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February 21, 2007 - Image 9

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2007-02-21

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Why you probably can't write welI-

hate Shakespeare.
I'm thinking of forming a support
group of disgruntled students who can't
stand the Bard. We'd meet late at night in
Angell Hall, call ourselves Shakespeare
Sucks Anonymous and have some kind of
secret handshake.
"Hello, I'm an English major, and I hate
Shakespeare," we'd say at the beginning of
each meeting.
I'll tell you what my problem is with the
author many consider to be the greatest in
English literature: America doesn't know
how to write, and it's partly his fault.
As an editor at the Daily, I've read enough
first drafts to know that if you're like the
average college student, you probably can't
reliably string together a coherent sentence.
It's not just our generation, either, as many
are wont to believe. I've met a lot of adults
who speak articulately, have raised three
children successfully and run their own
businesses but who couldn't consistently
manage to put a comma in the correct place
if it would win them the Pulitzer.
We have to blame something. If you're
over 30, you probably blame instant messen-
ger, MTV and video games. Those, however,
don't explain the older set's impotence when

it comes to putting pen to paper.
I blame the whole mess on Shakespeare.
Listen, he was great. "Hamlet" is abreath-
taking play. "King Lear" was tragic. "A Mid-
summer Night's Dream" is funny to those
in tweed. We get it. That doesn't mean we
should base an entire English curriculum
around an author whose prose bears no
resemblance to the writing students will be
expected to do once they graduate.
The priority of English education should
be teaching students how to write. That way,
when they get to the real world, they can put
a subject in front of a verb and go home to
their families.
Reading Shakespeare and the other clas-
sics - Joyce, Melville, Chaucer - isn't going
to teach them that. There are so many con-
temporary authors who could be a better
example of how to write simply and directly.
How about more John Updike, Zadie
Smith, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Toni
Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford,
John Cheever - even Stephen King and
Michael Crichton? At their best, they write
clearly and have serious literary ambitions.
Their stories are stuffed with the symbolism
and rhetorical technique that give English
professors a reason to exist. Most of all, they

would give students a chance to enjoy read-
ing. Maybe students would start to associate
the act more with the pleasure of reading
Franzen's powerful prose and less with the
indecipherable plot of "Moby Dick," which
has nothing to do with their lives
Right now, dearest reader, you're probably
Less Hamlet and more
Harry Potter would do
America good.
balking at the idea of replacing "The Canter-
bury Tales" with "Jurassic Park" and "The
Scarlet Letter" with "The Shining."
I'll make one concession. Go ahead, teach
"Macbeth" if you really feel it's necessary.
Teach "The Great Gatsby" for its clean sen-
tences and teach "Catcher in the Rye" for its
awe-inspiring use of the first person.
But let's stop before we're forcing high
school students to read "Henry VII" when
they could be reading John Irving's "A Prayer
For Owen Meaney."
Irving is perhaps the best example of why

this would work. He's the Charles Dickens of
our era. Dickens - whose serialized works
were so popular that readers waited for
the next installment in Harry Potter-esque
fashion - was heavy on plot and readability.
Perhaps English teachers haven't noticed,
because his books are considered classics.
Irving also avoids being boring while
still managing to be literary. So does Tim
O'Brien, whose "Things They Carried" is at
once engrossing and enlightening.
Read "The World According to Garp" or
almost anything O'Brien has written. You'll
see that serious novels don't have to be dif-
ficult to understand. While those books show
up on the occasional 10th-grade rubric, they
aren't yet considered classics by everyone.
Let's anoint them as such and save English
literacy.
With writers like O'Brien, Irving and
King, everyone gets what they want. Teach-
ers get to spend 50 minutes detailing the
feminist symbolism of Carrie's destruction
of her high school.
And students get to enjoy the part where
she kills her mom.
- Karl Stampfl is an RC junior and the
editor in chief of The Michigan Daily.

O

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