Friday, 15 March 2013

On Reading: Fiction & Beyond

Why do we read? And why do we read Women's Literature? Why study or discuss a particular piece or body of work? And what is literature anyway?

These questions are central to our course.

C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we're not alone." Isabel Allende said, "Sometimes the story is truer than true." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats pointed us to truth and beauty as the dual pursuits of life (and, by extension, literature). That debate continues.

When we come to English class, what do we expect, and what are we prepared, if anything, to do? Do we expect to think, to learn, to be changed? Are we willing to do these things? I hope so. Reading is wonderfully dangerous, if so. It has the potential to change us--who we are and how we live.

Wolf cites the century-old belief that "if a woman read too much, her uterus would atrophy" and Friedrich Engels' claim that "'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive" (225). Even though these ideas are obviously both wrong and oppressive, I love the fact that they honor the power of words.

So is Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth, literature? The question arose today in class. Are we reading it to learn the truth (or some truth) or to be moved by its art? What about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? What if they both do both? Did I learn more from Wolf because this book is non-fiction? Did I experience more pleasure because Atwood's novel is fiction?

Allende, for me, identifies the paradox--that it is possible for fiction to resonate as much as or more than non-fiction, that it can be "truer than true." I think fiction and non-fiction are different vehicles, both worthy and powerful, for exploring human experience. They are both capable of edifying the intellect and captivating the imagination.

Someone very dear to me is in surgery today for breast implants--probably as we speak. I can't help but respond emotionally to Naomi Wolf's chapter on "Violence," a moment when non-fiction breaks into the real, visceral, painful truths of this very day:
Beauty pornography is making women violent toward ourselves. The evidence surrounds us. Here a surgeon stretches the slit skin of the breast. There a surgeon presses with all his weight on a woman's chest to break up lumps of silicone with his bare hands. There is the walking corpse. There is the woman vomiting blood (142). 


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