Last week, I flew from Boston to Little Rock, Arkansas for the Arkansas Literary Festival.
As part of my visit to this city where it seems there’s a museum or art gallery on every downtown corner (and no, I didn’t meet Bill Clinton–though I’ve always wanted to write for his Foundation–Mr. Clinton, are you listening?), I had signed up for the Festival’s Authors in the School program.
I was lucky enough to be assigned to the Parkview Arts Science Magnet High School.
Let me make a little aside here. I caught the evening flight to Little Rock (connecting through Chicago) after a busy week at work. At 10 o’clock at night, I found myself stuffed into an American Airlines seat that was only a smidgen bigger than the cover of my in-flight novel. There was the usual over-cranked air conditioning system. So as I tried to read and to stop my teeth chattering, I asked myself, “What in God’s name am I doing flying half-way across the USA to a city I’ve never been to?”
Next day, I found out. I got to remind myself that, as writers, it’s part of our job to rock the 21st- century conversation around writing and books.
And rock it the Parkview students did.
First, my gracious host Linda had thought of every detail that a presenting author might need. At the school we had a beautiful lunch, and I got to meet some other teaching and Media Center staff.
Then, it was time to get up there and talk writing to an assembly of 10th graders.
Of course I had my notes and my talking points.
Of course I abandoned said notes and talking points to settle into a chat about family, displacement, and my crusading belief that writing is not just about being a Writer (with the capital ‘W’), but it’s how we discover who we really are–and how we find out where the parts of our internal and external worlds collide and cohere.
I am not being flattering when I say that this student group was among the most engaged, gracious group of young writers and readers I have met so far. Airline-tired? Who? Me? I could’ve stayed all day.
After this larger group, I visited a classroom-based English class, where a smaller group of students and I continued the conversation.
And then (cue the creepy music), a girl in the back row raised her hand. ”I’m probably not supposed to ask this, but … do you ever read Stephen King?”
I said I’d read King’s famous book, “On Writing,” and I’d seen the movie “Misery,” and seen a play adaptation of “Misery.” But no, I hadn’t read his novels.
This young student’s smile and voice turned apologetic. ”But I … I just .. I just enjoy his books.”
She said this in the way that some of us confess to enjoying Mars Bars. Yeah, the candy bars are not on the FDA’s food pyramid, but dang, are they good? (I would’ve killed for one on that evening flight.)
“You should enjoy his books,” I told this student. “King’s a great writer.”
She looked only slightly vilified. “They’re just creepy enough to reallly scare you, and yet you keep on reading.”
You keep on reading.
Now that I’m back in Massachusetts, both sessions at the Parkview High School–the larger and the smaller groups–have left me thinking. As writers, and as veterans and products of our own high school and college English programs, have we colluded in a self-indulgent and -appointed pyramid of what’s worthy to read and what’s not?
In these bright young minds, have we concocted a kind of snooty PG-13 system that approves certain genres (literary fiction, poetry, literary essay, Masterpiece Theater), while other genres (mystery, romance, SciFi, fantasy, chic lit, horror) are deemed fluff entertainment?
As a child growing up in rural Ireland, I escaped into the pages of British children’s author Enid Blyton. In our tiny, four-teacher village school, Blyton’s books, with all their high-adventure and sassy dialog, seemed a million miles away from our stodgy English-school reader.
But did I ever confess to my convent-school English teacher that I had defected into that dodgy underworld of ”popular” fiction?
Should we protect our kids from scary or inappropriate books? Or should we be glad our kids are simply reading–reading anything?