So after a lot of struggling this is my reading list for the MASTERPIECES OF LITERATURE class I'm teaching in two weeks. The focus of the class is on "writing the self" so I'll be trying to explore how writers create or resist an idea of self, speaker, persona, etc, and how we as readers use this creation or resistance. There were some requirements about choosing books from particular eras and because I only had about four days to get the book order in I didn't get too adventurous but I'm excited about this class. Here's my booklist in case you want to read along at home:
Psalms attributed to David
Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (which is such a funny story with bonus NeoPlatonism for Dummies, i would've rather done Augustine but that is a slow read)
Selections from Sappho
Selections from The Book of Margery Kempe
Selections of Shakespeare's Sonnets (required selection)
Selection from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
Selections from Whitman & Dickinson in counterpoint
Selections from Celan
Anonymous Poems Carved into the Walls of Angel Island
A Didion essay (not sure which one yet) & a selection from Dillard's Tinker Creek
Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Kincaid's Autobiography of My Mother
Jo Ann Beard's Fourth State of Matter
Frey's A Million Little Pieces
A selction from Jenny Boulley's The Body
The Pines Vol. 2
This looks longer than it is. Only four full books. I really wanted to include carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese & the Worms but I thought that would be too far outside the scope of the class. I wish the class was just called Writing the Self so that I don't feel like such an idiot asserting the masterpiece status of James Frey.
Not that anyone cares about comments on Frey at this point in time but am I the only one who only gained some interest in Frey's memoir after all the controversy? I was working at Carytown Books in Richmond (which before the ownership change was a great literary bookstore (see The Fountain in RVA now)) when this book hit the shelves & people were going all apoplectic over it. I read a bit of it and decided it was just another memoir, though written in the kind of tough-smart-guy voice of some Auster or Palahniuk (a style I can't really stomach).
The book seemed to run the expected course its promoter hoped for. But once he started to get called out and responded in the way he did I found it interesting. This was not because of some creative non-fiction question about how much fictionalization is acceptable but rather because it seemed interesting that people were using his persona, his character for themselves in such dependent ways. He was the ritual sacrifice, their little druggy jesus figure arisen from the fancy-pants, expensive treatment center. And he'd shifted from religious sacrifice to performative sacrifice. And people felt cheated that it wasn't all real blood.
All of this made me interested in the book. In the end, though, it isn't very good, the narrative tricks he pulls are tired, for a fast-paced book it's awfully slow paced and he seems to want to prove more than anything else what a badass he is. Lots more reasons. but I understand now that the only thing that might have made this "great" for people was the central magnetism of the reality of the experience. It's a decent book, but to become something more than a book requires a kind of faith in the narrator/Frey.