the how and the why

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.

You’re welcome.

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.

5 thoughts on “the how and the why

  1. I whole heartedly agree with this piece John!

    I think the main problem with art like literacy and philosophy is that we have convinced ourselves that what we do has no meaning. At least I know the mentality of some philosophy students that i have spoken to who almost apologise in conversation for their occupation.

    although perhaps it isnt quite their fault? after all we live in a society now were sceince is slowly beginning to be seen as the only methodology that holds truth. At least in my opinion I could be overstating it

    I also think that it could be because of peoples desire to “not think to much”. we can (I hope) see this in peoples disinterest in holding views in such things as politics, religion etc. I think personally the attitude of people nowadays is that they should make alot of money, have alot of sex and have as little responsibility as possible to name afew. They dont seem to want to search out a “deep” meaning of life.

    I think you have really hit the nail on the head when it comes to solving this issue, and that is to get out their and get people excited about good searching for truth and meaning in the arts.

    does this make sense?

  2. Great piece, Mr. Pond. It’s funny–not an hour after reading your piece, I came across this article on the endangered book review. It’s only a small aspect of what you’re talking about, I think, but it was fascinating.

    How very interesting that the literary experts would undercut their own science by considering it least relevant to life. Western society as we’ve known it has been shaped by literature. If we don’t understand that literature, we don’t understand who we are.

    As for getting hoodwinked, and the machine, and the masquerading lies, perhaps part of our problem is that we–even in reading–are not often taught to think. We’re allowed and sometimes encouraged not simply to feel, but to pride ourselves in our feelings and mistake them for reasoned conclusions. I’m a great big F on the Myers-Briggs, and more than suspicious of some of the bolder claims made for Reason Alone nowadays, but I’ll raise a hand for rationality here. It matters that we have understanding and critical thought and (much as I hate anything that smacks of conflict) debate around the ideas that give structure to our culture.

    P.S. Every time I think of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I think of this, and laugh till I cry. Which is not, perhaps, the best response. But it’s the Cracked writer’s fault for being so funny about it. 😉

  3. This post poses a rather exciting challenge. There is currently a competition in libraryland to encourage librarians to stop preaching to the choir (i.e. other librarians and avid readers) and spread the word about library facilities through popular mediums including the mainstream press. There is a significant prize for the best entry.

    It would be exciting to see a similar contest for academics who study and write about literature. I’m not entirely certain how it would work, but I suspect that it could result in a great deal of brilliance and general hilarity.

  4. Matthew, yes, that does make a lot of sense. I do think that the literary critics aren’t entirely to blame, and that there has been a shift away from not only imaginative, creative understanding of the world, but academic understanding of literature. The emphasis right now seems to be very utilitarian and pragmatic, on a scale that has little time or space for imagination, spiritual awakening, or self-awareness. And that’s a problem.

    Jenna, that’s a great article you’ve linked to. I like how that connects to our earlier conversation about whether or not writers should review. I’m not sure whether I blame the MFA for the problems–increased collegiality is probably a good thing, and shouldn’t dilute critical rigor–but there does seem to be a problem. We fiction writers tend to fear reviewers too much, though–the article gets that right. And it also highlights the dichotomy I’m mentioning in this post; in no way does the article allude to academic criticism or review. And that is also a problem.

    irreverently–that’s brilliant. Are you entering the library contest? It would be great to see similar initiatives for academics, yes! Any idea how one goes about that, or what would be sensible? Fascinating, really.

  5. I’d like to enter the library contest, but as of yet no great inspiration has struck. For now I’m letting it simmer at the back of my brain.

    I think it would be totally plausible to set up this type of contest for an academic field, although one would need to be specific in the rules about the desired outcome. For example, it would probably be more beneficial to introduce specific concepts or theories to the public discourse rather than generally promote the study of the academic subjects (although of course there is something to be said for the virtues of general promotion of a topic or service).

    It would be helpful to have the backing of a professional body (probably a university) and sponsorship from that body or a related one (an academic publisher, perhaps?), because you’d need to publicise the contest and offer a really awesome prize in order to garner awesome submissions.

    Submissions could take any form, so long as they clearly reached an audience not usually engaged with literary theory.

    There are bits and pieces of academia that leak into popular culture. Remember that Lapham’s Quarterly article about Barbara Newhall Follett that went viral? Her work and life, which had been forgotten over the better part of the past century, are now of great interest once again. Of course, the article wasn’t a piece of literary theory, but it’s not that great of leap from one to the other.

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