Who Is the Best Writer: A Matter of Taste and Viewpoint

Until I was asked to be a judge for a memoir competition, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about this topic.  For years my general awareness about writing preferences included the knowledge that the writers I prefer and usually read rarely hit the best seller list and generally are not white, main stream USA.  What do I read:  Native American (American Indian), Indian as in the country of India, and Latin American writers, and writers from the Middle East, especially Iran.  My favorite writer is Leslie Marmon Silko.  My favorite book of hers is Storyteller.  My favorite story, “Yellow Woman”, is in that book as well as numerous literary anthologies. I estimate I have read that story at least fifty times, maybe more.  Why?  In spite of asking myself that question, I remain somewhat clueless.  Because of my current teaching assignment which includes British literature from Beowulf to now, I try my best to read a bunch of British literature.  For instance, I just read I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  Of course, it has nothing to do with Britain; perhaps it does not count.   Next on my list is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2006.  Although she writes in English, she obviously is not British unless you consider being in a former British colony counts as British.

Back to my contest assignment:  Two of the books I was assigned to read nearly put me to sleep.  One did not; in fact I liked it a lot–enough to mark pages with passages I plan to use when I need writing inspiration/ideas later.  When I read a bunch of reviews recently, it came as quite a shock to find one of those put-me-to-sleep books favorably reviewed.  Could I really have been that far off base?  I consider the possibility that even though I have read some excellent memoirs, I find many of them impossible to read.  Why?  From my viewpoint, many memoirs whine, lament, and carry on about the past in a way I find highly objectionable.  Who wants to read hundreds of pages about how someone overcame addiction or some hideous disease or a divorce? Apparently, a lot of people.  Even though I consider The Glass Castle an excellent book, I even had a difficult time plugging through the last 50 pages of that one.  Some of Storyteller is a memoir–a combination of poetry, vignettes, photos, but it also includes several enlightening short stories.  While writing now and reflecting, I can only think of one other memoir type book, I actually recommend to people, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s A Place to Stand.  While stopping by the library this morning, I did pick up Willie Nelson’s latest, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.  It even has a foreword by Kinky Friedman, who in my opinion would make a much better governor than any one we have experienced in Texas lately or will have for the foreseeable future.  With a title like that, about Willie, and Kinky thrown in, surely it won’t be too boring.


Teaching English for a change

Years ago, four day before school started, the principal informed me that I was going to teach freshmen English and a special course for all these juniors and seniors who had passed the state test but not one single English class.  The goal–we were on a quarter system then:  teach a year of English per quarter or at least do that for the seniors.  Of course, everyone knew that if I did the traditional curriculum, such a thing would prove impossible.  I took a look at the students.  Smart (at least some of them), rebellious, lazy, unmotivated, potheads probably–some openly admitted it, and various combinations of these sorts of things.  For fun the previous summer, I had taken a week long course on how to teach junior Advanced Placement English–I know, a strange idea of fun, but I loved it.  Four days gave me little time to prepare so I decided I would use the freshman book for the freshmen, but incorporate what I had learned in the AP English course.  For this other special class, I decided to try some really different tactics, including starting with a really different book than any had probably ever read.  Because of the language–swear words in Spanish for starters, and because of the topics, e.g. prison, it seemed necessary to get the permission from the head of the English department.  The book:  A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, one of my all time favorite books and a superb example of figurative language.  The department head gave permission much to my astonishment–she must have taken a look at the students and decided anything was worth a try.  The students actually read ahead, looked the author up online, found out he was giving a reading in Santa Fe and contacted him. We did go to Santa Fe for the reading and actually had lunch with him and his wife and baby–who would now be a teenager or nearly so.  One of the students who went contacted me a couple of months ago to tell me he still had a signed copy of one of Baca’s books.

After that year, I taught math for years–algebra, geometry.  Occasionally, I even cotaught chemistry or remedial science for those who had not passed the state test.  About three weeks ago, the new principal called me in and asked me what I wanted to teach.  I said English.  He asked me how about senior English?!  Next school year I will be teaching British literature.  Now, I am trying to think how to make Beowulf and Canterbury Tales readable and exciting.  I was told I could also incorporate modern British literature so I started looking at the Man Booker (sort of like a British and former British colonies version of the Pulitzer or something of that sort) short list.  Much to my astonishment, I have read a lot of the authors on this list, but mostly those from the colonies like Nigeria and India.  Now I am reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.  This book won the Pen Hemingway and was short listed for the Man Booker.  Probably more familiar authors for many readers would be names like Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Amitav Ghosh, and Kiran Desai.  If any of you who read this blog have others suggestions for modern British literature, send me the names.  The students may be in a temporary  (or longer) state of shock when they find out they really do have to read, but they will get over it and might even discover its fun.