Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to Appeal to Millennials: Confuse Them

Of interest to me in school last week and this week was how the students in my American Novels class reacted to Faulkner vs. Hemingway. The class was super quiet during the Hemingway week (The Sun Also Rises) and I thought it was because the class was just quiet and shy, but when we started Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), KABOOM, engagement. Talk talk talk. Most of the 25 of us had something to say. I was extremely surprised, because I was certain if anything they would be quieter and less engaged re: Faulkner than re: Hemingway. Papa is nothing if not direct, and Faulkner is...indirect.

Something I read in the DF Wallace biography a couple of weeks ago might hold the key to this. The author, D.T. Max, noted that younger generations had a much easier time with Infinite Jest than did older ones, and that it was an undergraduate who actually hit upon the reasoning behind that book's odd climaxless structure. Max posited that younger folks who pick up Infinite Jest have actually grown up in the world from which it is assembled - the world of, well, eternal entertainment; the fragmented and difficult and unnarrative world of 100 cable channels and slackerism and, eventually, the internet. So they are more poised to understand (by nature of living rather than by reading Barth and Pynchon) postmodernism or postpostmodernism than people who grew up on the Harold Bloom diet.

By the same token, I think that the cultural and artistic context of early Hemingway may be fading away, irrevocably. While Faulkner did write about a specific time and place, and did make use of cultural referents that are no longer in use, poverty and family issues will likely endure as relatable human problems for centuries to come. I think that means his work will be relevant to more generations than The Sun Also Rises will be. Critically, Faulkner's way of shattering a narrative into tiny pieces and gluing it together is something that the generation under me - actually literally raised on the internet rather than having it enter their lives in their ~ tweens/teens like me - understands possibly better than any generation prior. I love Faulkner even though I don't claim to understand him, and I think that a lot more people my age and younger are willing to read books from that place, rather than getting annoyed and insisting that everything must go from point A to point B in order to be a good experience.

I shared this with an English professor I know, and she went all quiet, which is a sign that I have a really good idea. "That's why my students now get Coriolanus better than my students ten years ago," she said. I admitted that it was Max's idea, not mine, but nevertheless it seemed like an idea that had been borne out by her experience of students over a couple of decades. So, go Max, go Faulkner, go me.

In other news, I finished the story I talked about last time that very same day, doing one of those writing marathons where I feel wrung out and hung over by the end of it and there are books scattered around that I don't remember consulting and I have sort of lost track of what the numbers of hours mean. I.e. is six o'clock dinnertime, or is it midafternoon? Ordinarily, since it's schoolwork, I'd neaten its corners as well as possible very soon after finishing the draft, and then I'd forget about it. But I think this came out pretty okay, so instead I'm doing the work-work thing where I let it ferment for two weeks and then look at it again. I might be totally wrong, it might be good for schoolwork and nothing else, but we'll see. It was fun to play.

If you're interested in grammar, language mechanics, the evolution of internet language, etc., go read this. I'm off.

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