Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wow Cliffs Notes (sic) really were godawful

Remember Cliffs Notes (or, as Wiki states, "CliffsNotes, formerly Cliffs Notes, originally Cliff's Notes and often, erroneously, CliffNotes"), those yellowjacketed study guides of great literature for lazy high schoolers? They were supposed to be the bane of our teachers' existence because...well, why really? Because they invited the student to avoid the hard work of actually reading Jude the Obscure or whatever? Big deal. Although I do recall several English teachers warning us to avoid Cliff and His Notes and even promising to fail us if the slim volumes were ever found on our person, never once did they suggest to run screaming from them because the analyses within were so godawful.

Cleaning out thirty-plus years of accumulation from my bedroom recently, I came across the Cliffs Notes for The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire or, to honor the exact title, Cliffs Notes on Williams' Glass Menagerie & Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently conjunctions and even titles require summary (no time for articles [indefinite or otherwise] in the world of too much/not enough). Written by one James L. Roberts, Ph.D. (whose name is prudently left off the cover), this entry contains myriad howlers with respect to the ambient sexuality in Williams' hothouse universe:

"Williams is overly fond of using Freudian sexual symbols. The reader should be aware of these and choose his own response. Aside from the use of raw meat, he uses the bowling balls and pins, and the columns of the Belle Reve plantation home as obvious overt phallic and sexual symbols. The fact that Stanley bowls suggests symbolically his characteristic of summing everything up in terms of sexuality." (41)

"Note the symbolic use of names throughout the play. Blanche DuBois means white of the woods. The white is a play on Blanche's supposed innocence and the woods are used as another Freudian phallic symbol." (42)

I'll let you choose your own response. As for why I had CliffsNotes in the first place, I worshipped Tennessee Williams in junior high and read all of his plays countless times. And I mean, all (I had to special order his relatively obscure 1980 play Clothes for a Summer Hotel from B. Dalton's. The two female employees told my mother and I that they had seen the play and were excited that someone special ordered it. But they seemed both stunned and disappointed to discover it was a 12-year-old boy.) So I picked up the CliffsNotes for some insight my pubescent mind wasn't grasping. But even back then, I knew the analyses were eye-rolling stuff.

And it wasn't just that volume. I also recall the author of the Hamlet Cliffs claiming there was only one way to play The Great Dane's first soliloquy (I think) and that John Barrymore had interpreted it incorrectly whereas so-and-so did it right blah blah blah. I much preferred Hamlet in Everyday English because at the very least it inspired me to rewrite the entire play in my own 1980s slang (true story).

According to this appropriately snarky article, CliffsNotes were the brainchild of one Clifton Hillegass who went on to reap $14 million from these things. I have no clue how widely they circulate today but this article claims that John Wiley and Sons, current owners of the franchise, have partnered with Mark Burnett to produce one-minute video distillations of CliffNotes' already distilled takes on the canon. That may not be as bad as it initially sounds. A minute doesn't give one much time to indulge in the claptrap quoted above. And maybe they can pare it down even further, summarizing A Streetcar Named Desire with a belch so we can move on as quickly as possible to something of value.


Anonymous Spearlma said...

This above all-to thine own version of Hamlet be true! Seriously. You better find and post that stuff!

10:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin John Bozelka said...

I love you, Spermula!

8:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home