The Play's Only One Thing: Renewing the Relevance of Literary Studies

Marc Bousquet writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education of “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies” today. He believes that it stems from “loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.” I think he’s right—and I’ve little sympathy for the handwringers. Though I do think that the shift in English Departments toward Rhetoric and Composition and Digital Humanities is happening because of changes beyond the walls of academia, it is also the result of a deliberate collapse created by the scholars of literature themselves. They focus too closely on texts themselves and refuse to see (outside of certain formulaic constraints that have been with them for generations) that the objects of their study only exist in context and not as things in themselves alone.

In addition, this collapse, of a sort seen too often within ivory towers (or of them), stems from valorization of a particular way of looking at a topic (the basis for Bousquet’s fifties pedagogy), one that insists on creating a ranking—and a ranking that places a particular subject matter, not just a particular way of looking at it, at the top of an academic pyramid.

But that’s not the whole of it.

The study of literature is being passed by not because there is anything wrong with it in and of itself. Not even because it does not meet the needs of the contemporary age and reflects hierarchies long discarded. Yes, the study of literature is being passed by because it has become backward looking and dependent on a high-culture/low-culture distinction that has become increasingly seen as irrelevant, seen as a vestige of class systems no longer operating.

But, as I said, there’s more to it.

When I returned to academia after an absence of well more than a decade, one of the things I did for myself was to try to orient my own work to a changing field. To do so, I pulled out work on literary studies going back into the 1930s (even before, actually). One of the pieces I looked at was the old Wimsatt and Beardsley Swanee Review article “The Intentional Fallacy.” That led to one of my first publications, “Intentionalism: On the Assumption of Authority in Literature.” I end it with this:

The intent to tell the truth is the virtue of art—and its savior from indifference and, if I may, even from exhaustion.

What I was seeing, even a decade ago, was a field, literary studies, in exhaustion, one that had, also, lost sight of any quest for truth or greater understanding. It was so tired that it could no longer sense where it was going or what was around it. Anxious to distance myself from the dying but not wanting to lose contact with literary studies completely, I turned part of my attention to cultural studies which, to me, encompasses literature. The rest of it I turned to composition and to new media, areas of growth and dynamism.

Today, if Bousquet is right (and I think he is), literary studies is about to drop dead. Or, if not quite dead, is finally ready to admit it must go under the knife for surgery cutting away the cancerous growths of the past century, allowing it, one would hope, to recuperate and return as a vibrant—though different—field.

Literature is entertainment. Many of us in literary studies have forgotten that, have dressed it up in all sorts of other vestments, abandoning the old clown suits and false armor. But that’s what literature is: fun and games. Certainly, as Horace and Sir Philip Sidney tell us, it can instruct as well as delight. In point of fact, it always does, whether it comes from the avant garde or from kitsch.  As entertainment, literature is as much a part of cultural studies as is television or the comic book, or even film. There is no need to separate it from the others—the same types of analysis, divided only by the specific tools of each medium, work for each, and each needs to be viewed within contexts of authors, composition, and audience/milieu. And, of course, of cultural history (which, of course, includes the history of literature).

Take Shakespeare: The play’s not the thing, not alone or even with traditional cultural/historical contexts. The place of the play is just as important. Over the years, who has watched Hamlet try to catch the conscience of a king, and where? And why? Instead of dismissing as crackpots those who insist that Edward De Vere or someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, wouldn’t it be neat if, in a Shakespeare class, we asked why such theories persist? Wouldn’t that, in a backdoor way, tell us more about Shakespeare than does a mere concentration on the words of his texts? Certainly, it would tell us more about Shakespeare in today’s world—and isn’t that what it is all about, Alfie?

It is wrenching, really, for many in literary studies to turn they eyes from the text, but do so they must, if literary studies is going to turn itself around and prove it can have relevance. Text, after all, never builds a world of its own… though it does, of course, help build the world we live in. That’s what we need to be examining.

7 thoughts on “The Play's Only One Thing: Renewing the Relevance of Literary Studies

  1. I’d guess that a lot of Shakespeare courses talk about authorship issues in passing, rather than as a major focus. (Lots of Shakespeare courses also use Russ McDonald’s excellent Bedford Companion, which talks about the authorship issue.) De Vere vs Lear, Lear is way more interesting, and there’s tons of theoretical and cultural stuff to talk about, too.

  2. Yes. Literature is entertainment and its writers, entertainers–something that links composition/rhetoric and literary studies–or can. I hope those of us who teach “English” (whatever that means) don’t forget that the future must contain studies of humans as readers AND writers–always–in print and online. You bring up most important points, as does Bousquet. Thank you for this post.

  3. And then there are the words of Virginia Woolf in “Three Guineas” — her brilliant essay on the question “how to prevent war”:

    “The words ‘vain and vicious’ require qualification. No one would maintain that all lecturers and all lectures are ‘vain and vicious’; many subjects can only be taught with diagrams and personal demonstration. The words in the text refer only to the sons and daughters of educated men who lecture their brothers and sisters upon English literature; and for the reasons that it is an obsolete practice dating from the Middle Ages when books were scarce; that it owes its survival to pecuniary motives; or to curiosity; that the publication in book form is sufficient proof of the evil effect of an audience upon the lecturer intellectually; and that psychologically eminence upon a platform encourages vanity and the desire to impose authority. Further, the reduction of English literature to an examination subject must be viewed with suspicion by all who have firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of the art, and therefore of the very superficial value of an examiner’s approval or disapproval; and with profound regret by all who wish to keep one art at least out of the hands of middlemen and free, as long as may be, from all association with competition and money making. Again, the violence with which one school of literature is now opposed to another, the rapidity with which one school of taste succeeds another, may not unreasonably be traced to the power which a mature mind lecturing immature minds has to infect them with strong, if passing, opinions, and to tinge those opinions with personal bias. Nor can it be maintained that the standard of critical or of creative writing has been raised. A lamentable proof of the mental docility to which the young are reduced by lecturers is that the demand for lectures upon English literature steadily increases (as every writer can bear witness) and from the very class which should have learnt to read at home — the educated. If, as is sometimes urged in excuse, what is desired by college literary societies is not knowledge of literature but acquaintance with writers, there are cocktails, and there is sherry; both better unmixed with Proust. None of this applies of course to those whose homes are deficient in books. If the working class finds it easier to assimilate English literature by word of mouth they have a perfect right to ask the educated class to help them thus. But for the sons and daughters of that class after the age of eighteen to continue to sip English literature through a straw, is a habit that seems to deserve the terms vain and vicious; which terms can justly be applied with greater force to those who pander to them.” [footnote 30 in

  4. Pingback: Don’t Panic and Bring a Towel |

  5. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: April | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.