Speech made at Annual Conference of Ontario College Association of Language and Learning

Teaching Literature

This is the text of a speech given by GGK during the 2001 Annual Conference of the Ontario College Association of Language and Learning, to which he was invited as the keynote speaker. Readers should be aware that parts of the speech focus on points that GGK has made in other essays on the site.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me first to express my pleasure at having been invited to join you here for what I have taken to be a celebration of literature and the teaching of literature. If, for some reason I am wrong in this, I intend to carry on as if I am right, and bring you along with me, either through a desperate attempt at eloquence, or with threats of reprisals, if necessary.

When I say ‘celebration’ I do mean that. I have, I fear, achieved a small measure of notoriety of late for some speeches and essays on the subject of fiction and the invasion of real lives: remarks that have raised ethical questions about a number of works and writers, many of them Canadian, many of them important.

In the words of your students: We won’t go there tonight.

I am not, by disposition, a doomsayer, though I can be a curmudgeon, and one of the very few benefits I can see to getting older is the dispensation one accrues to grumble and lament, and swing a crotchety shillelagh madly in all directions at once – to misuse a Stephen Leacock phrase.

I prefer, whenever possible to lay down the weapon, to extol and applaud, and it seems to me that a gathering such as this offers not just an opportunity but, perhaps – and more importantly – a responsibility to do so.

So, I want to make it clear at the outset how important I think you all are, how much I believe it matters that literature be taught well, not as a dessicated repository of texts, but as a doorway or window – choose your own metaphor – to a richer life.

The books, the poems, the stories taught in a class will be the raw materials – subject to selections made, and I’d like to talk about that in a bit. What will not be at all constant, what represents another hugely important variable, is the teacher. The person serving, in mythic terms, as the guardian of the threshold, the initiator – for that is what you are, or can be, if you accept the responsibility and opportunity that comes with that.

But having now introduced – and I confess it is not by accident – a mythic image or metaphor, it seems a proper moment to digress, to put on another hat and address a different aspect of this gathering and of my own interests. I’m aware that I’m leaving you suspended at a threshold, guardians of a threshold, even, and turning away and that this is undeniably a form of teasing … and I invite you to consider that in the light of how novelists work in our narrative processes. We do tease, we seduce, we delay gratification, we build tension.

Sometimes of course we mess up, but we won’t go there either.

But I am now an the verge of digressing from my digression and this is not a speech about Tristram Shandy. When Ruth Rodgers of your executive committee contacted me with the invitation to speak here tonight, she indicated that the theme of the conference was that of ‘Other Voices’ in literature, and expressed a hope that I’d address some aspects of fantasy fiction in my remarks, consistent with the notion of expanding the range of what may be seen as academically central, or even canonical.

I see no reason not to comply, especially since she did email something about a good single malt scotch after I finished. And so let me offer some thoughts on the status and nature of the fantastic in literature. It will also give everyone time to remember what they know about Jung and Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell before we get back to our mythic threshold.

The caveat to this part of my remarks, and it is a necessary one, is that on a purely autobiographical basis, my own connection or nexus to the core of the fantasy genre has become increasingly tenuous over the past decade as I abandon most of the tropes of the field. I’m entirely comfortable discussing what I think fantasy can do at it’s best, I’m less happy if asked to rattle off opinions on most current practitioners.

With this in mind, and in an uncharacteristic spirit of confession, I would like to reveal an Early Influence. I am aware that scholars build careers, tenure and early retirement on sleuthing out such things, but here it is, and for the record. I was far too young when I encountered James Frazer and his Cambridge followers, including Jane Harrison, of the Prolegomena to a Study of Greek Religion. I was Influenced. But not, I must add, in the expected way. Of course, I can see some of you nodding: the corn myths, Attis, Osiris, Odin hanging for nine nights on Yggdrasil, the Worldtree … But no, what influenced me in that very youthful stage was a word. I loved the word ‘Prolegomena.’ I aspired, from that first, intoxicated moment, to be able to use it myself. I aspired, even more to be able to spell and pronounce it.

Early attempts at utilization proved singularly unpromising. My Grade 12 English teacher, the ur-version of a dour Scotsman was unamused by my submission of a ‘Prolegomena to a Book Review of Huckleberry Finn.’ My explanation that I hadn’t finished the book yet and so could only offer a prelude to a review fell with a dismal sound upon the arid stones of his response.

But today, revived, thirty years older and a few years wiser I dare hope, I would like, in all seriousness to offer you a very brief Prolegomena to a Theory of Fantasy.

Fantasy is usually seen as ‘escapist’ fiction and that is usually said as a criticism. Fantasy readers escape from the responsibility of reality, critics of the genre say, hiding from the real world amid dragons and magic. The criticism ignores some obvious truths: all good storytelling is escapist in a very basic way … as we are drawn into the lives of the people in the book, we forget for a time (if the writer is skillful) the stresses and details of our own lives. We immerse ourselves deeply in the tale. We are emotionally moved and intellectually engaged by what happens to the invented, imaginary people in a novel.

Sometimes, too, there’s a kind of book that doesn’t intend to be important, profound, or thought-provoking. It wants only to amuse and distract in an undemanding way … much as most television and most films do. The steadily growing market for fantasy – and science fiction – over the last twenty-five years means, in the normal way of things, that there will be more and more of this sort of commercially-driven book – just as there is in other forms of popular culture. It makes about as much sense to teach or study these books as it does to critically analyze Robert Ludlum or Jackie Collins as literature, outside the context of some sort of study of the contemporary zeitgeist.

But for me it is a mistake – and a serious one – to assume that because many or most works in a given field are unambitious that the field, the genre itself, must be deemed to be trivial. We do not ever diminish the achievement of Margaret Laurence or Saul Bellow by noting that Robin Cook and Tom Clancy also write ‘contemporary’ fiction.

Fantasy literature has the capacity to be as ambitious, as important, as moving or thought-provoking as any other form of literature we have. Indeed, in some ways, the journeys and quests and motifs of the purest fantasy works can come closer to mirroring the inner journey of the human spirit than anything else. The patterns of myth, folklore, archetype and fairy tale that can be embedded in fantasy are ancient and immensely powerful, and the genre can tap more directly into these ancient wells than just about anythi
ng else. I’m not saying something new here: psychologists and those who have made a study of myths and legends have been noting this for years.

And let us pause to note how much all of this has to do with labels and optics. If we call a work ‘magical realism’ and not ‘fantasy’ we immediately imbue it with the aura of Marquez and Borges and can admit it into the canon forthwith. When The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for science fiction’s Hugo Award some years ago, Margaret Atwood expressed amusement in print at the notion that it could be seen as a genre book, but in truth there are no criteria for defining science fiction that could possibly not include that futuristic dystopia. I have argued for years that overfocusing on labels and categories is destructive to the individual assessment of the books themselves. Square pegs and round holes are not what reading – or teaching – ought to be about.

But to return to these notes on fantasy, there’s another strength of the genre that’s quite different and much less discussed. Fantasy is not just about magic and myths. It is also a way of dealing with history, with elements of the past — and this has fascinated me more and more over the past decade.

In raising this idea, an obvious question emerges: why would someone write fantasy about the past, why not historical fiction? What can fantasy do that historical fiction cannot, or, putting it another way, what traps and moral dilemmas can fantasy avoid that historical fiction cannot?

First of all, I’ll argue, fantasy allows the universalizing of a story. It takes the incidents and characters out of a very specific time and place and allows the writer – and the reader – the possibility of seeing the themes, the elements of that story, as applying to a wider range of times and places. It detaches the narrative from a narrow context and permits those aspects of it that engage the writer to be considered by the reader as broadly based. In this way, paradoxically, because the story is a fantasy it may actually be seen to apply more to a reader’s own life and world, not less. The fairy tale quality of fantasy brings the story home to a reader’s experience of the world, offering truths about the human condition. In reading or hearing the Grimm Brothers’ folktales we are all, in a very real sense, the daughter of the fisherman or the third son of the woodcutter. Folktales happen nowhere, and so they happen everywhere, and to us.

There’s another element to this, and one that has particular relevance today as more and more countries go through their emergence from totalitarian tyrannies. Let me explain. In 1990 I had an extraordinary late night talk with a Polish science fiction magazine editor at a conference in The Hague. He told me that he expected, in the next year, to lose about half his writers and readers. Why? Because with the demise of communist control and censorship, many writers who had used science fiction and fantasy to write disguised stories about modern Poland would no longer have to disguise their stories. They wouldn’t need the screen of the genre to get around the censors. They would set their stories in the ‘real’ world.

Now, I suppose one could quarrel with the notion that it is inherently ‘better’ to do that and I do disagree with such an assumption. But what interests me for our present purposes is simply this, the very fact that these Eastern European writers were using fantasy in this way underscores something too little realized in the west: that the genre need not only be escapist, that it can deliver core truths about our existence. That the fantasy setting allows and may expand the possibility of such things.

Many years ago the Canadian poet and scholar, Douglas Barbour of the University of Alberta, described a fantasy novel he admired as, ‘The kind of escape that brings you home.’ I realized, reading these words, that this was how I’d always seen the potential of the genre.

And this brings us neatly back – unless I’m being self-indulgent – to that threshold at which we paused a few moments ago, when I suggested you might properly see yourselves as initiators for your students, charged with the task and opportunity of helping them pass through to a richer awareness of life through an exposure to excellence.

I want to be just a bit contrarian now and raise the notion that notwithstanding all I’ve just said about the potential of fantasy – and bearing in mind how many forms and modes of writing have the capacity to startle and enlighten – I confess that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, shillelagh to hand, when it comes to the selection of works to teach and study. To put it as close to home as I can: I’m not at all sure students should be studying the works of Evelyn Lau or Guy Kay if they don’t also spent at least some time reading Shakespeare and Austen.

I am entirely aware that this is difficult ground. That the need to capture student attention is extreme and the competition for the engaged interest of 20 year olds is formidable. I’m also aware – with a measure of sorrow – that certain works are pretty well lost by now. Paradise Lost being one of them, Spenser another, so much of poetry. Other than for those students self-motivated to make these works a life’s interest, it is almost impossible to give today’s readers any sort of adequate doorway into certain works. But I do not yet believe – and I rely on you to make me right – that this is true of King Lear and The Mill on the Floss or ‘My Last Duchess.’

Part of the challenge of serving as this guardian of initiation, it seems to me, is the fundamental task of offering excellence to your students. They need this for many reasons, but I’ll mention two.

One, is as a frame of reference. We cannot judge the relative merits of a given work – any kind of work – unless we have an exposure to both the outstanding and the meretricious. The latter element is all-too-easy to find, the former is not, and it becomes part of a teacher’s mandate.

The second reason has nothing to do with making comparisons. It is, I suggest, central to why we read and study the great works: they teach us things. They illuminate, comfort, afflict, provoke, terrify, they offer that deeper capacity to experience to which I referred before.

This changes by the way, all the time, and as we change. Oedipus Rex is a different play for a twenty year old than it is for someone a quarter century older. This, as it happens, seems to me an important element to remember not only in art, but in the teaching of it. Some of you may be familiar with David Denby’s very fine book, Great Books, chronicling his return – in his 40s – to Columbia University to retake the core courses he’d taken as an undergraduate. I recommend it, both for the love it displays for the books studied, and for the sea change it maps in how they are read by a young student and a middle-aged man. King Lear for the young resonates differently than it does for someone with children and dying friends, as he or she stands on the cusp of age and declining powers.

This can – and should – be discussed, it should be a part of the teaching and celebration of this work and others: those works we hold on to and preserve because they offer us excellence and they offer it in different ways and guises. But I feel strongly about this general thesis: that the academic pursuit of the trendy and relevent must be carefully subsumed and monitored, lest it overmaster what I’d declare to be a far more important task, which is this exposure to illumination and insight offered by major art. There are tricks to this, and you’ll all know them better than I do, because you are in the trenches and I’m flying a small plane over them, but one doesn’t have to teach rap music in an English class, one can teach ‘My Last Duchess’ as a take on a Renaissance narcissist killing his woman because she smiled too promiscuously at other dudes. Half the
rap songs of the day – it seems – are about the same thing. We keep the poem, the brilliance of its voice, and we offer a doorway into it … this, it seems to me, is the way to pursue or explore relevence. Not by proclaiming some fashionably current writer as belonging among the greats, but by offering great works in such a way that the prism of today might help students see them.

Now, I’m entirely aware that the rigorously intelligent audience I have here will have long since begun arriving at an allegation: that I’m begging the question. That when I invite, or even insist upon the selection of excellence I’m leaving myself wide open to the query, ‘Where is it? Isn’t it possible for someone to declare Evelyn Lau to be as fine as Jane Austen?

I suppose it is, but what I want to do, by way of answering this question of defining excellence is to … tell you a joke. I should say that this is a particularly relevent joke in tonight’s context. It was told by John Gregory Dunne to Mordecai Richler, who told it to the poet and journalist, George Jonas, who told it to me. Other voices, indeed, and three of them part of Canadian Literature. I have a goodly number of jokes, but none of them fit our evening quite so well.

It seems there were a pair of Hollywood studio writers, back in the ’50s, glory days for the studios. The two of them received an urgent message one day that the boss of bosses, the studio head, wanted to see them immediately. They drove frantically across the lot and were ushered into the sanctum sanctorum. After the long walk to the Studio Chief’s vast expanse of desk, they sat down and gazed at him through the dense cloud of cigar smoke.

‘JP,’ said one, ‘you sent for us!’ ‘I did,’ said chief. ‘I have an idea for a movie, the biggest idea ever!’ ‘What is it? What is it?’ cried the first writer ‘Yes, JP, what is it?’ echoed the second, leaning forward. ‘This is big! You can’t believe how big,’ declared the chief. ‘Tell us!’ chorused the writers. ‘All right. Are you ready?’ ‘We’re ready!’ ‘OK, picture this … picture it … World War 2!’ ‘Yes, yes, go on, JP, go on!’ The chief leaned back, waved away cigar smoke. ‘Go on?’ he said indignantly. ‘Hell, you’re the writers!’

Now, leaving humour aside, reluctantly, I hope I’ve made a point. Ladies and gentlemen, with very great respect: Hell, you’re the teachers.

My purpose tonight is not to suggest what you ought to construe as excellent. I may have opinions, but I lack that much hubris. My comments are more limited but – I hope – not less germane for that. I want to suggest that howsoever you may personally define and perceive excellence in writing, you might do well to see your mandate as trying to identify and teach it. I believe a great deal becomes easier and clearer when we concentrate on such a process, and ask such questions. It was – allegedly – Vermeer, the painter, who said, ‘Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them.’

The enigma of what constitutes lasting and important writing is obvious something that brings in not only aesthetic judgement but socio- and sexually political issues, and each of us must wrestle with these things and resolve them as best we can. But I suggest that something profoundly useful emerges when we frame the enquiry in terms of the search for and passionate promulgation of excellence.

Students need – we all need – exposure to the outstanding, and a teacher’s articulation of why something is outstanding, for many reasons. Let me reiterate the two that strike me as particularly critical. One has to do with the gradual development of – to use an outmoded, non-metric term – yardsticks of appraisal. We need to be exposed to greatness in order to learn how to recognize it, and to recognize its absence. In a wonderful little book on the German poet, Rilke, the critic William Gass writes, ‘What is crucial to creativity is the repeated experience of quality of the highest kind. What does one learn? To ask the right question.’

I suggest that this learning is vital not just to spark creative work, as Gass argues, but even to appreciate creative and original work. It is very difficult to realize how and why mediocre poetry is mediocre if one hasn’t been exposed to Yeats, or even Rilke.

Secondly, leaving aside the way exposure to excellence offers a tool for assessment of quality, there’s something even more important, as I suggested before. Works are excellent, seminal, shaping, because they have something to add to our life’s experience and our ability to interpret life itself, not just evaluate other works of art. If you are able to induce in students a sense of what something as demanding and magisterial as King Lear or something as small and precise as Frost’s ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’ have to say about our lives here on earth, you have done something … both magisterial and precise yourselves.

Is this easy? God, no. It is among the hardest tasks of all and I cannot tell you how aware I am of the challenges underlying your profession. Indeed, I’ll go further and suggest that in all of literary criticism and commentary, perhaps the rarest, most wonderful thing is to find intelligent, infectious praise and celebration. It is worth celebrating in itself, when found. I can still vividly recall first reading Randall Jarrell’s essays on Robert Frost … glorious, exhilarated readings of the poems, so intelligently enraptured that they changed forever my sense of the New England poet. And the fact that I can so intensely recall this, twenty-five years after the fact speaks – I hope – to how conscious I am of the difficulty of the challenge I am positing here.

But I’m doing it anyhow. I’m going to leave you – or leave the formal aspect of our interaction this evening, pending followups over single malt – where I began, with an earnest expression of my own awareness of just how important your role can be as teachers. And with a suggestion – not an injunction – that one of the best ways you can define and approach that role is as purveyors of excellence, trying to share and communicate a sense of what has been done surpassingly well, however you personally see and define that.

Poets often offer the best sort of last word. Let me end now with W.H. Auden, from his memorial poem to Yeats, whom I’ve mentioned this evening already.

In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.

Auden is right. At the heart of what I’m trying to say tonight is the awareness that it does need teaching. And learning. If you can identify what to praise, and can do so with fire and passion, we stand at least a chance of preserving and passing on what we most admire in literature, and in life.

© Guy Gavriel Kay 2001

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