Contrary to what some of you might suspect, I have not given up blogging for Facebook. Would I blog more if there were no Facebook? Hmmmmmm…no. No, I don’t think I would. Because I don’t get nearly as much pleasure out of Facebook as I used to. I go on Facebook every day, but I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. Seriously, I don’t. I used to, but I don’t anymore. These days the majority of my time-wasting is spent on reading—which you might say isn’t a waste of time, but unless you’re Facebook friends with me, you don’t know what kind of books I’m reading. Some of them certainly aren’t time wasters, but others, well, some people have a couple hundred shows on their DVR; I read trashy novels. He who is without sin, etc.
That’s a roundabout introduction to my subject for today, which was inspired by an interaction I had with a friend on Facebook. The friend in question is a woman I know from church; she and her family recently moved into our ward, and I have enjoyed making her acquaintance. She seems like a lovely person. We’ve only been Facebook friends for a few weeks. Maybe a little more than a fortnight. The other day she posted a concerned-parent rant—I hate to call it a “rant” because she really is such calm, good-natured person, I don’t really think of her as “ranting” about anything, but if it wasn’t a “rant,” maybe it was a soapbox type speech—about Oregon’s Common Core guidelines vis a vis literature and composition classes. Apparently, one of the books eleventh graders are required to read is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. She was very upset about this book being required reading because it contains very graphic descriptions of child rape, given from the rapist’s point of view. She likened it to pornography—perhaps even child pornography—and thought it was just outrageous that students would be required to read this filth.
My initial reaction was “Yowza—note to self: do not discuss books with this person.” (Especially if said books have titles like Invitation to Seduction or The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy. I’m not saying I’ve read The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t.) There are books out there I would classify as pornographic. I’ve read some of them. Can’t say I finished any of them because wanton dairymaids notwithstanding, pornography isn’t really my thing. I find it alternately gross and tedious. But I don’t consider your garden variety romance novel pornography, and I certainly wouldn’t classify your garden variety Toni Morrison novel pornography. I guess pornography is in the eye of the beholder, given people’s differing sensibilities, in addition to their differing values. To me, pornography has no purpose beyond provoking sexual arousal in the user (viewer or reader) and either has no artistic merit or is so exploitative as to render its theoretical artistic merit irrelevant. I don’t know. That’s all subjective, isn’t it? That’s why we have a constitutional right to Hustler. But whatever.
I’ve read a lot of Toni Morrison. It’s been a good 20 years or so since I’ve read The Bluest Eye. I only vaguely remember the story and the themes. It’s not my favorite Toni Morrison book. (That would be Song of Solomon.) But I don’t think it’s pornography. I mean, if it had been pornographic, it probably would have made a more lasting impression (unfortunately). I did recall it being somewhat sexually explicit. My FB friend was so disgusted by the excerpts she read online that she wasn’t comfortable posting a link, but through the magic of Google I found a blog or an article that gave several excerpts from the novel, and I immediately understood how a person who is not generally a prude (or may not generally be a prude—I don’t know this FB friend well enough to judge) might find this book offensive. Funny, I did not remember it being quite so…ick. Maybe because it was before I had children? I don’t know. Granted, the quotes were all out of context. Context certainly makes a big difference. It’s not fair to judge the literary merit of a book based on isolated excerpts. At the same time, these are still graphic, disturbing passages, regardless of context, and I know that if my own teenager had to read this book, she would be traumatized. Princess Zurg is particularly sensitive when it comes to certain subjects—probably more sensitive than your average teenager these days, but not the only one so sensitive, I’m sure. Certainly kids who come from conservative, religious households are more likely to be disturbed by such frank discussion of rape and incest (or anything of a sexual nature, including the consensual stuff).
I guess our household is conservative and religious. The household I grew up in was conservative and religious, but I have a high tolerance for “adult content” in books and always have. I don’t have a similarly high tolerance for such content in movies and TV. I process words differently than visual images. I’m very fastidious about what I let my kids watch—there are things I forbid them to watch–but I don’t, as a rule, censor their reading. I have a copy of The Bluest Eye in one of our (many) bookshelves. I would not forbid my teenager from reading it, if she (or he) wanted to. I really can’t imagine either of my teenagers wanting to, but theoretically, if they did, I would not forbid them. I would certainly warn them about the content because they’re the type of kids who would not care to be surprised by that sort of thing. That would probably end the issue right there. My teenagers are not such voracious readers that they’re going to pick up a Toni Morrison book for kicks and giggles, so I don’t need to think very deeply about this.
However, if Princess Zurg is expected to read The Bluest Eye next year, I will have a problem with that. I’m well aware that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are very close to adulthood, and most of them probably don’t need sheltering. Certainly if they are college bound, they should expect to read more challenging material as they advance in their education, and some of this challenging material may offend those with more delicate sensibilities. Once they’re actually in college, of course, they will be expected to read all sorts of things. I’m of the opinion that, for the most part, “all sorts of things” can wait until college. It’s not like there’s a shortage of worthwhile literature out there. Plenty of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids can handle The Bluest Eye, as far as the language and subject matter go. That is, they’re not going to faint or anything. I am skeptical of how well they can appreciate the novel as literature, given that Toni Morrison is not the world’s most accessible writer. And being from a conservative religious community, I am probably more sympathetic to those kids who would be disturbed and/or scandalized by the graphic language, even though my own sensibilities are different. I am sympathetic to my daughter, who I don’t think would get any benefit from reading something like The Bluest Eye. It should be easy enough for students like her to get an alternate assignment, which is all well and good, but the thing about an alternate assignment is that it removes the student from the regular classroom curriculum for a period of a few weeks (at least a fortnight). That is less than ideal, which is why even though it is a provision of my daughter’s IEP that she be given alternate assignments when appropriate, we are reluctant to invoke that option. PZ has encountered plenty of books and plays and whatnot in her lit & comp career that have distressed her. To an extent I think she needs to learn to deal with being distressed, so I talk her through the material and she manages to complete her assignments and in the end she is okay, even if she doesn’t learn to like the books in question (in point of fact, continues to hate them). But I think something like The Bluest Eye would be a bridge too far for her.
I can see it being a bridge too far for a lot of teenagers, who are still, after all, living under their parents’ protection. No, they can’t be coddled forever, but they’re not adults yet, and most parents are probably reasonably good judges of what their kids can handle. If my FB friend thinks a book is pornographic, I can’t really blame her for being upset about her child being required to read it. Obviously, though, there’s something to offend everyone. That’s what we book-lovers are supposed to say: Where does one draw the line? Who will judge what is “inappropriate” and what is not? Well, someone has to, and it seems to me it shouldn’t be so hard to classify some books as inappropriate for required high school reading lists. Public schools are for everyone, not just for sophisticated urbane types who think there’s no such thing as an “inappropriate” book. As I said earlier, it’s not like there’s a shortage of worthwhile literature. There’s not even a shortage of challenging material that manages to discuss heavy issues like rape and racism without describing exactly what a pedophile does with a little girl’s vagina. I’m just saying.
It’s easy to understand how The Bluest Eye ends up on a recommended reading list. We want our students to read more than just the dead white males. Toni Morrison is female, black, and alive—a three-fer!—and also happens to be a Nobel Prize winner. Why shouldn’t high schoolers read her? Well, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, but there’s no compelling reason why they must¸ either. She is not the easiest author to read. She’s sort of a female, black (and alive) Faulkner, with slightly shorter sentences. Plenty of kids leave high school without ever reading Faulkner (I was one of those), so I think they’ll survive if they miss Toni Morrison too. Or they could read something she’s written that doesn’t contain graphic descriptions of child rape. I really don’t see what the big deal is. The Bluest Eye is a compelling novel in some respects, but not absolutely essential to a teenager’s education. Why court this particular controversy? When I was in high school, parents were upset about books like The Catcher in the Rye. The Bluest Eye makes The Catcher in the Rye look like The Cat in the Hat. Why would one feel so strongly about going there? Don’t we sophisticated, urbane types have enough trouble dealing with the parents who want to ban Harry Potter? Do we really want to upset a larger percentage of the parent population? Is it that worth it? I just don’t see it.
Of course, this is Portland (or Portland suburbia), not a terribly conservative community. I don’t foresee a huge revolt among the parents here. And I’m not the revolt-starting type. What do you gentle readers think? Have any of you run up against this issue in your sending-your-kids-to-school career?