Sunday, June 13, 2010

I go back to high school for an afternoon

My garden changes daily, weekly. This was last week. this week these flowers are gone and have been replaced by lilies, hydrangeas, late blooming iris, and peonies. Who knows what will be there in a few days. But this beauty makes it difficult to sit in front of my computer and write. Or go to school.

Genre Literature in High School?

This week I had the opportunity to visit a local high school English class made up of graduating seniors. The instructor asked me to talk about writing because she said some of her students were interested in writing and getting published. I usually believe adolescents would rather win the lottery and, if they did, would give up the book thing altogether.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in front of a class of young adults, but this one seemed not unlike those freshman classes I taught about ten years ago. The setting was not ideal for talking about the publishing enterprise or any other subject for that matter. These were, as I said before, graduating seniors, and their minds seemed to be more attuned to the summer ahead than to the woman sitting at the front of the room yammering away about writing, research, and the difficulty of getting work published. The room was in the new section of the school, the section the builders goofed on when putting in the air circulation system. The air conditioning did not work well (not at all), and the windows didn’t open. It was hot in there. If I had been one of the students in that room, I would have been asleep after the first five minutes, but to their credit, no one dropped off.

They were polite, but not intensely interested in what I had to say. But their questions were telling. One young man said he liked to read and where could he buy my book. His tone conveyed a sense of impatience, implying that I could have come into the room and said, “Buy this at blank store.” I don’t think he was one of those who had aspirations to write, but I was darn glad to hear he read.

Another guy asked the bottom line question. “Can you make any money at this?” I told him Stephan King did, but I didn’t. Then I doubly disappointed him by saying I didn’t think I ever would get rich off my cozy mysteries, but that I continued to write because I loved it.

When I related stories about researching my topic, microbrewing, I stirred a certain admiration among the guys sitting in the back corner. “Cool,” they said or some contemporary equivalent of that phrase in teen talk.

I asked them a few questions also, and I want to share the answers with you because their replies tell us something about how we are educating the readers of the future.

Who knew the name Agatha Christie garnered a negative response from everyone in the room with the exception of the teacher. When I asked what literature they read in class, I was told they read mainstream literature and the classics. That translated into an abundance of work by men over women even factoring in sensitivity to the gender issue in contemporary work. I was pleased to hear they had just finished The Life of Bees, which the young women liked and the young men were lukewarm about. They had read no genre literature at all, yet I suspect that some of them did read it on their own. The popularity of Harry Potter and Vampire themes is not because their parents have these under their pillows.

Do I think genre literature should be part of what seniors read in their classes? Well, of course, but I’m biased because that’s what I write. Yet we all know that’s often what we read. The other night a woman of my generation said, “I love mysteries. Always have. For me it began with Nancy Drew.”

What I’m curious about is how students today think of their private choices in literature in comparison with their assigned reading in English classes. It may help explain the attitude I encountered in one of my early writing groups. The leader told the group and me that she’d “never read a mystery.” The disdainful curling of her lips was a precursor to the attitude she displayed at each meeting when I read from my first cozy manuscript.
As an academic, I was used to the snobbery practiced by some of my colleagues. I think of genre literature as literature with guidelines or writing habits specific to the individual genre.

I hope I successfully communicated my love of the mystery genre and its particular characteristics to that class, so that its members never are made to feel defensive in choice of book to read. Or to write.

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