Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally


Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

Guest Blog Post, Jacob Appel: Literary Love: Where the Magnet Meets the Metal

Jacob M AppelMy favorite moment in western literature occurs several hundred miles south of Moscow, on Constantin Levin’s country estate at Pokrovsky, during the heyday of the Tsars:  Celebrated intellectual Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev, Levin’s half-brother, has agreed to go mushroom picking with an orphaned young woman, Varenka, who has befriended Levin’s wife. Everyone in the household anticipates that Koznyshev will make a marriage proposal during the excursion—including Varenka and Koznyshev themselves. In fact, Varenka’s suitor has already rehearsed his proposal in his head as he approaches her: “Vavara Andreyevna, when I was very young, I formed for myself an ideal of the woman whom I should love and whom I should be happy to call my wife. I have lived a long life, and now for the first time I find in you all that I was seeking. I love you and I offer you my hand.” What happens, instead, proves one of the most heart-shattering in the Tolstoy canon, far more so than when Anna jumps onto the railroad tracks:

 “They proceeded a few steps in silence. Varenka saw that he wanted to speak; she suspected what he had in mind, and felt stifled with the emotions of joy and terror.  They had now gone so far from the rest that no one could have heard them, yet he had not opened his mouth to speak.  Varenka would have done better not to say a word. After a silence it would have been easier to say what they wanted to say than after any casual words. But against her own will, as it were unexpectedly, Varenka broke out: — “And so you did not find any. But there are never so many mushrooms in the woods as along the edge.”

Koznyshev finds himself distracted by her exclamation. He replies with a remark about mushrooms, rather than about marriage, and the moment is lost forever. Rather than a happy and devoted couple, the two part as disappointed acquaintances.

This “mushroom moment” is not unfamiliar to the twenty-first century. Except for the rare few of us who have had the good fortune to marry our high school sweethearts and to live in perpetual nuptial bliss, most mortals have experienced our share of romances that weren’t, but that almost were. Love is not a matter of timing or chemistry, although both can help grease the gears of affection and lust; principally, love is a matter of decision and sheer will-power.  Daisy chooses Tom Buchanan over Gatsby. Madeline Fox storms out on Martin Arrowsmith while Leora Tozer embraces his faults.  A few “mushroom moments” do turn out to be reversible: Elizabeth Bennett rejects Darcy’s first proposal and is fortunate enough to receive a second offer. Many more such moments are like the fleeting connection between Koznyshev and Varenka—or between me and an attractive-yet-childless co-worker who once asked me to have a baby with her, then changed her mind as soon as I agreed—are carved forever in the stone of lost opportunity. In life, of course, all relationships do not actually stem from “mushroom moments” gone right. Plenty of couples fall in love as Hemingway says they go bankrupt: first gradually and then suddenly. In literature, however, all great loves do arise from mushroom magic.

Every young child who has ever held a magnet recognizes that strange, miraculous instant when a metal object—a nail or a paperclip or a thimble—first approaches close enough to exert magnetic tension. There is a small—possibly infinitely small—space where the metal can go either way:  one nanometer nearer and it will be drawn to the magnet, one farther away and it will fall limp to the ground. It is that transitional moment when the solution in the refrigerator is no longer colored water but not yet Jell-O, that spark of dawn that is neither darkness nor day. Relationships, in literature, require such a moment: A possibility that love may yet either triumph or fail. That absolutely nothing is certain.

In my introductory writing classes, more than half of my students are usually crafting some variety of love story. This pleases me greatly: While not all love stories are inherently interesting, many of life’s most interesting stories are love stories. I would much rather read about how Clyde Griffiths’ yearning for Sondra Finchey leads him to murder, or of the feral passion between Laurent LeClaire and Thérèse Raquin, or even an inept account of a student’s first date, than about corporate scandals or deer hunting brothers or suicidal truck drivers seeking employment. Unfortunately, the pitfall that traps many a well-intentioned novice is the creation of lovers whose fates are inevitable. In one version of this narrative, a woman finds herself in a relationship with a man so detached or abusive or treacherous that separation appears a foregone conclusion; often, we cannot figure out why she married Mr. Wrong in the first place. In the other version, a woman finds herself seduced by a man of great wit and charm and generosity, who also happens to be a thoracic surgeon and a part-time Italian film star, and she falls madly in love with him and then announces to the reader that she is glad she waited for Mr. Right. Both of those stories grow tiresome rather quickly. The key to writing relationships is that they must remain ambiguous up to the point of consummation.  Mr. Wrong needs enough going for him to keep us uncertain of his fate until the very moment the protagonist walks out on him—or until, in a moment of reconsideration, motivated by loneliness or nostalgia or pity, she decides to stay. Mr. Right demands sufficient shortcomings to leave us wondering whether the protagonist will say “I do” until the instant that she does.

The best dating wisdom I have ever received came from a friend who thought of all romantic interactions through fishing metaphors. Get your hook in, he urged—and then run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. While I am not sure those are words to live by, and I have not implemented them in my personal life, they offer as surefire method of holding a literary reader’s attention. In other words, raise the prospect of love…and then keep us waiting, page after page, for the payoff. (Tolstoy, a man who managed to sire thirteen children and yet to keep Varenka and Koznyshev apart—albeit only nanometers apart—may have mastered this skill both personally and professionally.) My goal as a writer is to keep the metal in that liminal band for as long as possible before it is swallowed by the inexorable force of magnetism.