Bursting the DePaul Literary Bubble

By February 7, 2017Writing about Writing

Last Tuesday, I walked in my Advanced Fiction Writing workshop eager and nervous—the typical first-day-of-class jitters we all know too well. I find my seat, and prepare for the inevitable and infamous ice breaker.

“Tell me your name, major, writing history if any, and what the last thing you read was.”

Easy enough, I thought. It was my turn to break the ice.

“Sam Garfinkel, English major, peer tutor at the Writing Center, and the last thing I read, well, reread, was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

We continued around the room until the metaphorical ice had melted.

Then, my Professor announces: “You know, I HATE when my students, especially my advanced writing students, tell me that they read Harry Potter, or really any young adult fiction in their spare time. You guys should be CHALLENGING yourselves! Don’t regress to basic stories that you have already read and that are meant for KIDS! C’mon guys! I will say this right now: I will expect more from you.”

My face burned. I was so embarrassed. I should have said one of the other books I read over break, like Watership Down, or The Woman Destroyed. Those would have been impressive. Why had I even picked up my old, water-stained copy of the first Harry Potter book in the first place?

And I remembered why. I had been feeling homesick and nostalgic. The winter weather was getting me down, and I reached for something I knew I loved, because it would undoubtedly bring me comfort. As I sat red-faced in class, I started wondering what was so awful about seeking solace in something that was easy and gratifying.

But, I understood what my Professor was saying. We should challenge ourselves. If we pick up something new, a classic, a difficult piece, which would advance our reading, and by extension our writing, to a higher caliber. Still—the whole thing didn’t sit right.

I realized it was because the incident was just one of the infinite examples of literary elitism in the academic setting.

We can say that everyone is a writer, and that is true to an extent. But not everyone enjoys writing, and not everyone likes to read. I think one of the reasons people resist reading and writing is because of embarrassment—what they like may not be in the literary canon or written by a Nobel Laureate, and they my feel excluded, and rightfully so, because they are told what they love is not good enough.

So, I’ve come to the driving questions of this post, ones that I hope my fellow tutors will feel compelled to help me answer:

Are there works that are considered “wrong” or “not good enough” to read as a college student?

How can we encourage our writers to continue to challenge themselves, yet still validate their tastes in books and styles of writing?

How can we, as writing tutors, make the process of reading and writing, and by extension the literary DePaul bubble, more inclusive?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Sam C says:

    My immediate response to the question, “[a]re there works that are considered “wrong” or “not good enough” to read as a college student?” would be, no. I don’t agree that a book or any piece of writing itself can be considered to be “college level.” Sure, some books or essays require a higher level of intellect to in order to be able to engage with the ideas, but I think what is most important is not what is in a piece of writing, but what kind of critical thinking that piece of writing is able to produce. And it is up to the person to allow themselves to be open to a certain level of academic thinking.

    A children’s book could contain profound insights about all different aspects of life even if it is written for children. Harry Potter can challenge your ideas if you are rigorously engaging with the ideas and the writing. So, it is all about what is going on in the mind of the reader. If you are reading Harry Potter for the second or third time and not learning anything new or rethinking about some aspect of the story, then I understand where your professor is coming from when they say “challenge yourself,” but that doesn’t have to mean read a “harder” book. One could read a difficult text and not get anything out of it for a variety of reasons.

    So, I would say, to keep challenging ourselves, just try and discover new ideas when you are re-reading books, reach a new level of analysis or critique that you haven’t before, achieve a deeper understanding of the story, characters, etc.

    Also, I am still not closed off to the idea of just simply re-reading a book because you like it? Are we not allowed to enjoy ourselves sometimes?

  • Lauri Dietz says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience with that ice breaker, Sam! I think depending on the purpose and context, anything can have value to read as a college student. Another version of this I often hear is instructors dismissing or banning Wikipedia. But, I would imagine the vast majority of instructors have read something from Wikipedia to learn more about a topic or to find an answer to a question. I recently learned that DePaul has a Wikipedia Librarian! How cool is that? Part of her job is to link to sources from DePaul’s archives to Wikipedia entries. She is always encouraging instructors to develop assignments where students are contributing to Wikipedia. If it is going to be something that almost all of us use, why not be proactive in making sure the content is as strong and evidence-based as possible?

  • Lexi B. says:

    I’ve heard this comment a lot, actually, from those who deem Young Adult fiction improper after a certain age–that it should be made strictly for “leisure” as opposed to something worthy of study or understanding elevated literary speech. Then I think about the fact that DePaul hosts an entire class devoted to the study of Harry Potter and what themes contained in the novel series reflect larger ideas and questions of life itself.
    I think some can forget that there are a lot of real-world aspects and themes that come into play in Young Adult novels as well as any other “high-class” literature. One of the Young Adult novel series that comes to mind with its attention to real-world thematic elements is the Lemony Snicket “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, one of my favorite novel series growing up and even still today.
    It’s all dependent upon how you read these works; whether you read them with an analytical eye or only surface deep. Sure, from a Creative Writing aspect in terms of style there may not be much to gain concerning the way the work is written, but I think the information contained in it and what you make of those themes in comparison to the world is what constitutes “good” literature.