- Introduction to Focus: Writers People Love to Hate
I get hate e-mails all the time, and they’re always ad hominem, personal. It doesn’t much bother me. I’m kind of flattered, actually, that people care so deeply about me that they take the time.
It’s only snowed once in the past hundred years where I live in deepest South Texas on the banks of the Rio Grande River, ten miles from the drug wars of Reynosa, Mexico. Winters regularly feature eighty-degree days, and people wear sandals year-round and break out their parkas and mukluks when the temperature dips below sixty. It’s a tropical paradise along the banks of the Rio Bravo, wasteland desert for hundreds of miles to the north and south and west, the boiling Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico an hour to the east.
The snow came on a Christmas Eve a little over a decade ago. Children awoke to snow on their dirt yards, on the palm trees that line many streets, on the cactus, on the yet unpicked lemon and orange and lime trees, the colors bright against the strange whiteness. There was enough time for the kids and their parents to make a few snowballs, but the snow soon melted off and everything went back to normal, wild parrots in the trees feeding off pink and red flowers.
There’s an English professor down here, though, who thinks that snow is racist and has claimed this to students in front of class. The professor won’t teach works that feature snow, or changing leaves for that matter. Here leaves on trees stay green all year, and most of the students have never traveled beyond San Antonio or Austin, 300 miles north. The professor believes students should only read works they can relate to. Blacks should read blacks, whites whites, Hispanics Hispanics, one-armed deaf-mutes from Polynesia one-armed deaf-mutes from Polynesia. If they are forced by professors who believe there exists such a thing as a body of canonical works, works written not only long ago but in places far away by mostly white males, they are being oppressed. We should exclude all of European literature, most world literature, and most works produced by Americans, unless they happen to hail from regions where the weather never gets below freezing.
In my opinion, this is a somewhat limited idea of what literature is, has been, and should be, but one that is not beyond comprehension. Race, gender, religion, moral ideology, all these postures are now in full play in English departments around the country, and the study of literature these days is more an exercise in hatred than a study of beauty. Literary study has become a war of political ideology rather than a heated dialogue concerning aesthetics.
This is nothing new in literary history. Smollett was considered a pornographer because his main characters, villains and rakes, ended up living happily ever after, Poe a nonentity because of his supposedly juvenile subject matter. Ben Jonson was jailed because of his politics, Robert Coover blacklisted by Nixon because of his politics, many, many writers blackballed by Joseph McCarthy during his commie hunt. The USSR during the twentieth century scanned all artwork for any kind for hints of treasonous teachings. The arts have a long history of hate, if you will, for political/ideological unorthodoxy.
Aesthetic disagreements have a long and spectacular history of bile and hatred. What’s more important, a didactic message, entertainment, or craft and style? Oscar Wilde famously writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” Writers like Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos and Stephen Crane believed fiction should be didactic above all else, should convey a social message that would encourage humanity to become better, more moral. So until the last few decades it was relatively easy to pick a camp: What’s more important to teach, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or James’s The Ambassadors (1903)? Going for a moral message? Choose Stowe. Want aesthetic pleasure? James. Pretty simple.