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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 27, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Politically Incorrect Literature, Audio Drama, "My American Culture"

Elizabeth Kantor's Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature is not a book that would be useful as a textbook to a class.

Instead, it's the antidote.

When you graduate from college, have all your grades and a diploma that can't be taken back, then you read this book to find out how you were miseducated in your politically-charged English classes.

A substantial portion of the teaching of literature in our universities has been given over to anti-literary indoctrination. Instead of helping you receive the great works of literature that shaped our culture and helped define our identity, many professors devote themselves to explaining why all that literature is worthless or pernicious, and we should be "beyond" or "above" it today.

Never mind that if in fact that old literature was truly worthless or pernicious, there is no reason to have classes in English literature. The professors who teach against the literature of the English-speaking people should, in all decency, resign from their jobs, because those jobs should not exist.

Instead, however, they cling to their tenure and get paid for slandering dead writers whose work has endured because people found (and find!) great value in their writings.

The chief disease of the post-modern anti-literary professors is that they are so amazingly provincial and narrow-minded. While claiming to be taking the broad view, they instead judge all of history by the fad standards of our day -- without giving a hint of awareness of how those very standards were created by the literature that went before.

They claim to be telling you the "truth" about what "really" is going on in the texts they study.

But since they also deny the existence of "truth" and "reality," it really amounts to scrawling in crayon on the Mona Lisa.

If you've been exposed to this nonsense -- especially if you had to spout it back to a professor and be graded on your responses -- this book will come as a breath of fresh air.

But if you got your literary education before the post-modernists took over -- before the mid-1980s -- this book would simply be confusing to you. Or, perhaps, alarming. Why should a book like this even be necessary?

It shouldn't. But it is.

*

When I wrote, recently, about listening to a reading of The Hobbit on cd, I heard from a couple of readers about a BBC dramatization of Lord of the Rings from more than twenty years ago. Some even went so far as to say it was better than the movies.

For those who aren't acquainted with the nuances of recorded literature, let me explain: When you see a book presented on CD, it comes in one of three forms: Abridged, unabridged, and dramatized.

Abridged books were very popular back when people had only cassette players in their cars. Because tapes were thick and bulky (compared to CDs), and you could get less recording time on each tape, unabridged books, with a dozen or more cassettes, were simply too bulky to be convenient.

Besides, the audience was so small that you couldn't count on selling very many copies. So the costs of recording had to be amortized over only a few hundred or a few thousand sets of tapes.

By abridging the books, you cut the production time and therefore the costs. Prices could then be held down to what buyers might think was reasonable.

This was fine for many writers, who inflate their storyline with a kudzu-like growth of excess verbiage. The abridged book on tape was the "good parts" version.

Grisham, for example, is almost always better when abridged.

Unfortunately, some of us do not inflate our storylines -- every word counts. I was appalled at what happened to some of my books when they were abridged. How can readers even make sense of what is happening? (The answer? They couldn't.)

More and more buyers began to show preference for unabridged recordings, and with the advent of CDs (and CD players that would "remember" where you left off when the car's engine stopped), unabridged recordings began to be worth the extra cost.

Now they're the standard.

But there's a third approach -- the dramatization. Instead of simply reading the book into a microphone, you do a completely new adaptation of it, rather like a movie script, except that there will be no pictures.

It's like a return to the days of radio dramas, when people would gather around the radio set in their living rooms and listen as actors played the characters and sound-effects artists made it seem as though the action were really happening.

When television came along, radio morphed into music-only or talk-only formats. Everything had to be in short bites that could be completed during the time it took to run an errand in the car. Storytelling was over.

But dramatizations came back -- on cassette. When I first quit honest employment and went freelance back in 1978, I did so on the strength of the audio dramatizations I was writing for Living Scriptures in Ogden, Utah. I wrote a dramatized version of the New Testament for them, along with other subjects; teams of salesmen would then go out and sell these sets from door to door.

The market was parents who wanted to expose their children to important historical and religious subjects they were not getting in school -- but in a highly entertaining format.

So my job was to take the incidents for a given thirty-minute tape, distill them into a series of scenes, and then write a script in which all the important information was conveyed by actors' voices.

I soon learned to write scripts that were nearly pure dramatization, resorting to a narrator as rarely as possible.

I learned the technique from Shakespeare, whose bare stage was not all that different from audio drama. Instead of a narrator saying, "They went to the forest of Arden," you simply have a characters say, "Here we are in the forest of Arden."

Naturally, since history records very little of the dialogue people actually said (and most of what is recorded is quite fake), the writer has to make up a lot of words for a lot of people to say. So even when you're not writing "fiction," it's still fictional.

As you can guess, the costs of recording dramatized stories are much higher than the cost of recording a book. With a book, the text is already present -- you don't have to pay a writer separately. And with a cast of one (or one at a time), the reading can take place in a tiny sound-proofed booth.

But dramatizations depend on interaction. The actors have to be in a much larger recording space (or multiple spaces) so they can hear each other and respond to each other's performances.

It takes longer to record, and you're paying for more actors per minute. The costs soar.

The result is that audio dramatizations of literary works are rare.

It doesn't help that most of the original audio dramas that I've heard in recent years are quite dreadful. With writers trying to be dark and edgy, who have been taught by their literature professors to value obscurity, they come up with audioplays that make no sense and thus become tedious to listen to.

For unless the most important value in the writer's mind is clarity, the dramatization will be hard to follow. It's so easy to get lost with only your ears to guide you.

The BBC radio dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (BBC LOTR) is audio drama at its finest. An extraordinary cast of actors bring Tolkien's story to life, letting it all unfold as scenes, with only a little narration here and there.

It was especially enjoyable to me because I have twice, with permission of Tolkien's estate, staged reader's theatre productions of the trilogy, using my own script.

These were mammoth enterprises, requiring many actors and about nine hours of time, and, lacking even sound effects, I resorted to narration far more often than the Brian Sibley did in writing the script for the BBC LOTR.

But at least I know the challenges facing the writer and the actors, and so I appreciate the greatness of this production all the more.

Some of the casting is perfect: Ian Holm (who played Bilbo in the movie) plays Frodo, and Bill Nighy and Peter Woodthorpe are brilliant as Sam and Gollum, respectively.

One bit of casting, though, was a wretched mistake. Aragorn is played by Robert Stephens, whose voice is cursed with the same slurpy lisp and affected emphases as Alan Rickman.

Now, Alan Rickman is one of my favorite actors -- on screen. When you can see his face, his voice works. (He plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies, Col. Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, and the bad guy in Die Hard. I promise, you've seen him.)

And there are parts for which his voice, alone, would be perfectly appropriate.

But Aragorn is not one of them. The sound of Robert Stephens's Rickman-like voice is so affected, so lispy, that it's hard to believe anyone following this person into battle.

He sounds like the sort of king that everybody would immediately be working to depose or control. He sounds, in a word, weak.

Fortunately, in listening to this production it becomes clear just how small a part Aragorn plays in the story. The audioplay truly belongs to Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gandalf.. Aragorn is an important figure, but in the dramatization he doesn't play all that important a role.

The original BBC radio production was serialized in twenty-six half-hour episodes. Later, it was reedited into thirteen one-hour episodes; the version I heard had been edited yet again into the three volumes that correspond, more or less, with the three books in the trilogy.

Sibley made many of the same choices the movies' screenwriters did -- in fact, I'd be surprised to learn they had not made use of Sibley's work in determining what was needed to tell the story dramatically.

Like everyone else who has adapted the story (including me) they excised Tom Bombadil and the sequence in the Old Forest. They also took some events and presented them more or less in time order, instead of discovering what happened after the fact, the way Tolkien presented them in the book.

They also made some of the same mistakes as the movie, showing us endless sequences of endings that read quickly but play very slowly as drama.

But Sibley did not make the worst mistakes of the movies. Above all, he kept the Scouring of the Shire, the famous "anti-climax" that for some of us, at least, gives meaning to the whole work.

The production I bought exists on twelve CDs, divided into three volumes. The story is dramatized on the first eleven; the last CD is a collection of the music, which ranges from wonderful to laughable.

Apparently nobody could tell the director and composer just how embarrassing it was to have choirs or countertenors chime in with faux renaissance music at madly inappropriate times.

I told you it wasn't perfect. It's also expensive -- the lowest price I've seen for the whole trilogy is $99 (I paid more). But it's worth it!

Meanwhile, it makes me want to try to get permission to stage my reader's theatre script one more time. I learned things from this production, and it also gave me ideas for how to do the audioplay even better.

*

Last week I described (probably at greater length than was interesting to anyone but me) the course I taught this past semester in the Contemporary American Novel. I mentioned that one of the questions I asked my students ended up, unexpectedly, changing my life.

I intended to ask them, on the final exam, to use the depiction of American culture in one or two of the novels and compare it to their own experience of American culture.

I realized, however, that students arriving at a final -- mentally exhausted as most of them are at such a time -- would be hard-pressed to make any rational analysis of their own experience with American culture, unless I gave them a chance to prepare themselves.

So I asked them, weeks before the final, to prepare for me a report on their personal American experience. I asked them to think of artistic elements of culture, of course, but also the other things that they had in common with other Americans. Holiday customs. School experiences. Vacations. Shopping. Makeup. Clothing. Rites of passage.

It did not have to be an essay and I did not anticipate a narrative. What I asked for was a simple listing under the title "My American Culture."

Their responses were as individual as they were. Many of them were stream-of-consciousness -- one thought led to another and they wrote it down, often in sentence fragments.

Others wrote virtual memoirs of their childhood. Still others wrote essays explaining why they had not actually grown up in American culture, because for various reasons they either were or felt excluded from it.

Without meaning to, I had given them an approach to writing a de-personalized personal memoir.

When you assign people to write something entitled "My Life," they usually end up writing inanities, starting with events they don't remember (their birth, etc.) and rambling on and on, skipping everything personal and interesting so they can report on the official "highlights" of their lives.

This assignment gave them a different structure. They could skip their birth. They focused instead on what they had observed of the society around them. Since it needed no form, they could simply report more-or-less directly on what they saw through the lens of memory, looking not at themselves, but at others.

Self-consciousness was not erased -- indeed, some of the essays and narratives were almost painfully self-revelatory. But they didn't have to describe their own actions, which always leads to self-justification, and instead tried to recover how the world had looked to them as they were growing up.

You might try this yourself sometime. Of course, college students have little to report on but their childhood, being so recently graduated from it; adults nearer my own age might not have the same results -- might be distracted by memories of adult experiences. But then, that wouldn't be wrong, either!

As I read these fascinating papers, however, I began to synthesize something from the things they had written about. Student after student inadvertently told stories about decisions their parents had made.

A surprising number of them had been home schooled, and the experiences they described suggested parents who wanted to raise open-minded children who were not afraid of learning anything.

And an even more surprising number of them told of choices their parents had made which, as children, my students had simply taken for granted.

Of course their father had taken a relatively low-paying job and sacrificed any thought of a prominent career, in order that his kids could grow up in a small town.

Of course the parents had moved, not to a richer neighborhood, but to a more family-friendly one. Or from one town to another to get them away from negative influences.

Above all, many of these parents had chosen to accept a lower standard of living so that their children could grow up with at least one parent always in the home, and both parents easily accessible to their children all the time.

They had seen what they believed was good for their children, and they had done it, seemingly without regard for society's expectations.

In an American culture where women are looked down on if they have chosen to be "homemakers" instead of pursuing a career, an American culture where men are judged solely on how much income they command and how they display their monetary achievements, these parents had deliberately stepped out of the main stream and into paths that would give them less respect in the world -- but happier children.

Naturally, not all parents had made those choices and I'm not criticizing them in any way. They are Americans and it's natural that they would experience the pressures of social expectations and make the common choices.

But the number of them who had chosen for their children's sake rather than their own -- the number who had shaped their lives to give their children homes full of parental love and attention and presence instead of money and prestige -- forced me to stop and examine my own life.

What was I doing, driving three hours each way to teach at a university? I would leave on Tuesday morning and not be home till late Thursday night. I still have a newly teenaged daughter at home.

What message was I giving her, compared to the message these other parents had given their children?

Wasn't the message: "Being a professor and getting to do cool stuff at a university is so important to me that I will miss 3/7 of your remaining years at home"?

In other words, I was saying: "Other people's children are more important to me than you are."

I had thought that I was doing something quite noble and wonderful -- and, in the long view, it's hard to think of a nobler and more wonderful profession than teaching.

But most parents who absent themselves from their children's lives believe they're doing something noble and wonderful.

Until I read about what my students' parents had done for them, I couldn't see how I was not practicing what I preached.

Even as I told people in essays and speeches that the most important gift parents can give their children is their physical presence in a loving home, I was going off to another city three days a week -- and I couldn't even pretend I had to do it for money, because that isn't how I made my living.

I had made a commitment to the university that I would teach at a certain number of courses. But I had made a commitment to my child, simply by having her, and that commitment took precedence.

I loved teaching. I think I did it well, or at least well enough. I had the chance to work with some extraordinary young people and I enjoyed the process.

But I won't be there next fall. I won't be there next year. I might find some compromise -- one semester out of four -- but that remains to be seen.

In five years my last child at home will go off to college. Maybe then I can return to teaching in a serious way.

But while I have a child at home, my career is as a father; everything else is either a job or a hobby, and must be compromised as needed so I can fulfil that foremost task.

My place, insofar as it is possible, is at home.


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