Teaching Literature

(x-posted to The Valve)

Look, I realize that there is a serious danger inherent in only writing posts about teaching literature. It’s not all I do, it’s not something I want to do exclusively, and above all it doesn’t make for ideal blogging unless it is leavened with humorous posts on occasional topics.

Nonetheless, Dr. Crazy wrote such an odd post that I have to respond in brief. The inspiration for the post was great: why do you teach literature? A White Bear wrote in with some fascinating observations about how her students respond to literature; she has observed them relying on a phony positivity that tries to immediately neutralize texts by applauding them for being conventional, and then applauding them for being different. This leads to several interesting conclusions, such as a) AWB is back and you should read her, and b) it’s a worthwhile question for any teacher to answer. If you happen to be a teacher, perhaps you will answer it in the space provided for comments.

I teach literature because I love reading it, and I want other people to feel comfortable investigating it. My interest in literature stems from my interest in other people’s experiences of life. To me, it matters a great deal how other people perceive the world and their place in it, and how their speech encodes — often with such astonishing density — those amalgamated experiences and interpretations. If you happen to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, then you might agree that it succeeds in making the ordinary experiences of a bourgeois Frenchman matter. Bauby, the protagonist, has an unsatisfying love affair, struggles to converse with his father, suffers a terrible illness, and learns from an acquaintance who spent four years as a hostage in Beirut. Were it not for literature, I suspect we would hunger even more for honest characterizations of life. As Wallace Shawn once observed,

We live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends! I mean…I mean, you know, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things. But we just don’t dare to ask each other!

Literature steps into the breach. I confess, at this moment, to total indifference about how we handle the relief from this ignorance that literature provides. For some people, it is an ethical revelation. For others, it is merely interesting. For aspiring writers, works of literature enable acts of literary usurpation. Regardless, we have no other antenna so finely attuned to the aftershocks of experience. For many of my students, serious conversations about bodily, imperfectly comprehended life depend upon some knowledge of literature, and some appreciation for it. The rest of the time, etiquette and convention bar the way. Other forms of popular culture, such as movies and music, do related work. Nonetheless, writing retains its singular value because it is a solitary and largely atechnical enterprise. It does not require collaborators, unlike most films, nor does it require much by way of money, dexterity, or materials.

Dr. Crazy writes that she inspires curiosity; I want to focus on the kind of curiosity specific to literature, namely social or empathetic curiosity. She writes that it disrupts the consumer model of education; that’s true, but not because it’s impractical. It actually disrupts the entrepreneurial model of education, because it privileges solicitousness over selling. She writes that she wants to instruct students in fineness and complexity, chracterizing this as the accomplishment of depth. More accurately, it is the accomplishment of style.

In the end, Dr. Crazy writes that understanding literature makes students capable of conversing with the rich, and inspires them to make space for pleasure. Neither claim holds much water. While it would be nice if every rich family resembled the families in Match Point or Quiz Show, in fact most I’ve known resembled the Wilcoxes from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. They awkwardly combined erudite, cultured conversation with patriarchal business sense, and even a certain impatience with culture.

As for the second point, my students are avid and self-aware consumers of pleasure, and it’s not my place to legislate what those pleasures should be. Naturally, literature has its peculiar joys, but so do things I often forego, such as early morning walks.

A White Bear writes, very wittily, that she teaches in order to plead with her students not to be suckers. I do love the salty, healthy skepticism that aesthetic training provides. Nonetheless, I have to admit that most often books make readers look like suckers. They bore their friends with the details of character and plot. They buy tributary, explanatory books with annotations or critical essays. They name various things after books or parts of books, including cats, computers, and their personas on the Internet. Whenever a reader is acting most naturally, minus the solemnizing accessories of a leather chair and a study, she looks like a dreamer, a fool, or both. Yes, that’s what I teach. It’s not always dignified, but it’s irreplaceable.


I have learned, via the Constructivist, that scholar of golf and Gojira, that I have the power to tag five people. My votes are for Scott, tomemos, Sisyphus, Rough Theory, and Larval Subjects to respond, since I’d welcome posts covering other fields in the humanities.