Literature as an Intramural Game
Posted in Literature, Poetry, and Books by Peter W. Schramm
reviews "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" and finds it wanting, no, he actually mocks it. This stuff is entirely academic, i.e., the contributors to the volume talk to one another and no one else....human beings who love stories don't talk about "alterity" and "intertextuality," or "heteronormativity." In effect, he explains why English Departments are "intellectual nursing homes where old ideas go to die." Despite this, there are still young people interested in good books, indeed, are even intoxicated by them.
2:14 PM / August 30, 2011
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Funny, though a heart-breaker. The products of those English programs are in the public schools, so the rot starts early. My daughter's Advanced Placement English class has a reading list full of recent "literature" with thoroughly modern themes. Maybe they were best-sellers? I can't imagine, but she hates them. Actually, wherein my girl seems to be having a field day in that classroom is in explaining why each book is trash, or what the self-concious literary references are in one or two, but I don't know that anyone could whole-heartedly keep up such criticism for a whole school year. Yet, the practical point of the use of the new stuff may be to keep ahead of Sparknotes and such academic shortcuts.
The good old books disappear. I don't mean the absolute, acknowledged classics, but really good books, that are not renownedly great. Modern library science weeds out anything not consistently read in favor of new stuff. Some things slip by: my daughter's excitement of yesterday was discovering an "unknown" Wodehouse on the library shelf. It is "unknown" because we don't own it and she doesn't know it. We've been talking about the probability of finding good stories inside the old book covers still on the shelves of the local. If those books are still on the shelves, there must still be fans. She might like Daphne DuMaurier or Agatha Christie; she liked Galsworthy. I don't want her becoming snooty about books. On the other hand, how literarily snooty can a Wodehouse-lover be?
Peter, I read this and it was a brilliant piece. It reminded me much of VD Hanson's "Who Killed Homer?" for arguing that the professors who lament the decline of their discipline should look in the mirror for the cause of their decline.
Kate, I see the same thing as a teacher. Very widespread. That's why my kids don't participate in "Battle of the Books" because there are usually no classics or great books grappling with the human condition in a meaningful way. I'd rather just buy them as many classics and good books as they can read.
I knew I had read something else good by Epstein lately. Here is a review of the Stanley Fish book "How to Write a Sentence" from the "New Criterion" (I cannot remember how to html for italics. Sorry.) It is one of those reviews that might be better than the book reviewed in that it captures the good essentials and does not require you "read the whole (sounds tedious) thing".