Why I Teach Literature" (with some thoughts about James Wood appended)

Not long ago there was a ‘meme’ going around on the question “Why Do I Teach Literature?” (Joseph Kugelmass’s comments on this topic at The Valve include links to further contributors). Reading around in my files today (where I am in search of an organizing pattern for future research–but that’s another post for another day) I came across this passage and it struck me as nicely encapsulating both the central problem of teaching literature (that it is, paradoxically, always about feeling as well as knowing) and its greatest lure:

Critics, before and after Northrop Frye, have distinguished between literature and experience and literature and knowledge. The distinction, though plausible in some theoretical contexts, blurs nearly every day, in nearly every classroom. I am content that it blurs. Unlike physicists, who teach not nature but physics, we teach both literature (how it feels, how it thinks, to have read a literary work) and the rules and facts about reading literature. As Gertrude Stein once said to an obtuse interviewer: “But after all you must enjoy my writing and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you did not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?” That is why I finally became a teacher of literature, to live in the vicinity of that joy.

This is from Ihab Hassan’s essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Critic or, The Resistance to Literature” (New Literary History 24, 1993). Other critics have also written eloquently about the experience of following that lure of joy into a professional life that does not–perhaps cannot–reinforce or reward it, and may even work actively against it. John McGowan, for instance, in his book Democracy’s Children (2002), notes,

[T]here remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw (at least partly) allegiance to literature itself” (65).

25 Years after Hassan’s remarks, I think it remains true that it is in the classroom rather than in their scholarship that many academic literary critics feel and communicate their love of their subject. One of the reasons I shifted research directions altogether a few years ago (significantly, after achieving the professional security of tenure) was that I wanted my research activities to give me, or be driven by, the same kind of intellectual and affective immediacy I find in teaching, and I couldn’t see how that would happen if, among other things, much of my work continued to be on second-rate material, no matter how historically revealing it was–or how useful for generating publishable, if niche, material of my own. To a large extent I succeeded, and as an unanticipated bonus, I think I became a better teacher because of the synergy that developed between my class preparation and my other work. It’s interesting, actually, that it seems to be widely taken for granted (or is it?) that undergraduate teaching and scholarly research leading to publication are very different kinds of things, and overwhelmingly the professional priority is with the latter–even though (or, perhaps, because) its tendency is to drive all joy away!

Follow-Up (to be developed later): Also as part of sorting through my files, I’ve been re-reading some of the James Wood essays I’ve gathered up, and (aside from being overwhelmed with envy at his erudition, elegant style, and intelligent craftsmanship as an essayist), I’m struck by how much closer they are to the kind of criticism we–or at least I–do in the classroom than anything that ordinarily passes for academic or professional criticism (and here I think it’s important to distinguish, as mainstream writers often don’t, between criticism and reviewing). It’s not that I think I’m as smart, articulate, or insightful as Wood,or as well-read either, though I hope I have my good moments! My point is really about the genre of criticism he works in, which seems to me to lie somewhere in between the poles of academic scholarship (which he clearly knows about, but relies on more implicitly than explicitly most of the time) and popular book reviews (which would rarely seek the kind of broad perspective or level of sophisticated analysis he deploys). I’ve ordered How Fiction works from The Book Depository, along with The Irresponsible Self, and I’ve got The Broken Estate from the library. I sense a Wood-fest coming on, perhaps as a way to draw together some of the scattered elements of my recent browsing and brooding about the function of criticism at the present time. Conveniently, as a motivator, there’s a conference panel on Victorian criticism for which I’m hoping to submit an abstract. One of the questions in the CFP is about what the relationships envisaged by the Victorians between “different forms of cultural production and the work of the critic” might tell us “about how criticism was imagined during the Victorian era, and what they might tell us about the more professionalized forms of criticism practiced today.” If this isn’t an opportunity (and a challenge) for me to make something of my work on the Broadview anthology along with the ‘work’ I’ve been doing on this blog, I don’t know what is! Whether anyone would want to hear it is, of course, another matter altogether.

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