I started to write this on my Academic Blog, but it isn’t really at home there – that’s more for stuff which is specifically connected to my current project within the field of Literature-Science-Medicine, material texts, periodicals, the nineteenth century, science fiction, and whatever else it is that I study (I’ve had four days off, so I forget).Therefore I’m putting it here instead. It’s long, but I have very carefully made it as user-friendly as possible, because it’s an answer to a question I sometimes get asked or, more often, pointedly
not asked. It has nothing to do with music or FaceOmeter, so you may be uninterested. On the other hand, it kind of has everything to do with music and FaceOmeter, so you may be interested. Above all, I’d love you to read this if you have ever asked me, yourself, or anyone else, the question it sets out upon.The question is, of course, ‘why do you study Literature?’
For indiscriminate weak-minded arty types, this is a no-brainer. English is the esoteric humanities subject du jour. Marking is subjective and wooly, bullshitting is far easier than with the more empirical subjects, there are no ‘right’ answers and the ‘work’ simply consists of reading ‘lots of books’ (we hear this phrase a lot). This is all great news if you are the sort of person who is amenable to a more relaxed lifestyle – as an undergraduate I shared my six working hours per week (per week) with a vast number of people who wanted a degree and a large number of cheap drinks with a minimum of fuss. English answers well.
Of course, there are disadvantages. After your large investment of both time and money, you have no measurably improved skills. You can’t save anyone’s life, explain the mathematics of a black hole, or make a cool million in the City. You’re less in touch with popularly-read literature than most people, and though you’re better with the canon there are still really popular books which everyone will assume you’ve read, and which you haven’t (Middlemarch is mine). You probably can’t even recommend any decent books for your friend’s mum’s birthday present – Literature is the one thing you know about, and you know too much about it to be of any use to a layperson.
G. H. Lewes – one man, one moustache
So you’re as employable as a school-leaver and you’re in debt to the tune of, gosh, whatever it is these days*. What do you have? Are there any advantages? G. H. Lewes, back in the nineteenth century, suggested that literary study could be usefully compared to vivisection – cutting up animals to see how they work. This was an attempt to convince the scientific community that there needn’t necessarily be a fundamental divide between them and the humanities, and you can judge for yourself how successful his argument was. But in essence he was simply saying that if you break down a poem (say) to its constituent parts, you’re basically understanding how language can work, and there’s profit in that.
And he might be right – but, as you’ve guessed, there are some holes in this one. GCSE students are taught to break poems down into their constituent parts and see how they can work. Not only can we assume that they get the point, but in my anecdotal experience most of them hate it. Oh, so he’s using rhyme there? And this is a run-on line? Caesura? Really? Bite me.
Even within English, the vivisection idea has lost a lot of support in the last century or so. It’s too clinical – and ‘clinical’ is opposed to artistic sensitivity. Vivisectors, after all, tend to destroy the organism they are vivisecting. By demystifying the workings of a poem, you rob your audience forever of their ability to be mystified by it – which is surely one of the goals of literary art…
Vivisection remains unpopular
Let’s put it another way. When someone tells you a joke, you laugh. When they explain why the joke was funny (“you see, ‘fungi’, the plural of ‘fungus’, sounds a bit like ‘fun guy’, you know, a guy who is fun…”) you stop laughing, and probably exit the room at a fairly high speed. The perception that we’re a bunch of people who sit around explaining why the joke was funny has far from left everyone.
If it’s true that decent art needs no mediation (we’re making some pretty hefty generalisations here, but whatever, let’s run with it) then what the hell do we do? More importantly, what the hell are we for? Why is society training thousands upon thousands of (mostly) Bright Young People in the art of going ‘ohhh, daffodils, lovely’? Even if there are significant personal rewards in learning to appreciate a great piece of writing, what is the cultural benefit to having a major discipline working away in this area?
A potential answer lies in politics. The various schools of literary theory – which is a posh way of saying ‘different ideas about how books should be read’ – tend to designate themselves by reading new and old texts in the light of their political convictions. Thus, there is a Marxist way of reading Dickens (see how oppressed all those proletarians are?) as well as an elite, humanist way (consider the simple beauty of this description, and how much closer that takes us to God). There are almost endless others, but you may be worrying that this is a pretty obscure way of practicing politics, and you’d be right to do so. Imagine if Marx himself had just sat around thinking about Martin Chuzzlewit all day. No communist manifesto for us – just another book about a book that no-one is going to read.
Charles Dickens – or “Chickens” to his friends – had nothing whatsoever to do wtih communism
And because the only people reading these books about books are the people who write them, we’ve now got to the stage where there are books about the books about the books. You see the problem immediately, of course. The original books – the ones that started the whole thing off – go whole chapters without being mentioned. Even if this is making a political point, who is being addressed, and how does that help?
This is what’s at the back of the perception that English is ‘irrelevant’; interested only in itself. For those of you who are nodding right now – don’t worry. The government agrees with you. Every year, less and less money is assigned to the study of Literature in universities and schools. Graduates are speedily snapped up by PR or consultancy firms interested in personable, cheap employees who have more than two brain cells – or they re-train as lawyers or teachers. The few who pursue the subject further (idiots) will be met at every step by the pressures of funding, and at the end of a doctoral qualification (that’s seven years in higher ed) can be very happy on a salary of