What English Professors Love

At the start of last week’s Friday Fragment, I posted a link to a recent interview I did with Emily Mah Tippetts.



After Chad Merkley read the interview, he had several questions about the following statement I made:

“I have a Ph.D. in Literature. Most people assume this helped me to become a writer. Actually, it proved to be more a hindrance. The things that English professors love – ambivalent endings, layers of symbolism, complex and contradictory images – are things that drive most ‘real’ readers nuts.”

To quote Chad directly: “Jane, I’d be interested in hearing more about this issue. Why do English professors love those things? What defines “literature”? I do vaguely remember some WW posts about light reading versus serious reading, and related issues, but I think it might be worth discussing again.”

I’m more than happy to do so…  However, this is one person’s musing, so I’d welcome other thoughts on the matter.

At Fordham University, where I took my degrees, a Ph.D. candidate was required to show a general knowledge of “literature,” but to also have one major and two minor areas of concentration.  I chose Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern British Lit.  Modern Lit was, by the time I was doing my work in the late 1980’s, not very modern, as it focused on writers from early in the twentieth century such as Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Auden, and Lawrence.  Anything after that time was being called “Contemporary…”  Nor was it entirely British, since T.S. Eliot was born in the U.S., but became a British citizen, while W.H. Auden was British born and became an American.  D.H. Lawrence set nearly all of his work in England, but was a citizen of the world.

This is not as off-topic as it seems, because the wide spread of time represented by my areas of concentration gave me an opportunity to see the change in how the audience for non-fiction was perceived – and when the split between popular writing and “literature” became marked.

Before I go any further, let me limit what I’m going to call “literature.”  To better enable us to discuss this topic in comparison to what I write today, I’m going to narrow the focus to the stuff most English majors study: novels, plays, poetry, and the like.  Most of this is fiction or at least takes (as in Shakespeare’s history plays, which Alan and I Tangented on at some length a while back) enough liberties with its source material to become fiction.

Fiction writers don’t only write fiction.  Some even become as well-known for their non-fiction work as for their fiction.  For example, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers both wrote theological works that remain respected.  But for right now we’re going to focus more or less on fiction.

So, with the understanding that we’re limiting the field to English major stuff, here we go…

You’d think that in the Middle Ages, when the larger portion of the population was unable to read, that literature would have been for the elite alone.  This was far from the truth.  A considerable amount of creative writing was done with the specific goal of bringing high-brow theological issues to the masses.

The play Everyman is a good example.  Everyman is a dramatization of the human spiritual journey, focusing on how many of the things we humans treasure are, in the end, things we must leave behind when we finally enter the grave.

Much of the subject matter of medieval literature was overtly theological.  However, this is no great surprise, given that the literate portion of the population was almost all associated with the church in some way.  So literature, yes.  For the elite?  No.

By the Renaissance, literature had broken off from being theological in emphasis.  Once again, the population was largely illiterate.  Did this mean that literature was produced for the elite alone?  Once again, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Since almost everyone has read some Shakespeare, I’ll use his works as an example.  Even in his comedies, Shakespeare tackled serious topics – like the nature of justice and mercy, or what should one do when love and loyalty come into conflict.  The topics of Shakespeare’s tragedies were not much different from those of his comedies – only the end result was more grim.  (Beatrice and Benedict get married and presumably go on happily bickering into old age; Romeo and Juliet get married, then die.)

Did these serious issues mean Shakespeare was writing for the highbrows alone?  Not in the least.  Even his tragedies include comic scenes or really low-brow humor.  This is often interpreted as Shakespeare writing for the “groundlings,” that is, the people in the cheap seats.  I personally think he was simply a good playwright who realized that if he was going to fill the Globe, he had to have the equivalent of a “chick flick” for the ladies and some fart jokes for the men – no matter the social class or educational level.

As time progressed, a couple of revolutions made literature more widely available.  The biggest of these was print material becoming both less expensive and more widely available.  The other was a more broadly literate populace.  Novels, which had been around in one form or another for quite a while, finally found their audience.  Short stories burgeoned as inexpensive magazines sought to fill their pages.

But even then, there wasn’t a clear divide between literature for the elite and pure entertainment for the masses.  Dickens – who most of us now encounter in classrooms – was a pop writer.  Many of his novels were serialized tales with chapters that ended in cliffhangers to assure that readers would “tune in next week” to find out what happened to Oliver Twist or Little Nell or whoever.

However, once there is lots of material published, everyone can’t read everything.  Those of us who’ve been reading SF/F for a while remember when it was possible to keep up with most of the hot new stuff.  I have older friends who remember when it was possible to literally read everything published in a given year in SF/F.

The same glut of material occurred with general lit. Just as today you’ll meet people at an SF con who only read military SF or paranormal romance fantasy or hard SF, readers began to not be able to keep up.  However, I credit the split between Literature (with a capital L and studied by English majors) and popular, genre fiction to two works published in 1922:  James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Waste Land.

Before I get to this, let me return to one of Chad’s questions, because the answer is necessary to understand why I think as I do.

Chad asked, “Why do English professors love those things [ambivalent endings, layers of symbolism, complex and contradictory images]?”  My flippant, short answer would be, “Because it gives them something to talk about in the classroom.”  As with most things, the issue is more complex.

If a professor is teaching material published even a hundred years ago, there’s a lot of background students need to know in order to understand the material.  Some of this can be covered in a footnote (you’d be astonished by how many students don’t know how to use footnotes), but others are more complex.

A historical context is often important to understanding a work.  Often it’s not as simple as a listing of dates.  Many of my students couldn’t understand why Hamlet was so upset by his mother’s remarriage, nor why he considered the marriage incestuous.  The historical context helps because, in Shakespeare’s time, marriage made people “family,” so a woman’s husband’s brother becomes her brother – and if, after her husband’s death, she marries her brother-in-law, she could be seen as marrying her own brother.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s moving poem, “In Memoriam, A.H.” gains a great deal of depth when the reader understands that Tennyson was living at a time where science was creating a considerable amount of culture shock.  Tennyson is not only mourning his close friend, he is mourning the certainty of his father’s generation where heaven, hell, and all the rest were taken for granted – before scientific discoveries put what everyone had always known, because the Bible said so, to doubt.

With me?  Now let’s go back to 1922.  You’re someone who admires cool, cutting edge writers like Joyce and Eliot, but their works are modern.  There’s no need for interpretation, is there?  Anyone should be able to read something published here and now, right?

James Joyce didn’t think so.  He was so impressed by the complexity of Ulysses that he wanted to make sure that none of the critics missed how brilliant he was.  Did he leave the work to speak for itself?  No.  He made sure that documents providing what I can’t help but think of as a secret decoder ring for the novel got into the right hands.  Suddenly, no one was reading the novel for itself, they were digging around, discussing the notes, not the novel.

By coincidence, when T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land was published, there were five blank pages left in the book.  The publisher suggested Eliot provide some notes regarding the complicated imagery of the poem.  Eliot did so.  He regretted it ever after, feeling that the notes, not the poem, got all the attention.

But regrets or not (and I don’t think Joyce, who would go on to write the impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake, regretted it one bit), the world of reading was changed forever.  The lines between Literary Fiction (which often presented itself as the one and only Literature) and Popular Fiction had been drawn.

And English professors became Virgil with the Golden Bough, guiding the lost through the twists of this particular Hades.  Any work that the average person could read without a guide couldn’t be Literature.  It was demoted to Genre Fiction (SF/F, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, etc.) or popular fiction and, never – especially in the Serious Classroom, at least beyond about fifth grade – were the twain to meet.

Or that’s how I see it….

12 Responses to “What English Professors Love”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane, Very illuminating post on a complex subject and question. Personally, I hate that many readers are forever chased away from pleasure reading because they are forced to read “Literature” in high school.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      It was Literature that kept me from graduating from high school*

      Gr 12 English was all literature all the time – the only real difference between university entrance and non-UE was how much higher and deeper it was piled. If it had been Language and Linguistics, or even advanced grammar and composition, I’d have been there, but as it was…

      * well, that and reading about “mature students”. When I realised that I didn’t _have_ to graduate to get into university, that put the nail in the coffin. Worked for a couple of years, took a trip around the world, then went back to school – Sciences with a side of History.

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    I see no difference between literature and popular (ie genre) fiction. Both can and do contain all the elements that Jane identified as belonging solely to the kind of things that English professors like to study. For example, Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” trilogy is a thinly disguised allegory about the loss of basic freedom suffered by a population under threat from an amorphous external attack (zombies = terrorists). When I pointed this out to a friend, he was astonished. All he saw in the books was the surface plot. Nevertheless the other elements were there.

    Most people don’t see what lies beneath the surface of a story. They read the story for interest, excitement and (yes) escape. And that’s a perfectly fine way to approach a story. If there really is a difference between genre fiction and literature, it is that the genre fictions often have an exciting enough story that no more is necessary for the enjoyment of it. Everything else is icing on the cake. Literature for English professors tends to be short on plot and surface interest (that’s not always the case, of course. Hemingway was a master of both).

    Many genre fictions, of course, really are nothing but surface with no depth at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But to deny that genre fictions can contain elements of literature does a disservice to the genre fictions. There is no dividing line. There is only fiction.


  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I was laughing because I’d just read the website io9 before I got here. What I was looking at was this: http://io9.com/a-dissection-of-all-the-tiny-clues-in-the-ant-man-trail-1677981638

    Does anyone think the Ant Man movie is high art? I don’t. Bloggers have come to love dissecting movie trailers to see what clues they offer to the movie. Marvel has been particularly obliging, littering their trailers and movies with so-called easter eggs for their “rabid fans.”

    Perhaps William Gibson was right, and the street does find its own uses for things. If that’s the case, then I think the proverbial street has appropriated the literatis’ professional toolkit and bootlegged it to the masses, many of whom never appreciated those tools when they were forced to use them in the classroom.

  4. Paul Says:

    My reading is for entertainment, but it’s a nice bonus to learn something in the process and/or be emotionally moved by the material.

  5. Chad Merkley Says:

    So “Literature” with the capital L basically developed from authors showing off. I haven’t read much Joyce or Eliot (I remember Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as Young Man vaguely from a college course; the only Eliot on my shelf that’s not in an anthology is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats).

    The timing of this seems interesting: Similar things were going about this time in the music world with Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. They were big into systematic composition, and unless you know the system and why those choices were made, it’s really hard to listen to and appreciate. You have to have the secret decoder ring.

    My hazy memory of the history of the visual arts suggests that abstract art, cubism, dada, and so forth also had their roots in the years between the world wars. Coincidence? Deeper expression of societal anxiety? Zeitgeist?

    I do notice that there is no lack of a market for artwork, music and literature that in no way requires learned exegesis.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I like your way of putting it. I’m sure someone will disagree with me, but it’s fun to put the theory Out there and see what folks say.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      You’re right that much of that visual-arts matrix also developed between the wars, but I think the foundations for it were laid in the run-up to WWI. As, in some ways, were those for Schoenberg, Berg & Co., who were already showing signs of what they’d get up to later. In many ways the writers came late to the party. Which, come to think of it, often seems to be the case – major cultural shifts seem to turn up in the visual arts [counting architecture as one of them] first.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Well, I know both camouflage and dazzle patterns originated in part from the art world, dazzle camouflage from cubism (it was supposed to throw off range-finding and make it harder for torpedoes to hit ships) camouflage from abstractism (the breaking up of symmetric outlines makes things harder to see, something the abstract painters figured out along with the biologists). Thing is, dazzle camouflage was used in WWI, so I think the ideas were in the air before the wars.

      As for Schoenberg et al., I’d suggest a couple of sources for their music. One is simply the idea of Europe, with it’s beautiful classical and romantic patterns, collapsing in ruins around them. There’s a lot of the collapse of formal patterns in their music, the seeking for new patterns*. Another big source are the sounds and rhythms of the industrial age. For example, Rhapsody in Blue has both the blue notes on the clarinet (and I’ve played that part–it’s scary), and also the train rhythm in the later pieces. It samples from an industrial soundscape, just as hip hop captures some of the sounds of urban life and psychedelia alludes to the experience under some drugs. The thing about Schoenberg is that his 12-tone scale is actually quite similar to the scale used in classical Chinese music, but it sounds totally different. Chinese music also bend the notes blue, but you don’t hear it (at first) as similar to jazz or the blues.

      As for why contemporary classical music hasn’t caught on, I think it’s because they’ve abandoned too much structure in their quest to find something new. People tend to like familiar patterns. So instead of Schoenberg, we get things like country music, in which, as shown in this You Tube video the songs are so similar that you can play six #1 hits simultaneously without causing cacophony.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        You’re right about the timing. Just looked it up: Braque and Picasso were producing Cubist work by 1910; Dada was actually an element of the anti-war movement, so around before 1916.

  6. Jane Lindskold Says:

    I think this discussion has given me an idea for a future WW. I’ll need to see if I can get it to “jell.” Thank you, all for the thoughtful comments!

  7. Unreadably New? Boringly Formulaic? | Jane Lindskold: Wednesday Wanderings Says:

    […] Comments to last week’s WW wandered (as well they should) onto the subject of why so many early twentieth century artistic […]

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