"Oh literature! Oh here, oh now, oh hell!"
Over the past semesters, I’ve slowly slipped away even from the teaching of literature–and have written less and less about literature. Until this year, that is. I have finally come to grips with what was bothering me about the teaching and study of literature, and am now beginning to find ways of doing something about it. For one thing, I have discovered that, in the words of Joseph Epstein, “Literature, as taught in the current-day university, is strictly an intramural game.” And that bored me. Tomorrow, I will embark on teaching a literature class for the first time in over a year in a way that interests me (moving literature into the public sphere, so to speak)–though not in a fashion Epstein might imagine.
And not on a writer he’d approve of, not he who thinks Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser are America’s best of the 20th century. The course is an exploration of the fiction of Philip K. Dick, the wonderful nut I wrote my dissertation on. A writer who could produce trash as easily and often as brilliance.
And that’s fine. It really doesn’t matter, as most of us who teach learn at some point in our careers, for it’s not the subject matter that’s of importance, but what is done with it.
My aversion to the teaching of literature results in part from what people like Epstein have done to it. And from what the people he complains about in The Wall Street Journal in his review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel have done to it, as well. All of them, almost as though they put their differences aside to reach this goal, aim towards making literature tedious. And I am sick of that, sick of both the arrogance of the Epsteins and the political agendas of those the Epsteins resist.
Tacked onto the bottom of Epstein’s review is this:
In the final chapter of “The Cambridge History of the American Novel,” titled “A History of the Future of Narrative,” the novelist Robert Coover argues that, though the technologies of reading and writing may be changing and will continue to change, the love of stories—reading them and writing them—will always be with us. Let’s hope he is right. Just don’t expect that love to be encouraged and cultivated, at least in the near future, in American universities.
Coover, author of (among other things) The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., not only loves stories but has a sense of humor. Perhaps he’d laugh. Love of literature encouraged and cultivated at a university? Oh, come on! Love of books comes from reading, not study, for all fiction (at least) is entertainment. Yeah, from Horace to Sidney and on, we’ve been told that literature should delight and instruct. The delight comes through consumption through choice; the instruction comes through what one does with the things that have provided delight (not, I repeat, through the things themselves, but through their usage). Lighten up, Epstein.
I went to graduate school because I wanted to read. Working in Chicago in the parts department of an auto dealership days and selling cars evenings and weekends, I had picked up a stack of random books, including Balzac’s Pere Goriot and Faulkner’s The Hamlet. Soon, I realized that my appetite for books was not going to be satisfied by browsing in bookstores and libraries, accidentally discovering the gems. I needed something more. So, I enrolled in grad school–to read, and to be exposed to books in a systematic fashion.
Not everyone comes to school with a desire to read, of course. Few do. I was lucky, and understand the difference between me and most students.
As a teacher, my mantra is ‘Start where the student is.’ OK. Most students say they don’t like to read, so where does one start with a literature course? Certainly not with Dreiser or Cather. For all of their importance to Epstein, they mean nothing to my students. The issues they address are alien. But Philip K. Dick? Ahh! Though he’s been dead for almost 30 years, Dick remains interesting to my students. If not because of Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly, because his visions of the future relate eerily to today’s reality.
Literature? Great stuff, but it includes more (like Phil Dick) than Epstein imagines. He writes:
What [English] departments have done… is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
What he doesn’t do is explain why chronology is important (it is, but because it provides context), more important than what he claims are secondary considerations (why are they secondary? Why can’t they be as important as chronology?). And just who are these young people he refers to? And what makes a book good?
It’s this last question I want my students to answer, each for himself or herself, in my new course on Phil Dick. They don’t have to like all of his stuff, but I hope they will enjoy some of it, and will begin to think about just what they do and don’t like, and if their taste might not be examined and enhanced.