29 December 2008

Narrative and Literacy

Stephen Dedalus is not really James Joyce. We know that, right? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a work of fiction. So is Ulysses. Surely the facts of Joyce's life inform the characters in his books, but Joyce is not asking the reader to become involved because he is a celebrity or has lead a strange life, he is asking the reader to become involved in a great narrative - fictional tales which contain truths far greater than the miniscule details of one person's life.

Nick Carraway is not F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor is Dick Diver. Pip is not Charles Dickens. Clarissa Dalloway is not Virginia Woolf.

We know these things because we know how to read. Really read. That is, we know how to take in a narrative as the author offers it, and we know how to seek the truths we might find therein. We know what storytelling is - an act of framing the world in a specific way. And we know what good storytelling is - an art of framing the world in new ways, in ways that create more questions than answers.

"We" know these things, but sadly, many do not.

Pity Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, the book publishers of the United States, the agents, the ghost writers. Pity them all. They lack these skills. No wonder so many of those 'in power' are so threatened by something like Wikipedia. If your literary analytical skills are so poor that A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man would have to either be "all true" or "all fiction" you surely cannot separate the accurate from the questionable in a Wikipedia entry.

So, let us give a decent burial to the idea that those who consider themselves the best readers in America are actually, effectively, literate. And let's accept that burial as a sign that most of what we know about teaching literacy has been proven completely wrong.

Take these two quotes from today's New York Times article about the latest "memoir hoax": '"I believed the teller," Ms. Hurst [the agent for the book] said. "He was in so many magazines and books and on 'Oprah.' It did not seem like it would not be true."' And, "Susanna Margolis, a New York-based ghost writer who polished Mr. Rosenblat's manuscript, said she was surprised by his description of his first blind date with Ms. Radzicki. "I thought that was far-fetched." she said. "But if somebody comes to you, as an agent and a publisher, and says, 'This is my story,' how do you check it other than to say, 'Did this happen?'"

All those completely fooled by the narratives of Kaayva Viswanathan, Margaret Seltzer, Misha Defonseca, James Frey, and now, Herman Rosenblat, are not just greedy, and they are not just lazy and sloppy. Instead they are tied - by failed or out-of-date educations - to antiquated notions of cognitive authority, and thus antiquated notions of literacy. And because they are tied to these antiquated concepts, they can no longer function in the world.

Agent Andrea Hurst is completely dependent on "publisher" authority. This is the notion that certain sources need not be questioned because of their basic authority. So, if Oprah is the source, "it must be true." You know this theory. You see it in teachers and professors who accept a citation from, say, The New York Times or a book published by Cambridge University but not, say, Wikipedia, or a self-published book.

Susanna Margolis is dependent on the "personal recommendation" authority. Someone she respects sent this author to her, and "how do you check it"? she asks.

Both are, of course, victims of a society that no longer knows how how to interpret fiction, or narrative at all. There is significant evidence that ancient Greeks knew that both their Olympic God myths and their Homeric Legends were both important and fictional (why did Bronze Age warriors fight with Iron Age weapons?). And there is significant evidence, from Creationists to Oprah, that many 21st Century Americans can longer make these intellectual leaps. Those fooled by Herman Rosenblat's concocted Holocaust romance are drawn to 'memoirs' for the same reason many American readers are, they do not read well enough to process the many complexities of narrative without being told in advance that something is (simplistically) "true" or "false."

But these publishing industry leaders also lack basic literacy and knowledge skills. They are victims of the "straight line" reading the National Endowment for the Arts so prizes. I might read Ulysses with a map of old Dublin open here, and a Joyce biography open there, but this kind of 'multi-tasking' is considered 'distracting' and 'dangerous' to many of those who control and teach reading. So no one involved in publishing Angel at the Fence or Love and Consequences or Misha could 'distract' themselves for the four minutes necessary to doubt and look up even the most basic facts.

Might you doubt that - in reality - outsiders could throw gifts to Death Camp inmates over a fence? Or the idea of a girl being raised by wolves? Could you stop and check a high school graduation record? Could you simply put a passage or two into Google to check for plagiarism.

These are among today's basic skills. We need both the ability to understand that "narrative is narrative" - and every bit of every form can be doubted without devaluing it - and the ability to check out what we are learning in order to provide context.

When I read a highly proclaimed "reading study," for example, I investigate who the authors are, looking for the lens they see the world through. But even if the study is highly biased, I still look for observations which I find of value. When I read a novel I still check out what might be 'real' - Gatsby's Valley of the Ashes is a wonderful description of Flushing Meadow in Queens, NY before Robert Moses got his hands on it, and I take in the author's deep cynicism about the "American Dream" without expecting him to be some kind of distinguished social historian.

This is reading fully contextualized into our world. It is not the old blind allegiance to genre or publisher or position in the Dewey Decimal System that formed the knowledge structure of the past two hundred years.

Instead it is a new structure which understands that everyone who tells a story is telling that story from a point of view and for a reason, and a structure which gives us the power, through contemporary technologies, to add those vital contextual clues to our reading.

Narrative is that essential human "thing." And the collection of narratives we absorb builds our sense of the world. Yes, for example, I've read biographies of Huey Long, and I've read Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, and I've read enough articles about Robert Penn Warren to know that his novel is "half Long and half Mussolini," and I've looked at other histories of Louisiana and FDR - and all construct my knowledge of that moment in American history, and nothing distracts me from the brilliant poetry of Penn Warren's opening chapter as I heard it read on Audiobook, the stanzas built to the rhythm of the tar joints of an old southern highway being traversed at a hundred miles an hour.

How is reading being taught in your school? Is it a disconnected set of skills? Is it divided into "truth" and "untruth" (non-fiction and fiction)? Or is it taught within the contexts of how we can build our knowledge? Is it taught as a "task" (decoding, phonics)? Or is it taught as an intellectual process of joining new information to old questions?

I think reading is a precious thing. I think it is an essential thing. I just wish our schools would recognize why it is precious, why it is essential, and would help our students learn to really read, rather than fumble phonetically in a "fluent" straight line to a simplistic answer, checkable through multiple choice.

- Ira Socol
still struggling with pain-med induced incoherence, but trying to keep my brain going anyway.


v/vmary said...

i love reading too, but thank god for the teacher who was able to break through whatever my problem was and got me to decode.

if you know how to decode, that is the first step. your own curiosity leads you to your own questions. teachers can encourage that curiosity or at least not squelch it. once you have the means to get information, you are not dependent on the schools anymore. i want my students to be as independent as possible, and that includes being independent of text to speech technology if at all possible. if not possible, or on the way to finding out, the technology should be there.

v/vmary said...

what you are saying is we have to question authority, even if it comes in the guise of 'objective truth'. there is objective truth in the form of data, but there is no objective truth in interpretation of data. interpretation can give us a concentrated form of reality, not just a reflection of it.

the schools i've been in do not want any questioning of really controversial topics. in my daughter's class when they were discussing religion, my 11 year old said she believed in science. her social studies teacher said something like, 'you know a lot of people might feel you are not respecting their beliefs' or something like that. but i said to my daughter, 'what about respect for your beliefs?' the fact is in a lot of schools you have dumbos teaching class. with tenure even if you want to get rid of them, you can't. not to mention that my kids hate it when i make a fuss about anything to do with the school. so we have the discussions at home that i hoped would also be happening at school.

Anonymous said...

This hoax is a tragedy. The Rosenblats have hurt Jews all over and given support to those who deny the holocaust. I don't understand why Atlantic Pictures is still proceeding to make a film based on a lie. I also don't understand how Oprah could have publicized this story, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
There are so many other worthwhile projects based on genuine love stories from the Holocaust. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. Now that's a romantic love story! I also admire Dina for her tremendous courage to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Also, Dina's story has been verified as true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

first0fmay said...

After reading this post and all posted more recently on this blog I am rediscovering myself. Does it matter how relabel the source? No, because I am asking questions that connect to more questions - all connecting to 'truly reading' the answer. In other words finding information and basing my option on ALL information I have found and my personal life experiences (though that could be viewed as information too).
I am a first year special education at a charter school in Michigan. I find the hardest part of my position isn't being a young, unexperienced teacher. The hardest thing is trying to teach my peers (general education teachers and the administrative staff) with out being too assertive.
I plan on blogging my experiences, and thoughts on posts such as these.

irasocol said...


The hardest part is indeed the system and the established attitudes, both of which do nothing to serve our students' needs. Hang on, and please send along your blog address as you begin to tell your story.

It is through effective storytelling (in whatever form) that we are able to alter thinking in important ways.

- Ira Socol