Fair and Balanced?

February 26, 2008

Regular readers of this space are probably amazed (or appalled even!) to see that I am devoting the third post in as many days to discussion of a novel that I didn’t even deem compelling enough to finish when I first took it up two years ago. And maybe it says something about me that I didn’t return to it until I learned that it had what Fox News has termed “steamy” or “racy” passages. Today’s thoughts are not so much about the novel as about the way the kerfuffle it allegedly caused in one California community was reported, and the fact that it was reported at all.

I saw the story on the local Fox outlet’s 10:00 news on Saturday night. I’ll state my bias up front: I almost never turn to the national Fox News channel for regular news, finding the philosophy that drives it too conservative. I tune to the local Fox channel only for Prison Break, 24,  and reruns of Seinfeld, and to catch the work of a young reporter whose career I have an abiding interest in. To that end, for a story on a popular local restaurant going smoke-free, I was watching Saturday night, and was enticed by the teaser for a report on a book that was causing an uproar at a California school. The visual grabbed me as well — Fox-Los Angeles reporter Jonathan Hunt brandishing a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, the very book then acting as ballast for my laptop.

Another point in my bias: I am wary of the way school matters are reported, especially controversial school matters. It is all too common for even more middle-of-the-road media to portray schools as godless bastions of freethinking liberalism and teachers as overpaid and underworked. As I might have anticipated, the Fox piece was a showcase of slipshod fact gathering and sensationalized presentation that made a national story out of something that was really a very local, and apparently minor, matter.

The anchorwoman who introduced the piece with nearly breathless outrage called Prep “steamy” and “racy” and stated that the book was “given” to a sixth-grader as a piece of “required reading” in an “online education program.” Where did they get those facts? Subsequent statements by reporter Jonathan Hunt and the principal of the school suggested that the child merely chose the volume from the offerings in the library. The Accelerated Reader program is not “online,” as in, say, a cyber school. It is software that an individual school buys from a company called Renaissance Learning and uses to track student progress in reading. The materials include titles arranged according to interest level and reading comprehension level. Prep is about a teenager and has a vocabulary and complexity of structure most 12-year-olds can handle, at least mechanically. Some librarian, perhaps not investigating content carefully enough, ordered the book.

Jonathan Hunt appears properly outraged by this horrible situation. But he refers to the author as “SittenFIELD” when her name is “SittenFELD.” He reads what he labels one of the only passages he can present on broadcast television, saying that reading anything else is too hot even for HBO at midnight. (He must not have seen very many episodes of The Sopranos or The Wire.) What is not clear is that he is talking not about the 400-page book in its entirety, but only about certain passages here and there in the fifty pages that cover the seven months that Cross and Lee (the user and the used) have their furtive, joyless sexual relationship. The “steamy” parts constitute less than 2% of the text.

One hallmark of Fox News (besides its arch conservatism) is its fast pace and dependence on graphics. While Hunt was talking passionately about Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader program, his image was replaced with generic file footage of youngsters perusing shelves in a typical school library. An overlay of text in bullet points, however, was giving information about a different controversy in a different part of the country. The children’s book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins that hatch a penguin egg and then care for the hatchling (based on a true story!, as they say), has been pulled from the library at a Loudin, Virginia elementary school after just one parent complained that the book promoted a gay agenda. So while Jonathan Hunt is waxing outraged about the alleged pornographic book being allegedly required in one school, viewers are seeing text that refers to a completely different controversy. It would not be difficult for a less critical viewer than I to draw incorrect conclusions about the theme of Prep and the reasons why it is suddenly a challenged book.

Finally, Hunt tells viewers that some people have compared Prep to The Catcher in the Rye. He does not mention that Sittenfeld’s book suffers in many of those comparisons, and that it is judged not destined to be the classic that Salinger’s has become. He calls Catcher a “great classic that we’ve all read,” and says that he cannot recall Holden Caulfield engaging in any graphic sex scenes.

Hunt has obviously not read Prep, except, of course, for the dirty parts. If he has read Catcher, he has obviously forgotten the sequence on pages 88 to 104 of the paperback edition in which Holden takes up the offer of Old Maurice, a smarmy elevator operator, to procure a prostitute for him. The young woman, Old Sunny (Holden prepends “Old” to nearly everyone’s name), arrives in Holden’s room and takes off her dress, under which she is wearing a pink slip. Her body is not described, and ultimately Holden sends her away without using any of her services, although he does pay the agreed-upon rate. Later, Maurice and Sunny come back to the room in search of additional payment and, when Holden refuses, Maurice punches him both in the genitals and in the stomach.

Hunt then shakes a copy of Catcher, and declares “This was good.” Then he shakes his copy of Prep and says, “This? Bad for kids!”

Thus do I find myself in the odd position of defending a book I didn’t like and wouldn’t recommend to anyone, given the availability of so much other material. In researching this piece I learned a lot about character development and voice and why we read — or write — fiction. I also learned that Fox is apparently the only news organization that reported the story of the brouhaha at Heritage Oak School in Yorba Linda, California. What was so compelling about it? If it was an important story, why was their coverage so shallow, so misleading, so ill-informed?

I developed a mental picture of this expensive private school that uses a commercial software application to track the quantity of what their students read and the amount of factual information they can recall from the texts rather than having the teachers engage the students in dialogue about the issues raised in the material they read. I saw the sixth grader whose choice of the book apparently triggered the controversy wandering through the stacks in her school library and being attracted by the bright white cover with the perky pink and green ribbon belt, and the assertion in a cover blurb that the book is “funny, excruciatingly honest [and] improbably sexy.” I can’t remember a single passage that was funny, and the sex is just so sad and joyless that I wouldn’t want any youngster, sixth grade or beyond, to think that such a disappointment is inevitably in store for them.

Prep isn’t “bad for kids” because it describes two or three sex acts in detail. It’s unsuitable because its protagonist is too self-absorbed, too whiny, too much the agent of her own unhappiness, too enamored of that unhappiness, even, to warrant reading 400 pages in her flat, unengaging voice. Holden Caulfield, with his “olds” and his “goddams” and his status as one of fiction’s most unreliable of narrators, is at least someone you can like.

To be included on the notify list, e-mail me:
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)