Skip to comments.What Killed American Lit.
Posted on 08/28/2011 10:38:21 AM PDT by ken21
severed from tradition and reali life, literature as it is taught in universities is strictly an intramural game.
(Excerpt) Read more at online.wsj.com ...
almost 8% of college undergrads once majored in literature,
Tv probably has had a lot to do with lack of literature.
And if they want to whine that it's not 'literature', deys can embrace my hindquarters.
We're better off in a country that doesn't have schools to encourage that kind of crap.
But he did write a page-turner.
This is what I experienced as a student of literature as well.
As a writer most of us fundamentally know one thing. Phooey the content or subject matter. A great story is just that--a great story. The story itself is always what will drive people to read. If you have a good or great story just tell it and they will come :). (Be sure to edit though. Good writers rewrite. Stories are often shaped through the revision process.)
is this reali trew?
Smarter students recognized the indoctrination. The rest dreamed of
being the next "journalist" to "make a difference and change the world."
I think that is Jeff Head...
Cory Doctorow's book 'Makers' was good.
See also Olson Scott Card's 'Enders Game'.
Then come chat about 'lit' rature.
Hell, if he's dead, he could be famous, he wrote so good.
Excellent essay, and all too true, I’m afraid.
The point isn’t that there is no good LITERATURE being written today, because there are some good books. Mostly in niche fields like SF, fantasy, or detective stories, since the “novel” as such as largely dead—with an occasional welcome exception.
The point is that the academic teaching of American literature is so horrible that it is driving all the students away, except for those who come for the political brainwashing rather than the books.
And of course this also applies to English lit, French lit, classical lit, and almost every other kind of lit. Academia is totally bent. If you want to know about great books, you need to find them on your own, because you sure as hell won’t learn anything in the average English department. Always a few exceptions, but fewer and fewer all the time.
Didn’t know it was dead. *shrug*
I remember my mother who was a librarian would talk about how knowledge was wealth. Education, reading and learning enriches a person returning intangible benefits throughout a lifetime. I do believe that storytelling is innate in human nature. Short of hooking up everybody into some collective mind it will never die. As far as being Socialists many great American writers, seemed to of embraced it in it’s historic context of their times. Many writers didn’t like seeing the little guy gets kicked around and Socialism seemed at the time to be an alternative. It seems natural that the literature departments would be a last bastion of such thinking. I would not worry too much about the survival of literature, it may change technological form but people will tell stories even the Communists couldn’t stop people from writing literature.
In a nutshell: English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essaysafter being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelersmight yield on the subjects of race, class and gender.
Once upon a time, many years ago, I was an English major myself. I have a BA to show for it. I then ended up going, career-wise, in a completely different direction when I decided I was not meant to be a scholar.
I have not, however, ever regretted it. At that time, a liberal arts education had some value. We read literature in the context of the lives and times of the writers. Our study of literature was not an exercise in navel-gazing.
Some years afterward, I was attempting to help a young relative with a paper for her English class. It was to be written about a Hemingway short story- one I had never read. I have never been a great Hemingway fan, but I did have to read some Hemingway and as a matter of course learn something about the man and his life. I read the story, made some notes, and sent the notes to my relative. She sent me back an email: no, no, this was not what her instructor wanted, not at all. She sent me a copy of her class notes concerning this story. I was astonished to read about the feminism in Hemingway's story and the other tommyrot the instructor had said in her lecture. None of it had anything to do with Hemingway that I could discern.
I made another set of notes, based on this nonsense, and sent it to my relative, explaining to her that it was total garbage, but that it was undoubtedly what her instructor was looking for. She used my notes as a starting point and wrote an "A" paper.
My American literature professor would have given it a C-minus at best.
I wouldn't major in English in most of today's schools, either. I couldn't sit through fifteen minutes of the garbage that is taught.
Nearing retirement, I thought I'd like to teach and the nearby state of Massachusetts offers temporary (5 years) certification for those who can pass a test called the MTEL (Mass. temporary Educators License)in both basic reading and writing as well as in a specific subject area.
I sat for both the basic and the English tests and, with no preparation, passed tests that regularly trip up 50% of those who take it including recent grads.
The English test did not require much knowledge of the Dead White Males I majored in so I had to wing it while discussing critical analysis of Maya Angelou and a host of lesser known (at least to me)Asian, African, Hispanic, intersexed and other sorts of writers who apparently now replace Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats and others I used to study.
I am now qualified for five years to teach English to High School kids in Massachusetts. I am no longer sure I want to even try. The subjects on the test and the brief passages of novels I had to read have taken some or most of the fire out of me. Literature in not what it used to be and it certainly is not any better.
Jeff Head is alive and well and still writing here on FR and on his blog:
American Lit. has always been an oxymoronic joke.
I used to like poetry and there ain't none of that either. died in the late 40’s, I don't like agendas.
the comments following the article are quite interesting.
I have always thought that kids aren’t reading, not because of the internet, but because teachers/professors make them read a certain politically correct inferior book in class and tell them ‘this is literature’.
and so they say, ‘Well, I guess i don’t like literature’. They’re burnt -— once burnt twice shy.
Graduate and undergrduate students asked to do term papers now have it easy -— just say the assigned book exhibits sexism, racism, heterosexualism, and you’ll get a good grade. Simple.
If course you have to memorize the buzzwords.
sprinkle them liberally.
But what really bothers me is the current take on English literature — its ‘wrongness’ and pushing inferior works of propaganda (such as those by Doctorow and author of The poisonwood Bible -— can’t think of her name) driving young people away from reading, which is its final effect.
incidentally writers have long known that if you get your book on college and high school reading lists, youa re guaranteed good ales. The students have to buy it.
I am wondering if, in fact, some writers are writing directly for that market. It would make sense.
They may not make the best-seler lists, but with a politically correct, multicultural tome, they will have guaranteed sales when the book is assigned. But you have to stick to ‘America is evil’ and ‘all minorities are helpless victims’.
Not too hard, really.
Well, don’t forget Shakespeare, the Restoration plays, the Oxford books of poetry, prose and verse. Actually, the list is endless.
Harold Bloom also published one of those list books of what are the greatest books in Western literature.
Thanks to Amazon, you can buy some of these books for a dollar a piece.
almost 8% of college undergrads once majored in literature,
almost 100% of college undergrads were once americans,
And of those 50%, half are only semi literate.
So I would say that 4% of college undergrads being american lit majors is actually an impressive stat.
Sad story. While I personally find Hemingway’s novels heavy-going, his short stories are top notch. As are Fitzgerald’s.
I just finished reading Whittaker Chambers’ book, Witness, and was remarking to my husband how Chambers quoted literary works like he had committed them to memory, Song of Roland, Antigone, Dostoevsky and many more. He was a public school student and I know that much of their education at that time, revolved around reading works of literature and history, and committing poems to memory, but I couldn’t even recall what the works were about, let alone quote them or refer to a specific part of the work, like the second chorus in Antigone.
Young people don’t read and it is a problem because if they don’t read, they don’t learn to think for themselves. The young love to quote that Santayana remark about those who do not learn from history, but the only history that they learn about is revisionist history, so what’s to learn?
Jeff Head is very much alive and was posting here a couple of weeks ago. He has had an amazing recovery and seems to be doing very well.
But he could be richer and more famous if he was dead.... Just pointing that out... he writes good.
A year or so ago, we went to Borders, and were asked if we would like to buy a book to contribute to the literary program in the local school district. One of the selections was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I remember reading that when I was in Jr. High/High School, back in the 70s, so that’s what I contributed to the literacy program.
Of all the “literature” I had to read back in those days, the short Hemingway stories still stand out to me. Well, “Catcher in the Rye” does, too, but for a different reason... reading that book was pure torture.
Hmm... speaking of Borders... I wonder if they still have any good selections left?
Jim Baen also has a creative commons site. And Baen is good, even when he's bad. He's actually better when he's bad.
But there are good American books out there. I'm calling the 60's, 70's and 80's the lean years.
It's better today.
1. Academics promote the nutty stuff that seems like "literature" because (a) it's weird, (b) few people "get it," and (c) if you act like you "get it," you can be one of the hipsters that goes to the cool parties and bangs the ennui chicks. That is, if you happen to bang chicks and not dudes.
This turns people off to literature. Shocking.
2. The American publishing industry doesn't give a rat's ass about promoting literature because literature doesn't sell. GUARANTEED some beautiful potential works for the ages are sitting on a literary agent's or manuscript "reader's" desk right now that will never get published (like mine) because some dopey celebrity book/self help book/other piece of trash needs to come out. Gotta recoup that $2.5 mil advance Sarah Silverman got to put out another book on celebrity whining, after all.
Pearls before swine.
3. Kids these days don't read. Kids these days don't write. I've tried to hire writers . . . BAs in English, mind you . . . who couldn't string three words together . . . who needed their hands held to write a 300-word blog post.
It's a crying shame, too, because American literature has a great and storied history . . . Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Fitz, Hemingway, McCarthy . . . quite a list of geniuses there.
Some of the best prose I have read lately is contained in treatises on music theory and analyses of the different chess openings.
The Sun Also Rises?
Old Man & The Sea?
Those and other of Hemingway’s novels are light as mountain air and sea-spray, I would say.
I just read D.M. Thomas’ terrific biography of Solzhenitsyn in which Thomas points out that the great Russian read Hem’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in the days just prior to submitting ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ for publication.
Thomas indicates that Solzhenitsyn took courage from Hemingway’s story and went to the publisher with this (his first) novel even though he knew the manuscript might send him back to the prison camps.
I don’t mean to gainsay you. I’ve seen your insightful comments here before. Merely chiming in, for discussion’s sake.
I was a history major and a tutor and battled this presumption as well. Got penalized for my troubles, C- and D’s for A level work, but got A’s from the good professors. It’s about half and half between good profs and marxists, but this is when choosing the best courses out there.
Well said. It’s got to the point if someone starts talking about “big L” literature my stiff meter starts to ping. That’s not to say that they are all stiffs, just most of them, at least in my opinion.
Gene Wolfe has a point when he says that all these books about the crushing mundane lives of mundane people being miserable and the academic culture that grew up around them is very new, if you look at the whole of human history. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some works along those lines that are written very well indeed. But give me a little of the fantastic any day, even if most of them maybe aren’t that good. Theodore Sturgeon had something to say about that, “90% of everything is crap”, in reference to “big L” literature vs. sci-fi.
I’ll gladly read KILLDOZER!, one of the greatest scifi novellas of all time in my opinion, over some modernistic boring garbage that some stuffed shirt elbow patched stiff digs.
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“Kids these days don’t read. Kids these days don’t write. I’ve tried to hire writers . . . BAs in English, mind you . . . who couldn’t string three words together . . . who needed their hands held to write a 300-word blog post.”
You still hiring? I’m a kid here, and I’d like to think I can write well. Won a few short story contests.
It’s dead now. :p
Not to bad until the last line you jumped from A to D, the Graphic was out standing.
I had 4 years of Latin and two of French in school, but never mastered either, even though I took two more of French in college.
American Lit dead? Phooey, I still write!
No, seriously folks, when American Lit is Tom Wolfe’s Three Stooges, and mediocrities like Vonnegut (Thank you Joseph Epstein for finally making this public), then good riddance to bad rubbish!
There are plenty of good writers out there, you just have to go out and look, read reviews, become snobbish in the eyes of the Hairy Potty, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy readers, and you’ll find them. The same applies to popular music and other arts. If it’s popular there must be something wrong with it, said once a relative of mine. Exceptions abound: the Beatles, Umberto Eco (new novel coming out soon), but essentially it’s true.
The article reminds me of a conversation with an old art teacher at a community college. Someone asked him about applying to the once renowned art department of a local university. He told him to forget it, he wouldn’t make it there, it’s all conceptual art that is taught there and appreciated.
Still, Kindle and Nookie are selling well, aren’t they? What do people read on them, porno?
I particularly enjoy his "Thank God It's Only Chlamydia!"
I think I’m the one with the problem, not the language. I’ve got an unusual gift for memorization, but putting it all together was the problem.
...Personally, I like S.L.Clemens...
As my Grandfather used to say, “ Billy, have you noticed only the frogs speak French, every one else learns English.”
I hate to rain on the parade, although I enjoyed the Wall Street Journal article.
Yes, tripe is produced, much of it academic, and lots of that concentrating on gender, race, sexuality, and all the other categories lined up for polite comment. As I was reading this, I recalled the time one of my professors imposed on the class the writings of Dewey and Thorndike to inform the young teachers in the room about the theory behind modern education. This professor told us that no one really understood Dewey, but we should try to absorb the wisdom of the prose. That was in 1981.
I also thought about medieval theologians arguing about the essence of heaven and hell and angelic bodies, and the Marxists of the early 20th century, and the turgid incomprehensible writing of Gramscii. My guess is that every era contains intellectuals who fall so deeply in love with their ideas and beliefs that they lose all contact with the real world, and so we have Nobel laureates writing fictionalized account of Central American dictators passed off as actual events, and no one minds.
Anyone can try to ignore reality, but in order to really accomplish the task, you need to have the intellectual muscle to rationalize the fantasy. The job of the fine arts department is to train students in that rationalization.
About 200 years from now, people will recognize the great literature of our time... which reminds me of the books recognized as great literature in one of those Star Trek movies (I think Jacqueline Susanne was mentioned). Otherwise, I expect a fair number of thinkers in every era to produce dense dreck, some to produce good works, and time to sort it out.
>>>I always thought that a language that had 500 Irregular verbs had a problem.<<<
Try to memorize the articles and endings in German. LOL
As a freshman, I studied Shakespeare and Homer as well as plays by Edwin Granberry ("A Trip to Czardis"), James Barrie ("Shall We Join the Ladies?"), and others. The next year brought more Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevskii, Orwell, and Karel Čapek. In my junior year, we read Melville, Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, and early twentieth-century writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Thornton Wilder. We also read the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Edward A. Robinson, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost. In addition, I wrote papers on George Stewart, a noted mid-20th century novelist who is probably largely forgotten, and Hector C. Bywater, whose novel The Great Pacific War; a History of the American Japanese Campaign of 1931-33 (London: Constable, 1925) was must-reading among Japanese naval officers in the 1930's.
So-called "young adult" (YA) novels by writers such as S. E. Hinton, Paul Zindel, Paul Cormier, J. D. Salinger, etc.--which are in vogue in many high school English curriculums today--were not covered in any of my English classes, although many students read them on their own. I read mostly nonfiction in my spare time, but I did read one YA novel on my own--Don Robertson's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (New York: Harper, 1968)
I would like to add that I graduated in 1969--a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..