Friday, June 25, 2010

Time to stop pretending ...

... What 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Isn't. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Judging by the comments, Allen's is minority view. I have no dog in this fight. Never read the book. Never saw the movie.


  1. From the linked article:

    Harper Lee's contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about "To Kill a Mockingbird": "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book."

    That, in a nutshell, says all that needs to be said on the subject. Of course, as a die-hard O'Connor fan(atic), I probably am a bit prejudiced in favor of her opinion regarding what I have always viewed as a simple book by a nice lady in nearby Monroeville, Alabama (a southern community known best for outlet shopping and Ms. Harper Lee). Give me the lady from Milledgeville, Georgia, and I'll leave the lady from Monroeville, Alabama, to the high school English teachers and students.

  2. I do have a dog in this fight, since Horton Foote, the screenplay writer for Mockingbird, is responsible for my work seeing the light of day (an Internet light, but still a light).

    If the criticism against the novel and the movie is that they're not ambiguous enough, then I guess I would ask this. As you look back through some of the most resonant memories of the people in your life, are you most struck by the normal inherent ambiguity--or most struck by the fact that there are moments in our lives when, yes, someone's goodness or integrity shines out against our everyday lives as clear as day?

    That's Mockingbird. That's Harper Lee and, in my life, that was Horton Foote.

  3. The criticism is based on the same one I see all the time about historical novels: they don't measure up to the critic's notion of historical accuracy. The usual condemnations about missing the details, while missing the point once again that fiction is myth-making and storytelling, not reporting.

    The comments about moral ambiguity being more realistic than saintliness are basically the same arguments that say, "Don't bother trying to become better than you are, you'll fail." It's the cry of those who don't want others to succeed; at it's ugliest, it's the same category of attitude shown by characters in "Mockingbird" that Atticus Finch refused to give into. What would life be without some role models who, fictional or not, really did serve to make us aspire to better ourselves, to be better than we thought we could be? If not Atticus Finch, then what about King Arthur and his Knights? Or Frodo Baggins?

    As for Flannery O'Connor, she had her own strong prejudices. Her remarks about Harper Lee remind one of the literary insults thrown back and forth between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal: "That's not writing, that's just typing." Lewis Carroll wrote children's books, too. So did Tolkein. What makes a book an "adult" book vs. a "children's" book is often the prejudice of the critic; readers don't really care.

    O'Connor was not nearly as open-minded or lyrical a writer as Eudora Welty, in my opinion. I've always thought so.

  4. Art and Shelley: My preference, you see, may have more to do with fanaticism than objective criticism, and I admitted that in my earlier comment. So, I guess that suggests that all criticism is personal, and that deserves consideration.

  5. If all criticism is that personal, then all we have is fans and solipsism. I disagree with that extreme. I also don't think total objectivity is possible.

    I think the truth lies somewhere in the mix of personal preference and aesthetic assessment. In other words, the truth lies in the middle. Fans can be wrong. So can those who only look at the relatively elements of criticism, such as craft.

    My biggest problem with critics such as James Woods or Harold Bloom is that they try to codify their personal taste, which in Bloom's case is also elitist snobbery, into a critical system by which to judge all literature. Thus they pre-judge a work based on their critical ideology, rather than taking each piece on its own merits, and including whether or not the author or not succeeded in fulfilling their own intentions.

    O'Connor could be self-flagellating about not living up to her own expectations for her writing. Lee, it seems to me, fully met her intentions and expectations for her work, and did not aspire to Critical Stardom Via Great Literature. So who was the more "successful," by those standards?

    Just my impression, of course. I could be wrong.

  6. I guess my tongue in my cheek was not apparent. Forgive me, I've had a curiously distracted day, so my waggish chatter was probably inappropriate since you are taking this much more seriously than I had intended. Mea culpa.

  7. I'm just so happy to find another smart reader who hasn't read/seen To Kill a Mockingbird eiter.

  8. I've read and still appreciate O'Connor -- I often teach the story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" to college freshman. Part of why it works so well in a classroom is that it fits the short story model so perfectly, has such a neat narrative arc, such obvious paragraphs demonstrating the theme and the character, so a teacher can show students where the climax is, where the resolution is, etc.

    In other words, it follows the formula. If you read it enough times, it seems to be blatant in presenting its theme and characters -- less blatant than other stories by other authors, for sure, but more blatant than others. That's probably why it is anthologized so often in college textbooks -- it is an easy story in its way, far more blatant in its meaning than Faulkner's "Barn Burning," also anthologized often.

    So my first thought on seeing R.T.'s comment was that I do like O'Connor but at least some of her works could be described as simple, if not simplistic, though not all the stories are as formulaic as "Everything That Rises Must Converge" in the collection of the same name. Also, though I like the story for what it is, I don't think there is anything sophisticated about taking the position that every person is contemptible, which the story seems to do. Every adult of any significance in the story is a bad person, in one way or another. I don't think this is the case with all of her work -- it's been many years since I've read much of it -- but in the works where it is the case, labeling it as "grotesque" doesn't change that this view of people and the way they interact is one-dimensional.

    (more in next comment)

  9. (continued)

    As for To Kill A Mockingbird (I refer to the novel, not the movie), I want to second Art's point, expressed so well, about there being nothing wrong with literature providing us with characters who do the right thing and stand up for themselves or others. It doesn't have to be presented as simple heroism, but can be about people making difficult decisions and overcoming obstacles, at a cost, which they do in real life. People aren't all evil and at the moment of choice can make good ones. We don't want to label literature about those who do good as "for children" -- adults could use more stories about goodness as well.

    I only read To Kill A Mockingbird a few years ago -- encountered it as an adult, one who had read lots of serious, literary books, many dark depressing stories among them. And I like those dark stories when they are done well (my master's thesis was on Kafka, after all, though he thought his own work was sometimes hilarious), and I repeat that I like O'Connor and I am not referring to her when I make disparaging comments about literary fiction below.

    But a couple of thoughts about To Kill A Mockingbird:

    1) If I remember correctly, it is a first-person narration from a child's point-of-view, so it should not surprise us that moral ambiguity is not prominent, though I think there is more complexity in the novel than some think, if I recall -- Finch doesn't exactly save the innocent man he represents at trial, and on that count it doesn't all work out in the end. I think the narrator learns that sometimes bad people win and innocent people suffer, but we still have an obligation to fight for what is right.

    This first-person point-of-view would of course also lead to a straight-forward easy-to-read prose style, which the book has. The narrator's voice is engaging from the start. This is a main reason people like the book -- we like the narrator. If this is writing for children, and the convoluted style and structure of the latest "literary novel" is writing for adults, I think I would choose to read what is written for children.

    2) Readers care about and remember that novel's characters for the rest of their lives, because the characters do not come across as stand-ins for some literary or thematic purpose but seem to be people (largely because of the convincing narrative voice), which in many cases cannot be said about "literary" works that are sometimes more concerned with exploring moral ambiguity than telling a good story and giving us a character to care about.

    Anyway, I see that R.T. had his tongue in his cheek, so I am not writing about his comment really, but do think that there is sometimes more heart and story and character in books written for children than written for adults. However, I think Mockingbird can hardly have been intended for children so much as readers open to the possibility that a story can have a happy ending (tempered by injustice and loss in this case) and people can do the right thing even when it's difficult to do so. I hope that readers open to this would include some adults.

  10. The "tongue in cheek" caveat was intended to put Art Durkee a bit at ease because he seems to have objected to my off-handed and waggish subordination of Lee's novel, and my personal preference for O'Connor. For more about my true critical regard for O'Connor, please check out my numerous postings within the archives at my blog, Novels, Stories, and More. I have included an autobiographically critical assessment of Wise Blood, as well as some comments about some of the short stories. I had planned on more about O'Connor, but life--as it almost always does--got in the way of the plans. Perhaps I will return to blogging about O'Connor in the future as time permits. Here is my bottom line reaction to the compare-and-contrast dialogue focusing on O'Connor and Lee: other than the southern contexts and settings, I find little useful comparison between the two writers; Lee has offered us only one novel (which I think is relatively minor within the American canon), and O'Connor has left us with two novels, two short story collections, a number of important essays, and plenty of correspondence, all of which (taken together) ensures O'Connor's enshrinement in the permanent canon of American literature. Moreover, while Lee concerned herself with social issues (important, of course though bound by contexts of time and culture), O'Connor concerned herself with Christian issues (more important, of course, and not limited in focus by any temporal boundaries). That, in a nutshell, is my contribution to the compare-and-contrast exercise.

  11. I agree that it is not useful to compare/contrast them. They have little in common. I am not interested in ranking writers and don't care much about the canon. I don't think we often know until at least a hundred years have passed after publication which works will still be read in the long run (and even then, works we thought were in fade from memory), whatever that means or to what degree it matters. I do think some works in the canon aren't very good, or aren't great, but there they are, enshrined. Maybe not read outside of a course requirement, but enshrined.

    But I don't dispute O'Connor's standing, or that based on what the canon-keepers value, Mockingbird might not be on many college syllabi. None of this is important to me. I am also not declaring her book to be the greatest or fighting for her enshrinement. It's just a book that I liked and I took issue with the statement by O'Connor that it is a children's book (anyone who thinks it is simple should try writing a book like it; they will learn a few things about how hard it is to create something so simple).

    Maybe the explosive commercial success of Lee's novel, a novel O'Connor thought inferior to her own work, bothered O'Connor; maybe she was jealous. I don't know why else to insult the book and its readers (aside from a general grouchiness -- was she usually cranky?) Art's mention of Capote and Vidal seems appropriate. But whatever -- the books are what they are and readers get out of them what they get out of them, however the canon looks or is determined.

    The main specific point R.T. made in his last comment that I would disagree with is the notion that Mockingbird is a social issue book and that as a result of its subject it is not timeless like O'Connor's works about Christian issues. A setting in a time of racial discord doesn't make a work about social issues necessarily. A setting can be there to provide a backdrop, present a conflict and test characters. To me, a book like The Jungle is a social issue novel, limited by its political heavy-handedness and didactic focus on issues of the time. It is forced in all sorts of places.

    Mockingbird is more about doing the right thing even when it's hard to do so, being tested by difficult circumstances, about character and being a child, than it is about civil rights or some similar topic. It is about the challenges people face and the way they respond to those challenges. In other words, it is about the human condition and human behavior, as timeless topics as there are.

    If any work set during a specific time period, or during a time of social upheaval, is necessarily less consequential, then that also reduces "Everything That Rises Must Converge," which is set around the time of integration and uses racial tension as a device to bring out conflict between Julian and his mother. (But that story is hardly about the issue of racism even though many of the lines of dialogue are about that -- it is about Julian and his mother.)

    It would also mean that Ellison's Invisible Man and the autobiography of Frederick Douglas and The Red Badge of Courage -- we can go on and on -- cannot be timeless because they are about some particular time period or issue. Except, that is not what they're about. It's where or when they're set. They are about being human. That's always timeless if the works are good enough.

  12. There's a great scene where Scout has an interaction with the town drunk (Dolphus Raymond, if I remember correctly), wherein she discovers that he doesn't drink at all. He just puts on the appearance of being the town drunk, to act as a lightning rod for the town's self-righteousness. He serves as a marker for good and bad behavior within the the town's community; but he also mocks the self-righteousness of the social order. He subverts it and mocks it, while also upholding it.

    Pretty sophisticated for a "children's book."

    As for comments being written tongue-in-cheek herein, credit us with some measure of sagacity. Not that hard to figure out; if not responded to directly, doesn't mean it was missed.

  13. Sheer volume of written output is not a very useful comparative measure of literary worth. If the number of works published mattered as a measure of comparative literary merit, than any hack writer of pulp novels is a better writer than any of the great of Modernist literary writers, most of whom were not particularly prolific in comparison to "genre" writers. If number of books published is a good measure of literary quality, then Rod McKuen was a better poet than Elizabeth Bishop.

    That dog won't hunt. (As they say down South.) (In academese, one might translate that as, Obviously it's not the case that McKuen is a greater poet than Bishop, and thus the criterion of measure by volume is invalid.)

    Scott Stein makes several valid points, which I largely agree with. But the one that has largely gone unvoiced here, except indirectly, which I wish to underline, is the innate prejudice within literary circles that High Art is always better than Popular (Folk) Art. (Postmodernism of course turned that on its head, beginning with Pop Art as a movement.) O'Connor's comment about "children's books" was intended to be dismissive; this dismissiveness has many cousins in lit crit circles, and is perpetuated by the ongoing prejudice that mainstream literary High Art "realistic" fiction is inherently better (or greater AS Art) than, say, genre fiction. Nabokov must therefore be better than Samuel R. Delany; Philip Roth must be an inherently better writer than Raymond Chandler. That sort of built-in bias is almost never explicitly stated, yet it permeates almost every grand literary pronouncement. O'Connor dismisses Lee as non-adult writing; Capote dismisses Vidal as "just typing." Norman Mailer, grand egoist that he was, dismissed virtually everyone else, across the board, as inferior to himself.

    This is simply literary prejudice disguised as a literary-critical truism. (I find Scott's speculation that O'Connor may have been jealous of Lee's success to be convincing; I had previously thought similarly myself.) At its worst, it's just literary snobbery.

    Not that any of this matters.

    It's quite true that comparisons don't really tell us anything useful, and in the end don't really matter. So when, even knowing this, comparisons are employed by writers (or fans) to score points, or to put another down, I find it amusing.

  14. As a reading 'omnivore', I would say the test of a good book *regardless of its genre* is its impact on the reader. On that count, TKAM is a 'good book' in that it continues to have impact on readers across generations.

    It is as relevant and emotionally resonant to my teenage sons (who both studied it in 8th grade) as it was to me.

    I have always found the squabbling between literary and genre writers infantile. Deliberate obscurity and academic honors make a book no better or worse than popular accolades and best seller status.

    Writers are another flavor of artist. The goal of art is to communicate. Art that achieves this succeeds.

  15. I would like to reframe the argument by looking at Lee's and O'Connor's texts in terms of rhetoric and argument. Lee's claims are hardly arguable since the "thesis" of her novel lays out an indisputable argument for decency, integrity, and justice. On the other hand, O'Connor's explicit and implicit claims in her works are more complicated, and there is much in O'Connor that makes people uncomfortable. What she "argues" throughout makes people wonder about the probability of the explicit and implicit claims (especially with respect to religious matters and personal relationships). Framed in those terms, which I hope offers some clarity, you have my explanation for my preference for O'Connor over Lee. Neither one is either better or worse than the other. The differences, however, are important.

  16. R.T., in your reframing you are still making a value judgment that ambiguity of artistic expression is better than clarity, that complication is better than simplicity both in terms of means and of ends. I might even agree with that, in general artistic terms. Certainly ambiguity in poetry, for example, creates layered meanings which add resonance to the work, which can allow a poem to transcend the particular to become universal.

    But in the context of this discussion it's hard not to see this reframing as merely another attempt to say X is better than Y, without really being able to demonstrate conclusively why X must be better than Y. Fair enough, I have no real problem with that—maybe it IS a matter of fandom and taste—at least in this one instance. I'm happy to agree to disagree.

    Nonetheless, reframing a discussion doesn't necessarily make what has been said before vanish. For example, regarding what O'Connor said about TKAM:

    I generally enjoy hearing what creative artists think about creativity, and about other artists, and about their times. But as an artist myself, I know how subtle artistic envy can be, and how often literary-critical pronouncements by authors are motivated by it, often not quite consciously.

    So I'm more than willing to look at O'Connor and Lee side by side, and make up my own mind. But I'm not at all likely to find O'Connor dismissing Lee out of hand as convincing or compelling. So O'Connor's opinions in this really say nothing useful to us as general readers who can make up our own minds.

    As for the position that complication is better than clarity, that's a very Modern idea, easily traceable to the fractionating impulses of the early Moderns, including the Futurists and Surrealists. Yeats wrote "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold," which is the psychological basis of Modernism (and PM) in a nutshell: the world's certainties were shocked and damaged by World War I and its horrors; a century of war later, and we're still dealing with this psychological blow. PM embraces disjunction as the way things are, almost as a religious ideal. Modernism does not go quite so far, but it DOES tend to believe that it's more "realistic" to be dark, alienated, complex, and sad. That's perhaps a genuine truth, for many people, if not THE truth. Yet the psychology of Modern history reveals its value judgments very clearly, when literary criticism promotes these (negative or anti-) ideals.

    But that still says very little about the popularity of "Mockingbird," except to try to dismiss it. Which doesn't seem to be working; the book's positive message just won't go away. So maybe there is merit to the message after all.

  17. To clarify a point: I was referring to career envy rather than creative envy. Yes, those can be tangled. But what artist has not occasionally felt envy towards a fellow artist's success. (It's what you do with the feeling that matters.)

  18. All of this discussion seems sensible and worthwhile. And I like that fact that the discussion proves that disagreement does not have to be disagreeable.

    On that note, then, I think Art (and others) and I can respectfully agree that we disagree on a number of arguable points. However, now, because of pressing demands, I am likely to abstain from further discussion in which I would remain undeterred in my preference for O'Connor over Lee.

    I would end by noting this: reading is a personal adventure (which the too frequently Harold Bloom would remind us), and criticism--no matter how "objective" it sets out to be--remains personal; literary critics of all stripes would like to have us believe that criticism can be removed from personal bias, but I remain unpersuaded about that kind of an assertion. You dig deep enough into a literary critic's assertions and you find the literary critic's personality on full display.

    Thus, without any apologies at all, I confess that my preferences in literature are intensely personal. And so it goes.

  19. "Don't mention the mockingbird! The reclusive novelist who wrote the classic novel that mesmerised 40 million readers"

    By Sharon Churcher
    27th June 2010

    Read more:

  20. Anonymous10:50 PM

    Is everyone really hating on To kill a mockingbird?