A good friend and valued colleague just sent me an article from the December 19 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Leaving Literature Behind." The author, Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, argues that we have made a mistake by focusing so much on our professionalized study of literature--e.g. structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism. In our desire to turn the study of literature into a science, we have alienated our students by taking the human element out of literature and setting ourselves up as "rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world."
Fleming says we are not teaching literature, but the professional study of literature. "Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarefied a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives."
I agree with much of what Professor Fleming says, but I cannot go so far as he does. It is a mistake, I think to react so completely against what we have learned from Northrop Frye and Jacques Derrida and other profound readers that we go back to the bad old days of using literature as an excuse to shoot the bull about whatever subject interests us.
Fleming uses his teaching of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as an example. He says his students come into class after reading the first section of the novel saying Emma is a slut. Fleming chides them with being too literal and then leads them into identifying with her dreams by comparing them with their own dreams that brought them to Annapolis.
But Fleming forgets that Flaubert's intention in creating the book was to write a novel about nothing. To read Madame Bovary as a novel about a slut or a novel about a woman with romantic dreams is to read it as if it were a clear glass through which we see a not very interesting person, rather than a complex work of art, a texture of carefully constructed language that creates a compelling experience with human complexity, not the least of which is the complex creation of a language structure that engages us. The book is neither about stoning the whore or following your dream. It is a complex work of art that deserves our careful attention to the text.
It would be too bad if we react so completely against the excesses of deconstruction and multiculturalism that we reduce literature to simple human lessons and illustrations and our professional interest in literature to leading Socratic bull sessions on simplistic ideas.
I love the short story because it never lets us forget that it is a carefully constructed language structure that grapples with the most profound human experiences. I agree with Fleming that we must confront what is human in literature, but what is human is not so simple as he suggests. To try to get at that human complexity by ignoring the language of the story and the literary devices that communicate its complexity is to miss what makes literature so different from other forms of human discourse.
Literature professors are students of literary studies. They do have a profession. They do have something to teach students about what literature is, how literature works, and how best to read and react to its human complexity.
My own hope is that my colleagues, especially those just now entering the profession, will reject the jargon of their graduate seminars, rediscover their love of literature, and teach with passion the beautiful way that artists create human interactions that no other forms of discourse can, especially in the most beautiful, but most underrated, literary genre--the short story.