Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Examining the Short Story (Part One)

I know this task is folly, doomed to fail, and probably a waste of time... so why do I keep coming back to it?

As a way to put off taking down posters and organizing files, I started a list on the board regarding the short story. With the help of some folks I work with, we were trying to create a timeline if (hypothetically) one were going to teach a survey course of the short story, where to start? Where to end? What are the definitive pieces, and/or writers? Is there such a thing?

I thought the best place to start would be an exploration of Fables, Parables and Allegory, which include Fairy Tales, Oral Traditions, Mythology, and possibly even scripture, though some might object. These stories seem to be didactic in some way and usually contain morals. The problem is, there are so many different types! Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Panchatantra, Aesop, The Decameron, The 1,001 Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Mahabharata, Buddhist Scriptures, much of the Old Testament, Ovid, Norse Myths... Mother Goose?

Then there are Legends and Tall Tales to contend with. There's King Arthur, obviously, but just in America alone there are tons of tall tales, like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Brer Rabbit, Bigfoot Wallace. I haven't even investigated tall tales in other cultures.

There's a giant heap of stuff to climb over, or wade through. I like a lot of it. If it were up to me, and I suppose it is because I'm the one writing this post, I'd start with a few Aesop's fables. Something like "The Fox and the Grapes." Why? Students have been conditioned how to read this kind of story. Since they were wee tykes (probably) they've been asked to identify "the moral of the story." A lot of the selections in middle school textbooks offer some kind of message, or moral and students come to regard the story as Conrad's nutshell, their task to crack it and devour the nut, or theme or moral or lesson. By the time these students begin reading more contemporary short fiction they're unprepared for the idea that sometimes the moral is more subjective, or perhaps, there is no moral.

We talked a lot this past year about Disney, and how they tend to make everything cute (despite the racism inherit in most of the drawings... the native scene in Peter Pan, for instance. Or Song of the South--
thanks Kat ; ). It would be a blast to compare the Grimm's to Disney. I think teenagers would really get a kick out of the original versions of these stories. Allow me to digress a little... teens are growing up in a world in which everything designed for kids is super tidy: the good guys win (in fact no one is supposed to lose), the women are idealized, no one ever gets hurt that doesn't deserve it, and God loves you no matter what you do. Parents are mystified at such wild phenomenon as "goth," "emo," and "cutting." I'm not suggesting to throw the babies out with the bath water... some kids are dealing with real evil, like neglect and abuse... but I think these trends are some kids' way of saying "enough is enough, nothing seems to be at stake in our lives and we're sick of being pampered!" So... I could see how kids might get a charge out of reading "The Robber Bridegroom," "Rapunzel," or the original "Snow White." I know I did. Furthermore, how can Edward or Bella hold a candle to Hades and Persephone? Isn't the wicked step-mother in Snow White kind of like Cassiopeia? I think examining these stories can be a nice way to show how certain archetypes are born and pop up again and again.

I think it might be easy to get carried away with scripture. Our high school literature textbook features excerpts from the King James book of Genesis. Maybe toss in Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac... the flood. I don't know. What would be the purpose? Maybe so I wouldn't feel bad about teaching Buddhist Scriptures like "The Bodhisattva and the Preacher of Patience" and "Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress"? Maybe just carve out religion altogether. I don't know. I want to resist the impulse to just teach what I like, but... Maybe these stories would make more sense in some sort of context.

Especially now that I'm in summer-mode I have to constantly remind myself why I shouldn't just teach The Zombie Survival Guide- it would be a lot more fun, it would lend itself to inter-disciplinary activities, and I'm interested in them... zombies, that is. Heck, it could save their lives! Wouldn't students ultimately get more out of something I personally love? No. Probably not. For the same reason you didn't get anything out of that course requirement as an undergrad in which the teacher lectured more about her family than her subject matter. Just because it's interesting to you doesn't mean it will be interesting to them. There has to be a more substantial reason to have it on the syllabus. In this case we have to ask - is it a piece that defines the genre? How can you ask that question of scripture? My gut tells me to leave scripture of the main world religions out entirely, which, as a result, probably means no Milton, Dante, etc. I don't know. I'll probably change my mind next week.

Until then, onward. I'm considering the pre-cursors to Realism next. I don't know what they're called. I don't even know if I've got Realism right. Anyway, what to do with Maupassant, Saki, O'Henry? Turgenev, Anderson, Washington Irving? Are they worth considering?

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