We’re officially halfway through our semester reading list in my writing class. It’s not due until this Thursday, but yesterday morning I finished Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman, the eighth book of the semester. Last night I started on The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson. I hated the former*, and I’m hesitant about the latter**.
Last semester I railed about the problems with writing workshop courses. This semester, I have a quick but major complaint about my reading course: we’re reading too many books by writers from our program who also happen to live nearby. Look at that list again.
- Two so-so books by Leslie Pietrzyk, an instructor in the program who visited us the third week of the semester.
- An aggravatingly terrible book by Michelle Brafman, a graduate from and instructor in the program who will visit us this Thursday.
- A poorly reviewed book by Ellen Bryson, another graduate from the program.
Okay, so this is just four books/three authors, right? But look at this: these four books represent a full third of the books we’re supposed to read during the semester. And, for the most part, they’re kind of bad. (Well, to be honest, compared to Brafman’s book, Pietrzyk’s books are masterworks.) And what does it say about Bryson’s book that when you look it up on amazon.com, the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section is just a list of the other books for the class?
So why are we reading these books? I understand that using books by people who are from the program and who live nearby is super convenient in terms of having writers visit our class, but why should that criteria trump picking books of quality? There’s definitely an attempt to achieve a diversity of voices and materials given the list of books, but everything seems to really breakdown with the Brafman book.
Okay, so the Brafman book: a lady discovers some secrets about her mother and her orthodox jewish family as her mother begins developing Alzheimer’s, and also her daughter is a real piece of work. So it’s all about grandmother-mother-daughter issues. Compare this to the very first book we read this semester, Pears On A Willow Tree, that’s essentially the same formula (great grandmother-grandmother-mother-daughter issues) but told from a polish immigrant point of view. If the instructor wanted us to read something from a jewish point of view, why not give us the imminently readable and highly competent The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? Or why not give us something else–anything else?
As always, my thoughts are incomplete and not fully threshed out on this. But the irritation and disappointment are fully threshed. If I can help it, I’m only taking writing workshops the rest of the way out for this program.
- Kirkus Reviews: “Sincere but long-winded, Brafman’s story cycles through a limited range of emotional chords, to numbing effect.”
** NY Times review: “Bryson confuses having a secret with having a plot….”