Did I Miss Something?

Decades ago, in a high school English classroom, one of my better students sat reading Bear Island, a thriller by Alistair MacLean. He asked out loud, “Why can’t we read books like this rather than the stuff we read in class?” This particular class focused on American literature, including short stories and novels by  Hawthorne, Twain, Poe, Steinbeck, O’Connor and Bradbury.

I could have responded “Alistair MacLean is Scottish.” However, a number of American authors had written works in the same vein, readable thrillers with action beyond the probable. Instead I replied, “Bear Island is fine to read when you choose books on your own. But, we read works from different periods and viewpoints that require you to think and interpret the story. That way you gain a greater understanding.”

What more did the students want? They could choose what they liked during independent reading. (Well, that wasn’t completely true as I had to remove a copy of Hustler Magazine that one student was attempting to pass to classmates.)

Decades later, when I am no longer teaching high school, preference in reading is still a concern. This is especially true when I expose my writing to critiques from others. I’m not necessary bothered by the fastidious followers of rules of punctuation and usage. Although, die-hard supporters of certain ones can be irritating.

For example, I’ve had critiques in which one person changed the ending punctuation within the quotes from commas to periods, and another changed them back. My decision was to use the comma when the dialog tag used a verb referring to speech, and a period when the verb described the character’s action. A problem occurred when punctuating “You wish you were my boyfriend,” she giggled. One person critiquing assumed a human either giggles or speaks. I’ve taught high school and seen adolescent girls combine these frequently.

I can take that kind of critique. However, feedback from a person who reads a few kinds of easily consumable writing creates the greatest challenge. For example, if the person were a fan of Alistair MacLean, they might accept the flat characters (macho warriors and cardboard females) and impossible plots in exchange for the high melodrama and exotic settings. But, if this person read about war from Stephen Crane’s or Ishmael Beah’s viewpoint, the result would be confusion. The action is not all laid out simply for them to digest.

Words that tell what is occurring in an edge-of-the-seat exiting manner are more acceptable than showing through description. The high school students didn’t know how to point out what confused them in The Red Badge of Courage. Perhaps most disturbing to them was the lack of clear cut heroes and villains. Complex characters and a story shown through descriptive passages require readers exert more effort to understand.

Reading MacLean’s account of war is entertaining; reading Crane’s is thought provoking. During a critique the hardest comments to deal with are “I don’t understand what is happening!” or “Did I miss something?” If the person doesn’t choose to read that which requires a lot of thought for interpretation, is it worth the effort, or the possibility of insult, to explain it?

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