“Oh, she only reads novels!” said a phlebotomist who used to belong to book group. As I entered the conference room, she was gossiping about moi, and claimed that my fondness for novels was a character flaw.
Then she made my kind friend Janet cry. When Janet recommended Joy Harjo’s latest collection of poetry, the phlebotomist gave her a sharp tongue-lashing. Fiction may be dangerous, but poetry apparently is too-too! The rest of us thanked Janet and decided to read Harjo.
One of us suggested that the phlebotomist was actually a “racist vampire.” That made me laugh, but to give credit where it’s due, I doubt that the “vampire” knew that Joy Harjo was a former Poet Laureate, or that she was a Native American. In fact, I am sure she knew nothing about her!
The prejudice against novels and poetry is prevalent in our society – something to fight against in our new age of book-banning and “revision.” Good old Dad once called me “a non-participant in life” and punished me for reading on a weekend by making me mow the lawn. All the neighbors saw me sobbing and mowing, so he rescinded his order – for his image. I raced inside, slammed the door of my room, and returned to my book – possibly J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Thank God my mother and grandmother encouraged reading! Is there anything more glorious than discovering Dickens? The richness of language, his gorgeous use of anaphora and hyperbole, eccentric characters, wit, and brilliant storytelling? I was also enamored of the Brontes, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Influenced by Gothic novels and the Romantic poets, the Brontes wrote vigorously, lyrically, and suspensefully about impoverished, independent heroines, dark, brooding anti-heroes, and forbidden love – not without wit!
Reading novels can be serious or fun, or serious and fun, but it is not an uncritical activity. We do not consider Georgette Heyer the equal of Jane Austen, which is not to say that Heyer doesn’t have her merits. (But I simply cannot read Heyer!) And then there are Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt, both great writers, two quarreling sisters – do we have to choose one? Or can we read both?
Some psychologists and psychiatrists use fiction in their classes. The late Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, considered in his book, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Imagination, the role of novels in students’ lives. Over the years he taught fiction in elementary schools, high schools, universities, law schools, and medical schools. The texts he used included Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tillie Olsen, Charles Dickens, and William Carlos Williams.
He learned from students that novels expanded their world view and changed their perspective on class and racial differences. He interviewed a rich white student who identified with Toni Morrison’s Sula, and a poor Black student who identified with Portia, an orphan in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart who is very much in the way of her older half-brother and his sophisticated wife.
When someone belittles reading novels – or attempts to ban a book – I think of banned 19th-century Russian novels, Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the long, long history of censorship. Now editors at publishing companies are “revising” (censoring) Ian Fleming’s James Bond books to expurgate the language and attitudes of the past and brighten things up.. I dread the prospect of a sanitized James Bond.
With this high level of book-banning and censorship, how long before the Library of Alexandria burns – again?