Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Is American Literature Clean?

American Literature--Clean or Not?

When I went to high school, American Literature fell to our junior year in high school. We read many classics although not, as I recall, anything too shocking. Still, writers through the ages have dealt with “real life” which, as I said in an earlier blog, is not always nice or pretty. I can’t remember anyone being shocked by anything we read back in 1960-61.
What we read “back when”
Early American literature dealt with the relevant subjects of the day: religion, politics, slavery, morality (or lack of same), and even the occult. The difference was, in my opinion, how these subjects were presented.
Writers told stories. They embellished them with highly descriptive language and sometime convoluted dialogue (though that’s how people spoke). But--the uncrossed lines remained despite the realistic subject matter. The Scarlett Letter dealt with adultery but the details remained in the readers’ imaginations. Today a writer would detail the act itself--the more graphic the better--and would probably give the thing a pass if not condone it outright.
I don’t remember reading what we called “strong language”, but the attitude it engendered still permeated the dialogue. In Jane Eyre, we deal with attempted bigamy and the idea that the little French girl might be Edward Rochester’s biological child. These things happened in life. We got the idea without the graphics.
Gone with the Wind ran the gamut from lust to true love, from venom to violence. Later, To Kill a Mockingbird introduced the themes of rape and racism.
What our children read
In the early 1990s, my youngest son brought home several books which appalled me. One was Lord of the Flies. I didn’t storm up to the school and protest, but I felt some satisfaction in his pronouncement that he “hated” it. My very masculine, football star, rough-and-tumble son hated it along with a few others assigned that year. On the other hand, he adored Jane Eyre. One dealt with a dark side which few people (hopefully) experience. The other dealt with the struggles not uncommon to the population in general. (And as a side note, as an adult he reads mostly non-fiction, but he enjoyed my Penelope Pembroke cozy mysteries!)
My point for what it’s worth. . .
Again, my point is, we got the idea. We knew what the story was telling us, and it was the story which remained the focal point--not the unsavory details usually omitted but certainly understood. Today there seems to be less story than salacious content. Today writers believe (and with some truth) that their stories will not achieve any measure of success without these accompanying raw sentences and scenes.

The author assumes. . .
Does that belief do the readers a disservice? Have we no imagination? Will our minds not go beyond closed doors and fade-to-black scenes? Must everything be spelled out for us? Are we stupid?
In conclusion
My adopted mom used to say, “To each his own.” One of the kindest, least-judgmental people I’ve ever known, she didn’t spend time concerning herself with what other people did or said but rather with her own words and actions.
And that’s what I have to do--focus on what I write and how it’s perceived. I am only responsible for myself.

1 comment:

margaretskea said...

Well I haven't read enough American Literature to feel qualified to judge, but I do know that in the UK there is a growing perception that explicit is essential for our modern world. I too have had comments regarding the fact that I don't have any explicit sex or strong language in my books, but I make no apologies for that. In the case of strong launguage I believe it is a short hand way of expressing emotion, but that good writing can convey as much strength of feeling without coarse language. Ditto with sex (or for that matter, abuse) - we do not need to see it happening for the reader to understand the underlying emotions and desires, good or bad.

I do not shy away from difficult issues, but I hope I deal with them sensitively and in a way that presents an appropriate moral message without being 'preachy'. That is my aim, and I'm not ashamed of it. I want to write secular stories that anyone from 12 to 112 can read and which won't defile. So I whole-heartedly endorse the cartoon with which this article ends - Go hook yourself a clean read.