by Jean Roberta
Years ago, my sister who has a Ph.D. in English, with a specialty in nineteenth-century fiction by women, claimed that referring to sex in a work of literary fiction is acceptable as long as the work is not intended to arouse lust. I was reminded of our mother’s amused response when I asked her (at age four, or thereabouts) why people in stories never go to the bathroom. Mom (who earned a Master’s degree in English during the Second World War) explained that it wouldn’t be appropriate to describe “private parts” in a story, and that I would understand it all better when I was older.
I am now approaching “normal retirement age” (as it is called in the university where I teach English), and I still don’t get it.
Let me revise that statement. I think I get it, but as I often remind my students, it’s never safe to assume. And even first-year university students should be striving to express themselves clearly and thoroughly in written words. A claim that certain subjects have to remain unmentioned – like Voldemort, the villain in the Harry Potter novels -- for reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained just isn’t clear or logical.
By now, my mother has passed away and my sister no longer speaks to me, but the defense of literary standards is still a large part of the business of English departments in universities throughout the world. There seems to be a widespread assumption among the conservatives who hate “porn” that 1) all educated people can recognize this stuff when they see it, that 2) educational standards are declining in the public school system (at least in Canada and the U.S.), that 3) there is a widening gap between the literati and the masses who are kept ignorant so they can be exploited by a corporate-government alliance, and 4) allowing “porn” (sexually-explicit writing) into the Ivory Tower would be the ultimate surrender to the muggles, an admission that literate culture is dead or dying.
At the same time, advocates of sexual freedom and sexually-explicit reading-matter (fiction and instruction manuals) have been invited to speak in reputable universities that pride themselves on being avant-garde. Some post-secondary schools that have creative writing programs offer workshops and courses in erotic writing that are taught by erotic writers who have probably been disowned by their blood relatives.
As a university instructor whose job is to force a captive audience of young adults to write analytical essays, I can cautiously agree with points 2 and 3, outlined above. Every semester, my notorious grammar quiz gets more complaints and a lower class average. Is this because modern society is as decadent as Sodom and Gomorrah (offensive to God Himself), or maybe ancient Rome, and teenagers are now reading about body parts instead of learning the parts of speech? And are these activities mutually exclusive?
The lack of communication between porn-hating conservatives and radical advocates of literature that dares to tell the truth about Voldemort subjects is truly amazing. I’ve seen conservatives and radicals rub shoulders in the halls of the university, greet each other with big smiles, and agree in department meetings that we all really have the same goals.
I don’t think so.
By now, I suspect that all my colleagues in the English Department know what I write, but I never feel a draft of cold air coming from any of them. They have known me for years. I’m a silver-haired grandmother who teaches grammar. I don’t wear stilettos or fishnet stockings to academic social events. When one of my colleagues jokingly (rhetorically) asked in a meeting if writing “porn” could be considered an academic accomplishment (expected of academics who must “publish or perish”), he didn’t seem to be aiming a dig at me. Apparently what I write is thought of as something completely different.
It seems that no one wants to admit that “academic standards” are a bucket that can hold oil and water, elements that don’t mix well.
Five years ago (November 2007), a serious journal, The New Criterion, published an article* on “the grotesque carnival of today’s academy” by Heather MacDonald, who claimed that university education (particularly in the U.S.) has gone further downhill since 1987, when author Alan Bloom thundered about low standards in The Closing of the American Mind.
As evidence that educational standards have descended into hell in the 21st century, MacDonald refers to a book she picked up in the library of the University of California at Irvine: Glamour Girls: Femme/Femme Erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by the Haworth Press (now defunct). MacDonald claims that this anthology is “undoubtedly not what California’s taxpayers have in mind when they foot the bill for new university books.” (Did she run a public opinion poll?)
After referring to a story in the anthology which was “as much as I could take,” Macdonald explains: “The jacket blurbs from various erotica writers assert that the collection makes an important contribution to lesbian literature by presenting ‘femme/femme’ (feminine lesbians) couplings instead of the usual ‘butch/femme’ stereotype.” This type of breakthrough is clearly not what MacDonald hoped to find in any book housed in a university library.
Egad. I was one of the erotic writers who wrote a blurb for Glamour Girls, and I still regard it as a literary anthology. I was glad to read a collection of stories that combine hot sex with a feminist challenge to the kind of masculine/butch chauvinism that still seems entrenched in some lesbian communities, not to mention mainstream culture. I can’t imagine a good reason why this book should be thrown from a library window onto a bonfire on behalf of taxpayers anywhere.
Luckily, I haven’t heard of any book-burnings inspired by this article or by any other rant about the spread of “porn” into places where it doesn’t belong. Yet some academics casually refer to sexually-explicit writing as something that no one with talent or intelligence would write, or study, even as they claim to promote the pleasure of reading.
Like other academics, I am very concerned about government cutbacks to universities, especially the one where I teach. It concerns me that young adults graduate from high schools without knowing how to put the feelings and ideas that want to burst out of them into written words. It especially concerns me that too many students say “I’ve never been good at writing,” without adding that they were never taught how to structure a sentence.
Ignorance is such a bad thing that it might just be the root of all evil. So how is it related to sex, or descriptions of sex? I can think of several factors that contribute to low literacy rates, and sexual energy is not one of them.
I hope the English department where I hang out never becomes the site of an ideological war like the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. If war breaks out, however, I don’t intend to claim there is no important difference between the radicals and the conservatives, or that I don’t believe in “taking sides.”
Sigh. I just hope to have lots of good company on this side of the barricades.
*”Another View: America’s Flaw or Bloom’s?” by Heather Macdonald, in The New Criterion (November 2007, Volume 26), page 24.
Monday, November 26, 2012
by Jean Roberta
Posted by Jean Roberta at 5:26 PM