Recently, I did an e-mail interview with a colleague’s student, talking about some of my thoughts on literature. I enjoyed the experience of writing the answers so much that I thought I’d include them here.
What is literature to you?
To me, literature is humanity. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it contains the best and worst of everything we have done, our aspirations, mistakes, successes, hopes, dreams, our deepest darkest secrets. It’s a doorway into the past, a way for us to see not only how we’ve changed, but also how we’ve stayed the same. Literature is also philosophy, science, mathematics, music—you name it. If we’ve done it, it’s there. And the age old tradition of the story speaks to a need in all of us, that unbearable itch to be entertained. It’s really something that I think people should be more excited about than they seem to be, this access to other cultures, times, and places.
Why have you chosen to make literature your career?
Partly because of the appeals I’ve discussed above, but making it my career goes a bit further than that. First of all, I’ve been reading for longer than I can actually remember, so it was a natural fit on that level. Also, literature shouldn’t be something to slog through. That’s not to say it’s easy, nor should it be. In fact, sometimes the difficulty is part of the experience, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant. For instance, a poem can be enjoyed on a superficial level for its musicality, its use of metaphor, in the same way we might enjoy an excellent song on the radio. But approaching that poem analytically can help us become better at analyzing other things, at applying critical thinking. Does everyone like the same things? Nope, and that’s fine. But if you’re never exposed to a wide array of literature—things you may or may not have discovered on your own—who knows what you could be missing? That’s why I write, read, study, and teach literature, so I can be a part of helping others discover that power. Also, it’s fun.
What makes your favorite author, or authors, special to you?
I actually do have a favorite author, but I’ve only discovered this over years of consideration and elimination. Kurt Vonnegut is go-to writer because of his ability to use simple, conversational language to talk about incredibly complex topics. His works deal with everything from war, life as a prisoner of war, human evolution, the uncertain future of humanity, time travel, and the importance of love, just to name a few, and he does this all in simple prose that could easily be read by a third grader. But as I said before, his ideas are anything but simple. Vonnegut also effectively breaks two of the most widely accepted rules of fiction writing: never address the reader directly and never, ever write yourself into a story. How does he make it work? I wish I knew.
A few of my other favorite writers are Michael Chabon, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Connie Willis, Jane Austen, and Neil Gaiman, in no particular order.
Why is the Victorian era a favorite of yours?
There’s an idea out there that the Victorians were a bunch of stuffy, repressed people with more problems than sense, and that’s somewhat true. But it’s also an unfair generalization, and it’s probably been the case for select folks in just about any era or culture. The reason I love the Victorian era of literature is because it comes out of one of the greatest periods of historical change: the power and influence of the British Empire and the beginnings of its decline. It’s also where we see some hugely important writings on social justice from John Stuart Mill, Christina Rossetti, and Charles Dickens. We have the Brontës, the poetry of the Brownings, the sensational fiction of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle gives us Sherlock Holmes, and H.G. Wells gives us, to a large extent, the origins of science fiction. The era has some of just about everything, in a literary sense. Oh, and it has Oscar Wilde, which is saying a lot.
Do you have a fall back piece of literature or possibly an author, something that acts as the equivalent of comfort food in book form. If so what is it and why?
Yes, I do, and I’ll refer back to one of my previous answers: Kurt Vonnegut. To me, sitting down with a Kurt Vonnegut book is like passing time with a friend, and when I read him, it’s as if he’s talking to just me, as if he came up with these brilliant insights and decided to share them with yours truly. My favorite work of his—also decided after multiple readings and lengthy deliberation–is Mother Night, a novel about an American playwright who agrees to pose as a Nazi propagandist during World War II and is subsequently tried for war crimes. Vonnegut writes that the “moral” of this story is that “We become what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I’ve read this novel at least ten times, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’ll probably read it again. a close second for me, with respect to a work of literature I go back to again and again, would be John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Are you reading anything modern right now that you’d recommend?
I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Flynn takes a standard genre trope, the missing wife and the guilty husband, and turns it right up on its ear. Gone Girl is anything but a cliché; in fact, it’s a nice, brilliantly written surprise. Next on my list is Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been meaning to read it since it released, but I have yet to find time. Maybe this weekend, after I re-read Mother Night.
If there were one thing about literature you could share with the world, what would it be?
I’d probably tell everyone that literature is really, truly for everyone. Okay, that’s not an original thought, but it is one that needs to be shouted again and again and again, ad infinitum. Yes, we’ve all heard the truism that literature is an escape. It’s a truism for a reason, though, and not everyone realizes literature’s sheer power, either because they haven’t been properly exposed to it or have yet to find the thing that speaks to them on a deep, personal level. Give it a decent chance to win you over, I’d say.