Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Care Bear School of Criticism

A list of adjectives that a class of college students used to describe The French Exit:
  • blunt
  • explicit
  • intellectual
  • darkly playful
  • depressing
  • confusing
  • annoying
  • kind of a hassle
  • hard on the first read, but rewarding on the second
  • hostile
  • off-putting
  • funny
  • indulgent in a good way
  • neurotic
  • ego centric, but not in a bad way at all
  • disorienting
And via the instructor: Most people really liked it, but a few "couldn't stand it" because it "pissed them off." Which is great, b/c that made for an awesome discussion. And the people who liked it went to bat for it.

This clicks with two things I've been thinking about this week. One, this post from the OkCupid blog about the "mathematics of beauty." They analyzed a bunch of profiles to see how a member's attractiveness rating correlated with response rates. Did the hottest people always get the most messages? Turns out it's not that simple: Two women with the same average rating will get a different response depending on how much variance there is in their ratings. A 7 who everyone agrees is a 7 doesn't do as well, at least in the world of online dating, as a 7 who some people think is a 10 and a few people think is a 1. So it's better to be polarizing than merely cute.

Two, what is it with students thinking everything's depressing? John is teaching a short story class for ESL students right now, and he's been busting his balls trying to find happy stories at their request. Guess what? There are no happy short stories. The kids always think whatever he brings in is depressing. But that's how literature is! This isn't Everybody Loves Raymond.

There seems to be some grand misconception, along the lines that eating fat will make you fat, that a story or poem with conflict or tension will make you feel conflicted or tense. OK, well, yeah, actually, it should do that! Art should shake you up a little, not just pat you on the head and tell you everything's going to be OK. In any case, I don't believe for a moment that these kids are actually coming away from a book depressed. If it moved them that much, they'd like it. If you're levying "it was depressing" as a complaint, you're probably feeling nothing. But "you gotta say something."

P.S. This is no real critique of the students who read my book; it sounds like a really positive response overall, and pretty much what I would expect. I'm just resistant to the "it's depressing" reaction to literature.


  1. I completely agree with the "you gotta say something" theory. Maybe there's a moral in this for John/the ESL's?

    I just ordered your book before realizing it was going to be "indulgent in a good way" and now I feel mildly depressed.

  2. Anyone who wants to be depressed should watch Everybody Loves Raymond.

  3. Don't worry, once it arrives you'll feel disoriented and annoyed.

  4. Such a depressing post...UGH.

    Good to see people are discussing your book. I found a line of yours popped into my head yesterday, so you're doing something right.

  5. Word. After seeing Sweeney Todd, my mom asked, "Why would anyone make that?" I don't get the whole it's-not-valuable/worth-my-time-because-it's-depressing thing.

    As for students, though, I more frequently encounter the "didn't like it because I couldn't relate to it" criticism, because, you know, if it doesn't affect them directly, why bother?

  6. I think the opposite of depressing in this context isn't happy but "compellingly interesting," or "not boring." I think they want the short story equivalent of The Matrix, something so interesting even Twitter won't distract them from it. Maybe John should find one of the million Philip K. Dick short stories that were turned into movies. Jesus, just look at them all. It's like he wrote the plot for every movie from 1956 on.

  7. Jeremiah, that's pretty much all I want, to invade people's brains, possibly at inappropriate moments, so thanks for that!

    C, I seriously wonder where kids got the weird idea that books are happy and easy to relate to. Didn't they have to read Shakespeare and shit in high school?

    Jeff, actually, they asked specifically for love stories. Happy love stories in short form: Hard to come by outside of fairy tales. I suggested Ellen Gilchrist, but there was too much sex and puberty. I also suggested Ray Bradbury, not because he's not depressing, but because I liked him in junior high. Shrug.

  8. Love stories with happy endings. Hmm.

    So apparently what they want is in fact Everybody Loves Raymond.

  9. In the end, I think "it's depressing" is just their way of saying, "I don't like to read. Is Glee on tonight?"

  10. When most of my students say something is "depressing," a lot of them mean it in a deliberately complimentary way. And others mean it in an inadvertently complimentary way sometimes--it's their unsophisticated form of saying why a story was "good." It's like saying the word "interesting" to some of them.

    To sort of showcase the fact that conflict, trouble, sorrow, and so forth are what make much of literature "good," though, I just had some of my students re-write scenes from the stories we've read so far, but to do so making them as crappy as possible. The results are a) hilare and b) going to give me an awesome platform to show why "depressing" stories are superior--about half of them made their versions "suck" by turning "upsetting" stories into happy, conflict-free ones. Like a version of "The Lottery" where instead of getting stoned to death, the winner gets a gift basket full of food. And a version of "Araby" set in a Dollar Store where the clerk lets the kid buy something for the girl anyway, even though he hasn't got enough money. So even the ones who do feel like they're leveling "depressing" as a complaint secretly know in their hearts that "depressing" stories are the best kind of stories.

  11. Kath, that's a serious triumph for literature and mankind.

  12. Hey, thanks. I'm reading them right now, and I just got an awesome bad version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” where the protagonist decides she loves the color yellow and wants to make her husband dinner and stop being so sad already.

  13. This depresses the poop out of me, so I feel lighter, but I feel heavier at the same time. I try to avoid things that depress me as much as possible, which is why I never watch tv, never leave my house (unless someone has invited me to a party where they will be giving me eleventy million dollars), never look in the mirror, and only comment online to say things like Y'ALL!! Why so depressing!? I find that sticking to the J Crew online catalogue generally keeps me peppy.

  14. Brian, I always keep a J.Crew catalog in the bathroom. Perhaps this is not conducive to the business at hand?

  15. Everybody Loves Raymond is TRULY depressing.

  16. It's conducive to the business if you've run out of tp.