Literary Studies, Anyone?

Disclaimer: What follows is a rant about something that can screw up the creative process. This post is more esoteric than is normal for this blog. It contains a lot of jargon, and talks a lot about academic politics and social history, and it won’t interest everybody. Don’t worry, though. It doesn’t signal a change of direction for the blog. I’ll be back on Monday with more stuff about contracts, stories, podcasting, and my general flavor of nutiness.

Last night on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog I made a snarky comment about the deleterious effect of a Literary Studies degree (or, in my case, 90% of a Lit degree) on creativity. The comment went something like this:

A Literary Studies course is the worst thing you can do for your creativity, other than bashing your skull in with a mallet while reciting the lyrics to “The Song That Never Ends”

Needless to say, this caused a minor row in the twitterverse among my fellow literati, and I received a few demands to justify myself (which is not easy to do on the best of days, let alone in 140 characters or less), so, in the name of entertainment, here goes, in no particular order:


1: The Premise of Literary Studies is Misguided

Leaving aside those in search of an easy “A,” people generally go into literary studies either because they want to pursue a career as a writer or because they love stories and want to teach literature to high school and/or college students. Literary Studies courses, however, don’t do much to prepare you for either.

To write effective fiction, there are a number of things you can study that will help: psychology, history, language, applied sociology and group dynamics, neurology, chaos theory, evolutionary biology, religion, semiotics, and philosophy leap to mind. And you can also learn a lot from studying literature, in the sense of reading books that you might not necessarily read for pleasure. Cultivating a habit of learning, and observing the mediums of communication around you, is extremely useful. Getting practice actually writing stories is also very important.

To teach literature effectively, it helps to be familiar with the historical context of the work in question, the background and literacy of the audience, and the subtle connections and influences of the work to other works in the canon being studied (it is, for example, difficult to explain a lot of the symbolic subtext of Lord of the Flies to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the mythology surrounding Satan). One would also do well to learn the the techniques of Socratic Dialog, effective communication, critical thinking, and rhetoric.

But Literary Studies degree programs, while they touch on many of these elements, do not focus here. They focus on deconstruction, explication, and political analysis (and in ways that are dishonest, which I’ll get into in a bit). A Lit. Studies student is required to write a lot of papers, but is very seldom required to engage in creative work (such as writing stories). Even in the best of programs that don’t display some of the problems I’ll detail below, this leads to a very one-sided understanding of the creative process.

In explicating a poem, for example, one teases out the layers of meaning and symbols, underlining the ambiguities and tensions and bringing them into sharp focus. The explicator comes to see poetry as an exercise in precision engineering–such glorious economy of syllables hyper-condensing such subtlety surely must be the work of precise craftsmanship, akin to designing a car.

So when you go to write poetry and imbue it with meaning, you fall flat on your face. You can’t imagine that metaphors are something you pluck from the air, rather than something you labor over with great deliberation. It doesn’t occur to you that the process of composing metered poetry (we’ll leave freeverse to one side), while it has its exacting mechanical requirements, is not engineering. Jazz also has exacting mechanical requirements, but they’re requirements that have to emerge chaotically from the practiced subconscious, or the result sounds like shit. The multilayered themes that Lit students pick apart are just as often subconscious and accidental as they are deliberate, and some of the best comes in the heat of the moment, by accident, when the author/poet isn’t trying to be profound.

How can this be? Like jazz, poetry (and narrative) obey rules so complex that it’s impossible to “fake it” by reverse engineering. The only way to brilliance is the long way around, training oneself and honing one’s craft through laborious trial and error. The method is too complex to learn by rote.

Explication and analysis have their place (I still very much enjoy them), but they don’t do the three things they’re supposed to do:
They don’t help you learn to be a better writer.
They don’t help you understand how the poet/author created her masterpiece.
And they don’t necessarily tell you what the poem or story means, because while looking at the pieces it’s very easy to miss the gestalt, and many truly masterful wordsmiths produce works that can only be enjoyed or understood on the gestalt level.

To use philosophical terms, a work of literature is “contingent” rather than a “thing in itself.” It is always a piece communication, and that nature has a non-trivial bearing on its meaning, content, etc. Studying “Literature” (in quotes here because “literary studies” encompasses film, lyrical music, narrative nonfiction, and poetry as well as fiction) in the way it’s been studied in the last seventy years is, essentially, to spend a great deal of time studying nothing at all.

2: The Methods of Literary Studies are Dishonest

Every field in the academy–the sciences, critical history, the plastic and visual arts, the dramatic arts–has a toolkit. In a science department you learn to do science (methodology, experimentation, reporting, peer review) and use its tools (from Bunsen burners to calculus), so that you may produce new and important work in that field (new scientific theories and data). In a history department, you learn to do history (research, evaluation, criticism, interact with the empirical and social sciences that might have a bearing on your studies) so that, in the end, you are prepared to make discoveries and communicate them. In a graphic arts program you learn to do art (sketching, painting, sculpting, photography, the ethical and legal environments you may have to navigate as an artist, etc.) so that you can grow into a competent, producing artist.

You see the trend. In every degree program, you learn to do the discipline. You don’t just learn to think about it, you are equipped to be an active participant in the creation of further knowledge and culture in that field.

If you’re pursuing a lit degree, though, you will come out of your degree program equipped to talk about written works as if you understood them (unless you’re an exceptional student and learned less popular methods of analysis, you probably don’t). That’s it. Four to six years and a hundred thousand bucks, just to learn the jargon. Here are some things that you won’t learn in any literary studies program I’ve ever seen:

Character voice, nested plot structure, cliffhangering, tension, writing effective sex scenes, misdirection, making violence interesting, structuring conflict, copyright law, libel law, contracts, the unique tax problems of writers, effective (and multisensory) imagery, subtext, dialog, and (unless you’re studying poetry) rhythmic techniques, applied psychology.

Note that those are things that all fiction writers employ to some extent, whether they do it consciously or subconsciously (and the business items are things that all writers ignore at their own peril).

Instead, what you’ll learn to do is “analyze” literature. What they call “analysis” is not something that would pass for analysis in any other field. The standard literary method derives heavily from Foucault and Derrida, and deals in things like deconstruction, post-structural approach to narrative, and social power dynamics projected through the medium of the text. These guys were the last of the Marxist/Bourgeois literary/social philosophers (each had different roots, but that great philosophical divide in many ways reaches an end point with them), and giants in artistic philosophy circles. They were both quite concerned with how narrative creates culture, frames thought, coerces conformity, and serves as the velvet glove of the power elite. Their concerns were with the meta-narrative–their word for “worldview”–of western culture.

For those of you in the know, yes, I realizing I’m simplifying this to a criminal degree. For the rest of you–I’m sorry that this stuff is so esoteric. It really is relevant, as you’ll see next.

Getting into the ins and outs of Postmodernism (the school of thought that they inadvertently codified) is a long and much more complicated discussion, but here’s where it gets dishonest with respect to literary theroy:

The devotees of Postmodernism began using literature as a way to do philosophy under the radar, so to speak. By carrying out their philosophical and political dialectic in the realm of literature, they were able to promulgate an ideology (some aspects of which I heartily agree with, others not so much) without being subject to the normally ruthless forces of substantive academic debate.

Over the course of the twentieth century, critical thinking in literary analysis gradually went out the window, replaced by ideologically driven thinking encapsulated in a jingoistic (and obfuscatory) vocabulary. And, in all of it, the one thing that wasn’t being studied was literature. Instead of the object of study or of craft, literature became the cypher through which myriad agendas were worked (because, after the Marxists learned how to use this kind of doubletalk, everyone else appropriated the shell game for their own ends).

3: The Culture of Literary Studies is Anti-intellectual

If you spend any time around academic institutions, you’ll sense a bit of tension between the sciences and the humanities. Back in the time of Percy Bysshe Shelley, these two broad fields of endeavor more or less declared war on each other. The hyper-rationalistic scientists looked with scorn upon all things emotional (believing, as they did, that superstition, indolence, and poverty were all the results of ignorance and fear). The Romantics fought back, arguing for the purity of nature and passion, and arguing that science could tell us nothing useful about the human condition. That split deepened and grew bitter over the centuries, and is a deep source of much of the culture war that plagues Western civilization right now.

In The Lord of the Rings, when Saruman declares himself “‘Saruman The White’ no longer, but ‘Saruman of Many Colors,’ for the white light may be broken and bent to more effective use,” Gandalf replies “He who would break a thing to understand it has left the path of wisdom.” This, in a single exchange, is the fight between the Romantics against the Rationalists. Because of that fight, the Romantic half of academia [i.e. The Humanities] (literary and religious studies and some philosophy–though this camp used to also include philosophy and history) has seen itself as the sanctified purveyor of wisdom about the human condition.

I consider it a good thing that the last fifty years have seen astonishing advances in our understanding of creativity and how it works. Rationality is no longer seen as antithetical to emotion and creativity, but as an expression of both. If you want to study any kind of art, you can’t do it anymore without an understanding of the latest in neurology. Applied psychology, sociology, optics, and ecology wouldn’t hurt either. Although the scientific picture of humanity is far from complete, the understanding of the mechanisms of human communication and thought are now far superior to the fuzzy mysticism that once passed for precision in the humanities. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for the ineffable, only that we better understand how and why some things feel ineffable.

The culture of critical theory (almost any degree program with “Studies” affixed to the end of it), though, don’t see it this way. Instead, like the priesthood of a dying religion, they have spent the last forty years fighting a rear-guard action against the sciences, and in the process they’ve grown moribund. If you want superb literary analysis, with very few exceptions, you have to go back to the era of World War 2 and before. Literary studies have, in the meantime, produced almost nothing new, and very little of note.

Ironic and tragic, but in a field of study where the horizon is as limitless as human imagination, the bulk of the intelligentsia are ghettoized. Only a very few brave souls, such as Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon have dared to break out of the narrow brackets of modernist literary criticism and delve into the un-respectable “genres.”

Alas, the prevailing culture regards the unreadable, the unenjoyable, the old, and the highly political as the only works worthy of study and comment. (This isn’t a new phenomenon. The “Classics” of today were the pop entertainments of yesteryear. But it is a much more intense, and intensely unpleasant, phenomenon today).

Literary Studies and Creative Paralysis

When taking an intellectual approach to any field of endeavor, one risks short-term creative paralysis in the face of information overload–centipede problems, they’re called. I don’t have a problem with that–it’s natural, and it does pass if you relax and let the learning sink in.

But the broken culture, the dishonesty, the political doubletalk, and the intellectual vacuity of Literary Studies programs can and do produce long-term creative paralysis. The Lit student who learns “analysis” under these conditions is prone to adopting those same lazy, self-destructive mental habits as his own, forever second-guessing himself, wondering if this or that turn of phrase betrays unconscious racism, or sexism, or if it will be construed that way, opening him up to slander from his audience. If he’s one who wants to write romance novels, or mysteries, he’s left to wonder if his life’s work will be worth the bother, since he’s been trained to de-value entertainment and enjoyment, and to think of genre literature (or anything that doesn’t carry a heavy political message) as “pulp,” “hack,” “fluff,” or “trash.”

In the meantime, hacks like Bradbury and Ellison and Andre Norton just mastered their craft through practice without the benefit of literary studies (none of them went to college, one of them never even attended high school). Most authors through history, and most authors today, did not learn their craft by studying for a Lit degree.

So, like I said, if you’re wanting to be a writer, do yourself a favor:

Study literature by reading. Pay attention to how your favorite writers (or writers you don’t particularly like) use words to shape your perceptions, evoke emotions, and alter your consciousness. But for Pete’s sake, don’t go into debt to get a Lit degree. You won’t learn anything you need, and you’ll very likely use years of your creative life unlearning the self-destructive mental habits it teaches you. If you ARE interested in deep symbolic analysis, learn history, get familiar with your culture’s literary heritage, and take some semiotics courses. But don’t waste your money on lit courses.

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11 Comments

  1. How true.
    I read English Language and Literature at Oxford University – a while back, before Eagleton and the dark forces of deconstruction hit town. I read everything and analysed most of it into little pieces. I enjoyed a lot of what I read, but this was outweighed by the effect of this analytical and rigorous approach to novels, poetry and the rest on my writerly self.
    It numbed my creative brain for more than twenty years – and before I went up to university, I was writing and loved doing it.
    I caught up with myself in the end, but I’d advise any aspiring writer to shun Literature as a study.
    If you must take a word-based subject, go for Latin, that’ll do your writing far more good, and, as Daniel says, READ.

  2. Ah, Latin–so wonderful. SUCH a pain in the ass, but very useful nonetheless.

    My lit studies education blocked me creatively for a good decade–not that I got nothing done in that time, but the mountain of mental jujitzu I had to do just to write a simple short-film script still gives me the shivers. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to run into a few people who knocked some sense into my head (or, rather, some nonsense out) I suspect I’d still be going nuts with it today.

    Thanks for coming by, Elizabeth! It’s always nice to meet a fellow reformed lit scholar 😉
    -Dan

  3. I can’t claim to be any kind of scholar, but I did major in English Lit for a few years as an undergrad, and I can testify that it did in fact mess with my head. Before that, I was an honors English student in high school, so I was probably already a little warped, lol. I remember talking with a friend of mine about how intimidating it was, as aspiring novelists, to read and analyze the “perfect” works of the canon. I also took a couple of creative writing courses — in one, I learned virtually nothing except how destructive “constructive criticism” can be. In the other, I learned that I didn’t ever, under any circumstances, want to write the kind of utter crap that was being passed off as Serious Fiction. So I guess I did get something worthwhile out of those courses. However, it took me years to get over the nonsense stuffed in my brain, and I didn’t even take enough Lit classes to graduate with an English degree. I’m so glad I was never foolish enough to go after an advanced degree in creative writing.

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  5. I studied English: Literature for my undergrad degree. The thing is, I did it because I love books, reading, and talking about books. Before choosing that as my major, I thought I was going to do chemistry or computer science. Because of that, I never took Honors English classes in high school or read the “Classics” or the “canon.” I’ve always read science fiction and fantasy my entire life.

    While in college, especially in courses my senior year, I’d always feel like an outsider. Partly because I started the major late and partly because I wasn’t keyed into the “Literature student mentality.”

    Luckily where I went to school encouraged students to branch out. I had to take creative writing classes as part of my major. I wrote a short story instead of a finals essay (my first short story that ever got published). My advisor loved genre fiction. I got to write my honors thesis about science fiction. I wrote about Dune and Octavia Butler–books I loved and read since childhood.

    So I can agree with what you’re talking about in this post because I saw it happening around me. Half of the classes were full of these post-modern hipsters that worshipped Derrida and Foucalt. But on the other hand, not everything was a waste of time. I’m glad I studied what I studied. I think some of the analysis we did in certain classes did make me a stronger writer. I guess the type of study that these programs focuses on depends on the professors and the college/university itself.

  6. Thank you, for making this poor unlettered fool feel better about attempting to break in SF without benefit of a degree in anything other than life.

  7. R.S. —

    It’s always good to hear that there are some good lit programs out there 🙂 I had a handful of truly excellent professors as well, who were much more interested in the literature than in their particular interpretive philosophy, and I still have very dear memories of my time in their classes.

    I remain of the opinion that, as a field, Literary Studies if moribund, but stories like yours give me hope that it may yet rise again as a worthwhile discipline. I personally would love to see a writing program that did a good deal with semiotics, neurology, kinesiology, and other things that are immediately useful to the writer–or a literary studies program that does more useful work with mapping out the intertextual dialogue, as good literary critics did before the second world war. If this sort of thing could be had without the general climate of genre elitism or political snobbery that’s historically infected the field, I’d count it as a major win for the humanities (and their relevance to humanity!).

    -Dan

  8. Bob–

    Glad it helped 🙂

    In my book, a good education is a good education, whether it carries vellum with it or not — and a truly good student will always be learning, whether he happens to be enrolled in a class at the moment or not.

    When it comes to writing, the only thing that qualifies you to do the job is if you do the job. Everyone (nearly) can read and write. Writing a story that sustains interest, that takes practice and hard work. If you’re busting your ass to learn to do that well, you get a hat’s off from me.

    -Dan

  9. I can totally understand and sympathise with this blog post!

    I made the mistake of studying Creative Writing for my degree. They didn’t teach me anything about the art of writing. The lectures consisted of reading a chapter from the set text & then choosing an assignment based on it.

    So, we’d read a story about someone’s school days and have a choice of: Write an essay on your schooldays; write a scene from the perspective of someone at school; write a poem about school; write a short story about something from your past.

    I don’t remember anything about technique or story structure at all. Even Writing for the Media consisted of “Think of your target audience” and “You’ll have to write to a strict word-count.” Plus similar exercises to the ones above that were article based.

    I also had a useless lecturer who must have decided at the start of the course what marks she was going to give, because she gave me the exact same mark for every single piece of writing I handed in over the first two years of my degree.

    I graduated with my honours degree but I also had writer’s block that stopped me from writing for over a dozen years.

    If I hadn’t discovered improvisation, I might still be suffering from it!

    So yes, if anyone tells me they want to write, I’d suggest they take up improvisation (I learnt more about writing in four classes with my old improv teacher Alan Marriott than I learnt in all three years of my degree). I would also suggest that they stay away from studying writing on a formal basis unless all they want to do is study it!

    • Sounds very familiar, on all counts–and yes, improv games are excellent mental exercise for a writer!

  10. Where I come from, our native language lessons from middle school onwards were nothing but this – literature analysis. I can still quote a few of the lists of stylistic devices that we all just crammed by heart, but hardly ever understood. Not to mention pretty much everybody hated these lessons.
    Fortunately, I have to say. Fortunately. Because if we had actually wanted to learn this, if we had wanted to understand like a university student who’s paid thousands of bucks for it wants to understand, none of us would still read books for pleasure, or even construct their own stories. Actually, I think the only reason why I can still do that is because I’ve produced stories all my life, before the evil lists hit us. And I hardly ever bothered about them, as most examples were about poetry, which I’m a lost case in. If we had spoken about what you said – how a plotline is constructed, why a certain element has been chosen or why that darned novel was so immensely boring to all of us – it could have resulted in lessons worth paying attention to.

    Shakespeare, apart from those few who might have financed him, mainly depended on an audience that could hardly read or write, and that mainly came to his plays to have a blast. I’m sure they’d have tried to p*** on an oxymoron or chiasmus. And I’d applaud if anybody had succeeded.

    Thank you so much for this.

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