weren't invented yet, or because creepers didn't exist, but because the concept of whether a male character should behave this way seemed to be absolutely out of bounds in a literary discussion.

Literary discussion was all about being objective, and a character wasn't a person but a literary construct, and we weren't supposed to make moral judgments, and OMG Death of the Author and all of that.  While it was okay to discuss whether the character's twin forehead cowlicks had phallic/Satanic/symbolic overtones, his actions weren't really open to question.

Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.

When we talked about novels this semester, though, my students would have none of it.  Yes, we talked about characters as literary constructs and about symbolism, but then someone would say, "Character Z is a total creeper" or "Why is he being so rapey in this scene?" And then we would talk about why Z is a creeper and how that affects the scene and why he shouldn't behave that way.

I don't think M. H. Abrams is going to include "creeper" or "rapey" in his Glossary of Literary Terms, but that's not the point. Talking about those ideas is not "moralizing," as it used to be called.  I think it's a sign that feminism and the awareness it raises about these issues is working.


Anonymous said...

Ugh yes, that dude in Lolita is totally a creeper. Ick. And exponential ick for the extreme patriarchy the literary establishment had-- if it helps, those literary patriarchal establishment guys always end up as victims in academic mysteries. Or at least they did in the ones I used to read back in the day.

Historiann said...

I asked over at nicoleandmaggie's place, but I'll ask here too: what is a creeper? I think I get the sense of it, but I want a more precise definition. (I assume that the word applies to more men than just the Humbert Humberts of the world.)

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--I think I have to develop a taste for academic mysteries :).
Historiann--as my students used it, it means something like "someone who behaves inappropriately and crosses boundaries, especially sexual boundaries, with someone he barely knows" as in spying on her, making suggestive remarks, etc. It's not an overt assault but makes the woman feel uncomfortable, but in a way that if she calls him on it, he can say she can't take a joke, he doesn't know what she's talking about, and so on. None of the urban dictionary meanings quite captured it, but the students were all were on board with the meaning; the same thing was true of "rapey." I hadn't heard either of these words before the class.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a Scalzi post that captures it... let me see if I can find it.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--Scalzi nails it. Thanks for that link.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Or maybe "moralizing" -- or at least discussing moral issues with the help of literature as catalyst/case study -- isn't such a bad thing?

I've been teaching our department's intro-to-the-English-major class for the first time this semester. The sections have a mix of common and individual readings. One of the common readings is usually one of those critical casebooks which demonstrate various kind of criticism (psychoanalytic, marxist, feminist, etc.) This term, we decided to go with a more recent text, for which there isn't a casebook, which meant the critical readings we located were less purely representative of a particular school of criticism than those in a casebook typically are. In trying to help my students identify similarities and differences, I found myself noting how the authors approached the text: one wrote about the main character more or less as if he were a real person (but not in an inappropriate way); one wrote about the author and what he was saying about certain issues through the characters; and one wrote about the text and the messages it sent. Based on this admittedly-small sample, I'd say literary criticism is still working on the life/death of the character/author/text thing, and how exactly we can/should talk about said elements. For the moment, I told my students to be aware in their own papers of which approach they were taking, and to be consistent throughout the paper (including matching approach to thesis).

CarlD said...

Yeah, what CC said. I don't have a problem with judgment eventually, but I do have a problem with leaping to judgment because it forecloses the process of understanding on which sound judgment is based. Once we've entered imaginatively into the perspective of the Other and sorted out how they made sense to themselves, did or didn't to others around them, and maybe don't to us, have at the badpiling by all means.

undine said...

CC--those are good issues to raise, and it's hard to get students to see those differences sometimes.
Carl--I'd agree with you and with CC. Letting the students go to the realm of the Other can't substitute for critical judgment, but acknowledging that that realm exists may help to move them forward.

Historiann said...

Thanks for the help, Undine. I would have thought that "creep" pretty much covered all of the meanings you suggest, but I guess we need nouns 2.0 in order to keep up.