Back in the 90’s when life circumstances forced a radical change in direction, I briefly considered pursuing an academic career in literature. While my degrees, obtained a decade or so before, were in chemistry and veterinary medicine, I had been an avid reader all my life, with a special love of the writings of famous dead white guys, and, much to the consternation of a number of my scientific cohorts, packed my undergraduate timetable with as many literature courses as possible (even if this required 8:00 am lectures in physical chemistry) — the winnowing process always prolonged and agonized. Professorial feedback and grades were always encouraging, and the biggest difficulty I had with essays was to cut what I had to say down to the required length. It didn’t seem like such a big leap to consider putting these idiosyncrasies to work for me in a second career as a literary academic. Buoyed by the excitement of fresh possibility, I set out to survey the situation– and this, I am sorry to say, is where my career in literary studies died. Something quite nasty had happened to the discipline since my last formal interaction with it. I was horrified to discover that reading academic literary commentary, which had once been a joy, had, in the last couple of decades, morphed into an exercise in cross-eyed ennui and frustration. Endless streams of opaque, jargon-clogged verbosity erected needless barriers and often obscured mincingly small, inward looking ideas, awash in irrelevance, which did not warrant the effort required to decode them. Many remained stubbornly refractory to all attempts at translation. It was very clear to me that any love I might harbour for the power of the written word would not survive long in this environment. So, I chose freelance and therein hangs another tale.
Fast forward another decade or so (and a couple more dipsey-doodles in the life journey) and I find myself wondering how I can expect my senior English students to begin to learn to carry out academic research for their independent studies in contemporary CanLit when a) there exists a vanishingly small amount of academic writing about contemporary Canadian writers available to them and b) what exists is often indefensibly inscrutable? I find, in fact, that I am keenly averse to suffocating their enthusiasm with indefensible inscrutability. Early attempts to amass suitable material, was, in fact, one impetus for this blog. At the same time, my recent past experiences as a freelance reviewer, and with a school library and silent reading program I was involved in developing, convinced me that, regardless of the perceived wisdom, many teenagers love to read, as do many of their parents, and there is a proud interest in our Canadian fiction and a hunger for accessible knowledge and discussion.
Anecdotal stories of some universities, developing general survey courses designed to fill in gaps in response to the widely disparate experience of their first year students and then being inundated by requests from parents to audit the classes, convinced me that the interest that I was seeing in our contemporary writers amongst students was part of a larger phenomenon — a widespread need for, and interest in, sophisticated content in an accessible form. For reasons that are, no doubt, many and significant, our literary academics (and I’m talking more specifically here about Canadian literature) have failed in their civic duty to inform an interested public. As a result, issues of relevance have arisen and the public is uninformed. It doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary to suggest that it would be in everyone’s interest for our literary academics to reconnect with their public, and for this to be seen an an honourable and dignified pursuit.
I have been chewing this bone for several years now, so it is not surprising that a recent Guardian (UK) Books blog article entitled “Is academic criticism worth reading?” by Sam Jordison, caught my eye. In it, he identifies one of the self-perpetuating problems facing any academic with an interest in current authors — research proposals are dismissed based on a lack of citeable sources. So, if one can’t, academically speaking, write about and analyze an author who has not already been written about and analyzed, how does any new author become worthy of scrutiny, how is the canon reinvigorated, and how does the discipline itself avoid becoming ingrown, cystic, self-referential, and irrelevant? Well…exactly.
As Jordison says, after commiserating with a friend who had run into exactly these sort of difficulties,
“Ever since I’ve harboured the belief that – in general at least – English academics are strangely cut off from the reading public and contemporary literature in general.”
The malaise, it seems, is widespread and not a peculiarly Canadian problem.
Things may simply have gotten so bad that they have to change, and there have been a few recent glimmers of hope that this may be so. As Jordison’s article goes on to explain, UK universities have, over the last few years, begun to offer courses in contemporary literature, and, as a result, there is a new crop of academics familiar enough with some new authors to begin to write about them. Ergo, a new book of essays (and a conference!) dedicated to David Mitchell — of recent Cloud Atlas fame, whose first book was published in 1999. Although the news may not create much of a ripple in the general zeitgeist, within the academic literary establishment it’s revolutionary (or apocalyptic, depending on the perspective).
Before we initiate a bookish circle dance of celebration, let me say that, based on conference topics the likes of:
Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse
“Versed Enough in Antipodese Etiquette”: Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial Critique in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas
Hypertext, Palimpsest, and the Virtual Text: Tracing the Digital in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten
there’s still plenty of work to do vis-a-vis clarity, transparency and accessibility. However, it’s a start.
Speaking of the postcolonial, here, on the home front, I am happy to report that there have been similar small stirrings worthy of renewed optimism. As mentioned in an earlier post the journal Canadian Literature has recently engaged in some soul searching involving just these sorts of issues, and has, of late, featured more accessible articles on contemporary Canadian authors. Perhaps even more exciting, based on a recent survey launched by the journal, there are rumours of the development of online “resource guides” backed by the fifty-plus-year-old publication’s huge backlist, expressly to support instructors and students in their quest to understand the complexities of past and present academic writing about our literature, and to develop that of the future.
Of course, any moves on academia’s part to extend a hand to the lay public could go all wrong in any number of ways. The most pressing danger, it seems to me, and a mistake which newspapers have perpetrated to their sorrow, is to underestimate the audience, either with cynical attempts to unload the intellectual equivalent of basket-weaving content with an eye on the tuition fees, or by refusing to re-think the relevance and accessibility of their content. Both would simply annoy us. The reading public doesn’t want fluff — anyone has a short attention span for content that doesn’t repay attention. What is needed is fresh, vigorously argued, engaging ideas about the work of our contemporary authors and guidance in interpreting it, perspective about it’s place in our tradition and reviews of the tradition itself, expressed in clear, jargon-free language.
Sounds like an opportunity to me.
Further evidence of the problem:
Take back the liberal arts.
By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Consider Yale‘s description of a course it offered that dealt with how disabilities are depicted in fiction: “We will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Later may come examination questions on regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility.
Niggling commentary aside, what interests me in Postmodernism is Dead by Edward Docx is the recognition, in print, by another human, of a growing appreciation of the need for expertise. As he says,
If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us.