Great Literature

I watched the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s much renowned novel The Road last weekend.  It was OK.  I admit that I have yet to read the book, which could possibly be a very different experience.

The film did a fine job of portraying a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and the characters, such as they are, were portrayed well by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  I had problems with story itself.  First and foremost, in what was depicted as an utterly hopeless, slowly dying environment, what motivated the characters to do anything but die?  Viggo’s character, the father, also seemed to be all-too-aware of his ultimate fate, and by extension, that of his son.  It’s tough for me to buy into a narrative where the chief protagonists have absolutely no reason whatsoever for hope.  At the same time, this is a film with a 75% score on Rotten Tomatoes, from a book that easily makes the top five of any list compiled citing the best works of the 21st Century.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not enjoying “the classics.”  Sure, a background of study in English guarantees that I’ve studied some of the most “important” works in history, but where is the line between important and good?  These are two subjective assessments.  “Important” tends to follow behind “good” on a time line, but since they ARE subjective, couldn’t any work with ample scholarship behind it become important?
By: ChrisCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It must be true that exposure some Great Literature (i.e., “important” works) is needed in order to become a successful critical reader.  A person must be cognizant of the themes found in fiction, the character tropes, the places and settings where important stories happen, etc.  But on the other hand, doesn’t relatively “bad” fiction (or, what literature scholars might call “contemporary pop fiction”) have the same features as Great Literature?  Don’t we fashion stories across the board in roughly the same way?  Comparing the Modern Library 100 Best Novels lists as compiled by the board, versus the one voted on by readers does a fantastic job of exposing the line between important and good.

In the end, what’s the purpose of fiction?  To entertain the reader, or to be great?  Seems to me you can have wildly entertaining works of fiction that probably won’t be called “great,” and some of the most studied works in human history are not that fantastic, particularly to a contemporary audience.  Still, “greatness” often is defined by some combination of cultural penetration and time.  I don’t think anyone who read Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 would have immediately recognized it as Great Literature.  But on the other hand, it was wildly popular and well-received as a work of modern fiction.  I guess my bottom line is this: any work of fiction that you enjoy and wish to study is important enough to you.

Up and Over

By: College of William & MaryCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I overcame a big hurdle earlier this week when I finished up one of the three applications I’ll be sending out to grad schools for that MFA deal this month.  I had been beating myself up over it for about a month, for no good reason in particular, and as soon as I made a phone call to Rindo, I immediately felt a lot better.  I also had to put a lot of pressure on my friend and MA classmate from Oshkosh, Kevin, but hopefully he won’t hold that against me for too long.

Why do I put off doing things that are so easy, relatively speaking?  That’s one of the things I’ve always asked myself in this forum, as well on the couches of various mental health professionals over the years.  I still don’t have a good answer, but people are trying to help me with strategies for not hating myself as much for it.  Sometimes it works.  It’s consistently amazing to me that I keep sentencing myself to long stretches in that emotional purgatory when the relief I feel upon completing things is so immediate and satisfying.  It’s just as confusing (and light years more frustrating) to me, trust me.

I have to try to ride this wave of relief and positive emotion now, as best I can.  I’ve started working with some of my backpacking friends on plans for a 2014 trip, which is sure to involve higher elevations than last year.  With that in mind, I should get back to exercising with regularity.  I fell off the wagon last summer, and it’s been pretty poor going since then.  I made a bit of an effort in early fall–with Kevin’s help, actually–to start in on Insanity.  In my case, with the condition I was in, that’s exactly what it was.  I got about nine-and-a-half minutes into the first session, and felt like I was going to die.  It seriously took me another 35 minutes of laying down on the floor to catch my breath, lose the head rush, and regain the use of my legs.  That whole event has scared me away from intense physical activity ever since.

Finally, I spent about an hour today thinking about how none of the schools I’m applying to have guarantees of financial aid, which is something I’ve been saying I really need in order to go back again.  This is pretty typical behavior, too: getting wound up about things that aren’t even relevant, because I haven’t been accepted to any of them yet, anyway.  In relation to thinking about financial aid, I went through how I would pay for my car, my credit cards, an apartment, and health insurance.  It’s way too early to sweat any of that, but there it is.