I hate this meme.
I hate it so bad. If hate were pebbles, my hate would be....um....a great big boulder. I hate it with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas in a synchronous explosion up my left nostril.
I want to travel back in time and find the father of the person who made this on the night before their conception and kick daddy in the nuts so hard that this person simply ceases to have ever existed in the time space continuum. No fading Polaroid and transparent hand. Just one kick....gone.
Mostly I hate the way people don't just have a giggle and move on. I could almost spare daddy's scroat from my snap kick of protodoom if people just posted it with a "Snerk" and moved on. It is funny. It does have a point.
They insist on acting like this meme contains the wisdom of ages, that English teachers really are like this and all awful, and that it isn't just sour grapes by someone who failed their Steinbeck paper.
"Oh my god, this is so true!" or "ZOMG YES!!!"
Y'all know I'm an English teacher right? I've given A's to people I disagreed with because they argued it well and F's to people who regurgitated what I said because they didn't. And even I laughed at this. But once people started acting like this meme was a salient indictment of liberal/language arts in primary school, and all English teachers want is to have their own absurdly over analyzing pet theories parroted back at them, I knew it was time to throw down.
[Edit June 15, 2016: I notice this post is going a little viral today (three years later) and I should share a personal story since its success is both confusing and amusing to me. It was written furiously in a fit of pique one crisp March morning after I had seen it shared by two or three different friends. One was trying to get a rise out of me. One thought it was funny but knew that it was also pretty much an annoyed student, or ex-student, with graphic design skills being obnoxious.
But the third. Ah the third. The third was like "OH MY GOD THIS IS SO TRUE!!!" And even included in her comments a five paragraph screed about how liberal arts were pretty much entirely made up. She was a friend who had asked me on no less that five separate occasions to give her free tutoring on her literary essays because she was having trouble with them. (I'll let you work out the irony there.) So my furious clacking was shooting a bit from the hip. I do encourage folks to read both the comments and the follow up article. I have been accused of a lot of things because of this article, many of them profoundly unkind, but I hope no one thinks I would never say there are no bad English teachers, authors confused by the overreach of their intentions, or possible merit in any way to this meme.]
1- Being proud of your ignorance isn't cool. I get it. Literary analysis is hard. There's a reason that you have to take half a dozen college courses before you really start to get it, and most high school students are taught a very formative version that helps them pair the terms they are learning with clear cut examples. Drawing connections and thinking critically is not easy. Understanding meaning beyond the literal words on the page is a skill. And discerning multiple layers of meaning...well it's almost like it could be a whole discipline. Symbolism, allegory, metaphor...that is some next level shit. When we learn to read with these things in mind whole new meaning opens up.
There's a reason the Romans guarded their liberal arts knowledge for citizens only.
And if you don't want to have that skill, that's fine. You don't have to. You can wonder why people who read a lot really like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. It's cool. But don't turn around and ignore the people who do have that skill, or pretend they are making stuff up. That's like saying evolution doesn't exist because you don't understand the evidence for it. Maybe instead of making stupid memes, you should be asking yourself what your English teacher knows that you don't.
2- Art is considered. Any book you're reading in an English class is most likely some of the best literature out there. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's THE BEST stuff ever written. It's predominantly dead white guys, and usually picked by parents for its "appropriateness" to young students. Other voices are often just as good and even better.
But it's still pretty good writing. And like any art, literature is done with great care, consideration, and thought. It wasn't slapped out in a single draft on a Saturday night. Stephen King or Jim Butcher might do three or four drafts, but an author in the canon has probably done ten or more drafts at least, refining their language to fit their themes with each draft. I absolutely guarantee that the writer thought carefully about practically every word. There is almost no chance anything in the entire work is not a conscious decision, probably even the color of the curtains.
3- Your English teacher isn't operating in a vacuum. Your English teacher has things they need to cover and a limited amount of time. They have established lesson plans based on learning objectives that came from a curriculum generated by lots of other English teachers, a district, and a state, with heavy influence from the federal government. (At least here in the US.) They can't really just wax philosophically and go off on tangents forever (unless they suck), and they don't really have time to regale you with their every pet theory about minutiae or teach you something as complex as their Masters thesis. They're going to focus on what is generally agreed upon by wide bodies of scholars and literary analysis, and the big huge examples of what they're trying to teach.
Your English teacher isn't just spitballing. Chances are they probably took the time to isolate the most important aspects of the work you're reading, choosing only what works well with the lesson they're trying to teach. Also, they probably picked out a few of the glaring examples--the best examples for the lesson at hand--not everything that could possibly fit.
So you're getting the most obvious examples of the most elementary lessons. And understanding that makes you a better reader. It's like someone trying to teach you algebra and you claiming that they're just "making up" their solutions to the variable and there's nothing to it.
But by all means just spit out a meme.
4- Books do not spontaneously generate. Authors don't live on the moon, sending their books down by shuttle to be interpreted in a (wait for it....) vacuum. They have lives. They walk around on Terra Firma. They eat at restaurants. They have friends. And sometimes they even talk about their writing. Even the most antisocial writers have often done interviews, panels, and articles about their own work.
|I just turned around and there they were!|
And even if we don't know exactly what the author meant about one particular symbol, we can extrapolate from what we do know about them. Raymond Carver may never have specifically discussed the fading light in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," but he did talk about how he tends to use light meaningfully in his stories, and we can apply that to his later pieces.
We also know from talking to authors how carefully they choose their words when they write. Shakespeare may not have done a series of interviews for the BBC, but from what we do know, he pondered over every word, so we can assume any given word has been debated and consciously chosen.
And sometimes even when a symbol wasn't explicitly in the mind of an author on a conscious level, they show up unconsciously. When a writer is creating literally every aspect of their worlds, sometimes what's on our minds show up like a Rorschach inkblot test or like when Data started causing there to be 3's everywhere. How many interviews did I have in my writing program with authors who were surprised (YET DELIGHTED) to have a symbol they missed pointed out because "yeah, actually that was kind of on my mind."
The point is, a lot of times, we can just ask.
5- Authorial intent hasn't mattered as much as reader response since about the sixties. For over five decades, we've moved away from what the author meant as the authority of analysis. The author is one person. How a work resonates in a culture is much more interesting. In post-structuralism there is some incorporation of a work's context and that includes biographical analysis, but the interpretation of a work is as much (arguably more) in the hands of the reader than of any right or wrong interpretation. Anyone who has gone back to a favorite book years later and read a COMPLETELY different book is familiar with this.
We are much more interested in how words are received rather than what was intended by them. One of the reasons "I didn't mean it like that" is a fairly unacceptable counter-argument for someone using "gay" or "bitch" as a pejorative. No one cares what they meant. We care about how those words resonate culturally. The same is true of art and literature. James Cameron didn't mean to make a recruiting poster movie for postcolonial theory, but that's what he did and it was the focus of most of the more thoughtful reviews. When we can more deeply understand art and how it resonates in the world around us, we open doors to communication.
Thus literary analysis can be something of a Rorschach inkblot test for a group or culture (or a sub-culture if you are looking at it through intentionalist lenses like Critical Race Theory or Feminist Theory). An author may not have meant anything, but the fact that we see it is still worth exploring. Literary analysis (especially being taught by "your English teacher") is more about critical thinking and the eventual articulation of that in an argument (such as a paper), not an absolute, objective cypher of authorial intent.
Of course to know what all that means, you might have to question the idea that every English teacher in the world is just randomly making stuff up.
“They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.” - John Green
EDIT: In response to the awesome comments below, I have written a follow up to this article. Come check it out.
If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.