02 December 2006

Quarterly Conversation

My essay "What is Appropriate", about literature and high school and sex, is now live at The Quarterly Conversation, where lots of other interesting stuff is also available -- despite my appearance there, it has become quite a strong webzine, a place for enlivening and enlightening discussion of books and writers, as well as various other cultural arts and artifacts.


  1. a.) So according to you, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a gateway drug?

    b.) Why the automatic assumption that sexually-explicit material is less appropriate for a high-school age daughter than for a high-school age son? (And why do I find myself doubting that the daughter was in fact younger?)

    c.) You're my hero, Mr. Mumpsimus.

  2. A great essay! You sum up lots of the issues that I also face as an English teacher in a high school. I find the moral panic around issues to do with sex really strange, when violence often seems to present no problem at all. It's a topsy-turvy world we live in...

  3. That was a wonderful and thought-provoking essay, Matt. I enjoyed reading it, and I'm sure the issues it raises will be on my mind as my children get older.

  4. Yes, Reading Lolita as a gateway drug, indeed! Actually, just the most accessible and discussion-provoking way to introduce ideas about how reading is viewed and used throughout the world. And then there was a bunch of controversy about the book recently when it was accused of being a neo-conservative tract, so I was able to introduce that into the class, too, and the kids could see that people really do care quite deeply about books, and they argue about them passionately even after they've graduated from high school.

    I don't entirely understand the gender difference that the other person raised, myself, which is one reason I included it. I have suspicions, but the comment was allowed to stand and wasn't really discussed, and I haven't asked the person who made it for an explanation, so...

  5. Knowing there are teachers in the high schools who tackle these topics gives me hope; at the same time, I am dismayed by the administrative fears of teaching texts with current & controversial subject matter. I taught univ lit for a bit over a decade. When students came to my freshman lit class or even later lit classes, I was often "fighting an uphill battle": they'd been taught so many texts that were not tied to their realities, and sadly, taught too often that texts Only Mean One Thing. They faced the double challenge of disconnect & forced interpretation. I wouldn't want to replace all the classic texts with all contemporary texts, but seeing 18-21 year olds already turned off to lit was depressing. I don't have an ideal solution, but I think your suggestion that teaching texts that include topics that are real to them is a good direction to go.

    As a mother, I don't restrict my kids' access to text. I read a lot with them, and we discuss topics that I suspect should make me blush. On the other hand, we don't watch but an hour or two of commercial television a week. (Why watch TV when there's museums to go to or paths to hike?) No topics are taboo here. I can't be sure this is the right path, but excess information seems wiser to me than silence. That's my approach in my novels too--be straight-up, especially on the dangerous topics . . . How to import the be-blunt-&-give-extra-data approach into the classroom is surely a difficult thing though. I realize that not all parents agree on the tough topics, so how does a teacher find that balance? Much respect goes to those of you who try to do so. . .

    Thanks for the thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the mental wanderings it set off for me.

    M. Marr

  6. I actually have a devout Christian friend who recently finished Reading Lolita. And not only did it spark her interest in Nabokov... discussing it with her at lunch created a bit of a cascade effect in the rest of us who hadn't previously read any Nabokov.

    But I hadn't heard the "neo-conservative tract" thing. Do you have any links/references for that?

    I don't entirely understand the gender difference that the other person raised, myself, which is one reason I included it.

    Understood. Thank you for... not pointing it out, but letting it stand intact for future generations to ponder.

  7. The debate on Reading Lolita is summed up pretty well at Slate, and I've collected a few I've found here.

  8. Beautiful.

    Forwarded it to the YA Lit prof here, who loved it so much she's going to start having her students read it next semester.

  9. really fabulous essay.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to write and disseminate your essay. I am so pleased to read things written by articulate, concerned, intelligent high school teachers. You'll have made an impact on those many people you encounter during the course of your career - and a responsible impact, at that. Right on.

  11. I've got to say that I know less and less what should happen between the triangle of a book, a class, and a teacher as time goes on. One hopes that is a love triangle, but often it is not. I do hate the thought of books being used to "examine our attitudes" about anything.

    But maybe the experience of a book is not really right for the classroom. Maybe in the classroom all one can do is dig shafts into or toward it from different angles.

    Because it will always escape. Because the experience of being truly lost in a book is something that cannot be recaptured once you are found. Because, etc.