Speaking Out

Laurie Halse Anderson's SpeakWesley Scroggins, Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University, thinks that Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak (1999) is “soft pornography.”  Having read and taught Speak many times, I suspect that Mr. Scroggins either lacks some basic literary skills (such as how to detect tone) or is in need of psychological counseling. As an English professor, I’m not qualified to help with the latter, but I can help him with the former.  So, Dr. Scroggins, I’m dedicating this blog post to you.

In an editorial printed on Saturday, Professor Scroggins makes the “soft pornography” allegation and then writes the following about Speak:

This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Professor Scroggins has described some plot elements, but has not discerned the novel’s perspective on those events.  The above summary is akin to saying of Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) that it shows firemen as pyromaniacs who start fires instead of putting them out, and burn books, too!  The book does display these events, but it does so in order to invite us to consider them critically.

Speak‘s narrator, Melinda Sordino, uses a literary technique known as irony.  When we use irony, we’re deliberately creating tension between a superficial, literal meaning, and a different, deeper, intended meaning.  If, for instance, I were to speak of George W. Bush’s eloquence or Barack Obama’s pessimism, I would be speaking ironically: the former U.S. president is as famous for his misstatements (“Bushisms”) as the current U.S. president is for his optimism.  Similarly, Melinda is speaking ironically when she writes, “I think the Merryweather cheerleaders confuse me because I missed out on Sunday school.  It has to be a miracle. There is no other explanation.  How else could they sleep with the football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday?” (29).  Here’s how you can tell.  First, statements like “It has to be a miracle” and “There is no other explanation” are hyberbole: exaggerated statements.  Indeed, in context, both are so exaggerated as to make the reader doubt their veracity.  Second, the second half of the final sentence quoted contradicts the first half: it’s not possible both to “sleep with the football team” and to be a “virginal goddess.”  Indeed, depending on one’s religious beliefs, it’s doubtful that anyone can be a “goddess” (another example of the hyperbole that engenders doubt). We might characterize the tone (speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse) as sarcastic.  Sarcasm (which frequently involves deploying apparent praise as criticism) is a blunt form of irony.  The combination of hyperbole, contradictory statements, and a sarcastic tone helps us understand that Melinda is speaking ironically here.  Specifically, she’s criticizing the hypocrisy of a social order that endorses such a double standard in its treatment of women — treating the cheerleaders, as she says in the sentence following the one I quoted, “as if they operate in two realities simultaneously” (29-30).  Perceiving irony requires the reader to use context to detect tone.

Here, for example, is the context for Melinda’s statement, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” (134).  Throughout the novel, Melinda speaks primarily to the reader and says very little to the other characters.  Just before she began her freshman year of high school, she went to a party, drank beer, and was raped.  The event traumatizes her.  She feels shame (survivors of rape often blame themselves), and doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened.  She says, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” just as she begins to recall the events leading up to her rape.  A “gorgeous cover-model guy,” a senior whose name she does not know, begins flirting with her, and kisses her.  A little drunk, she “couldn’t figure out how to tell him to slow down,” but believes that he is attracted to her: “Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss.  And I thought that just for a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me” (135).  In other words, the statement “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” describes her state of mind prior to the senior’s sexual assault.  Inexperienced with alcohol and inexperienced with dating, Melinda is unaware that the senior’s intentions are anything other than romantic.  We, the readers, know better.  We know she is talking about the party where something happened, the party to which she has alluded many times already.  We know that something painful is about to occur.

And it does.  Immediately after she expresses the thought that the senior (who, we learn later, is named Andy) will look out for her, the next sentences are “He kissed me hard again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe” (135).  And then “A cloud cloaked the moon.  Shadows looked like photo negatives” (135).  Several words here clue the reader into the fact that something is about to go wrong.  The darkness of the “cloud cloaked” and shadows, and the uncanniness of “photo negatives” convey that Melinda’s experience is taking a dark turn. So, too, does the repetition of the word “hard” (three times) coupled (twice) with sensations of pain or distress: “teeth ground hard against my lips” and “hard to breathe.”  If you’re more than just functionally literate, you should recognize this.

Dr. Scroggins does not seem to be more than just functionally literate because he classifies the next scene as “soft pornography.”  If he finds a young girl’s rape to be sexually exciting, then he is in dire need of counseling.  Indeed, were I his employer, I would remove him from the classroom until he had undergone such counseling: such a man is a potential danger to students and colleagues.  However, Psychology is not my area of expertise.  (I earned a B.A. in English and in Psychology, but a Ph.D. in English.)  So, let us assume that the issue is literacy and not pathology.  Here is the scene he describes as pornographic:

“Do you want to?” he asked.

What did he say? I didn’t answer.  I didn’t know. I didn’t speak.

We were on the ground. When did that happen? “No.” No I did not like this. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying. I can hear myself — I’m mumbling like a deranged drunk. His lips lock on mine and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is clear as a bell: “NO I DON’T WANT TO!” But I can’t spit it out. I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and NO! — I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s crimping my hair and glueing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up

and zips his jeans

and smiles (135-136).

The fact that the next thing Melinda does is call 911 should be a clue that the preceding experience was not meant to elicit desire.  If it aroused Dr. Scroggins, then let us assume he simply lacks sufficient literacy skils to perceive why this scene is disturbing.

Here’s why it is.  First of all, it’s a textbook case of rape: Andy (the senior) forces Melinda to have sex without consent.  He asks, “Do you want to?” Melinda at first does not reply, but then says (at the top of the long paragraph) “No.”  So, right there: rape.

Second of all, the words Melinda uses to describe the experience convey her pain, Andy’s coercion, and the subsequent trauma.  She says, “I twist my head away” — a sign of resistance.  She wants to move but cannot because he is more powerful than she is: “There is a boulder on me.” When she tries to scream, he covers her mouth with his hand.  These, not incidentally, are also signs of rape.  Rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  The moment when she thinks, “I’m not really here,” is a moment of dissociation, common when a person is experiencing trauma.  Finally, the repeated “hurts me hurts me hurts me” should give Dr. Scroggins and any reader a clue that this experience is not erotic, but painful.  It’s a crime.  It’s called rape.

If Professor Scroggins does not know the difference between rape and consensual sex, then he is a criminal waiting to happen.  If, on the other hand, he simply lacks sufficient literacy skills to read literature, then I hope that this blog posting may be of some help to him.

UPDATE, 9:00 pm.  There are many other interesting responses to this editorial.  Here are links to a few of them:

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More Metafiction for Children

Since “Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide” went up yesterday (as the final entry on In Media Res“Children’s Culture” week), I’ve been pleased by people’s kind response to my amateur video.  Thanks, everyone!

There are far more books than I could include in the film, and there were several I had not thought of. So, I thought I’d expand the field of inquiry here with a more complete bibliography of metafictional works for young readers.

First, the titles included in the film clip:

  • Lane Smith, It’s a Book (2010)
  • Art Spiegelman, Open Me… I’m a Dog! (1997)
  • Winsor McCay, Little Nemo In Slumberland of May 2, 1909.  From The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland (1997), edited and with an introduction by Richard Marschall, and including appreciations by Maurice Sendak, Ron Goulart, Art Spiegelman, Charles M. Schulz, Chuck Jones, and Bill Watterson.
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615).  Not a children’s book.  Obviously.
  • Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (1999).  The two-page spread is from this book.
  • Dav Pilkey, the above title, and: The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997), Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999), Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000).
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992)
  • Walter Dean Myers, Monster (1999)
  • David Macaulay, Black and White (1990)
  • Ann Jonas, Round Trip (1983)
  • D.W. Johnson, Palazzo Inverso (2010)
  • Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, Duck! Rabbit! (2009)
  • Charley Bowers, The Bowers Mother Goose Movie Book (1923)
  • David A. Carter, One Red Dot (2004)
  • Peter Newell, Topys & Turvys (1902)
  • David Wiesner, The Three Pigs (2001)
  • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

Over on In Media Res, I list the titles behind me:

  • Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)
  • Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (2004)
  • Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing (2001)
  • Johnson’s A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960)
  • Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010)
  • Deborah Freedman’s Scribble (2007)
  • Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America (1998)

And there are even a few back there that you can’t see (because my body blocks them from the shot):

  • Donald Barthelme, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (1971)
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989)

More picture books:

  • Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilAllan Ahlberg, The Bravest Bear Ever (2000)
  • Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. The Pencil (2008)
  • Janet and Allen Ahlberg, The Jolly Postman (1986)
  • Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)
  • Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner, Thirteen (1975)
  • Nicole Claveloux, Go, Go, Go, Grabote! (1973)
  • Michael Garland, Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook (2003) and sequels
  • Mordicai GersteinA Book (2009)
  • Shirley Glaser, The Alphazeds.  Pictures by Milton Glaser (2003)
  • Emily Gravett, Wolves (2005)
  • Emily Gravett, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (2007)
  • Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (2008)
  • Roberto Innocenti and J. Patrick Lewis, The Last Resort (2002)
  • Tove Jansson, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952; English, 1996)
  • Crockett Johnson, the Harold series (1955-1963)
  • Barbara Kanninen, A Story with Pictures (2007)
  • Julius Lester, Ackamarackus. Illustrated by Emilie Chollat (2001)
  • Mike Lester, A Is for Salad (2000)
  • Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)
  • Richard McGuire, What’s Wrong with This Book? (1996)
  • Peter Newell, The Hole Book (1908), The Slant Book (1910), and The Rocket Book (1912)
  • Margie Palatini, Piggie Pie. Illustrated by Howard Fine (1995)
  • Terry Pratchett, Where’s My Cow? Illustrated by Melvyn Grant (2005)
  • Jon Scieszka and Steve Johnson, The Frog Prince Continued (1991)
  • Shel Silverstein, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961)
  • William Steig, Yellow & Pink (1984)
  • Jon Stone and Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book (1971)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)
  • Mo Willems, We Are in a Book! (2010)

More chapter books:

  • Janet and Allan Ahlberg, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993)
  • Mary Amato, Please Write in This Book. Illustrated by Eric Brace (2006)
  • Avi, Nothing But the Truth (1991)
  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010)
  • Clement Freud, Grimble (1968)
  • Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003), Inkspell (2005), and Inkdeath (2008)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project MulberryLois Lowry, The Willoughbys (2008)
  • Geraldine McCaughrean, A Pack of Lies: Twelve Stories in One (1988)
  • E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899)
  • E. Nesbit, “The Town in the Library, in the Town in the Library” in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901)
  • Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005)
  • Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006)
  • Scott Westerfield, Extras (2009)
  • The Choose Your Own Adventure books (1979-1998)

More Comics: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, G. B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury, Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County.

Some Graphic Novels:

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)Lynda Barry, 100 Demons (2002)
  • Daniel Clowes, Ice Haven (2005)
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1987)
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley, the Scott Pilgrim series (2004-2010)
  • Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus (1986 & 1991)
  • Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan (2000)
  • Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (2006)

Thanks to the child_lit community (especially Tracy Barrett, Pat Bartoshesky, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Sarah Blake Johnson, Deborah Hopkinson, Kate Wooddell), Deborah Freedman (via Twitter), and to Eric Carpenter (via In Media Res) for their suggestions.

And, of course, this list is incomplete!  Please add your own favorites in the comments section, below.

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The Trauma Games

Suzanne Collins, MockingjayWar is hell.  If General Sherman (and, I expect, many others) hadn’t said it first, I suspect Suzanne Collins might have chosen those three words as a subtitle for her Hunger Games trilogy.  As its predecessors did, Mockingjay dramatizes the physical and emotional consequences of war.  It’s especially adept at displaying the scars invisible to those of us who either have not been in a war or do not know people who have. The victors of the Hunger Games cannot sleep — as Finnick says, “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking” (156).  They are haunted by what they’ve done, and by what they haven’t done.  Even if the physical wounds heal, the emotional ones linger.  Early in the novel, after Gale admits that he’d use a bow and arrow on people if it would keep Katniss safe, she thinks, “I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you” (68). Like the first two books in series, the third is about trauma.

It is also about torture, which — no matter what your government tells you — is not merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It’s torture.  Characters in Mockingjay have been tortured by the agents of Panem, the totalitarian regime against which the Rebels (including our heroine Katniss) fight.  Appropriately, Collins does not invite us into the scenes of torture.  She shows us what happens later, how torture’s survivors cope.  The tortures of Panem are a sophisticated cruelty, a more subtle and more damaging type of the aversion therapy scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  One character has been soaked in water, and then given electric shocks; now, rain, the shower, water of any kind triggers a flashback to that experience.  Another has been drugged with venom, conditioned not just to doubt but to kill a loved one.  Damage inflicted on the mind, the novel suggests, is the hardest pain to bear.  As Katniss says late in the novel, “I can’t believe how normal they’ve made me look on the outside when inwardly I’m such a wasteland” (366).

Though Collins understands why people would feel the need to fight a war, Mockingjay offers a more eloquent defense of pacifism than of, say, a “just war.”  There’s a line in the book that made me think of the lists of dead troops from America’s current wars, names of people who are almost always younger than I am — people in their 20s, and sometimes as young as 17 or 18.  To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children killed in those wars.  This is the line.  Considering the “creature” that is a human being, Katniss observes, “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences” (377).

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Literature for Adolescents, Fall 2010

M.T. Anderson, Feed

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

With the fall term imminent (starts Monday), I’m posting a link to the latest iteration of my English 545: Literature for Adolescents. My goal is always “diversity” in many senses of that word.  We read books by writers of different backgrounds (African-American, Iranian, Chinese-American, Latino, Caucasian), genders, sexualities, classes — which are probably the categories most people think of when they hear the word “diversity.”  I also use the word in terms of genre.  We read graphic novels, a novel in verse, a novel in the form of a screenplay, memoir, dystopian fiction, historical fiction, a sports novel, magical realism, film, and fairy tales.  And I use the word to expand “Literature for Adolescents” beyond “Young Adult.”  On the syllabus are works about adolescence (but not necessarily written for adolescents), works that get assigned to adolescents, and of course Young Adult Literature.  Finally, we read some classics, and a lot that’s contemporary.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Francesca Lia Block, Weetzie Bat

I’m never completely satisfied with my syllabus.  So, each semester, I change it a little.  This term, for instance, I’ve added a “dystopias” unit: we’ll read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed and Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games.  I’m happy about that change, but not about the omission of fantasy.  I also wonder if I have one too many graphic novels.  Any why are there no works by Native American authors on my syllabus?

Benjamin Alire Saenz, Sammy & Juliana in HollywoodWalter Dean Myers, MonsterEach syllabus is always incomplete. There are never enough weeks in the term to cover all I want to cover.  At best, students will get a taste of the field.  But I hope that this slender sliver of knowledge will send them back to the library, the bookstore, or possibly other English classes.  I hope that this is but the beginning (or a continuation) of a lifetime of reading and learning.  There is so much to read and to know, and our lives are so brief.  I write that last sentence to convey not despair, but rather urgency, inspiration, motivation.  Or, to quote a Robert Herrick line entirely out of context, “make much of time.”

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