I’ve admitted it before, and I’ll admit it again: I was not a typical or an agreeable English major. Part of the assumption people make about English majors is that we all must love literature, which is a class of reading material all its own. My university offered two options, an English BA that emphasized literature, or one that emphasized writing. I took the latter. I distinguished myself (not in a good way) by once telling a professor that the John Donne poem he’d assigned us was “the worst thing I’ve ever read” – only to have him look mildly horrified and counter that he’d written his dissertation on Donne. Looking back, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever read, because anything by Flannery O’Connor was a good deal worse and I’d already read a lot of that too. (I’ll add, here, that it would have helped if the assigned readings had been presented in the context of “this shows us something about the time and place it was written” instead of “oooh, this is a spectacular writing that represents the height of human expression and you should appreciate it as such.”) A lot of literature is richly representative of where it came from. In that context, such literature is a sort of treasure trove. But, handed over to students as an example of Very Fine Writing, much of fails to impress. At least, it fails to impress me.
I digress. The reason for this particular rant is the proposal that ‘difficult books’ be color-coded to make them…more understandable? (Less boring?) The chief example in that article is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury which, apparently, goes back and forth through multiple decades, from various points of view, and involves fourteen time zones. (I say apparently because – obviously – I haven’t read it and I’m not going to.) I’m sure the book represents something meaningful about American culture. But anything that needs to be color-coded in order for readers to engage with it — that’s not good writing. I know, you’re thinking: bad English major, bad! But hear me out. I define good writing as something that gets ideas across in coherent, powerful, memorable ways. Surely Faulkner’s work was groundbreaking at the time and deserves its place in the history of American literature. That still doesn’t mean it’s coherent, powerful, or memorable. I think the rational and fair approach to such writing is to present it (not assign it) to students as an artifact of literature’s history, and move along. The same way we might take a look at Henry Ford’s Model T without actually demanding everyone go out and drive one.