Ok, so I'd written a novel-length comment to the last post, and then I stupidly closed the comment box instead of posting the comment. Don't you hate when that happens? I know I do.
But so I figured I'd do a post instead, given that the comment is lost and gone forever. Here's the thing. I love the conversation in the comments in response to that post, because the trajectory of the comments is all about saying what people like and don't like, making additions and subtractions and corrections and suggestions, and just generally entering the conversation about what counts as literature.
Guess what, folks? What's happening there is exactly what I strive to make happen in the classes that I teach. I think a version of the literature classroom that is about forcing students to read Books Educated People Should Have Read is entirely wrong. I think that it's wrong to force students to "identify" with a particular character, or to "like" a particular book, canonical or not. Seriously. I really think those things.
Maybe that's how I think because nearly all of the things that I have published on are things that I first (a) loathed, (b) resisted and loathed, or (c) didn't really respect as worthy of commentary (even if I liked those things). That's right. My life's work as a professor is based on writing about things (and also teaching things) that I initially disdained. I now love some (though not all) of these things, but what makes the study of literature interesting to me - as opposed to just reading some books, it's all about having the freedom to engage deeply with literature whether we like it or not, or whether we feel ambivalent about it. In fact, ambivalence may be the most awesome response, as it means that we are having a complicated aesthetic reaction.
But that's also the reason to study literature rather than just to read it on one's own. The point of a literature class is that it allows you to see things that you wouldn't see reading it on your own - if you got it all on your own, then you should just go the public library and be done with it. The point of taking an English class is that you're going to get more than you'd get on your own, even if you don't like some of what you get. This is a speech that I need to make in every general education class that I teach, and it's one that I've felt like making a lot in regard to various comments I've heard in the wake of Salinger's death. I can entirely get why somebody would think Salinger is useless if they just picked the book up on their own. I can also get why somebody would think Shakespeare is useless if they picked up his plays on their own, except that doesn't happen with Shakespeare, ever, because we make everybody read Shakespeare in school, and we teach everybody how to read him. I get why people think James Joyce is stupid when they've tried to read Ulysses without a net (i.e, an expert at the helm), and I get why people think that Erica Jong is stupid (even though she's really not) when she's rarely taught in a college classroom.
See, this is the whole point. Classes in English, or literature if we want to be more accurate, are about giving people the tools to read critically and about giving people the tools to get things with which they don't identify or don't in terms of their own personal tastes like. To read with a purpose, and to analyze, and to get it. They are not about just making people internalize the plots of "great books," or to give them a list of "great books" that they can say they've read, but rather about giving them the tools to actually read as they go on with their lives. If they like a "great book" along the way, that's fantastic, but that's not actually the point. The point is really to show them how to get the most they can out of the latest Dean Koontz or Danielle Steele novel that comes out.
I don't care really at all whether my students "like" the books I teach. I care that they engage with them - give them a chance, and give them respect. If they like some of them along the way, that's a bonus (and it does help with the "respect" thing). But studying literature isn't about liking. Just like studying biology isn't about "liking" cells.
5 years ago