As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school. I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure. He reads on assignment, and that’s it.
So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?
So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.
In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another. Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.
And it’s not just in literature that this is true. In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.
Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias. These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).
As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”
Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience. I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.
I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.
I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.
But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.
Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?
Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?
In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.
In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL. Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.
In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.
Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind. Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love. Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).
However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.
On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.
I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.
Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.
I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.
Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.
Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better. Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.