So, I’ll probably touch on this next Tuesday as well, but I want to reiterate that one of the things I’d like us to be doing with the literature we read for this class is to read with an eye for what makes each piece contemporary. I’ve been thinking of this as a kind of fluid and reciprocal relationship between literature and culture. I want us to locate the contemporary in the fiction – to figure out which pieces of the story are particular to our time and place – and also to locate the fiction in the (contemporary) culture – put each piece in context and ask what outside of itself, it may be working in response to. To look for clues to meaning within the text, but also outside of it, if that makes sense.

Maybe one way to think about this is to conceive of each text as a two-way mirror: it both reflects and constructs reality. What we see there tells us something about the world, but also something about ourselves: what does it say about me that I immediately find Callie in Saunders’ “Puppy” a tragically sympathetic character and Marie the one who I am impatient with? And then what does it mean that as I think more about each of them, I am more sympathetic to Marie, who, after all, is only trying to do what she thinks is best for her children and really, is smothering them in love the worst thing? And that upon rereading I find myself increasingly frustrated with Callie, who seems to know that – especially as it relates to her own well-being and her relationship with Jimmy – she should be doing more and yet she can’t/won’t? We are all, myself included, products of our time in one way or another, and analyzing my/our responses can help us build this collective understanding of what contemporary fiction is and does.

By way of an example, consider how prominently the relationships between parents and children are featuring in Saunders’ stories so far. From a broad, sociological perspective, it’s not hard to see why. As a society we think a lot more about children and how to raise them “right” than we used to and we also have a tendency to seek causes in our past to explain or excuse current behavior – “Oh, that’s because when I was a kid I was never allowed to have chocolate” or “I bet she was an only child” or “Dad’s always loved my brother more than me” or whatever. Little things, big things, you name it – finding an explanation makes us feel safe and comfortable. We like when things are explicable.

Which I think is one of the reasons why Saunders’ stories are so unsettling. They take these things that we’re comfortable living with, so comfortable that most of the time they’re invisible, we don’t think about them. The stories, each in their own way, take the familiar, comfortable aspects of our everyday lives on which we rely and twist them just enough to make us squirm. But looking closely at the causes of this discomfort is exactly what will lead us toward productive areas of discussion about the elements – good, bad, and indifferent – that shape our current culture and ourselves.

Think about this as you read “The Semplica Girl Diaries” for Tuesday. It’s tricky, I know, to negotiate the space between reading and understanding the story, analyzing the details for complexity and nuance, and also zooming out to consider how the story fits into our world Right Now, but I have faith in each and every one of you, and, as always, I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

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Illustration accompanying the original publication of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” in The New Yorker, October 2012

p.s. Here is the episode of Black Mirror that reminded me a little of “Escape from Spiderhead”. The description doesn’t do it justice, but the story revolves around the illusion of choice.

p.p.s. If you’re feeling a little lost in terms of grappling with some of these abstract ideas, this TedEd video might be helpful. Also, just keep asking questions. Pretend you’re a toddler: every time you react to the text in some way, ask yourself “why?” then keep going. ask why again and again. Trust your gut reaction, interrogate it, and always return to the text for evidence to back up your ideas. It’s different than reading for pleasure; it’s work, but that’s why we’re here.

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