Why Does Literature Matter?

My Oprah’s Book Club talk last week (discussed here) led to a 3-page conclusion on why her 12-year old book club encourages readers to address the question, why does literature matter?  I quoted Morris Dickstein’s recent essay (also posted here).  I always bring this question up in my literature classes (from introductory to senior seminars) and it almost always leads to wonderful discussions that re-emerge throughout the term and reappear, more thoughtfully, on final exams.  While it’s obvious that this question is one of those enduring ones, during a time when the percentage of people who read literature is falling, we who still believe in its value need to spread the word. Thus ended my talk.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that same question (though they phrase it in as “What Ails Literary Studies?”) in a trio of articles related to the question of why literature matters (and the e-mail newsletter also links to a 10 year old article on the same question). From the Newsletter, here are the links—my comments on each are below:

What Ails Literary Studies

The Joy of the Hoi Polloi

By Rita Felski

The Must-Read Recede

By Steven G. Kellman

The Elite Conceit

By Bruce Fleming

The 10-year old article is described below:

FROM THE REVIEW ARCHIVES:

This week three scholars consider the imperiled state of literary studies. But bemoaning the field’s situation is a longstanding specialty of its own. In 1997, for instance, John M. Ellis lamented the discipline’s derangement in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Michael Bérubé wrote a roundabout, cheeky Chronicle rejoinder to the book, and to Frank Kermode’s defense of it in The Atlantic Monthly.

 

Felski’s article, “The Joy of the Hoi Polloi”, most closely responds to my Why Does Literature Matter question. She argues that instead of trying to defend literature’s usefulness, “what literary studies sorely needs…is a nonutilitarian understanding of use.”   What she calls the “idea of recognition” –when the reader recognizes herself in a character—is affective reading: we need to encourage such a personal response to the literature, to use, as I remember fondly using, that old thesis-template phrasing we used in high school: “in literature as in [my] life”.  Felski even echoes the same metaphor I used in my talk (though she doesn’t apply it to Oprah): that literature professors need to build a bridge between theory and what she calls “common sense”—basically, non-academic reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with so eloquently and succinctly discussed in this essay.

 

Kellman’s essay,  “The Must-Read Recede”, examines another  idea I discussed in my talk last week: how reading the canon has been “sold” as a way for those without a college degree to become “middle class”—from Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, to the Book of the Month Club to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books—all were appeals to the American need to continuous self improvement.  While he doesn’t mention Oprah’s Book Club (or the Book of the Month Club, actually) both aspire(d) to the same goal, just from a less lofty platform: Preaching the Gospel of Reading!

 

Fleming’s article, “The Elite Conceit”, beautifully dovetails with what I was trying to do in the Oprah talk—remind my colleagues why they went into literary studies to begin with and that when we deny students the opportunity to respond personally and passionately to the literary works, we are denying them the opportunity to fall in love, as we did. Fleming argues that literature professors are “killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies”: by focusing on theoretical approaches before personal connection to the literature, we’ve “made ourselves into a priestly caste.” Indirectly, he argues against survey classes in a singularly humorous line: “nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth.”  [I must admit to actually having a final exam question to that affect.] His argument is beautifully illustrated in a Richard Russo’s short story “The Horseman” (from The Atlantic Monthly’s August 2006 issue)—just read it since my summary would not do it justice.

 

Finally, Michael Bérubé’s  wonderfully caustic (and just laugh-out-loud funny, in a dark humor sort of way) Chronicle article, “Defending Literary Studies Has Become a Lost Cause” [link is only available to subscribers], responds to Kermode’s Atlantic Monthly review of  John M. Ellis’  book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities:  

 

“ I think it’s about time we admitted that things in the academy are much, much worse than either Ellis or Kermode surmises. Over 70 per cent of women’s studies courses, for example, require their students to drink menstrual blood and engage in ritual witchcraft (in that order).”

 

Ah, brings back such memories of Intro to Women Studies, circa 1981.

 

Ending on a more serious note, Bérubé urges the current generation of literary critics (1997—oooh, me), to “refresh our culture’s collective memory as to why literature and criticism should matter to human affairs.”   

 

Ah, Bartleby.

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What a Long Strange Trip It Is

Well, since I finished reading most of the research paper drafts (see post below), I did some errands and surfed through my blogroll for a bit to catch up.  I must tell you about the following article I discovered:

It’s an article that, serendipitously, relates to a project I’m working on, and, at the same time, affects me more emotionally. A recent issue of Columbia Magazine published this thoughtful piece on why literature still matters. Morris Dickstein’s essay “The Undying Animal” is a mediation on why those who work with literature “love what we do.”  I simply must quote the first paragraph so you can hear his voice and his passion:

Caught up in the rush of our ongoing lives, we rarely get the chance to step back and reflect on why we do what we do or, more important, why we love what we do. Working with literature as scholars, editors, and critics can become as habitual as any other form of work. Our criticism grows procedural or theoretical, betraying the spirit of the writers we admire. Slipping out of routine into reflection is part of the discipline of literature itself, which pares away the casual and the incidental, the merely lifelike. Instead it concentrates impressions, ideas, and feelings into language that yields meaning. The poem is the poet’s way of suspending time and attending to the minute vibrations of the inner and outer world. The demands it makes on us as readers are personal, not professional, or personal before they are professional. At a time when literary study is on the defensive, even in universities that once nurtured it, we need to raise the question why literature matters, hoping this will illuminate why the collective work of an organization of writers and scholars matters as well.

The essay concludes by reminding us that we love literature because “it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions”–an idea that echoes so deeply within me but that is so challenging, for me, to explain in a classroom to students who see literature’s purpose as ultimately confirming their worldview.  Dickstein’s essay reminds me of Azar Nafasi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, her (not uncontroversial) memoir about the years she spent teaching American literature in Iran, where she, too, tries to explain that great literature is subversive:     

I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned tradition and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told them I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them feel uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes. (94)

Alice may have been confused and perhaps a little frightened, but oh, what a long, strange trip she had!