Today sees the Royal Visit of HRH Prince William and Ms. Kate Middleton to the University of St Andrews, and, in a fluke of history, finds me attending seminars on the other side of town.
Since the Royal Visit is getting a lot of attention everywhere else in the media, and in fact you’re probably watching the festivities on the telly right now, I thought you’d like me to tell you about the seminars I’m attending.
OK—I just won’t even bother you with the morning seminar.* But the afternoon seminar sent me on a paradoxical quest to the library yesterday. The quest was simple. Find a newspaper article—said the seminar leader—derived from your field of research. Then find the academic piece of research the news article was derived from, and compare. So (the example said) find a Times article about findings originally presented in Nature.
Simple enough. Every major newspaper has an Arts section, right? I trotted happily down to the library to grab my favourite broadsheets. How difficult can it be to find an article about books?
Not difficult at all.
Except for the small bother that I couldn’t find anything.
Not a thing. I tried this week’s Times. I tried The Guardian. I tried The Scotsman. Heck, I even tried The Jerusalem Post. (The library subscribes, apparently.) Eventually I broke down and tried online sources—the BBC and even (although this was straying a bit far from the dailies the quest required) The Economist. And nothing.**
Oh, I found scads of articles on books. Book reviews. Author interviews. Authors writing book reviews. Authors on libraries and library funding. Authors on education. Education on authors. And all these a mere drop in the bucket (in my afternoon’s research) beside the articles on movies and pop music.
Each article fascinating in its own right, to be sure, but futile for my purposes. Because not a single article had critical, academic research behind it. Despite public appetite for books and reading and stories, this week at least my literary colleagues were silent in the British Press.
Forgive me if I harrumph a minute, but—is it just me, or is there too much alienation in literary criticism? I was at another seminar not too long ago, and it was generally agreed—despite, or perhaps because of, the room being full of doctoral candidates in literature—that literary studies were the least applicable to Real Life and social needs. Second only to continental philosophy and stale croutons.
Now, I could play the pedant and trot out rusty old examples like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which inadvertently created the FDA. (Sinclair wanted to start a socialist worker’s revolution instead, and seems to have been disappointed that he didn’t.) Or Dean Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal,’ an Early Modernist satirical essay that still undercuts the blustering of politicians, regardless of political leaning, and has an uncanny relevancy in this Age of Austerity. Or King Lear, which somehow, all these years later, manages to reveal the beauty, horror, and folly of being human…
Socrates said that an unexamined life is simply not worth living; I question whether there are more effective or deeper ways of examining life than through the arts, and through writing. I would further argue that unexamined arts are simply not worth creating. We need to understand—even at the basic level of curiosity—how things work.
Why are stories told and retold? What makes us like this book? What has the author done to make us like this character and not another? Why do these thousand-year-old texts speak into the modern situation with such startling immediacy? When we paint with words, what techniques and what theories are we using to create a world from letters on a page?
These are questions worth asking, perhaps worth spending several lifetimes answering. We need authors in the public forum (and I pause to applaud Philip Pullman’s heroic efforts on behalf of British libraries). We need book reviewers (there are several I read assiduously just for fun, even if I seldom read the books they review).
We also need literary critics—people who deeply engage with and understand not just the texts on the bookseller’s lists but the texts and stories and manuscripts which are our inheritance as people—as writers and lovers, poets and dreamers, parents and readers and children and friends. I know people like that. I can’t help thinking that if the media knew more about them, today I’d have been reading about their research in the paper.
Otherwise, we can get hoodwinked by the latest marketing trend as the capitalist machine churns out books that the machine tells us we want. We can get seduced by old political lies masquerading as edgy new truths. We can hide in complacency and forget that the world is wonderful and strange and filled with nightmares and dragons.
At this point, you may be thinking of some Foucault or Jung you read in undergrad once, and think, ‘Yeah, but what the heck does that have to do with it?’ And that’s my point. It has everything to do with it. (And I deliberately named two theorists of whom I am not fond.) But, ladies and gentlemen, neither critics nor readers are (by and large) making the effort to communicate and understand the how and the why.
So, what do you think? Am I right, am I wrong? Frankly, I’d love to be proved wrong with a slew of newspaper articles on literary criticism. Or does it just not make sense—does literary criticism just seem irrelevant and unimportant? Or is it even more important than I imagine?
Questions, comments, and corrections always welcome.
*I considered dropping out of the morning seminar, in fact. Who wants to go to two of the things in one day? I figured I was just busy, I had too much to do, and so on. So I checked my schedule again.
The morning seminar is on self-management.
There’s a moral to that, somewhere.
**The sole exception was a review in The Economist of a 532 page biography of an obscure modern poet. Which wasn’t bad, but really wasn’t the assignment, and biographies are different animals than critical monographs, anyway.