Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Princeton Scholar Unused to Literature

You're not surprised are you that Sophie Gee seems unfamiliar with both Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel? She's only an English professor, after all. What's that -- she never read anything before Shakespeare? or after Eliot? She has seen the Beowulf movie though!


Gene K. said...

Well, there's no real way to know what someone has or hasn't read. (How many times have you mentioned a movie that I've seen, only for me to reply that I haven't seen it or don't remember a thing?)

But whatever the writer may or may not have read or studied, I find it hard to take comments like this one seriously:

Purists will object that none of this is in the original, composed sometime between the seventh and 10th centuries. Well, maybe not, but it should have been. Gaiman and Avary’s screenplay gives the poem’s monsters a fresh reading.

"But it should have been" is a sentiment I usually associate with fan fiction, not reviews or analyses - although I doubt Ms. Gee saw this piece as a real piece of analysis; it is just a NY Times piece, after all. Still, what an odd comment to come from an academic. ("While it can be proven that 2 + 2 = 4, it really should be more like 5, don't you think?")

Even more troubling, though, is the observation that "Gaiman and Avary’s screenplay gives the poem’s monsters a fresh reading." Isn't it more accurate to say that the screenplay takes the poem's monsters and re-interprets them - and Beowulf, and Hrothgar, and, well, the whole plot - into substantially different elements? A "fresh reading" takes the available text and sees in it ideas that haven't been noticed previously. But you can't glean a fresh reading of the original text from an adaptation. ("Forbidden Planet gives a fresh reading to The Tempest, revealing that Shakespeare was really writing about outer space and robots.")

OK, I realize that I'm splitting some awfully fine hairs here, but these were my reactions when I read this piece earlier today.

I gotta get out more...

K. A. Laity said...

What irks me most -- after all, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at scholars being unfamiliar with key texts anymore -- is the pathetic attempt by yet another academic to be "hip" and "with it", without doing their homework. You're right, it's the gushing enthusiasm we expect from an uncritical fan, not a seasoned and (presumably) knowledgeable (about something, one hopes) scholar.

The annual Popular Culture Conference inevitably has its share of those would-be "experts" -- scholars who blithely assume they can say any old thing, that no one has done any research on popular culture. It's extremely annoying to those of us who do.

Worst of all, as you point out, it's crap writing -- vague, unspecific and wrong-headed.

(But yes, you do need to get out more!)

Mike Rhode said...

Yes, you do need to get out more often and those are some mighty fine hairs.

Don't forget this is the Book Review's 'editorial' section - if that means anything - and not the flat review you'd find in other pages. Also, who knows what it looked like before the NYTBR editor worked one's magic on it?

Now, she almost certainly hasn't seen the movie, but even if she had, I don't think they'd want her discussing it in this section. They used the movies as a hook, but still tried to stick to the book.

K. A. Laity said...

I'm absolutely certain she has seen the film, hence the gushing praise. You're right about the NYTBR and its increasingly irrelevant attempts to be hip, or at least controversial, which smack of a whole lot of desperation. In a time when information overload tires us all, why aren't they trying to bring good but less mainstream work to light rather than snarky sniping between enemies?

She writes:
Gaiman and Avary again part company with the original in the scenes in which Beowulf recounts his heroic exploits, falsely claiming to have killed Grendel’s mother when in fact he was seduced by her. The Beowulf of the poem, by contrast, is scrupulously honest. The change is ingenious, since it suggests the story is a deliberate invention — it’s a myth, in other words.

She ought to know that the same "ingenious change" was already made thirty some years ago by John Gardner in his novel Grendel -- in fact it's one of the main issues. But it's too much to expect some familiarity with the last thirty years of literature.