I read one of those “sad but true” posts the other day. Over at Writer Unboxed, Keith Cronin wrote about how to make someone hate reading. His theory? Send them to an American high school.
As I stated last week, schools too often do a poor job of teaching fiction. They rarely teach fiction writing, and when they do mention fiction, it’s usually as part of a literary analysis unit. Worse, that analysis focuses on nebulous concepts like theme and symbolism.
Heaven forbid we talk about what makes a story enjoyable. Or why we like or don’t like a character. Or whether or not the story grabbed us.
No… We can’t possibly encourage kids to like reading and see stories as something to enjoy—for fun. We have to turn reading into analyzing “classic” stories with subjective questions about whether the wall color in a scene reflects the character’s mood or whether the dusty kitchen table foreshadows the ending.
Too many kids who were voracious readers earlier in their life learn to hate reading during their teenage years in high school and college. According to Keith’s post, one third of high school graduates won’t read another book—for the rest of their lives.
For too many, reading becomes a means to an end. Absorbing knowledge. Period. And reading for pleasure now seems like a faraway dream. Maybe even an immature activity.
That’s not to say all teenagers will fall victim to the school system’s perspective, but far too many do. I know. I was one of them.
My Confession about Reading
I’ve mentioned before how much J.K. Rowling has influenced my life. Her Harry Potter books inspired me to write a fan fiction story, my first foray into fiction writing. What I haven’t mentioned before—what I actually misrepresented the truth about—was how those books inspired me to once again read.
In my previous post about her influence, I said:
“Starting with the fourth book, I bought the books in hardcover. However, as I’ve mentioned here before, my to-be-read pile is scary-huge, so I didn’t actually read any of them until after the fifth book was released.”
That wasn’t quite true. While I read constantly as a child, once I was done with college, I bought books only rarely, and I would reread one of my childhood favorites, like the Chronicles of Narnia, about once a year. But I didn’t read any new fiction books.
In my previous post, I made it sound like I’d always had the TBR pile I now have (which is scary-huge) because the fact that for a time I’d stopped exploring new fiction worlds seemed like sacrilege for someone wanting to become an author.
Shouldn’t authors be so secure in their love of books that even awful literary classes wouldn’t come between them and their love? How much could I really love books if a dozen term papers got in my way? I was ashamed of my past as a “fallen” reader.
But Keith’s post helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. That my experience was, in fact, all too common.
Rediscovering Reading for Enjoyment
What I’d stated before about buying all the Harry Potter books in hardcover was true. Also true was how I started reading them after the fifth book was released. A coworker of mine convinced me to buy them, and after the fifth book, I decided I should actually read these things if I was going to spend hardcover money on them. *smile*
But I didn’t just read them. I inhaled them. I think I read all five in a week or two. And I wondered why I’d ever stopped reading for enjoyment.
It all comes back to being forced to read books I had no interest in. Even worse, I then had to write long analyses and participate in discussion groups about these tear-my-hair-out books.
(I’m shamefully proud that I learned to analyze the story by listening to the first five minutes of discussion and then fake my knowledge of the story well enough to fully participate in group discussions without ever reading some of the books—or the Cliff Notes. Maybe this is how I first developed my understanding of story structure, tropes, and plot flow. *grin*)
I’m happy to say that I’m back to my previous love of books, and I wish I had more hours in the day to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. (Current stats: 291 on Kindle, and about 100 more in other ebook formats, as well as about 250 print books on my desk and in my bedroom.)
Is It Possible to Teach Literary Analysis in a Way Students Won’t Hate?
(Maybe I should add a disclaimer and say “Students Might Hate Less.” *smile*)
My point with this post isn’t to say that students should never analyze stories for theme, structure, symbolism, etc. Far from it.
Learning to see the depth in fiction is a fantastic way of getting people to value fiction more. Non-fiction is easy to value. If it teaches us what we want to know, it’s valuable. Fiction is harder to value and appreciate.
However, it does no good to try to get people to value a book they hate. In fact, that approach is likely to make people value fiction less.
Instead, I say we should let students analyze stories they already enjoy. Some teachers in a school system here have assigned their students to read all of the next grade’s Literature books (about 8-10 books) over the summer before the school year starts.
The teachers don’t care if the students skim read the ones they don’t like, as long as they get the gist of the story. The point is to provide opportunities for the students to read books they might not usually choose. Exposure, not torture. *grin*
When the school year starts, the students each choose their favorite four books. Those are the books they’ll analyze during the year in small discussion groups with other students who chose the same ones.
This approach would still teach literary analysis and get students to think of all those theme and symbolism aspects. But it would also encourage students to discover more ways to value the stories they do enjoy. Win-win.
While I’m ranting at windmills, let me propose that teachers not insist there’s only one correct theme to take away from a story. As we discussed last week, a story can have many themes—based on the story arc, character arcs, etc.—and themes often grow out of a lesson learned. In other words, any lesson a reader takes away from a story can lead to a valid theme.
As authors, we should be conscious and intentional about as much of our writing as possible. (If nothing else, we want to make sure we’re creating the right impression for our readers.) However, our subconscious has a mind of its own and reading is extremely subjective. So teachers do students a great disservice if they act as though there’s only one way to interpret a story.
I could go on ranting about how many of these issues are driven by the structure of the school system in general and not teachers’ fault, but I’ll stop here. My point is that while the current approach is more convenient for teachers—only one book to cover at a time, fewer lessons to develop, etc.—any approach that kills the love of fiction for so many is broken and should be changed.
I know. I was there. When I think of how much I loved reading as a child—complete with library visits, bringing a book to baseball games (they go so slow!), and sneaking a flashlight under the covers—I weep at how much time I lost to forgetting that it is possible to read for fun.
It’s a tragedy I hope we can avoid in the future. Again, if the goal of literary analysis is to teach kids to find the deeper meanings within fiction, we need to find an approach that meets that goal and encourages a sense of the value of fiction, or all our efforts are for naught. Who’s with me? *smile*
P.S. This might have something to do with why I’m a genre girl now. *grin*
P.P.S. None of this is meant to bash teachers, who often have too little to work with and too much to do. Rather, I hope this inspires new thoughts for an approach to teaching that respects the kids and the goal of valuing fiction.
P.P.S. Feel free to share this rant with your kids’ teachers. The green sharing button at the bottom-right below allows you to email this post to anyone. Teachers might listen to us as authors, and maybe we can make a difference. *pumps fist*
Did you struggle with Literature classes? If you didn’t, what made it work for you? Did you go through a post-formal-schooling fiction-reading drought? What turned you into a reader again? Do you have other insights into how we could improve the current approach to literary analysis?