10-22 Response

This week, I was particularly interested Thomas Wilcox’s essay “Composition Where
None is Apparent” in the Theories of Style collection. Wilcox essentially argues that
incorporating literature into the writing classroom can prove difficult, since the structure, style,
and content of then-contemporary literature is incompatible with the methods for teaching
composition. Of course, “contemporary” in 1965 meant postmodernism, magical realism, Beat
poetry, etc.—all movements that were, indeed, rule-defying, genre-blending, and artistically
shocking to the mid-century literary public. I recognize, then, that Wilcox might have had a
different argument were he writing in the twenty-first century rather than 1965, but I still wonder
why unconventional or innovative literature would be so wholly irreconcilable with successful
composition instruction. Wilcox sounds highly alarmist and even somewhat fearful when
discussing these new literary movements:
We have novels, plays and films in which realism dissolves into fantasy and
fantasy seems terrifyingly realistic; in which all is various, aberrant, and
uncircumscribed; and in which anti-heroes wander senselessly in nightmares of
anti-form…This is the literature we now have; and everything about it would
seem to contradict rather than affirm the principles of language and of
composition we have confidently endorsed for decades. (10)
It seems obvious to me that by presenting students with literature that rejects standard grammar,
form, or organization, that we are in fact teaching them standard grammar, form, or organization
(albeit somewhat indirectly); one must first understand the rules in order to break them. A
postmodern novel, for example, that abruptly abandons all punctuation and dissolves into
gibberish is rhetorically effective only because one understands that “standard” or “proper”
fiction should not abandon punctuation and dissolve into gibberish. Speaking from my own
experience, I recently assigned my students a Paul Auster short story that plays around with form
and genre, and questions the reliability of both its narrator and of fiction more broadly. Rather
than throwing my students into a state of abject perplexity or terror, this story piqued their
interest and led to a productive class discussion on the “truthfulness” of narrative storytelling. I
presented them with this story not necessarily as a model for their own upcoming narrative
essays (although I did encourage them to get creative and experimental if they so desired, which
is perhaps something that 1965 Wilcox wouldn’t approve of), but as an example of the vast
possibilities of writing; that is, how language can be manipulated in a countless number of ways
to elicit different responses from the reader.
Is Wilcox’s vision of composition instruction outdated, then? Or at the very least, can we
say that it is simply a product of its time? Or am I mistaken to discredit Wilcox’s argument?