The latest MLA convention has predictably enough sparked another round of discussion about the state of literary study and, more specifically, what the role of literary study ought to be. In my opinion, that this happens almost every year suggests in itself that most academic scholars and critics don't really know what that role should be, and the current drift in literary study simply reflects this underlying reality.
Some would like to persist in their denial of this reality, dismissing the low esteem in which literary scholars are generally held to be essentially a public relations problem. "They" just don't understand how vital the service we perform really is. Others, however, are beginning to acknowledge that the study of literature has lost its way. Amardeep Singh, for example asks:
. . .Do we really know what we're doing when we teach literature? If so, why do I have so many graduate students who -– even after doing classes, exams, and even dissertations with me –- don't quite know what it is they should be doing? Why did I myself feel this way throughout graduate school? Moreover, are we doing the best job we can with our undergraduates? What are we training them for?
These are admirably pragmatic questions, to which, it seems to me, there are really just two answers, although the second one does open up a Pandora's Box of additional questions. 1) We teach literature in order to introduce students to the inherent pleasures and challenges of poetry, fiction, by focusing on the singular qualities of "literature itself." 2) We teach literature in order to get at other issues of educational value, using literature as convenient illustration or as case studies. Amardeep acknowledges that literature does indeed have singular qualities, which in a way leads him to choose answer 2:
The Canon Wars question and the Social Relevance question come together in literary studies around the question of the Usefulness of the text, which can also be called the Educative Value of the text.
I find it increasingly difficult to reject the criticism that the humanities is useless on the basis that works of art are by definition intentionally, Sublimely Useless (that's Kant's idea, isn't it? Also Oscar Wilde's, as I recall). There has to be more to it than simply shrugging our shoulders at the technocrats who run things (including, in most cases our own universities). The dominant principle of utility can be accepted, but reworked so as to better explain (and defend) the value of literature in an era of multiculturalism, pop-culturalism, and instrumental technocracy.
I think that good Art is useful for a particular kind of educative function, which need not mean a crude idea of 'social improvement'. I mean that reading literature (especially in a classroom) is most interesting when readers expect to learn something about themselves or the world along the way. A John Updike story about a man trying to come to terms with the failure of his marriage and the failure of his divorce is educative in the sense that it aims to make a point about the difficulty in finding independent meaning or emotional stability in the contemporary world. George Eliot's novels, and even Joyce's Ulysses in a certain way of reading it, are also educative. Eliot's Middlemarch is an argument about the limits of individualism (especially as it relates to women). And Joyce's novel is perhaps an argument about reconfiguring the idea of family away from blood and legal status (marriage, paternity) and towards a voluntaristic idea of affinity. If presented that way, students might well be able to say, “this relates to me, I can learn something from this that will help me in my life, and make me a smarter person.” If presented as merely a virtuosic display of literary power and imagination, however, it means a little less.
Such an approach has the virtue of being honest in the setting of its goals: to help students "learn something about themselves or the world," something that will "help" the student in coming to terms with "life." There's nothing wrong with such goals in the abstract, although they could as stated be the goals of almost any other subject in the academic curriculum. Which is, I take it, precisely the point. The study of literature does indeed become like any other subject, inlcuded in the curriculum in the first place for its "educative" value: educative in a specifically "scholastic" sense--part of what we learn in school. It does, of course, almost necessarily exclude works of literature that are most intensely literary, most deliberately "useless," as Amardeep admits when he says his approach has trouble with "more esoteric, 'problem' texts," such as those of Gertrude Stein or Salman Rushdie.
Dr. Crazy also admits that literary study is "in the midst of a major identity crisis," but she doesn't think the answer is to halt the movement away from literature and toward cultural studies, a movement that, in my opinion, is the fundamental cause of that very crisis:
And I do think there is value in studying things like the word "dude" or orgasms or representations of defecation or whatever. Just because these things aren't boring doesn't mean they aren't worthy of study. Sometimes I think that's what the populace demands of us - that we study only boring things. . . These [former] things are part of our culture and they are part of the art that we study and that makes them worthy of our inquiry not just because they are racy things to talk about but because they potentially tell us more about who we are and about the cultural moment in which the text was produced.. . . .
Presumably it is literature that is the primary "boring thing" Dr. Crazy has in mind (although her post is ostensibly about "literary study," she doesn't really have anything else to say about literature at all.) I assume that at best it would just be one of those "things [that] are part of our culture" that are "worthy of our inquiry" because "they potentially tell us more about who we are and about the cultural moment in which the text was produced." This approach to literary study, which is probably shared by a large number of literature professors, has implicitly concluded that literature is not really capable even of helping students "learn something about themselves or the world along the way" and has essentially foresworn the study of literature altogether for the kinds of objects Dr. Crazy mentions. And even when a work of literature is the object of study, it is not for its literary value but because of what it reveals about "the cultural moment."
In both of these views of "what we're doing when we teach literature," literature itself, for itself, is omitted almost entirely, in Amardeep's case grudgingly, in Dr. Crazy's quite easily. Literature in this sense just doesn't have much "educative" value, doesn't tell us enough about cultural moments or provide sufficient excitement for the bored scholars and students. It simply doesn't have broad enough appeal.
And finally I myself don't disagree much with that conclusion. That some works of literature are exceptionally good, even great, and might repay the student's time in reading them really isn't enough to justify including them in an academic curriculum. Why do we need classes in literary study simply to say "read this book, you'll like it"? For a while the problem with this kind of simple "appreciation" was solved by making critical approaches to literature the real subject of literary study, but that obviously no longer suffices if it means abandoning the literature part altogetherfor more and more desparate attempts to trump the most recently ascendant critical approach. And this kind of critical one-upsmanship is probably unavoidable in the long run, given the academic imperative that disciplines must "create knowledge" on a continual basis. Even if the academy were to return to a focus on "literature itself," this would inevitably turn out to be only a temporary fashion, to be superseded by the next generation of cutting-edge "knowledge." Under these circumstances, the only real alternatives available are to do something like what Amardeep suggests, using literature for its most palpably utilitarian value as education for life, or to give up literature altogether as subject of academic study and return it to those who find it valuable in, of, and for itself. I have more or less concluded that the second option is the best.