Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sharp Words for Mr. Bradbury

         I finished Fahrenheit 451 and, experiencing that pleasantly sad, familiar feeling of having finished an excellent book, I was pleased to find an Afterword and a Coda still remained for my reading pleasure. But now instead of praise, I must express my disagreement in regards to Bradbury's Coda. In it Bradbury writes:

“About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?”

            He continues to give other examples of minority groups asking him to rewrite or drop his works, and then jumps to an entirely different topic, saying:
“Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.
Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? … The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
            And then he tells us that, “Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books first were burned by minorities.” He ends with scolding the outspoken minorities by saying that his work belongs to him, and, “All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I hit, I pitch, I catch. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try. And no one can help me. Not even you.”
            This sums up his coda. I feel it was necessary to provide the above text in order to refute it without distorting any of his ideas as they were presented.
            Firstly, the coda addresses two separate issues: Minorities asking him to change his work, and editors watering down books. These issues are often mutually exclusive, but in Bradbury’s mind they appear to be fused.

              He depicts the social activists and the sale-hungry editors as non-thinkers, the same entities with identical goals. And what could be further from the truth! How weary it makes me, this constant assumption that if you care about social justice and equity you must be sensitive, hysterical, petty, foul – an idiot. Someone whose ideas can be discarded. For the social activist is the antitheses of the non-thinker.
            The non-thinkers are the masses, those who passively consume and never stop to consider, “What are the consequences of my actions? How am I molding society by choosing this particular piece of media to digest? How is this book, this movie, this word, these clothes, changing the world? Am I encouraging the spread of an idea that, when I think about it, I don’t support?” Social activists are the ones who think complexly about what is in front of them, analyze it and ruminate on its broader implications.
            I’m disappointed that this revered writer would accept the portrayal of the social activist as the non-thinker. It only gives us all an excuse to not listen when activists speak. We accuse them of destroying Art and Freedom when they are the liberators of society.
            This blog is about me thinking about books. And yet the origins of me thinking cannot be found in books, but rather in feminism. It was feminism that got me thinking critically, and to suggest that I am a non-thinker because I am a feminist is absurd.
            In Fahrenheit 451, Montag says to his wife Mildred: “Let you alone! ... We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?
            Ah! Being really bothered about something is an action exulted by Montag, and one of the main points Bradbury addresses in his most famous book. But at the end of the book, he berates those who have become really bothered by him. The zenith of hypocrisy lies between the covers of Fahrenheit 451.
            And now I come to my point. It is okay to read books and think, “This writing is swell! But why are there only white, heterosexual males?” It is always okay to think critically about inequality – yes, even when the inequality is found in art and words. It is okay to wonder why there aren’t any women in the Martian Chronicles.
            Some writers shrink away from the responsibility of representing the world in a complex, diverse manner. And when suggested they leave their comfort zones and, say, change the genitalia or sexual preference of one of their characters, they yell in their coda, “Censorship! My art! No touching!”
            It’s not censorship. It’s critical thinking.
            And is a writer’s work a writer’s work? Which is to say, do Bradbury’s books belong only to Bradbury? I don’t think so, and I don’t think him insisting they do makes it any more true. Once an author agrees to publish and print their work, they’re giving a piece of it to each and every reader. Not legally, obviously, but I speak not of copyright laws. They’re giving the reader permission to analyze and judge the words before them. When I read a novel, its author is granting me the right to think anything I want about that novel.
            So your art is not your art – it’s your art, and also the art of your consumers. Because of this, writers and artists have a responsibility to inject social complexity into their work. When writers are writing only about white, heterosexual males, regardless the quality of their prose, I will raise my eyebrows and, yes – I will say they are not doing their job.
            But some of my favorite books do lack diversity. Fahrenheit 451, for example. Also Sherlock Holmes, many beloved plays of Shakespeare, almost any story I’ve read by Borges, etc. So clearly, the quality of a work does not hinge solely upon its representation of social complexity. But why not?
            Because as a reader, I am highly capable. When put in the hands of a good writer, my levels of empathy soar. This is because none of us, feminists or activists or passive consumers though we may be, identify only as women, or gays, or blacks. Everyone primarily identifies themselves as people. I am a person. Therefore, if I am reading about a person, I see myself in the pages.
            (If you are thinking about books narrated by animals or aliens, then you can argue that they were written by people, or say that we identify primarily as organisms.)
            To restate: Part of a writer’s job is to reflect social complexity in their work. If the writer fails, but his/her words are of quality, the reader can pick up the slack. And finally, it is okay to get really bothered about books, even if those books are by Ray Bradbury.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fahrenheit 451: Clarisse - One of Those People

 One of the major shortcomings of many dystopian novels is that the hero is seldom given a good reason to be as strange and insightful and revolutionary as they are. Why, in a society of conformists, would this person decide to stand out? And why do they often do so when they're middle-aged, while there are no reports of them having challenged the system during their crucial teenage years? I've read excellent dystopian novels that have left me with a hollow sense of dissatisfaction, and the unanswered question of Why?

Fahrenheit 451 is different. Fahrenheit 451 has Clarisse McClellan.

I was surprised by how little 'stage time' Clarisse was given in the novel. She pops in, has her say, and then leaves forever. Her only purpose in the story was to wake Guy Montag up and say, "Hey! You're wrong! Look at my shocking ideals!" And it worked. It worked wonderfully. She was so poignantly eccentric, so endearingly odd. Even for me, in my non-dystopian society, she was refreshing. I understand why her words resonated with Montag.

There are certain people in this world - this world, not just Bradbury's - that touch us. We meet them briefly, know them barely, and yet their words or quirks or smiles stay with us forever. Sometimes they present an idea to us that is so foreign, so different from anything we've ever considered, that the mere shock value of their thoughts is enough to make the memory of them stick.

In real life, of course, these wonderful people have families and friends and occupations and lives of their own, that are just as complex and important as yours, and their sole purpose is not to change you in some essential way. And yet that's the role they fill, for you, and for you that's more than enough. So cheers to Clarisse, and every person like Clarisse.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bad English Classes Make You Sick

^This is a book that is Good and Nice.

A recent quirk of mine is that I love books that have notes in the margins. Steph Bowe, a YA author, has this to say about margin notes:

"I love it when you borrow a book from the library for school and all the relevant passages have already been underlined, all the pages you’re meant to read are dog-eared, and there are notes in the margins that match the questions you’re meant to answer.

It’s like someone knew you were going to pick it up. It’s like we’re all connected a little bit, if it’s only through notes in the margins of library books, notes and lines that shouldn’t be there, that librarians forbid, but are." (from
this post.)

I bought a used copy of Fahrenheit 451. It was definitely owned by another high school student, once. And, when I look at the aimless, highly annoying pencil scribbles on the front cover, I sense that this high school student didn't want to read Fahrenheit 451.

There are notes in the margins, though. As strange as it is to say, they are the wrong notes. These margin notes make me angry.

There are specific paragraphs with specific words underlined, and in the margins it says things like, "alliteration" and "parallel structure" and "the phoenix is an analogy for man" and I can just imagine this bored, straight-A student reading and hating this wonderful novel, and scribbling her English teacher's words verbatim onto its pages, and opening the book in the evenings to get to her notes, and trying to memorize key words and important bits so that she can regurgitate them on a test. And then she gets an A, and I hate that, I hate that A more than anything, and I hate my copy of Fahrenheit 451.

I don't hate her. The girl, I mean, or maybe it was a boy. I understand why Bradbury's poesy did not touch her. The pressure to regurgitate words verbatim tends to stress people, and stress makes us immune to beauty.

It's not always like this, in English class. English class is the reason why I love Shakespeare and Harper Lee and Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. It's specific teachers, teachers I've had, who insist upon making students not learn and appreciate, but rather vomit all over lined sheets of paper.

Notes in the margins are nice, but not if they've been written by fatigued, careless, sloppy readers whose souls are withering due to the constant need to burp out, "Alliteration!"