[M]y daughter was tasked with reading one of those magical realism books that are currently the rage in high school lit programs, and one of the questions she encountered in her odious assignment was to explain what the name of one of the character’s dogs symbolized.
My daughter is awesome. She was able to locate an interview where the author herself said she gave the dog that name simply “because it seemed like a good name for a dog.” As I recall, my daughter didn’t get a very good grade on that assignment, but I was proud as hell. And it further cemented my belief that a lot of “scholarly” literary analysis is basically masturbatory in nature.
–Keith Cronin on how to make somebody hate reading.
It’s not just books and it’s not just American high schools; to this day I can’t stand the film Blade Runner simply because I had to make a shitty high school poster essay about What Does The Unicorn Mean. This assignment has the dubious honour of being the very first one I did by cheating off the then-nascent internet, thanks to a SFF fansite I found discussing all relevant topics at hand.
A few years later, I remember my friend telling me about his English class analysis of the Tori Amos song “Spark”, all of which I obliterated with the sentence, “You know it’s about her miscarriage, right?”
Fuck you, postmodernism. Fuck. You.
Or, well. Not always; death of the author can be a good thing, particularly in an “intent is not magic” sort of way. But not the washed-out, anti-intellectual version that tends to get taught in schools.
A lot of fandom communities have also long noted the disconnect they feel between textual analysis of works they’re engaged with versus ones they aren’t. This tends to manifest itself in un-punctuated Tumblr tag essays wondering why they’re able to easily write five thousand word posts on Homestuck‘s critique of biological essentialism as it relates to blood colour and social class, but can barely manage to get past the first sentence in a one-page English paper about The Catcher in the Rye.
Yeah, well. Kids. There’s your answer; the problem isn’t you.
(Also, seriously. I know it’s classic in its place in Western literary canon and the formation of the concept of the teenager as a commodified subcultre and whatever… but can we please stop putting that book on the high school curriculum? When we had to read it for school I remember my report being something along the lines of “nothing in this speaks to me in any way about the experience being a teenager”. And that was, like, fifteen years ago. I can’t imagine kids relate to it more now than we did back then. This is a book for adults to read and analyse in its historical context. Not a book that speaks to teens.)
(Also related: my favourite high school English teacher made us keep a book journal but allowed us to read whatever the hell we wanted. Because I am evil, I wrote her like a semester’s worth of entries on all the Eighth Doctor Adventure novels I was devouring at the time, then topped it off with a spoilertastic retelling of Jingo, mostly because I knew she was a Pratchett fan and hadn’t been able to buy the hardcover yet. Yeah, teenagers are assholes. And, actually, maybe this sort of explains why more English teachers stick to prescribed readings that are like a million years old. Something to think about, anyway.)