The Service Literature Provides

Graham Greene dismissed some of his novels as “entertainments.”  Yet among these are works as lasting as anything he wrote–and as interesting.  Greene was reflecting a cultural schizophrenia that Clement Greenberg, on the eve of World War II (and the time when Greene was producing “entertainments” profusely) diagnosed, calling one extreme “kitsch” and the other “avant-garde.”  We still see this today.  Two years ago, writing for, Michelle Kerns detailed one modern example of the split (here and here), using Stephen King and Harold Bloom for the two sides.  Fortunately, in terms of the general cultures of the English-speaking world, Bloom is a dying dinosaur while King reflects the more vibrant world of popular culture.

Unfortunately, in the parallel in our schools, the nearly extinct remain dominant.

In the study of literature, at least.

The strait-jacket of older views of literature is so strong that those wanting to look at books in culture or at books that don’t meet the artificial constraints of the “literary” have had to peel off into their own new areas of study (African-American Studies, American Studies, Comp/Rhet, Technical Writing, Cultural Studies… all of these departments, and more, frequently grew out of English departments), often eventually leaving English departments completely.

Calcification in English studies reached its height in the 1980s when “Theory” became the holy grail, when the inferiority complex of English professors, engendered in part by S. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” lecture twenty or so years earlier, led them to imagine a strange sort of intellectual equality with physicists–but it did not start there.  Students of literature have long harbored secret fears that their explorations do not equal the value of those working in other fields (silly fears–intellectual pursuits should not be defined by subject matter or goals, but by discoveries; as much can be discovered through the study of entertainment as through the study of anything else, though its manifestation may be a little more subtle).  So, they tried to elevate their subject matter, thinking that would make what they do equal to what a molecular biologist, say, does.  As some literature was “clearly” trash, they first had to jettison that: it wasn’t literature, they decided.

Real literature (defined and restricted by the critics–there was even an acceptance of the idea of “Great Books,” something set forth and codified by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins), they soon determined, was valuable in and of itself.  The author, the milieu of creation… these and other things were irrelevancies.  It was the text itself that was important, for the text ‘created’ the world of the work.  They (these were, at first, the New Critics) derided study of context as example of the ‘intentional fallacy’ and extolled ‘close reading’ (intimate examination of text) as the height of their craft.

Bloom, of the generation after the New Critics, continues their tradition.  In his How to Read and Why, which follows the tradition of Adler’s How to Read a Book (though Adler was not a New Critic), Bloom tries to justify reading in a way not even Adler, who saw it as the way to best comprehend original thinkers, manages.  He writes, “You need not fear that the freedom of your development as a reader is selfish, because if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others” (24).  Shades of Ayn Rand and her The Virtue of Selfishness!  Be the best that you can be, and all will come to you.

This sort of nonsense, unfortunately, has formed and informed the study of literature for some sixty years, now.  The upshot has been a veneration of the text (Adler) and of the act of reading (Bloom) that has made it impossible (almost) to generate enthusiasm for literature classes and even to find real value in them.  They have become painful exercises, for students, in memorizing plots, themes and characters, acts whose value is questionable–unless, of course, you can make an argument for the intrinsic value of literature–which, of course, is what the New Critics and their children have been trying to do for generations, now.

It can’t be done.  But people keep trying, terrified by the specter of becoming members of what are seen as merely “service” departments, those preparing students for success in other areas, but without their own majors.  It is this, I believe, that keeps the quest alive, and keeps professors like Bloom constantly turning their noses up at “bad” literature and trying to justify the reading of “great” literature as an end in itself, academically.

But literature, be it good, bad, high, low, old or new, is entertainment.  Greene may have wanted some of it to be different but, ultimately, it is not.  The first objective is always to delight… even if, with Horace, we argue that it is also designed to instruct.  If ya can’t get an audience, ya ain’t agonna teach anything.  The ‘instruct’ thing is kinda questionable, anyway.  Why instruct?  Do other forms of entertainment have to instruct?  Why should literature?

Entertainment, of any sort, can be used to instruct.  We all know that.  It’s very nature raises ‘teachable’ questions: Why is something entertaining?  Does a particular entertainment work across cultural or class lines?  Why?  Or, why not?  What makes one entertainment more successful than another?  Why do people crave entertainment so much that it becomes a major factor in economies?  Oh, and there are so many more… and the answers to any of them help students understand human nature and human cultures a little bit better than they did before.  The Great Gatsby, in the context of American society between the wars or of human relationships within conformist constraints, becomes a lot more useful than The Great Gatsby as an end in itself–especially since we are clearly making our students hate literature when we present it this way.  Instead of creating any sort of success, even in promoting reading for its own sake, we are teaching our students to loathe it.

Yet our English departments continue to teach literature this way, and our high schools prepare them for it, making plot, character, and theme the centerpieces of instruction… and even ‘theme’ is divorced from most contemporary reality (at least in the instruction).

It’s easy to find ways of teaching literature otherwise.  It is happening in American Studies departments, in African-American studies and in a variety of other places where culture is a primary consideration in academic pursuits.  Why are they still so rarely found in English departments?

Oh, I know: there are thousands of courses where literature is approached in fashions appropriate to both enjoyment and learning.  But the standard is still that of the New Critics.  And that standard was a dead end sixty years ago and remains so today, the likes of Harold Bloom notwithstanding.  From time to time, it is appropriate to point that out once again.  For me, as I begin to grade papers for my first solely “literature” class in a couple of years, today is one of those times.

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