Friday, June 01, 2007

Literature as leisure

Via Acephalous, I came across this post from Ann Althouse. It's a follow-up to an earlier post in which she argued that reading is better taught through history and other kinds of nonfiction than through fiction:

I'm not saying fiction isn't worth reading. I'm saying that it can be held for after hours pleasure reading. Frankly, I think this would increase the love of fiction. Here's this shelf of books that you can read when you finish your other work. You can take them home if you like. I think this would give them an aura of excitement. There are lots of people who have fiction forced on them and avoid it once they're out of school. My father would get passionate about his hatred of "The Return of the Native," which he was forced to read. Me, I read "The Return of the Native" and all of Thomas Hardy's novels on my own and loved them. Look at how kids read the Harry Potter books on their own. Put them outside of the classroom and let kids see them as a leisure treat.

In saying that, I don't mean to say they are just for fun and that there's nothing deep. I'm saying that reading fiction books is or should be intrinsically rewarding and that intrinsic reward is best felt when you are exercising free choice. And I also think that the depths in fiction are best absorbed in a free environment without an authority figure trying to lead you or tell you how to think. Much good fiction is about challenging authority, and I worry that authority figures will choose fiction that they approve of because it teaches the values they like. That's not my idea of how good fiction works.

Another thing I'm not saying is that we shouldn't have literature classes. I've been talking about reading classes, those learn-to-read sessions very young students have. Those students aren't delving into the subtleties of themes and language and so forth. I have no problem with literature classes that teach students how to analyze texts in some fairly deep way, as long as they don't destroy the pleasure and love of art. So perhaps literature classes should be elective.

Many of her commentators did exaggerate her argument (see especially the linkbacks at the bottom of the original post). She isn't condemning literature per se, just stating that it should be at best an optional study, and really ought to be reserved (like movies and television) as an enjoyable leisure activity -- no matter whether the book being read in by J. K. Rowling or Thomas Hardy.

What do you think?


Karl Steel said...

First thing first. Given Althouse's weird thing about Jessica Valenti's possession of breasts (also see here), and her politics, it's going to be difficult to treat her ideas fairly.

Now, obvious, boring stuff follows. It strikes me that Althouse's bad idea is even worse in a medievalist classroom. So much of what we read and teach is not 'fiction.' Where do we slot Mandeville? Gerald of Wales? The Moralia? The Parson's Tale? The Monk's Tale? I'm teaching a Bible as Literature class this Fall. Where does that fall in this?

And would amateurs come to this material on their own? Very, very few of them. Some people would say, fine, let the Roman de Silence die, let it (or rather the unknown, equally productive works to come) never come to be. My sense is that if literature were made optional (which idea seems only an afterthought in Althouse's post), medieval literature studies would be frozen at this moment forever, at least until it died altogether. There would be no more Roman de Silences, there would be no more Books of Margery Kempe.

Furthermore, the obvious thing to say is that literature as it's taught now, as least in the classrooms I inhabit and lead, is not about teaching a particular body of material but about teaching a way to think about language. It's about teaching how to analyze. Yes, there's pleasure in it, of course, but so much of the pleasure comes from the act of analysis itself. That's the pleasure Althouse seems unable to fathom. Which leads to my next point:

I also get the sense that she's suspicious about mediation, that somehow the study of an object of pleasure gums up the authenticity of our encounter, and that, moreover, the communal study of literature, with the guidance of an expert, somehow enervates our pleasure. Simply given my profession, I think that's, well, just silly. And that's being generous, given my (everyone's) suspicion of the (uncritical) drive for unmediated presence.

Karl Steel said...

It's going to be difficult to treat her ideas fairly

Oh, now that's a stupid thing to say. There's also this and this and this and this even. It's ridiculous of me to suggest that separating someone's ideas from his or her embodied history is necessary to treat the idea "fairly." How 'viewpoint of no one of nowhere of me.' How ahistorical. Sorry.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm with you on the historicization of fiction, Karl. Her separate spheres approach just doesn't hold true for many medieval texts ... and also doesn't do justice to may texts written more recently. It's hard for me to think of literature as a thing you get to after you've done the more valuable work of reading nonfiction/history. I'm not saying reading these other genres won't help to improve reading skills; in fact I'm guessing that the best approach to inculcating literacy is to read many kinds of texts and to talk about genre ... just as, for example, reading is currently taught in most(?) elementary schools.

Then again, I do realize that as a chair of an English department and a graduate of a doctoral program in literature I have quite a bit at stake here. Still, it seems to me that Althouse has done what many of us in fact do, especially on blogs: given a personal affinity (for history over literature) the status of a universal good without thinking the espousal through very well.

Eileen Joy said...

D'oh! [as Homer Simpson might say] It's *all* literature, Ann Althouse! Read any Hayden White lately?

Karl Steel said...

I'm with you on the historicization of fiction, Karl.

Does that mean you're not with me on what some would call the 'politics of character assassination?'

On that, there's also this, from one of my favorite bloggers, and this, from a very popular blogger, also a favorite. Now, the obvious thing here is that there's a difference between what it means when Wendell Barry suggests you try the corn and when, say, Mario Batali suggests you try the corn. Given the field of Althouse's concerns, I can't help but hear D. Horowitz behind her suggestions.

Now, did anyone else discover a tension in her suggestions between public learning and discussion and the (supposed) truth of private experience? Does anyone--say Tim Spence, if he's out there--want to link (what strikes me as) Althouse's distrust of communal experience of and public guidance in textual pleasures with differing kinds of piety? Say, Monastic piety v. Books of Hours? The Mass v. Mysticism? Ritual v. 'authentic experience'?

Anonymous said...

Now this is truly, very, deeply silly.

But will I be still further damned in your estimation if I say that it is what I thought at 16 - and so dropped Eng. Lit. at A level? Either there is something stultifying about the way lit. can be taught for school exam curricula or - heck I was 16 - 16 - and in the words of Bob D. so much older then ...

Dr. Virago said...

What about poetry?

Althouse seems to think that all writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is prose.

I've taught Anglo-Saxon riddles to 4th, 5th, and 8th grade students, and one of the things that I think they learn from trying to solve them is how to think metaphorically and figuratively. In other words, they learn what poetry is, but they also learn an important imaginative and rhetorical aspect of language that's important to all sorts of writing and speech -- an important aspect of language itself.

Maybe someone should send Ann one of Kenneth Koch's books about teaching poetry to children.

Anonymous said...

Another thing Althouse diplays symptoms of is the assumption that analysis and pleasure operate entirely seperate of each other--That they cannot be part of the same economy of reading.

Freud might see in all of us a bit of fixation on literature: most of us posting on this site probably at some level share a deep desire for: text, and reading ( as a procedure of textual analysis).

We might remember the later chapter of _de la grammatologie_ in which JD sees in the _Essay on the Origin_ those moments where articulation (grammer, spacer, analytical written language used for need of clarity and not expression of the passions) is merely one economy of death pitted against the economy of death of the more "pure" expression of passion. I mention this because this association of articulation with grammar, with text, with writting, etc. is not so far off from a category of "analysis" to be pitted against a more "natural" pleasure or leisure--rememeber that the nothern arituclate and more "written" language is in the _Essay_ pitted against (as an opposition that will not hold) the more passionate natural languages of the south.

The point is that analysis-aversion is a symptom of a more general fear of the desire for text, desire for analysis--that (meaning in the most queer-affirming way possible) "misplaced" *desire* for difficult textual analysis--not to mention obscure poems in a dead Germanic language ( a desire i share). This further could be linked to spacing--to writing itself and its disruptive capacity. As laughable as we are tempted to make this little piece, it exhibits a much mroe deeply entrenched problem and opportunity: the queer potential of writing--and the writing of the medievalist--itself.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dr V: great point, especially because we live in a society that could never mistake poetry for leisure. Poetry is work (and art?), and therefore not in Althouse's ambit.

SRJ: when a student gets turned off by a subject, it's typically the teacher's fault rather than the student's. A dullard of a calculus prof. with an addiction to jelly cookies ruined my biology aspirations and ended my double major as an undergraduate...

Anonymous said...

It’s been some time since I’ve read Adorno, but I do get a “jargon of authenticity” vibe from Althouse’s construction of literature. It is as if she believes the emotions one might experience communally in a classroom—what Karl aptly calls the “pleasure” gleaned “from the act of analysis itself”—are less valid than those experienced in a leisure activity “outside” (and “after”) the workplace.

Maybe it's vice versa, but Althouse seems dedicated to a Gradgrindian sort of “pragmatic” pedagogy: when learning to read, we don’t want to be confused by things like metaphor, metonymy and allegory. Literacy of this sort stresses the interpretation of Facts over Figures because the capacity to interpret statistical information is much more important in a Lockean social system based on the concept of homo economicus. Get your work done—i.e., process that data; then you will have earned your leisure time to read literature in private.

Boiling our educational system down to a Standard of Learning that can be scanned by computers has all but dissected the sort of literacy that engenders the capacity for an ethical poetic such as the one Judson Allen found to thrive in the fourteenth century. That is to say, graduates of our current K-12 system have a stunted capacity to interpret the world around them figuratively, even though they might be able to understand it “factually.” They can fill out credit forms, they can pay their bills, but they have a hard time making the connection—of making that boldly figurative leap—between their daily mode of being and the cacophony of world events that bombards them incessantly through mass media. We need a new age of iconoclasts who can break down our icons and reveal the ugly matrix behind the brand. Telling our educators that literature should be something enjoyed privately “outside” of the common workplace is a disastrous approach to educating tomorrow’s citizens.

But my own life “outside” this digital workspace is pulling me away again, and I haven’t even had a chance to respond to Karl’s call for contemplation on how this division plays into other manifestations of a devotional dialectic. That’s what I’ll chew upon while working in my world.