Definitions of what type of literature is ‘appropriate’ to teach in high school English classes vary quite a bit from school to school. However, the reputations of particular teachers, the manner of presentation, and the context in which a work is presented can be important factors in whether a book is accepted or rejected by a class, an administration, or a larger community.
In contemporary fiction, I prefer books that deal frankly with the harsher realities of life. I find that many students appreciate this frankness, and even if they do not, the frankness repeatedly generates important conversations about society and literature. I teach in a school which is pedagogically conservative and which serves a largely conservative community, and I have successfully introduced fiction that many would consider ‘grim’ or ‘racy,’ but which in my opinion has had real merit in and out of the classroom. Student responses to these works have been as strong or stronger than the responses to works in the traditional high school ‘cannon.’
A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley (1968) is a fictionalized memoir that follows a middle-class young man growing up in small-town Eisenhower-era America who has trouble fitting into polite society. His strong desire for acceptance and success clashes with his somewhat stronger sense of self-reliance, highlighting a struggle that is especially relevant to high school students. The book serves as a model for taking a skeptical look at the hypocrisies of middle class America, as well as at the pretensions of those who position themselves in opposition to it; Exley is as hard on himself as he is on society.
Any teacher who deals with Emerson, Thoreau, and to a lesser extent, Twain and Chopin, would find many modern, more relevant connections with A Fan’s Notes. In many ways, this book is a more crass (and often hilarious) mirror image to The Great Gatsby, exploring the perils of believing in the American Dream. The ‘fan’ mentioned in the book’s title is Exley himself, referring to his life-long obsession with football, which is his main metaphor for the successful American male. His psychological struggle becomes focused around his place in the stands as opposed to the one he desires on the field of play. Exley pushes some buttons in his treatment of women and his own drinking problems, but such passages are noticeable enough that they could provide the first opportunity for students to take a critical look at an author’s implied politics.
A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley (1992), is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but one set on a farm in contemporary Iowa. While intending no offense to Shakespeare, Smiley does an amazing job of giving her characters motivations that are not only easier to identify, but which also make a good deal of sense according to modern everyday life. Her treatment of farm life is accurate in mood and terminology; for rural students it could provide a rarely familiar setting, while for urban and suburban students it could serve as a comprehensible glimpse into a world quite different from their own.
Smiley highlights the theme of incest in her version of this story, and this makes the characters and their conflicts extremely compelling, as well as providing a jump-off point for discussion of psychology and current social problems. While the prominence of incest may put off some readers, it is interesting to note that incest was a major theme in the Lear story when it existed as a folktale, before Shakespeare turned it into a play. (For more on the connection between King Lear and folktales, as well as its close connection to the Cinderella tale cycle, see many of the essays in the very readable Cinderella: A Casebook, Alan Dundes, ed., 1989). An important caveat: don’t make your decisions about this book based upon its film version.
George Saunders has two collections of short stories that made me hyperventilate over their insight into the economic and professional realities current in America today. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000) contain some inconsistencies in quality, but their strongest stories had enough merit to blow my mind repeatedly. Saunders’ strength is satire: work, the media, education, contemporary speech patterns, love, and the American Dream are some of the issues he tackles regularly. The situations in which Saunders places his characters are maddening, absurd, yet all too familiar (similar to the TPS reports in the film Office Space). In the middle of an insane world, he places protagonists with hearts of gold and heads of lead, isolated individuals trying pathetically hard to follow the rules and get by but who end up getting dumped on at every turn.
Particular Saunders stories which may be useful in class: “Bounty,” describes a future in which pollution is so rampant that it causes widespread birth defects leading to strict segregation based on genetic ‘normalcy;’ “Sea Oak,” portrays the struggle of a young man to single-handedly provide for his extended family by working at Joysticks, a fictional male equivalent to Hooters, where he tries to maintain his dignity while facing the temptation to give in to patrons’ requests for more than a meal; “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” follows a middle-management drone who frantically accepts all his bosses’ responsibility for keeping open a dying theme park that is based on outrageously fantastic revisionist historical reenactments; “The 400-Pound C.E.O.” describes an overweight employee who feels he must accept the cruel ribbing of his boss and coworkers at a business which claims to deal with common urban pests, such as raccoons, by humanely trapping them and releasing them into an idyllic setting somewhere in the wilderness described in their glossy pamphlets, but which really crushes their skulls with a crowbar and buries them in mass graves contrary to city health regulations.
Saunders’ stories have an allegorical tendency, with noticeable elements of magical realism, sometimes shading into sci-fi. At the same time, they include a refreshing dose of humor that is slightly perverse yet sadly truer than many Americans would like to admit. I would love to excerpt some of Saunders’ prose here, especially his dialogue, but out of context there is not way to do it justice.