Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Fear Literature grumpery

I was poking around on the SparkNotes site today, which is something one should never do, except, like most of us, I need to go on there sometimes to verify that one of my students has been plagiarizing from it.*

Like most Shakespeare profs, I was all-too-aware of the existence of No Fear Shakespeare, but it seems that the No Fear series is branching out. There is a now a whole line of "No Fear Literature," marketed with the tag line "Read great texts in all their brilliance -- and actually understand what they mean." (I find this kind of baffling, as a marketing slogan, since it seems to imply that their target audience is stupid; wouldn't "You know you've got better things to do than read a stuffy old novel in Victorian English, so here's a crib sheet" be a little more flattering? But whatever.)

Now, I abhor No Fear Shakespeare, but I understand why it exists. I haven't got the foggiest idea why No Fear Heart of Darkness exists. (Helpfully, No Fear Heart of Darkness informs us that "Marlow said suddenly" is Ye Olde Englishe for "Marlow said out of nowhere," and that "the worst that could be said of him" means "the worst thing you could say about him.") Seriously, this is a twentieth-century text. Since when does it require translation?

And then there's No Fear Beowulf. There are, of course, plenty of very good reasons to translate Beowulf into modern English; I have nothing to say against such a project. There are fewer good reasons to translate Beowulf FROM modern English into modern English, however, and the text that SparkNotes is labeling as the "original text" very clearly is nothing of the sort. It's a fairly stodgy and old-fashioned translation of Beowulf, one that I can't imagine gets assigned very often nowadays, but it is definitely translated already. The cynic in me suspects that SparkNotes probably picked this particular text in order to manufacture a need for their product; I mean, if they'd used Seamus Heaney's version, which I suspect is the one that usually does get assigned, even high school students would probably realize that it is, in fact, perfectly readable already.

But this is what frustrates me about SparkNotes, in general; their entire business model seems to revolve around cultivating a feeling of learned helplessness in students, rather than actually teaching them how to read and think for themselves. (As much as I dislike the chirrupy, faux-hip tone of Shmoop.com, they are at least a little better at trying to show students HOW to get from the text to an interpretation.)

Aarghh. I have ranted long enough, I suspect, so I will leave you with a brief excerpt from A No Fear Tale of Two Cities. Because apparently, rhetoric and parallelism and cadence and grace in language are scary, and must be eliminated.

It was one of the best and worst times in history. It was a time of great intelligence and ignorance, belief and disbelief, good and evil, hope and hopelessness. We had everything to live for, and we had nothing to live for. Everyone was going straight to Heaven and straight to hell. Basically, it was just like the present, with experts of the time insisting on seeing its events only in terms of contrasting extremes.

I can't wait for No Fear 1984. My irony-meter will probably explode.

* As a side note, WHY do plagiarists always plagiarize from SparkNotes? Don't they realize that it's completely Google-able, and that it is the first place most of us are going to check?


heu mihi said...

Wow. That is...hideous! The No Fear excerpt, I mean. Ugh. It's like they're saying that things can only be comprehensible if they're written pretty much exactly the way the average high school sophomore would write them.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, that's exactly it. It completely forecloses the possibility that one might learn anything by reading literature -- new words, new ways of thinking or expressing yourself, new cultural information -- and instead tells students that anything not already familiar is to be feared and avoided.

Servetus said...

When I was high school, we got a few lectures on Fahrenheit 451 in a modern American lit class that were plagiarized from the Cliff Notes -- word for word. So I would say it's not only students who use those works.

re: No Fear Heart of Darkness -- I probably would have bought it. I don't think I had the Cliff Notes for it, but I read it twice (once in high school, one in college) and I didn't really understand it either time. I think it's because understanding something is not just a matter of understanding the language. The language is the least off-putting thing about that book.

Fretful Porpentine said...

OK, I'd say that you're absolutely correct that "understanding something is not just a matter of understanding the language," but in that case, why would having a translation into contemporary teenage-speak help? It seems to me that the NoFear / Sparknotes approach completely sidesteps the bigger issues involved in wrapping your head around another culture, another time, another value system.

And sadly, given some of the English-ed majors I've known over the years, it doesn't surprise me at all that some high school teachers plagiarize their lectures from Cliffs Notes...

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

So I do a think when I teach Shakespeare -- regardless of if I'm teaching it in a Gen Ed or a specifically Shakespeare class. I bring up the No Fear Shakespeare and show them the side-by-side of the original and the "translated" version of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. (Start with, "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks" and then "Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?") I read the original and the translated aloud. Then, I say, "There's the original and the translation. Only one of these plays is actually worth reading. Which one is it?" They almost all agree (grudgingly or not) that the original is way better. I keep telling them -- we read Shakespeare not for what he said, but HOW he said it. You strip away the language and you're left with a pretty boring thing.