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April 11, 2012 9:46 AM   Subscribe

'My son got a very low mark': Writer Ian McEwan describes the odd experience of helping his son with an A-level essay about one of his novels, Enduring Love, and finding his son's teacher disagreed with his interpretation of the novel. This is an excerpt from Ian Katz's interview with McEwan at the Guardian's Open Weekend festival on 24 March 2012. [Full Interview]
posted by Fizz (80 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't have a source handy, but didn't something vaguely similar happen with Kurt Vonnegut once, involving someone's high school literature teacher or something like that?
posted by trackofalljades at 9:52 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having your world-celebrity author father "help" you with an essay about HIS OWN BOOK is the worst kind of academic misconduct, not to mention disgusting display of privilege, I can imagine. This kid shouldn't be permitted in any university anywhere.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2012 [17 favorites]


Actually, I can imagine that having access to the author (and having some built-in respect for the author's opinions) would be very likely to have a bad influence on your ability to write a solid analytical essay. You would constantly be falling back (consciously or not) on an argument from authority ("the author says that this is what the book is about, so that is obviously what it is about"). If you're grading an essay about a book by Ian McEwan, you're grading how well the argument is supported by reference to the text--you're not grading how closely the thesis tracks with the author's own personal opinions.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


Happened to a lot of writers, but then again the author is the worst possible person to ask to interpret their own text anyway. For a start, they know what they meant, not what they wrote.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [35 favorites]


I don't have a source handy, but didn't something vaguely similar happen with Kurt Vonnegut once, involving someone's high school literature teacher or something like that?

I think that happened in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [38 favorites]


"You know nothing of my work."
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:57 AM on April 11, 2012 [17 favorites]


I think that happened in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School.

From the quotes page on IMDB:
[after Diane gives Thornton an 'F' for his report, which was actually written by Kurt Vonnegut]
Diane: Whoever *did* write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!
[cut to Thornton's dorm suite]
Thornton Melon: [on the phone] ... and *another* thing, Vonnegut! I'm gonna stop payment on the cheque!
[Kurt tells him off]
Thornton Melon: Fuck me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips, *fuck you*! Next time I'll call Robert Ludlum!
[hangs up]
posted by thecjm at 9:58 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


This brings to mind the best answer in Joss Whedon's AMA yesterday:
All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.
posted by kmz at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2012 [40 favorites]


Actually, I can imagine that having access to the author (and having some built-in respect for the author's opinions) would be very likely to have a bad influence on your ability to write a solid analytical essay. You would constantly be falling back (consciously or not) on an argument from authority ("the author says that this is what the book is about, so that is obviously what it is about"). If you're grading an essay about a book by Ian McEwan, you're grading how well the argument is supported by reference to the text--you're not grading how closely the thesis tracks with the author's own personal opinions.

But think of the asshole teenager possibilities.

English Teacher: "Unless you know exactly what the author was thinking when he wrote this specific passage with this character, I don't think you are in a position to assume anything about authorial intent."
Asshole Kid: "DAAAAAAAAAAD!!!"
*ENTER IAN MCEWAN* Hopefully wearing a cape and a unitard with the word WRITER!!!!! emblazoned on the front.
posted by Fizz at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Nothing was more frustrating in high school English than being asked about symbolism in a book, answering, having the teacher look at a list on her desk, and then look back up at you and say, "No."

I can still remember my answer. It wasn't even out there. The Sea Turtles = The Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea. But nope it's not on her list so the answer is no.
posted by thecjm at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Happened to a lot of writers, but then again the author is the worst possible person to ask to interpret their own text anyway. For a start, they know what they meant, not what they wrote.

Whatever you meant when you wrote that, I have a different interpretation.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:08 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whatever you meant when you wrote that, I have a different interpretation.

Daaaaaaaad!!!
posted by Fizz at 10:09 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's about the presentation on the ideas, not the ideas themselves."

This sounds like his kid wrote a paper with a supportable idea (not just "Here's what my dad THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK says is correct") and the teacher gave him low marks because the teacher disagreed with the idea.

I mean, sure, many interpretations of a book are acceptable, but just because someone wrote the book doesn't mean his interpretation of it should be immediately discounted.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]




Can books be about things?

Really, that's not obvious. If the author's opinion doesn't determine what it's about, and no particular reader (trained critic or no) can determine what it's about, then nobody can, although some people might convince some others of a particular interpretation.

So when English teachers ask what a book's about, and tell you to argue in support of your position, what are they asking for? I suppose it's possible they just want you to do a thorough job of saying what you got from it and why, but I've gotten that assignment too, so I'd think the teach would give me that one if they wanted it.

Either the teach really believes that their pet interpretation of Peter Rabbit is the One and Only, or they're following instructions like in thecjm's experience.

Supporting your interpretation with textual evidence doesn't prove anything unless I accept whatever critical paradigm you're in, and I don't think they teach that concept below undergrad level, though I guess I might misunderstand what A-level is.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:22 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Umberto Eco: “The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text.”
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:23 AM on April 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


The only somewhat relevant thing I have to add to this thread is that my Grade 12 English teacher (Jim O'Connell, you're a good man, wherever you are) told us that the story that, as part of his teaching practicum, he had to teach Lord of the Flies with William Golding as his supervisor.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


My father has a lovely story about arguing with a priest about why John Proctor is named John Proctor in The Crucible, with the priest insisting it reflected his authority in the Salem witch trials and with my dad insisting it was his, you know, name.
posted by punchtothehead at 10:24 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think that happened in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School.

I thought the reason that was so funny was that it was vaguely based on something that actually happened, that I'd heard of before I saw the film...but then again my childhood memories of watching cheesy movies late at night on cable at a friend's house could be blurry.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:26 AM on April 11, 2012


It seems in the current state of deconstruction that the author does not really know what he or she was writing about. It just comes out of them and it is for literary critics to figure out and argue about.
posted by caddis at 10:28 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]




Isn't there a story about some famous person losing a look-alike contest for themselves?
posted by kmz at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a parent, I would worry about the teaching credentials of any instructor who told my child "no, you're wrong" after hearing their interpretation of something. "You haven't done a convincing job of supporting your interpretation" yes.
posted by davejay at 10:31 AM on April 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


"You know nothing of my work."

Exactly what I was thinking. Arguably the best moment in movie history.
posted by The Bellman at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Isn't there a story about some famous person losing a look-alike contest for themselves?

Dolly Parton often tells a story about how she once entered a drag show "impersonating" herself and not only lost, but wasn't recognized by anyone.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:34 AM on April 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Isn't there a story about some famous person losing a look-alike contest for themselves?

Charlie Chaplin
posted by ODiV at 10:36 AM on April 11, 2012


" author does not really know what he or she was writing about. It just comes out of them"

Which Socrates complained about 2500 years ago! Nothing new under the sun, etc.

One of my English teachers assigned us to write about whether or not Brutus was an honorable man, and I argued he was not, and I got the lowest grade I got on an essay in high school because apparently that was the wrong answer. I'm still irate about it.

Sometimes I give my philosophy students back A papers that say, "I do not think you could be more wrong, but well argued." As the point is the arguing. Also, I am still irate.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:36 AM on April 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


So, some random person dreams up a story.

Some other random person writes up what they think the text means. Or what important lessons can be drawn from the fact that the text says what it says. Or something.

Some third random person attempts to determine whether or not the second random person's interpretation of the first random person's text meets the standards of some particular school of other random people, as both are interpreted by the third person. Apparently there's come controversy about whether it should be important that what the second person writes up reflects what the first person intended.

At no time in this entire process does anybody pay any attention to, you know, reality. There may be standards for interpreting the text. There are no standards whatsoever for relating the text to fact.

In what way could this process possibly produce any understanding of anything important? Does anybody really believe that anything of value happens here?

Literature is entertainment. Neither it nor its critics should try to get above themselves.
posted by Hizonner at 10:37 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, davejay and Hizzoner, what do you think about the paper I received back from my college professor that said, "A- You failed to support your thesis"? Man, I used to have style.... :7)

Honestly, though, for a literature teacher to tell a student that their interpretation of a novel is flat out WRONG -- whether author-assisted or not -- is, well, not helpful. Even if not consonant with the teacher's personal views or the generally-accepted views, any interpretation that's reached through close reading of the text and which is supported by the actual words is worth considering.

Sheesh, English teachers. No wonder I didn't become one.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:38 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Authorial moral center." I'll have to use that.

Yes, death of the author, and all of that, but the locus of the authorial moral center in a story can completely change its reading, yes? Over a year ago now I read a book called Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma in which two teenaged siblings have an incestuous relationship. Initially, I read the characters as carrying the authorial moral center--I thought that Suzuma was endeavoring to make us see them as wholly sympathetic, and was disgusted, particularly when the physical aspects of their relationship comes when the sister has a concussion, and the brother is often jealous and emotionally manipulative. I thought we were to read it as a straight love story, and I hated it.

But since then, I've wondered several times if this might not have been her point--to lull the reader into believing that these two completely unsympathetic characters were morally justified when they were not, in order to show the dysfunction of thought within their family. In which case, it's a pretty brilliant coup.

Completely changes my perception of the book, what the author "meant."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:42 AM on April 11, 2012


Honestly, though, for a literature teacher to tell a student that their interpretation of a novel is flat out WRONG -- whether author-assisted or not -- is, well, not helpful. Even if not consonant with the teacher's personal views or the generally-accepted views, any interpretation that's reached through close reading of the text and which is supported by the actual words is worth considering.

Also, in defense of English teachers everywhere, students can come up with some stunning unsupported bullshit. As one of my former students said on the first day of poetry class, "I've liked my poetry classes because you can make the poems mean whatever you want in your papers." Ho ho ho, I quickly disabused them of that notion.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:45 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


You know, we value things like art and literature because their creators are able to make something that is more than the sum of their parts. Or, at least that's the claim that makes something art.

So the concept that what was in the creators head at the time of creation is not the same as what the viewer/reader interprets does not seem all that far fetched to me.
posted by Blue_Villain at 10:47 AM on April 11, 2012


Sometimes I give my philosophy students back A papers that say, "I do not think you could be more wrong, but well argued." As the point is the arguing.

Indeed. Example: my thesis advisor did his doctoral dissertation on Paul Ricoeur, arguing against Paul Ricoeur. He wound up doing his oral defence with Paul Ricoeur himself as one of the examiners. Passed with flying colours. Philosophy as she was meant to be.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:53 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


This sounds like his kid wrote a paper with a supportable idea

Lots of ideas are supportable. The question is whether or not the kid supported it. We can't judge that without having access to the paper.

Honestly, though, for a literature teacher to tell a student that their interpretation of a novel is flat out WRONG -- whether author-assisted or not -- is, well, not helpful.

But there are lots of interpretations of novels, poems etc. that are simply flat out wrong. It's easy to be wrong about works of art. People get confused about this point because they think the corollary of that statement is that there is only one correct interpretation. This doesn't follow logically however. There are many supportable interpretations of any work of art worth the time spent interpreting it. These valid interpretations will often be incompatible with each other. The fact that this is true, however, in no way applies that ALL interpretations are valid or that they can be supported by valid arguments.

It seems in the current state of deconstruction that the author does not really know what he or she was writing about. It just comes out of them and it is for literary critics to figure out and argue about.

There has never been a time when people, in general, were so naive that they thought the answer to "what does this text mean" is identical to "what does the author claim to have meant at the time of writing it." In fact, if you look at the concept of "inspiration" (the muse descending etc. etc.) a central component of our understanding of the nature of great art is that it exceeds the relatively paltry intentions of the author.

If the author's opinion doesn't determine what it's about, and no particular reader (trained critic or no) can determine what it's about, then nobody can, although some people might convince some others of a particular interpretation.

This, too, is not logically consistent. The fact that no book worth reading has only one stable "meaning" in no way suggests that books in general have no meaning.

So when English teachers ask what a book's about, and tell you to argue in support of your position, what are they asking for?

They're asking for you to support your thesis with a convincing argument supported by evidence drawn from the text you're claiming to interpret. Only a crappy English teacher will dismiss an argument because the thesis isn't one that happens to appear on some pre-determined list of "correct" possible arguments.
posted by yoink at 10:56 AM on April 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wait. A teacher had the author's son in the class and didn't know it? Or did know it and assigned the book anyway?

That either incompetent or insane.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:58 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Wait. A teacher had the author's son in the class and didn't know it? Or did know it and assigned the book anyway?

I guess it's possible the book was part of a state-determined curriculum.
posted by yoink at 10:59 AM on April 11, 2012


I earned my low marks all on my own. I hate these kids who only fail because of who their parents are.
posted by srboisvert at 10:59 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think my english teachers let us come up with our own interpretations. I don't know for sure. I had definite opinions on the novels we read, and I read for pleasure and intellectual edification, but my standard MO was to read for pleasure and then parrot back what the free CliffNotes-aping websites told me a book meant. Shallow and simple. It was the easiest way to get consistent A+'s possible. All of this conversation about destabilized texts and authorial intent was never explained to us in high school. I guess they think kids aren't smart enough to grasp it, but it's just making students blind. It's kind of like asking math students to write out proofs without understanding the frameworks they hinge on.
posted by naju at 11:06 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any chance the author was just telling a funny anecdote (which may or may not have happened the way he describes) in order to make a point? Certainly there are plenty of authors who abhor having their work analyzed or interpreted symbolically. (Tolkien comes to mind)
posted by ShutterBun at 11:11 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Never, ever ask me what anything I wrote is about. I am guaranteed to talk for two solid hours about, say, a digression in the fifth chapter that I struggled with for two months and finally cut down to a single paragraph, while neglecting to mention the central point, because, I mean, surely that part is self-evident, right?
posted by kyrademon at 11:14 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I read this post, the first thing I thought of was Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School & the Kurt Vonnegut gag too.

For as lo-brow as Dangerfield was, he could sneak in hi-brow references now and again.

Back to School also has a Gustav Klimt joke in the first part.
posted by Relay at 11:23 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Literature is entertainment. Neither it nor its critics should try to get above themselves.

Philistine.

Literature isn't a life or death matter. It's more important than that.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:35 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Lots of ideas are supportable. The question is whether or not the kid supported it. We can't judge that without having access to the paper.

That's ridiculous. Of course we can. Obviously, having access to the actual paper is the best way, but the when McEwan says "Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's about the presentation of the ideas, not the ideas themselves," that makes me think that the kid effectively supported an idea that the teacher disagreed with.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:39 AM on April 11, 2012


Yeah, but remember that Ian McEwan is the writer who taught us that it's a matter of getting a doctor to fill out a form to get somebody euthanised in Amsterdam (in, well, Amsterdam) as well as a bit of a douchenozzle anyhow, so take his word with a grain of sand.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:44 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


For a start, they know what they meant, not what they wrote.

What lazy, insulting nonsense. Sounds clever though, doesn't it?
posted by Decani at 12:02 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but remember that Ian McEwan is the writer who taught us that it's a matter of getting a doctor to fill out a form to get somebody euthanised in Amsterdam (in, well, Amsterdam) as well as a bit of a douchenozzle anyhow, so take his word with a grain of sand.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:44 PM on April 11


It's a pity you feel that way, because he always speaks very highly of you.
posted by Decani at 12:03 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was at an art gallery opening recently, and met the artist (who was a relative of the person I attended with); she walked us through her pieces, and explained the rationale behind them. I was a bit surprised as she went on, because her explanations tended towards independent "I thought this was a really fun physical thing to create" and "I like how this piece moves" inspirations for independent pieces, while I had (from my brief walkaround) already constructed a cohesive and extensive narrative that ultimately had nothing to do with the artist's viewpoint (but which held significant meaning for me.) It occurs to me that, had the artist and I each written a paper on the show, I would likely have received a higher grade than her, even though she was technically correct as to the "true" inspiration of the work.
posted by davejay at 12:29 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy shit the authors-are-demi-gods peoples are out in force as opposed to the authors are crafts(persons) people.

You know, I write a lot to poetry, and if my son were (in some parallel universe where I am an Actual Poet) to present a paper I'd helped him with and the teacher were to say, "No, I don't think so" I would be happy to show him or her the sharp end of my word processor [metaphor collapses here].

The point being that writing is just another process producing another product, albeit one with a certain amount of academic privilege and one I hold most dear. To completely disregard a *living* artisan's own interpretation of his or her work is just, well, fucking stupid.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:06 PM on April 11, 2012


creating art and interpreting art are two completely different things. Once my opinion was that interpretation should be forbidden in art schools, now I have the more cynical view that its good for students to learn to say something intelligent-sounding about their own work, because it sells. But it can make the creative process very difficult for the students if they get too caught up in theory. For many mature and accomplished artists, too much self-analysis can still be a problem. Anyhow, what artists see in their own work, or what they were thinking at the time of creation, is often only a fragment of what they put into the work without thinking at all.
This does not mean that interpreting art is a bad or somehow wrong thing. The interpreter finds things in the work unknown to the artist, and that is neither strange nor bad. None of us know ourselves or what we are capable of, and this goes for artists as well as everyone. Once I think it was seen as a sign of quality if a book could be interpreted in many ways. Today everyone seems to want a simple and easy set of answers.
Also, a essay in secondary school is a literary genre in itself. In order to pass your exams, you have to master that genre, which is something lots of great writing talents have found very difficult through the ages.
posted by mumimor at 1:16 PM on April 11, 2012


Sometimes I give my philosophy students back A papers that say, "I do not think you could be more wrong, but well argued." As the point is the arguing. Also, I am still irate.

One of my favorite teachers in college (as a music composition student, not philosophy) was the one who did something like this a few times on various analyses that I handed in. It was thrilling to realize that someone had actually read through my points and decided that I had constructed a convincing argument regardless of their ideas or the thrust of current scholarship, and maybe the first time that I felt like I was doing something other than bloviating to the tune of however many hundreds of words were required of me in a course. So, I guess, kudos to you!
posted by invitapriore at 2:18 PM on April 11, 2012


Enduring Love has always seemed to me a not very good book. The blindness of Clarissa is so ridiculous as to either be simply unbelievable or unbelievably misogynistic, not to mention Joe's profound adolescent idiocy. The device of the unreliable narrator can surely only carry us so far before we have to give up our belief in the world. It sounds to me like the teacher had bought much more into the myth of Enduring Love as a significant and complex novel that has McEwan himself. For that self awareness, if nothing else, he should be congratulated.
posted by howfar at 2:34 PM on April 11, 2012


I would have given the kid poor marks too. This essay was part of an exam to help the teacher determine if and what the kid had learned. What did the KID get from the reading? So sadly, as cool as it is that his dad helped, it was just creating noise for the teacher.

Also, I LOVE English teachers!
posted by snsranch at 2:39 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Testing" what a student has "learned" by having them write about their fathers novel, which has social, cultural, personal, and medical baggage attached to it like mad, is an unethical "test" of the student.

The ambiguity of nuance begins in the title.

[McEwan] keeps us guessing about whether he intended for the Enduring of his title to possess the sweetness of an adjective or the burden of a verb.'

Enduring Love has always seemed to me a not very good book.

If you enjoy McEwan (or hate), or appreciate people thinking (rightly, wrongly, or even just at all) about the choices made by the craftsm'n author in an act of creation...
posted by infinite intimation at 2:47 PM on April 11, 2012


...(scroll down to chapter 10, which is pretty interesting in particular, specifically as it is the chapter discussing Enduring Love).

Next up: Waiting for godot.
Were they waiting in the service of godot, or were they waiting for the arrival/unveiling/explication/reality of godot to 'arrive'.
Next Next up: What is a godot.
posted by infinite intimation at 2:52 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would have given the kid poor marks too.

Based on what? Is there a link to the essay? Do we even know what it said?

All we know about the essay is that it was about the writing of Ian McEwan, have to go on is the word of one person who did read the essay and characterized it as well-written and deserving of a good mark, based on the criteria - as he put it - that it's about the "presentation of the ideas and not the ideas themselves."

And we know that the person who read the essay and thought it deserved a good mark based on those criteria has quite an impressive CV in terms of writing, including being the recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Prix Fémina Etranger, Germany's Shakespeare Prize, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the WH Smith Literary Award, the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award, the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction, the Santiago Prize for the European Novel, a CBE, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the author of a novel named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards. Oh, and he was named the Reader's Digest Author of the Year for 2008, the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and in 2011 was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.

Having not read the essay and knowing only that an individual with those credentials did read it and would have given it good marks, I'm not sure how you can say that you would give it poor marks.

Were they waiting in the service of godot, or were they waiting for the arrival/unveiling/explication/reality of godot to 'arrive'.

Godot was the owner of the diner where they were waiters. Just like the waiters at Mel's Diner were Waiting for Mel. Duh.
posted by The World Famous at 2:57 PM on April 11, 2012


I am puzzled as to why anybody genuinely think McEwan can offer the best 'say' on his own work. I think the author is quite possibly the worst person you can ask about the 'meaning' or 'context' of his work. There is not enough distance between the author and his work for him to be able to offer an objective reading. I am not talking about readings ala 'this is the plot' or 'I used the rose as a symbol for love' type readings - because, sure, ask the guy about those - but readings that put a given artwork into historical, political, psychological or philosophical contexts? I wouldn't trust the author with those.

And so (and also), if I had read an essay going "my dad is the author and this is what REALLY happened in the book - I would have issues with the kid not being able to look beyond that whole author-as-authority thing. Studying literature at A-level is about demonstrating you have the capacity for critical thinking and looking beyond what's right in front of you.

YMMV.
posted by kariebookish at 3:16 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the kid wrote in his essay about anything his father said to him, then he wasn't writing about his reading and understanding of the text. Simple enough I think.

To be fair, I think I could read anything written by my father and examine it well enough without his input. And that's exactly what I would do anyway, especially in this context.

Of course, on my own personal time, I would ask lots of questions, but that would be for ME and not for an exam that I'm taking or writing for.
posted by snsranch at 3:17 PM on April 11, 2012


McEwan's complaint about the poor mark was based on his assertion that the paper presented the ideas well, regardless of whether he agreed with the ideas.

And so (and also), if I had read an essay going "my dad is the author and this is what REALLY happened in the book - I would have issues with the kid not being able to look beyond that whole author-as-authority thing.

Is there any reason whatsoever to believe that that is what the essay in question said?
posted by The World Famous at 3:39 PM on April 11, 2012


Isn't there a story about Kurt Vonnegut entering a drag show contest once impersonating Dolly Parton but was mistaken for Charlie Chaplin?
posted by mazola at 3:41 PM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is, but it's a work of fiction by Kilgore Trout. He helped me write an essay about it once. I got poor marks.
posted by The World Famous at 3:42 PM on April 11, 2012




In an old issue of Omni Magazine, there was a short story about "The Old Hack" taking a college course in Classic Sci-Fi so that that he could complete a teaching certificate. The final exam is based on a pulp novel that he himself had written decades ago, 'Killers of Rulers', so he thinks it should be easy, but the theory-intense manner in which the questions are phrased is baffling to him. The only clear thing he can remember about the book is that when he wrote it, his wife had left him, he was drinking again, and he needed the money.

'Killers of Rulers' is an intriguing title. Maybe Ian McEwan should use it for a retro Sci-Fi piece in the style of Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassins'?
posted by ovvl at 5:10 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The ambiguity of nuance begins in the title.

The title, to me, is a significant flaw of the novel. The play on words is far too heavy handed, the ambiguity both unsubtle and plainly unresolvable. It's the problem with the whole book, really. It is far too neat in its construction. The flaws of the book are exactly why it gets set as an A-Level text. It's a full of neat and obvious examples of structural ambiguity at work, ideal for relatively shallow understanding by fairly bright teenagers. It's not a terrible novel by any means. The action sequences, in particular, are engagingly written. But for a novel that ostensibly deals in emotion, it treats it's characters far too much like archetypes (in particular the ridiculously head-girlish Clarissa) and not enough like people.
posted by howfar at 5:38 PM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


That's ridiculous. Of course we can. Obviously, having access to the actual paper is the best way, but the when McEwan says "Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's about the presentation of the ideas, not the ideas themselves," that makes me think that the kid effectively supported an idea that the teacher disagreed with.

So if some kid's father says that the essay was well argued then it must, in fact, have been well argued? Well, that would certainly make grading essays easy. "Please include a short statement from you parent or guardian stating whether or not they think you did a good job and deserve an A for this assignment. Remarks to the effect that you are the bravest and most handsome/beautiful person who ever lived will NOT be taken into consideration."

Sorry. I stand by my contention that we cannot judge how well the paper was argued unless we can get to read it.
posted by yoink at 5:49 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


For a start, they know what they meant, not what they wrote.

What lazy, insulting nonsense. Sounds clever though, doesn't it?


What's lazy here is your dismissal of the claim. Just think how often you find yourself in a situation--as for example arguing in a thread on Metafilter--where someone will say "but that's not what I meant at all." Now, are all those instances ones where you find yourself immediately agreeing that you've misread their original statement? Of course not. Many times you'll find yourself saying something to the effect of "well, I can only go by what you said--I can't read your mind."

There are plenty of writers who disagree with the most common understandings of their works. That means that what they wrote wasn't quite the same thing as what they thought they were writing. There is no work of literature worth reading that lends itself to only one interpretation--that means that the author's interpretation will never be the only valid one.
posted by yoink at 5:55 PM on April 11, 2012


The fact that no book worth reading has only one stable "meaning" in no way suggests that books in general have no meaning.

Totally correct, but I wasn't trying to suggest otherwise. I meant to argue that saying that a book is or isn't "about" one thing or another is fairly meaningless. When you say that, you're picking out one particular facet of the book's meaning to you that you consider important. If you want to resolve the question of whether it does or doesn't have that meaning, you'll have to adopt some assumptions about what makes texts mean things, and most readers don't get that far. They just kind of react to the text however it pleases them.

You say that the book's multiple meanings must all be "supported by the text". This assumes the point contested. How can a text support anything? Maybe the author uses some idiosyncratic dialect like Joyce, and you can't tell what the etymologies of the made-up words are--do you just assume whatever meanings seem to you to fit? Maybe you're taking a semiotic interpretation--is it sensible to use, say, color symbolism when there's not any explicit Light Side vs. Dark Side conflict in the text? If these questions aren't settled, I haven't got any way to tell whether your pet interpretation is valid.

In the absence of an accepted critical framework, books have infinite meaning, but nobody can say what their meaning is.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:58 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So if some kid's father says that the essay was well argued then it must, in fact, have been well argued? Well, that would certainly make grading essays easy. "Please include a short statement from you parent or guardian stating whether or not they think you did a good job and deserve an A for this assignment. Remarks to the effect that you are the bravest and most handsome/beautiful person who ever lived will NOT be taken into consideration."

Sorry. I stand by my contention that we cannot judge how well the paper was argued unless we can get to read it.


You're letting your desire to put words in my mouth get in the way of trying to see my point at all. My point isn't that his dad should HAVE to be believed, it's that his dad, unprompted, can identify a reasonable metric for deciding whether a paper deserves a high score or a low one. He didn't say "My kid deserved a high grade because I wrote this book" or "My kid deserves a high grade because he put a lot of effort into the paper", he said (or rather, implied) that his kid deserves high marks because his paper was well argued.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:51 PM on April 11, 2012


Apparently this happened to Wayne Dyer (heard this the other day) in two ways:

(a) Some book of his was quoted on some shitty high school reading comprehension exam, that Dyer was taking for uh, whatever reason. He got points knocked off for failing at what the author meant.

(b) In college, Dyer wrote to a poet they were studying in school to ask what the meaning of his poem was. The poet concurred that whatever Dyer had written on his essay was correct. Dyer brought the letter to his teacher, who said "Sometimes even the author doesn't know what he means. Your grade stands."
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:28 PM on April 11, 2012


I don't have a source handy, but didn't something vaguely similar happen with Kurt Vonnegut once, involving someone's high school literature teacher or something like that?
Isaac Asimov has repeated in several places an anecdote based on this: he once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher's interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn't what he had meant at all. The teacher's response was "Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it's about?" -- TVTropes: Death of the Author
One of those "several places" seems to be "Asimov's Guide to Asimov", an afterword to a 1977 book of criticism about his work. The story is repeated in New Scientist's review of the book.
posted by stebulus at 7:45 PM on April 11, 2012


Having your world-celebrity author father "help" you with an essay about HIS OWN BOOK is the worst kind of academic misconduct, not to mention disgusting display of privilege, I can imagine. This kid shouldn't be permitted in any university anywhere.

If you're reading your dad's book is class, you've got to be crazy not to ask him for help. Privilege is more about having your CEO of a publishing house father calling up the author to asking him for his help.
posted by savvysearch at 8:17 PM on April 11, 2012


It's like when Heinz Jnr had to make Ketchup for class (a common grade one assignment) and he just took a bottle of Heinz ketchup in to class and then the teacher gave him a low mark because she didn't like the taste.
posted by oxford blue at 9:34 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait. A teacher had the author's son in the class and didn't know it? Or did know it and assigned the book anyway?

That either incompetent or insane.
--Cool Papa Bell

Lots of people have the same last name. I just heard an interview with the director of The Muppet Movie. A dance director was directing a scene that included a cameo of Mickey Rooney. He kept saying things like "Okay Dad, now stand over here."

The director took him aside and said "Look, just because he's older doesn't mean you can call him Dad." He replied "You don't understand. He's my Dad!"

He said that it was the first time he noticed that they had the same last name.
posted by eye of newt at 9:50 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is the absurdity of how English how is taught that lead me to the sciences. If we are arguing an author implies meaning subconsciously are we not dealing with psychology? If we are discussing argument surely they should teach logic in these schools? Then if we are teaching students to write, why do we not let them be creative?
posted by niccolo at 12:37 AM on April 12, 2012


For a start, they know what they meant, not what they wrote.

What lazy, insulting nonsense. Sounds clever though, doesn't it?


It sounds clever because it is.

Exhibit A: This is a statue of Santa Claus holding up a Christmas tree, which the Rotterdam city council for some strange reason thought would make for a cool art project. Rotterdammers call it "kabouter buttplug".

Whatever the artist intended, that's what people see.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:43 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The author knows what the author meant, and the reader knows what the reader read.

Probably the only person who knows what the author wrote is the editor.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:49 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Having your world-celebrity author father "help" you with an essay about HIS OWN BOOK is the worst kind of academic misconduct, not to mention disgusting display of privilege, I can imagine. This kid shouldn't be permitted in any university anywhere."
Worst kind of academic misconduct? I think then there should be some sort of footnote for all those explanations of how to reference personal communications in a thesis.
posted by edd at 3:11 AM on April 12, 2012


There are many supportable interpretations of any work of art worth the time spent interpreting it.

…And when you are in school, learning how to engage with a text, isn't an analysis which is performed properly worthwhile, even if the premise is wrong?

In other words, if the student "shows his work" (so to speak) with cites and everything, he has demonstrated that he had internalized the process. Then you can move on to showing him the other interpretation(s) that he may have missed.

I read some real doozies in my 18th Century English Novel class when we critiqued each other's papers, but they were done right and so the prof let them proceed -- but she eventually made sure to explain what some/all of us had gotten wrong.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:53 AM on April 12, 2012


Wouldn't it be great if the teacher showed up in this thread to really explain how the kid got it wrong? Or the kid showed up to explain the real reason the teacher was wrong about his being wrong?
posted by Pax at 7:25 AM on April 12, 2012


Stop trying to spoil things for us - it's great to complain about teachers.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 AM on April 12, 2012


Wouldn't it be great if the teacher showed up in this thread to really explain how the kid got it wrong? Or the kid showed up to explain the real reason the teacher was wrong about his being wrong?

Yes, it would make this plate of beans so much more meaningful.
posted by The World Famous at 10:26 AM on April 12, 2012


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