Friday, December 08, 2006

Funny Classroom Conversation

Yesterday in my fiction class, we workshopped a story about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse having lunch in a dive bar. It was a fun story, but the author hadn't identified the Horsemen explicitly, instead relying on their personalities and conversation to clue in the reader. Several people in the class were annoyed, because they hadn't been able to figure out who these characters were. One student, in particular, was a little grumpy about being left in the dark, although others -- including an older female student who's Muslim -- really enjoyed deciphering the clues. In our discussion, I pointed out that the author had automatically limited his audience by relying on cultural knowledge that not everyone has.

Author: But I thought everybody knew about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! You hear about them on Republican talk radio all the time!

Grumpy student: Well, I'm not Christian, and I don't listen to Republican talk radio!

Me: I am Christian, and I don't listen to Republican talk radio.

Female Muslim Student: I'm Republican, but not Christian.

Watch those stereotypes crash and burn!


  1. Anonymous8:26 AM

    Dear Susan,

    Great story - thank you!

    It makes me wonder, though - is it ever possible to tell any story at all without making at least a few cultural assumptions that limit the audience? what is a writer to do?

    Curiously yours,


    ps - glad to hear the good recent updates on your father's health and your friend's surgery as well. Long may they continue!

  2. Hi, Jean! Yes, that's an interesting issue. I didn't make that comment to the student as a criticism, just as a sort of "heads up" thing: be aware that this limits your audience. (A lot of my own writing is quite audience-limited this way, so I sympathize with the problem.)

    I'm not sure we've seen any story in this class where everybody got every reference. But in some stories, you can basically understand what's going on even if you miss certain references; this one relied on outside knowledge to an unusual extent. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that your pool of readers shrinks.

    I'd expected some students not to pick up on the clues in this story, but I must admit I was startled by how many had never even heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I wish we could require a "Bible as Literature" course for all of our majors, because so many literary references get lost when you know nothing about the Bible. I took a Bible as Lit class in college, decades before I began attending church, because I knew I was weak in that area and needed to fill in some gaps. It was a great course, and a great help in later reading.

    Thanks for the good wishes on the medical front!

  3. Susan, I love your blog! I probably haven't told you it's one of my very favorite things to read anywhere on the internet. Makes me happy, makes me think, makes me feel all kinds of uplifted and want to be a better person. What more could a person ask for, honestly!

    Thanks for your comments over on mine!

    I've got a couple of your books coming in the mail from Amazon. Can't wait to read them!

    Thanks for being such an awesome inspiration!


  4. Hi, Maggie! Thanks for your comment! (All glowing praise gratefully accepted. ;-)) I've added your blog to my "friends" sidebar so I can read it more regularly -- I forget to check on blogs I haven't blogrolled.

    And, of course, I highly approve of your taste in books and TV (I can't wait to take the Firefly personality test!). And Jane Espenson has a blog! Be still my heart!

  5. P.S. Maggie, I hope you enjoy the books! Oh, and by the way, I'm Zoe.


  6. Wow, this reminds me a lot of a lot of what we discuss in my Holy Writ course, which is the Bible as literature/in literature course. Understanding Biblical references really helps with understanding la lot of reading; even philosophy. It's always fascinating to understand the context of how things are written.

    Because that student listens to Republican talk radio, her context is probably different from mine. What gets really mind-boggling is wondering how our Biblical references in current literature will be interpreted in a century or so.

  7. If Famine, Pestilence, and War are not easily recognizable (let alone Death)—even if sourced specifically from the one good book in The Sequel—in a writing class, I feel very sorry for the reading habits of the writers.

  8. Hey,Ken!

    They were recognizable, but the larger story of which they were part wasn't: several people were completely bewildered by references to a sealed scroll, for instance. Part of the problem, too, was that the writer had gotten a bit too esoteric in his research, and had conflated Death and Pestilence into one character after finding some source that said they were supposed to be the same. So even those of us who recognized the source narrative were a little confused!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.