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Playing Hooky

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I was going to go in a different direction with this today, but right now I want to tr to head off yet another problem–and that is the constant tendency to equate “objective judgments of literature” with “what English Departments teach.”

Virtually every single time we have this particular discussion, common sense observations about objective standards in the arts are followed by, “well, you’d better tell that to those English teachers who are teaching all this crap in Freshman English.”

First, English departments are are a relatively new phenomenon.  Universities did not begin teaching literature in English–or any modern language–on the college level until the beginning of the twentieth century. 

For a while, there wqs a real effort to produce departments and courses in the major that would train students to understand and evaluate literature.  It lasted, I’d guess, until about the late Sixties or early  Seventies.

But Freshman English has rarely been an effort to introduce students to great literature.  It’s a composition course, meant to insure that students can produce a standard college essay without too many mistakes in it.  To the extent that literature was presented at all, even in the old days, it was to provide fodder for teaching how to write the paper.  Freshman English, after all, had to be taught to everybody, including to people who were not interested in literature.  Those people still n eeded to  know how to write standard English papers. 

These days, the standard Freshman English course contains no literature at all. Readings are restricted to “topical” essays on subjects the faculty hopes will “interest” students, which is why you get those endless “thoughtful” disquistions on euthanasia, abortion, and smoking bans.

But second, standards for literature are not set by English Departments, nor are English departments necessarily the last word on what is good or bad in literature.

They should be–and during that period when there was a serious attempt being made to make them so, they go pretty close–but in the last forty years or so they have come to representing one of the great dumping grounds of academia.  I could list on the fingers of both hands–with fingers left over–the graduate departments of  English in this country that still teach students to understand and evaluate literature.

I don’t care what is being taught in English departments, or what the latest professor of deconstuctionism thinks of Christopher Marlowe, and I really don’t care what is being taught in Freshman English.   None of those things have anything to do with objective standards of quality in literature, or even with the contents of the Western  Canon.

The Western Canon would still be exactly what it is if there were no academic departments of any kind at all, and the standards of value in literature would be the same even if nobody was ever again i nterested in knowing them. 

As for the fifty year rule–it does not say that if something has been around fifty years, it automatically belongs in the list of great works in English.  What it says is that if a book has been around for fity years, read and reread by a couple of generations of uncoerced readers, then it deserves consideration–and fifty years is the minimum that has to pass before we are able to give it consideration.

And that standard was proposed in a time before the Internet, when it was relatively difficult for a work to last for fity years without something extraordinary happening.  It may take longer now to know if a book is actually going to last, or if it just happens to be fitting into a particular niche in time. 

I don’t know.  I’ll let that one ride for the moment, and stick with the fifty year rule unless it seems to be becoming less useful.  That said, Chaucer has been around for close to a millennium now, and people went on reading him when there were no English departments to “assign” h is work, and that’s a very useful indication that he had something we need to pay attention to.  So, time matters, and really long periods of time matter a lot.

The last thing is this–I’m talking here about literary criticism, not literary reviewing.  Literary criticism tackles subjects like “The Image of the Madonna in the Poetry of Peter Abelard” and “The  Evolution of the Puritan Ethic in the Work of the  Transcendentalist Poets.” 

It does not deal with snap judgments about contemporary work–buy John Jone’s novel, it’s reaelly great!  That’s reviewing.

So, if we can take those definitions and stick to them, I think I can find a way to go on from here.

And m aybe actually say something that doesn’t get tangled up in mess. 

Of course, I’m still sick, so there’s that.

Written by janeh

November 16th, 2009 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Playing Hooky'

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  1. I hate being first to respond but here goes. In the early ’70s when I was an undergraduate and in graduate school, English departments did teach students to undertand and evaluate literature. We read the works themselves first. Even in freshman composition, we read poetry, short stories and novels and the literary criticism of them. Following two semesters of composition, we then studied either English or American literature for an additional two semesters. All students did this–English majors and biology majors, and so on. New criticism was still regarded as a legitimate approach to evaluating and interpreting literature.

    It was not until fifteen or so years later that I was introduced to deconstruction, marxist and feminist theory applied to literature and so on. I could not then and still don’t comprehend how deconstruction contributes to understanding literature or even literature itself. I think because literature itself — rather than convoluted essays that have little relation to the work and that sometimes seem to be written only to inflate its author’s ego–is no longer the academic focus, English departments can’t have a great deal to say about literary standards.

    Jacket blurbs on novels or even non-fiction, the brief descriptions of bestsellers that appear in Ingram Advance (a tool used by libraries and bookstores) and synopses in Book Page (another publication available in libraries and bookstores) are strictly for promotion, no weighing of the strenghts and weaknesses of the work. Reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Review, the New York Times Book Review are simply the reviewer’s opinion of the work, often based on subjective standards, a discussion not an attempt to interpret. I haven’t had opportunity to read actual criticism in the last several years. When I read it as a college student I felt it gave me a better understanding of the work. In the ’80s and ’90s I worked in the Literature, Languages and Popular Reading department of a large urban library. There were high school students from all over the county who came in for sources to do term papers. We had a hard time convincing them that a period review of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was not literary criticism.
    I know, a least in part, what the Western canon included nearly four decades ago. I am also aware of the later fracas about exclusion of some works ( for example by women and slaves) because they failed to meet a standard that was felt by some to be unfair. And if knowledge of the canon, whatever it includes or excludes, is not curently taught by college English departments, then how are current students to be aware of it?


    16 Nov 09 at 4:06 pm

  2. OK, but if none of our experience applies, generalizations become unhelpful. We remember (sometimes all too well) what we were assigned, and there’s a fair bit of overlap. Called on to study and promote “the best” without reference to the RRL, there might be substantially less agreement about what’s being discussed.
    FYI in the wilds of Indiana Freshman Lit and Comp was more lit than comp at least as late as 1970. But by the time I was done with it, I never took another course with an ENG prefix. If the English Department believed in promoting certain works of literature, they went about it poorly.
    I ran into literary criticism–not reviews–on my own. It seemed to me then, and still does, a marvellous thing when done properly. A pity my instructors never made use of it.

    Also, I think after a hundred years the new has worn off.

    Hope you feel better soon.


    16 Nov 09 at 5:25 pm

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