I’ll be honest: I chose to study literature to learn more about culture. Yes, that’s a broad statement. But, thanks to my religious and censored upbringing, I didn’t know much about anything other than Bible stories and virtuous allegories when I applied for the course.
To give you an idea of my ignorance, I wasn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings, and certainly not Harry Potter. At this point, references to either of those texts are hackneyed and eyeroll-inducing. Now my opportunity to partake in those conversations is over. It’s all because my religious bubble said that the magic wielded isn’t God’s, so it must be Satan’s. But it isn’t just magic that the church folks scorn. Any comment on society, say from Joyce, Dickens, or Orwell, means that these authors have an active interest in the ways of sinners.
So, the texts I encountered during my first year at YSJU really did shake me (as I suggest in the title). It wasn’t because the contents shocked me, but because the texts entered me into new labyrinths of thought and meaning. Each text we study carries, not just the story it tells, but also a story of the time and place of its birth. It captures a moment in time, and echoes the voices of that period. As Dr Anne-Marie Evans says, all texts are intertextual. The texts we covered last year, and the discussions we had about them, made me want to read to infinity – but I’ll stick to ten. So, here are my top ten first-year texts, ordered by the level of impact they have on me, because favourites are for Buzz Feed.
1. Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia
Irreverent, colourful, and multifaceted, to tell you just one thing this novel does would be to do it a disservice. It says a lot about a lot – without telling you those things directly (because it’s quality writing). With a flippant and humorous tone, it critiques depths of society that many are too cautious to tread. In my essay about it, I focussed on its attack on a Marxist account of ideology – specifically, the ideology that whiteness is a constituent of Englishness. But this text does more than just promote diversity in England. It comments on different people’s approaches to racism. It points to individuality in a way that illuminates the humanity in each character. It highlights the infinite variations of the intersections of classes and races. And more.
But I’ve only got so much space for this blog post. The text’s multifarious critique of society is submerged in the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of the seventies – it’s alive. Kureishi’s commentary is driven by the distinctiveness of each character, each of whom creates (by their peculiar life-choices) their unique modes of living. The problem I have with this novel, from an academic standpoint, is having to focus on just one aspect of it. It just has so much to say, in such a stylish way.
2. Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet
This comic doesn’t hold back. It’s loud. It’s satirical. It’s feminist. Using the blueprint of exploitation cinema, it has at least three satirical targets, all of which are connected to feminism. It satirizes the insularity of the patriarchal hegemony, the women who follow the patriarchy’s prescription of femininity, and the comic book form which circulates mostly among boys, and encourages sexual objectification and voyeurism.
Its impact on me stems from the overt nature of its witty satire. The satire is in-your-face, but it’s intellectually stimulating too. Page after page, the text makes an adroit critique of the patriarchy that’s coded into the material structure of society and the way we think about our identities.
I’ll be honest, when it comes to visual satire, I’m used to seeing memes on Twitter. The bulk of Twitter memes have nothing on the wit of Bitch Planet, which makes it a compelling read. Yet, its attack is so acute that it boils my blood. I find myself disgusted by the depth from which women need to rise before we can reach true equality. Sure, Bitch Planet exaggerates, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate – and that’s the problem with (by which I mean success of) this text.
3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
This novel is powerful. Its force lies in the imagery of the single communal spirit that captures whole crowds (different from groupthink), but also in its layered meaning. Its complex and nuanced message is gestured at by its simplistic style, devoid of any literary pomp. I read it as the reconciliation of two narratives – those of the Nigerian Igbo clan and the colonial missionaries. Achebe says himself, in his essay collection, Morning Yet on Creation Day, that he aims to
“teach [his] readers that their past – with all its imperfections – is not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (45).
Achebe is writing in English while his intended readers are – judging by the above quotation – Nigerian, so he doesn’t dismiss all European practices. While he defends the Igbo culture against colonial notions of barbarism, found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he also employs his antihero to problematize traditionalism in the Igbo clan. With a feminist slant, his narrativity (which sometimes even his narrator is explicitly unaware of) urges us to dissect traditions and reconstruct them into more progressive structures – on either side of the cultural divide.
The narrative’s aim is to merge two people’s traditions, but it doesn’t reach that aim, alluding to the further work society needs to do. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, and we’ve had sixty-four years to work out a way forward together. Yet circumstances in our current socio-political climate – from traditionalism to racism – are disappointingly similar to the ones in the novel.
4. John Fowles’s The Collector
I’d never understood the idea of a haunting text, because I’d never experienced a text that haunts me. That is, until I read The Collector. The text creates the feeling that there’s a supernatural presence hovering over me. It seems to live through all the characters, yet none of them. It certainly doesn’t die when I close the book. Perhaps this presence is the spectre of existentialism in excess. The text opens many doors of enquiry, without shutting them. I’d say this technique alludes to the unanswered questions of life’s meaning and purpose.
Miranda’s quest to define and become a real artist ends empty-handedly. Her hours of self-reflection that she writes in a diary, get buried in a chest and locked in an cellar by someone who’ll never read or understand them. But that’s a sub-plot which deals with individuals’ searches for meaning and purpose. There’s also a macro comment on the meaninglessness of classism. Fowles problematizes various ideological alliances as engendering hypocrisy and self-ignorance. Having sketched the problem with classist ideologies, The Collector also poses the question of whether it’s possible to become completely free of the identity we form as result of the class we are born into. It does all this, but I only realized that much later, because it still haunts me. The ghost takes shape over time as it hovers in the corner, insisting that it’s alive.
5. Poetry of Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Montagu
Both of these figures are prominent satirists from the eighteenth century, and the poetry we looked at is a specific satirical exchange. It’s like today’s rap battles. Penning the scatological, as in earwax, snot, and excrement, Swift suggests that women are disgusting under their makeup and perfume, as if he’d got up close to a woman for the first time. In response, Montagu writes that the reason Swift wrote that poem is because he couldn’t get it up when he visited a prostitute and realized that she’s human. Montagu ends with a bang by having her character say, “I’m glad you’ll write. / You’ll furnish paper when I shite”. In other words, she says: yes, I do indeed defecate, and I’ll wipe my buttocks with your work. Well! that severed my ignorant assumption that all poetry is concerned with Romantic notions of elevated sensibility, nature, or sentiment.
So, is it any wonder that these poems take the fifth spot on my list by order of impact? I saw an eighteenth-century rap battle about poop and prostitution. It was so impactful that it spurred me to take the eighteenth-century module in second-year. In coming across these poems, I learned that – thanks to cheap print in the eighteenth-century which engendered wider public reading – this era was the birth of popular culture as we think of it today. Of course I wanted to learn the origin story of popular culture.
6. James Joyce’s, “The Dead”
This short story also haunts me. Not because it creates the feeling of a supernatural presence, but because the representation of the protagonist is imbedded in his every gesture and interaction with other characters – even the most minor ones. There are so many layers of meaning in each moment of the narrative, that unravelling it takes days. The discovery of its meaning is what haunts me. The fact that meaning lies in every action, every image, and every word choice, is what led me to see the formal mechanics of modernism. It draws attention to the wordy membrane through which meaning is expressed.
The wordy membrane in ‘The Dead’ also employs free indirect discourse that absorbs the voices of the characters while staying an objective narrator. This bolsters its status as a modernist text, because the free indirect discourse highlights the narrativity. Of course, the content of ‘The Dead’ critiques various socio-political issues, which is a feature of modernism. I’m more interested in its formal properties though. I suspect it’s because, thinking about the function of the diction opened me up to a way of reading that I’d never done before. Thinking about word choices isn’t just about thinking, ‘Ah, good word.’ It’s about looking at them in their context and considering the purpose they serve. Now, having seen modernism at work makes me think that I’m in on a little jargon. So, perhaps this short story haunts me because of the days’ worth of meaning it carries, or perhaps it haunts me because I’ll never forget my first.
7. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”
Just to be clear, everything on this list is a strong contender. It saddens me that this essay is only number seven. Le Guin makes a compelling argument in a deliciously satirical tone. The target of her hyperbolic portrayals is the patriarchal ideology that believes a battle to be the strongest metaphor for a novel. Instead, she suggests that a feminist and more inclusive metaphor for the novel is the carrier bag. Stay with me…
To do this, she starts by referencing the famous jump cut from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene in reference depicts the first murder by Sapiens being committed using a bone. In this instance, the narrative told by men is that humankind’s first tool was a bone, with which they hunted and murdered. But Le Guin points out that this narrative ignores the mothers who stayed at home to nurse the baby. Instead of hunting, these women were gathering. Of course, they needed something to store their wild oats, so they invented the carrier bag, basket, or some sort of container. So, the battle and container being metaphors for novels, do two different things. The former is a story of conquering, which is typically a man’s story; while the latter is a bag full of human experiences that can belong to anyone, including a woman.
Being a woman myself, this essay is (for want of a less hackneyed word) empowering. Manly metaphors are so entrenched in our language, that I must often assume the identity of a man, to apply the metaphor (or another literary device) to myself. Le Guin’s essay reminds me that we can critique problematic metaphors and propose more inclusive ones, to achieve more harmonious modes of existing.
8. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times
Dickens’s caricatures of people who try to enforce utilitarianism animate this novel. While his exaggerated renderings of them foreground his critique (and are rather amusing), he drives his argument with the ironic logic of their rules. Almost every time they try to apply their utilitarian philosophy (which is constantly), they contradict themselves. It’s pitifully funny.
I say pitiful because these characters are victims of a societal structure – they’re just being good citizens. But their contradictions problematize the utilitarian need to quantify human nature and human problems. You just can’t. There are too many variables to any given human circumstance to accurately measure them.
Moreover, the variables in question can be drastically different: when each is approached from a different angle, the precedence one takes over the other changes. For instance, you might say that a straightforward way to quantify a human life is by its monetary contribution to society. How then, can you say that a fifty-five-year-old successful entrepreneur is more valuable to society than a jobless pregnant woman? Perhaps that unborn child will be a genius who finds the cure for cancer. Or not. But we won’t know if we discard her based on her job status, which might be a logical outcome of a utilitarian ideology.
These are my thoughts when reading Hard Times (and participating in the lecture and seminar accompanying it – which are great for guiding my thinking and expanding my perspective). And thinking about my thoughts, I’m starting to notice a trend in this list. These texts are impactful when they’re compelling to read, and the theory or history attached to them chugs a train of thought. I do like to think, which makes studying literature a pleasure.
9. John Gardner’s Grendel
The reception of this novel is a fascinating feat of irony. Critics praise its masterful existentialism, which is actually what Gardner tries to present as monstrous. Well, I’m on the critics’ side when I read this.
Grendel’s (the monster’s) absurdist visions persuade me of the poetic slant of an existential outlook. I get it when he says that the bard’s embellished tales of the king’s war victories are lies. The bard presents these wars as virtuous achievements, but what are wars really for? Greed and pride, is my answer. So it’s refreshing to find my sympathies with a monster. See, I didn’t know Gardner’s argument when I first read it. But when I found it out in the lecture, Grendel assumed an extra layer of meaning. Not to mention the meaning Gardner already gives it by giving a voice to the monster in Beowulf.
Gardner’s reimagining the aggrandized Anglo-Saxon poem with a warlike tone, in an existential novel from the viewpoint of Beowulf’s monster, is poetic in itself. For someone who, by force of habit, associates poetry with Romanticism, I sure see a lot of poetry in Grendel. Perhaps it’s because, when the Romantics wrote about nature, they often highlighted its sublime power, which diminishes the perceiver’s own sense of purpose. When confronted with the majesty of a gigantic waterfall, you begin to question what your life’s pursuits are really for.
This is the effect that Grendel has on me, which, funnily enough, is the opposite of what Gardner wanted (he says so himself).
10. Emma Rice’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
This lively production is, by The Globe’s standards, irreverent. I wouldn’t call it irreverent because I believe that it’s much closer to the style of productions that Shakespeare put on in his day, than the serious ‘comedies’ The Globe usually produces. Remember, Shakespeare was popular culture. His work is fraught with sexual innuendoes, when you look closely enough.
Emma Rice reimagines today’s equivalent of this Shakespeare comedy, with queer readings of characters, a racially diverse cast, and a narrator in drag. Of course, her actors also enacted the subtext – which is an ocean of sexual innuendoes. With this production, Emma Rice brings me to see the comedy in Shakespeare’s comedy. I’ll be honest, reading them, and trying to decipher them, draws the fun out of them.
So, this production – still in the original script – enlivens Twelfth Night and crams it with energy. Unfortunately, the board removed Emma Rice from The Globe theatre, on account of her tone, but luckily, she left us with this gold nugget.
There you have it: the cultural rollercoaster that YSJU put me on last year. I read and watched the widest array of texts I could have imagined.
Some notable texts that didn’t make it onto this list are the Medieval alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Early Modern poetry of Lady Mary Wroth. While they’re rich with substance, I suspect the reason they didn’t make the cut because their perspectives are too insular for my taste. Before cheap print became available in the eighteenth century, literature was written by and for nobility and priests, who have a limited view of society. Self-interest in isolation (which includes love affairs and chivalrous knights’ quests to prove themselves honourable) just isn’t my game.
As you might have deduced from my list, I engage more with texts that critique socio-political issues in interesting ways. On that note, I hope these reviews gave you something to think about, even if it’s just to ponder the reason for having such an eclectic mix of literary taste.