In an excerpt from a forthcoming book, English professor Min Song reflects on undergraduate “Great Books” courses, the Helen Vendler-Rita Dove debate, and the first time he read a Siu Sin Far story.
January 24, 2013
When I started college, I was taught to celebrate an elite set of literary texts. How elite was suggested by the name of the course, which was required for all first-year honors students: “Great Books.” Many papers I wrote in my first two years essentially justified the greatness of the work I was told to write about. However, I made a terrible faux pas in a freshman creative-writing seminar when I said that I thought the assigned reading, Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” was bad, opining that it had flat and predictable characters, too much emphasis on story, and was just plain boring to read. The other students spent several minutes criticizing me while the professor remained silent. On a paper I wrote for another class, the professor made a long comment in the margins refuting my suggestion that Faulkner’s first novel, A Soldier’s Pay, had wooden dialogue that frequently worked against the effect the author seemed to be after.
I enjoyed the good grades my literature papers received after this inauspicious start, and the work itself was not challenging, since I was following a formula: this work of literature is great because it plays with form, or respects tradition, or understands that one doesn’t have to choose between playing with form and respecting tradition. How did I know the work was great? Because it was on the syllabus. All I needed to do was formulate a clever argument for why it remained great when I read it. After a while, the formula grew stale. Couldn’t I choose any work at random, more or less, and make the same argument? Wasn’t there something else I could say about a poem or a novel other than how it might attain proximity to some abstract ideal of what literature should be? Were formal considerations the only measures of a work’s worthiness for study? Was this all studying literature was good for? (The idea of literature I rebelled against continues to thrive, strong and unrepentant. For instance, here is Helen Vendler venting about what she perceives as Rita Dove’s overly generous inclusivity as the editor of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?” What appears to guide this kind of pronouncement is the assumption that literature is apart from the world and hence a sanctuary for values that the world daily desecrates.)
When, in the fall of my junior year, I took an introductory course on literary theory and another one on Asian American literature, I felt liberated. I doubt I’d be writing these words if I hadn’t taken those courses when I did. What I most loved about literary theory was that it taught me to ask different kinds of question, not simply to assess what made a work great, but rather to turn the work inside out, so that it could lead to the world beyond. Looking at Jane Eyre, we might ask: What is the significance of the fact that this novel was written at the center of a worldwide empire? Where does Rochester get his wealth? How does where he gets his wealth enable the kind of social relationships the novel details? Who is that crazy woman in the attic, anyway, and how did she get there? Such questions had been asked for a long time before I could begin to articulate them in a literary theory course in the year 1990. It also occurred to me belatedly, after I had started to ask such questions, that some of my professors, not all of them young, had actually been trying to point me in this direction. After the incident in my freshman seminar, the professor, an old man who fell down for no apparent reason while we were walking together after class and had trouble getting up again, became an important mentor for me, someone with whom I spent a lot of time talking informally out of class that semester. In retrospect, he may have been the first of my college professors to encourage me to think self-consciously about what I wanted out of literature.
During my first two years of college, I could not see how bored my teachers must have been while they read my formulaic essays—certainly, they must have been as bored as I had been writing them—because I had been so blinded by my own assumptions about what was expected of me. In any case, my formula kept working. Unlike in my other courses, which suffered greatly from inattention (my overall grade point average plummeted with each passing semester), I continued to receive good grades in my English classes. There was also, as is still too often the case, a gap between what professors and graduate students concerned themselves with and what undergraduates were taught. Only when I took the literary theory class did I feel like I was being treated like an adult, by being included in such conversations. It made all the difference. Starting that first semester of my junior year, I began to do well in classes other than English, and in all of the coursework that followed I found the material meaningful and exciting in a way I hadn’t before. My improved grades reflected my changing attitude toward academia in general.
The other pivotal course I took that semester also fueled a change in my attitude toward my education, and further cemented my newly acquired attitude toward aesthetics. What I most loved about Asian American literature was that many titles we read did not fit familiar criteria for what makes a literary work good, never mind great. Their worth was inextricably tied to the kind of questions that lead a reader beyond the story or its artistry. Take, for instance, the work of Sui Sin Far, the pen name of Edith Maude Eaton. By the conventional measures I had been learning in my other courses, she is not an especially good writer. To this day, I find her characters flat, the dialogue as wooden as something a young Faulkner might write, and there isn’t much complex plot development. Partly these traits can be explained by the fact that she wrote in such a short form, no doubt necessitated by her living situation, which was highly constrained and did not allow her the space or time to develop characters, settings, or plots. As a result, her work doesn’t invite us into a world where we might want to linger. Instead, her stories are so compact that if we want to linger we must do so forcibly, willing ourselves to pay close attention to the text and its multiple possible meanings. I took this approach in an article, deliberately lingering over a very short story of hers to show the ways in which its ambiguities of meaning lent richness to the experience of reading her work, and to consider how her work might resonate in the present in satisfying ways. As a result, the article ended up being much longer than the story itself.
I have written a lot about Sui Sin Far in the past because I was drawn to her work on a visceral level. I admired the fact that she wrote what she called “Chinese-American stories” at a time when the Chinese in America were being systematically abused, excluded, and oppressed. I also admired the fact that she wrote with little support. Given that she was a single, working woman of biracial ancestry from a large, and largely penniless, family (she was one of fourteen siblings!), her decision to take up writing as a profession was a ridiculously presumptuous and courageous act. Most of all, I admired how well she was able to write in these circumstances, especially if we add to the many hurdles getting in the way of her publishing a single word the lack of models for what she was trying to do. Asian American literature as we understand it today would not exist for at least another half century after she passed away. The fact that she wrote at all felt to me like a miracle.
And a gift. Her writings connected me to issues that felt alive in a way that few approved Western canonical works had: the experience of racial exclusion, the genteel culture of remaining silent about prejudice and injustice, the promises and the disappointments of liberalism, the ways in which gender and class and sexuality clash against boundaries of racial difference, the operations of regimes of meaning that regulate the ways in which certain raced bodies can be seen or not seen at all, and the particular features of bodies raced as Asian. There was something important for me in the fact that her stories about Asians in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were actually written at that time. They provided an index of a physical and material existence, in the way visiting Angel Island and the buildings that once jailed immigrants from Asia can do—or in the way in which visiting the site of the fallen World Trade Center can symbolically connect us with an event that most of us experienced from a distance.
Reading the stories in Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance and the small collection of essays she left behind provided me with an opportunity to think about these issues in a new way and to consider their continuity across time. Although she lived a century before I did, she seemed to understand something about my existence in a way that many of the living writers I had read did not and perhaps could not. Or, from a less anachronistic perspective, she said something about her own existence that shed new light on my own. Sui Sin Far’s ability to cut across time made me believe in the potential of Asian American literature. Hers was not the pursuit of literary greatness, if by greatness we mean a stultifying formal expertise and a historical accumulation of critical reverence. Hers was, rather, the pursuit of stories that were more lively and more germane to the reader, a gift-giving to a future stranger who might not even know what he is looking for.
While I deeply admire craft, and the writers who practice their trade with care and self-consciousness, I also find that focusing on craft in isolation takes me back to my undergraduate years, when all I was expected to admire—or thought I was expected to admire—was how formally impressive a writer was. The following feels, as I write it down, like sacrilege: literary work that lacks attention to craft can be better than a work that is focused on craft alone. Prioritizing content can lead to writing that might be rough and formally ungainly, as Sui Sin Far’s writings are, but precisely because of this can provide the raw material for producing a work of literature of stunning creativity. A finely crafted work without anything to say, however, is a soulless enterprise. Another way to put this is that, with all due respect to Yeats, the dance can in fact be known from the dancer, and in separating the two an even fiercer, more vital form of dance might be made possible. Craft will never be lost, of course, for if we have something to say, we will find a way to say it, and given enough time and practice, we will develop a way to say it in as aesthetically pleasing a way as possible. It might also be the case, though, that what becomes aesthetically pleasing would not have seemed so before. Only the formal restlessness produced by having something inchoate and urgent to say, something ill-suited for the forms already in circulation, makes a new dance possible.
Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.