For example, when teaching literature classes I’ll ask students to think about the reasons for studying stories, plays, and poems. Of what use is it, really? Kind of a dangerous thing for the teacher to be doing, if you think about it, especially in those core classes where the great majority of those sitting in the seats didn’t sign up because they liked the subject, but rather because they had to take it to graduate.
But I remember my best teachers and how they all forced me to think about such questions -- not just with regard to their classes, but about everything. So I ask my students to do the same kind of work, to think not just about what we’re studying but why we’re studying it.
In a literature class, this means talking about how poets and fiction writers respond to the world and being humans differently than do historians or scientists or philosophers or others. Their stories and plays and poems are imaginative responses to their experiences in the time and place in which they live, perhaps meant to comment on the world as a historian or scientist or philosopher would but doing so in a much different way. And, of course, literature has other purposes, too, such as to entertain or provide pleasure, or force us to feel certain emotions in addition to think certain thoughts.
Sometimes I’ll ask students to think about what “literature” or “literary” writing is. Not a simple matter, really, even for those who’ve spent their lives studying the subject.
Among the distinctions I’ll draw in such discussions will be to point out how literary writing is more likely to involve less literal modes of expression (e.g., figurative language, symbols, metaphors, irony, allusion, and so on).
The writer of literature also isn’t as bound to realism as is the historian or scientist or philosopher. All of which means when reading a poem or story or play we always have to be ready for the possibility that something we read might not be meant to be taken “straight,” but rather is intended to evoke an idea in a less literal, more indirect way.
Sometimes it’s obvious the writer is being “literary.” When you get to chapter 19 of William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying and Vardaman Bundren startles us with the line “My mother is a fish,” well, we can be pretty sure the boy isn’t literally saying his recently deceased Mom is a fish. There’s something else going on there, clearly.
Other times, though, it isn’t so clear that a non-literal meaning is being intended within a poem, story, or play. Such is one of the many challenges literature provides -- that is, to figure out just what the author might be saying when he or she isn’t necessarily being “straight” with us.
This brings up one of the reasons why I think reading and studying literature is useful even to those who don’t go on to become teachers or scholars with jobs focusing primarily on parsing the meanings of sonnets or novels. The fact is, people use “literary” language all of the time, not just poets, fiction writers, etc. Understanding literary techniques helps us understand the world at large -- to recognize allusions, irony, symbolism, metaphors, and so forth when people communicate their ideas to one another.
I had been thinking about this use of “literary” language in non-literary contexts last week when reading some reviews of the new documentary All In: The Poker Movie.
The film begins and ends with Black Friday, and in both spots we see players and other commentators talking about the day itself, a somber soundtrack kind of emphasizing a tone of sadness and dismay. It’s pretty clear the film makers included the question “Where were you when you heard about Black Friday?” in a lot of their interviews, then used the replies to help create the bookends for the narrative they ended up creating.
In a couple of spots, people answering the question bring up the assassination of president John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, appearing to suggest some sort of juxtaposition as they do.
“This is like the Kennedy assassination,” says author Peter Alson (Take Me To the River, One of a Kind) barely a minute into the film. “Every poker player knows where he was.” Alson’s tone suggests he’s questioning the interviewer, actually, guessing (correctly, in fact) the film makers’ intentions to suggest that exact “Where Were You When...?” kind of feel with regard to Black Friday.
Then near the end, Anthony Holden (Big Deal, Bigger Deal) is shown saying “It’s kind of like 'where were you when JFK was shot?'” That clip is presented without much context, so it’s hard to tell how serious Holden is being when making the comparison. But I’m going to guess that Holden -- who, like Alson, has authored some very “literary” reads about poker -- was similarly clued in to what the film makers were up to by asking the question.
In other words, in my estimation both Alson and Holden are making a historical allusion that is meant to evoke an analogy between two examples of large groups of people reacting collectively to an event. Obviously neither is suggesting the two events are somehow equal in their gravity, but rather the point is in both cases something happened that caught a lot of people by surprise and that the circumstances surrounding their learning of the news got kind of burned into their memories in similar fashion.
However, not everyone has been so generous in their response to such an analogy. In his review for Variety, John Anderson derisively notes how All In starts “with a number of the film’s recurring interviewees... making reference to some cataclysmic event in ways that suggest a combination of Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination,” going on to explain how the event being remembered is “the so-called ‘Black Friday’ of April 15, 2011.”
Anderson is clearly mystified at why people in the movie are taking the whole Black Friday thing so seriously, and as the rest of his review shows he’s coming at it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t share the film makers’ view of the importance of poker to American history and culture. That’s fine, although I think Anderson has misrepresented the JFK references in the film, and in fact adds a couple of his own allusions (to Pearl Harbor and 9/11) that the film doesn’t make in order to exaggerate his response even further. (That is, he’s using another literary device -- hyperbole -- to make a point.)
As the anniversary of Black Friday approaches, we’ll no doubt be hearing more of these kinds of stories as people remember where they were on April 15, 2011 when they first heard the news. I understand the Wicked Chops guys are gathering such accounts for piece they’ll be pulling together to mark the anniversary. You know, an “oral history”-type article in which all of the stories will come straight from the horse’s mouth. And no I don’t mean literally reaching in between the horse’s teeth and... oh, you knew what I meant.
We might well see more references to the Kennedy assassination among those stories. Or, perhaps even 9/11, which more experienced and thus remember.
I saw how yesterday Dusty Schmidt in his blog was apologizing for making a 9/11-Black Friday comparison in an earlier post. It appeared to be kind of a carelessly made reference, and in today’s post Schmidt expresses sincere regret for suggesting the analogy. Indeed, in his case it wasn’t as though he was referring to groups collectively reacting to an event, but was kind of suggesting something similar in the events themselves, which is obviously not a smart comparison to make.
I do recall others having made 9/11-Black Friday comparisons before, however, including our buddy Dan Michalski of Pokerati. Dan pursued that analogy a bit on QuadJacks radio the night of April 15, 2011 right after the DOJ unsealed the indictment and civil complaint -- with Dan even going so far as to describe PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker as “Twin Towers” of online poker going down.
Apologies to Dan for bringing up what was likely a first-response, off-the-cuff attempt at trying to characterize what was happening that day. I personally wouldn’t have gone in that direction with the analogy-making, although I’m going to suggest Dan was being somewhat “literary”-minded when trying to draw such an allegory.
Suffice it to say, Black Friday was an important moment for poker and for all of those affected by what transpired that day. I have written more than once here about where I was on April 15, 2011 -- in Lima, Peru, covering a poker tournament. The most “literary” of those posts was one written a couple of weeks after, titled “Plotting in Peru.”
We might well brace ourselves for more Black Friday stories over the next week or so. Some will probably include examples of hyperbole when trying to convey the magnitude of the day. And some of these stories may well adopt a more “literary” approach than others -- worth keeping in mind as we evaluate them and respond.