Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Epstein on Academia and the Love of Lit

In the August 27, 2011, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein reviews both The Cambridge History of the American Novel and the problems with literary education as a whole. Excerpt:
The Editors of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" decided to consider their subject -- as history is considered increasingly in universities these days -- from the bottom up. In 71 chapters, the book's contributors consider the traditional novel in its many sub-forms, among them: science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels, Jewish novels, Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children's novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability ("We cannot truly know a culture until we ask its disabled citizens to describe, analyze, and interpret it," write the authors of a chapter titled "Disability and the American Novel"). Other chapters are about subjects played out in novels -- for instance, ethnic and immigrant themes -- and still others about publishers, book clubs, discussion groups and a good deal else. "The Cambridge History of the Novel," in short, provides full-court-press coverage.

"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one's lap. All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.
Read the whole thing. Epstein launches into an entertaining diatribe about how the follies of the academy rob undergraduates of the love for lit. One doesn't have to agree with him at every point to see how the intellectual provincialism of universities, their inevitable Balkanization of books into racial and sexual subtexts, and tone-deaf academic styles can push students away from bibliophilia to (ahem) more practical majors. And while Epstein has a point in saying that professors have lost the ability to judge just what makes a work good, I think he missteps in brushing aside the entire field of genre fiction. True, most genre books fall short of literary greatness, but a few (1984, A Brave New World, Dracula, Frankenstein) have landed in the canon. Yet even when it fails to rise above the level of pulp, genre provides young readers with something important -- a love of tales and characters and language itself.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Nico&CO; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)


Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...

The problem is that, in the 1950's-1960's, people (mostly French people, at first) started finding in the words people use clues to a more systemic ("structuralist") understanding of culture. These French theorists often came from a literary background, but they insisted that this phenomenon of texts revealing more than they seem to was everywhere.

This at least doubled the potential importance of literary studies. Before, English professors taught students, in the words of fictional detective Phillip Marlowe, to "speak English"--that is, to understand the high culture of the English tradition and the most 'eloquent' ways of using language. But as Marlowe (and Chandler) knew, that sort of "English" isn't the only one that is beautiful and poetic. That's why (in his own words) he "learned American ... like a foreign language." He also wrote American, which is a large reason why he had trouble finding his way into the university canon.

Before structuralism (and poststructuralism) folks like Chandler were already at odds with English departments, whose writings may have aimed at a general audience but were aimed at reproducing literary values without necessarily questioning their role in culture. Afterwards, the "canon" exploded, and English professors started investigating many more modes of language, to see how they worked in society.

Sometimes, this was done from a position of love and aesthetic appreciation. (Critic 1: "We all know there are musicals that resonate with people and musicals that fall flat; let's stop saying musicals are bad and look at what elements go into a great musical, rather than dismissing it as lowbrow.")

Sometimes, this was done from a more critical perspective. (Critic 2: "I love great literature, but all these people around me love action movies. Why do they love them? What kind of person do you become if you uncritically accept the worldview of action movies? If I really study these movies, will I understand America's culture and politics better?")

Sometimes this was done from an overtly political perspective. ("As a Mexican-American, I love these stories that play with mixed languages, show the troubles of mixed identities, and rehearse the history of my people. I think if more people understood my emotional experience--and that of authors like me--they'd be better informed in dealing with political issues of immigration, and I'd like to provide that education.")

All of these perspectives aren't necessarily a war on eloquence, but they have made for a much more fragmented English department, where aesthetic appreciation is only one element among many (and can be ignored by those who wish to do so.) They've also increased the cultural language of English majors. Every phrase and sentence quoted had a single, clear meaning to me, and the technical terms are as useful to one skilled in the lingo as the difference between "accuracy" and "precision," or weird phrases like "moment arm" or "inverse ratio" are to engineers.

Maybe I speak from a new generation of literary scholars; maybe the pendulum is swinging back after the extreme of the 80's; maybe I am connected with a great institution. But for the most part, I see English majors carrying on their passion for the joys of reading even as they learn to critique the faults of their literary heroes. No, the field of literary studies is not as simple as it was 50 years ago; yes, it has merged with cultural studies as people realize that written texts show insights about cultural systems. But the chaos and complex language of current literary studies are not without value.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Once they started looking at novels as texts the battle was lost.

Loren Eaton said...

But for the most part, I see English majors carrying on their passion for the joys of reading even as they learn to critique the faults of their literary heroes.

Very interesting, CR, because many of the lit majors I knew in school jettisoned the entire affair or became navel-gazing hipsters obsessed with Derrida. That's why I'm a bit of a stickler for grounding readings on an author's intent. Sure, all sorts of literary theories have (varying amounts of) merit. Historicism reminds us that works don't spring out of a vacuum. Reader-response criticism reminds us that everyone has his own unique perspective. Deconstructualism tells us that it's darn hard to write a sound story. (Indeed, God may be the only one who ultimately did it.) But we need to start with what the author wanted to tell the reader. That's the reason why the book -- or novel or what have you -- exists in the first place. If we did that, undergrads might not roll their eyes so much at their professors -- and they do roll them.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm afraid you have a good point: Academic snootiness tends to ruin readerly joy.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

This is an old argument between us, and probably not worth rehearsing here.

But I still do insist that many authors, if not most, are more concerned with what their stories do than what they say--with experience or even political intervention rather than with propositions. (As the old saying goes--if you want to preach, write a sermon.) A Greek tragedy is supposed to make you feel terror and pity. A comedy is supposed to make you laugh, and particularly to make you laugh at society's stupidity. Authorial intent, in these cases, would be directly *opposed* to authorial meaning.

What did Steinback try to say when he wrote East of Eden? Certainly he couldn't tell you. What did Ayn Rand want to say when she wrote Atlas Shrugged? Exactly what her main character, over and over, repeats, exactly what her cardboard characters force you to accept, exactly what Nietzsche said. Her heart is in the wrong place, but so too is her conviction that the prime purpose of her story is to convey a message, and that she can bend the universe to her will.

Or what did Virgil claim to say in The Aeneid? That Rome is the eternal empire blessed by the gods to subjugate the world. If that were the end of it, no one would read Virgil today (though Classics scholars will tell you that Homer, who had no intent beyond telling a good story about how powerful humans behave, was the better artist.)

And I also insist that stories do more subconsciously than they do consciously, and that the stories which become popular do so often because of their brilliance in encapsulating society's concerns rather than adherence to abstractable concepts.

That said, I do think authorial intent matters. It is just 1) not entirely knowable (especially since authors, not surprisingly, are often good liars) and 2) distracting in that many authors wrote in a different way from how they acted. Yeah, it may be important to know that Spenser supported genocide, and intended for England to wipe out the Irish population. But the *textual* politics of the Faerie Queene are much more complicated and nuanced, showing that when he started writing his complicated story, things happened beyond his simple intent.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I guess I comment so much because I believe stories do more than one thing, always. I'm not sure authorial intent allows that, especially if one of those things is something like "gives us a story that allows us to feel good about our culture." (I think this is what NCIS, for instance, does all the time. But I don't think the directors ever, or often, think that way.)

There are many problems with academia. One problem, which I think is fading, is that the last generation of scholars went into cloisters and joined teams, so that feminists started saying that the only thing texts do is oppress and/or liberate women, Marxists said that the only thing texts do is justify/subvert Capitalism, &c. But that doesn't mea that texts aren't also doing these things.

Loren Eaton said...

But it's such a fun argument to revisit! Seriously, I love it.

Unfortunately, I'm at a conference in Colorado right now, so I'm seriously short on time. But I do think that authorial intend allows for multiple intended meanings. That's what allusions and poetic language do all the time. There's certainly more than one authorially intended thing going on when Bono says, "It's the blind leading the blonde" in
"If God Will Send His Angels" and when Psalm 88 concludes with, "And all my friends are darkness."