Have English Courses Killed Literature

Years ago while I was a student in university I wanted to take a course in English as an elective. Not knowing exactly which one to take, I went and met with the dean of the department. After I mentioned to her my love and interest in English literature and writing she told me that all the classes were full. The only spot available was to my disappointment a course in poetry. As much as I love poetry I didn’t feel that I could commit to it three times a week for a whole term. Poetry for me is a high form of art and it requires a certain mood. And unfortunately I didn’t think I had it at the time. She tried to convince me but I had already made up my mind. Her name was Mary and I still remember the way she sat at her desk opposite the window and the look of disappointment on her face when I said no. And since it was my last semester there I couldn’t wait to register for any other English course. Even though I didn’t have any regrets at the time, there has not been a day since then that I haven’t thought about that incident and wondered what would have happened if I had taken the course. Would it have changed my career in any way?

A few years later I read an interview with the late Gore Vidal where he was asked what he thought about college English courses and whether they could influence one’s career and could teach one about the Novel. His reply was:

“Those English courses are what have killed literature for the public. Books are made a duty. Imagine teaching novels! Novels used to be written simply to be read. It was assumed until recently that there was a direct connection between writer and reader. Now that essential connection is being mediated- bugged? By English departments. Well who needs the mediation? Who needs to be taught how to read a contemporary novel? Either you do or you don’t. But this business of taking the novel apart in order to show bored children how they were put together- there’s a madness to it. What symbols to look for? What does the author mean by the word “white”? I look at the notes appended to my own pieces in anthologies and know despair.”

What do you think? Do you think children should be taught how to read a novel, what elements to look for in it? Or should they just simply be left to read and live the story by themselves?


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21 Responses to Have English Courses Killed Literature

  1. Brenna Lyons says:

    Sometimes the curtains are just blue. Sorry but I disagree with teachers vehemently at times. Their interpretation of a piece of work is no more or less relevant than mine is. Writing is an art. When three people look at a single piece of painted or sculpted art, do they all come away with the same feelings and the same impressions? NO! Of course not. Art is subjective in its creation and in its interpretation. Readers often (and teachers more often than that) lock onto nuances in a work and try to capitalize on them, based on their own biases and filters. That doesn’t make their interpretation wrong for them. It doesn’t make it correct for me. And no interpretation necessarily matches what the author was thinking when he/she wrote the piece. It’s the nature of ART.

    • chichikir says:

      I totally agree. Writing is an art and it is subjective. While we can dissect a novel into its different aspects, we can never guess what the author’s intention was in writing the book, or why he/she wrote it. 🙂

  2. Nicola says:

    I have a degree in English Literature, so naturally I’m very biased, but I *love* picking apart books. I get excited when I re-read a book and notice foreshadowing, or when I see a theme and how neatly it meshes with the story. For me this sort of thing adds to the magic of the story rather than detracting from it.

    That said, I do think it’s important to tread carefully when teaching this kind of thing in schools. At university it was something I’d signed up for, so even though I found Pamela terribly dull with an unsympathetic protagonist, I slogged through and then laughed my way through Humphry Clinker the next week (all the while loving the sociopolitical commentary). When it’s forced upon children and teenagers, though, it risks turning novels into something they associate with work, when they should, first and foremost, be entertainment.

    There’s also the judgement passed upon books with the study of literature. Some books are worthy of study (and with that there comes the implication sometimes that they’re not for entertainment) while others are simply “fun”. Why can’t a book be both? It can be simply an enjoyable story, but also one that makes the reader think.

    I would be saddened if the study of English literature were abolished in the name of restoring the entertainment value, because to me part of the entertainment *is* in the studying. I am equally saddened, however, to hear of children who have been turned off reading because it’s something they do at school, and I’m not sure how these two apposite positions can find a happy compromise.

    • chichikir says:

      Hats off to you and to all the teachers. I do agree that we should study books but not their authors. We should never make the author and his/her intentions for the writing the subject of our study. The best lesson I have learned in reading objectively is from my high school English teacher. He taught me never to read introductions unless it is by the author himself. 🙂

  3. marisaporter says:

    I agree.

  4. I remember resenting the fact that I was being forced to read and pull a novel apart into its various segments, like dissecting a frog in biology class, instead of just reading it, liking it or loathing it, and then telling the teacher what they liked or didn’t like about it. I realize that in order to write a novel one must know what goes into the creating of it, but trying to determine what the author had in mind when they wrote it seems a bit pretentious to me.

    I remember watching a movie (I can’t remember the title) in which Rodney Dangerfield was attending college with his son. He took a literature class where he had to write a paper on a particular book. His teacher trashed his paper, saying he didn’t grasp the meaning that the author intended. Rodney’s character is then seen talking on the phone to the real author, reaming him out for not getting it right, according to the teacher! In other words, we can try to understand why the author wrote something, but that is simply an opinion unless we have it straight from the author’s mouth what he/she intended.

    A teacher should just present a particular novel and let the reader determine whether they liked it or not and what important lesson they may have learned from reading it should be left up to the reader, not the teacher.

    • chichikir says:

      I remember the film, Back To School. And I agree that perhaps as a teacher we should provide the children with list of books to read and maybe study with them the basics of the novel. As for the author, we should study his style of writing yes but not ‘what made him write this or that’ 🙂

  5. I think how you handle teaching literature is tricky. Some books are just entertaining, very little substance, very little to really understand, much like bad TV (it may be popular, but it itsn’t good). Some books are complex and speak to a number of issues. They call forth to the reader and require more from them. At the end of the day when teaching literature it’s important to focus on on books that are worth investing the time in to discover what’s really going on, and not books that are just entertaining. Just like science class some people get it and love it. Others hate it and walk away. Hopefully as mature adults they’ll get over their childish issues and try again (in either case). Both are too important to simply remain ignorant about.
    A book can be deep and entertaining, unfortunately most books known for entertaining aren’t deep. As an English degree holder I love seeing the depths in books. They challenge the way I view the world. If i’m going for just entertainment there’s plenty of other junk for that. Great writers always want their books to communicate something more, just like great artists want the same, or great composers. If anything killed the novel it’s the rise of pop-lit and lack of talented writers who understand the history of their craft. It’s value and importance to society.

    • chichikir says:

      I am with you in searching for depths in any book I read. I love for my books to give me more than a story. What I don’t like is being asked ‘Why do you think the writer wrote this sentence, or paragraph… or what does he mean when he writes…’ 🙂

  6. klyse3 says:

    I am about to start college, studying English and I am scared of encountering this very problem. I strongly believe that the meaning of a writing is only what the reader gets from it. Perhaps this is hypocritical, because I want to someday teach English. However, I am more interested in teaching kids how to love reading than I am in shoving meanings down their throats. I have watched in sadness as many of my contemporaries despise reading and view it only as an assignment. I know people personally who will not read a book recreationally. They only read as assignments. That is extremely sad to me, and I think teaching needs to be changed to remove that issue.

  7. Jessica says:

    College English classes can definitely be a negative experience. I started out thinking I was going to be an English major, but quickly found the analysis process absolutely ridiculous. I dropped it entirely the day my professor said “It’s not what the author put in the book, but what he left out!” and pushed a super Freudian analysis theory where every word meant something else entirely.

    Since I dropped that major, reading has become much more enjoyable again!

  8. As in any other college subject, you can get good English teachers and bad English teachers. I started college as a music major and switched to English because of a wonderful and inspiring teacher whom I will love forever for drawing me to literature. I read a lot of stories and novels, plays and poems, that I never would have on my own, and almost all of them enriched me immensely. I wouldn’t trade it for any other major.
    As for analyzing literature — what’s to be afraid of? Granted, when I studied English, the critical perspective was usually New Criticism, which meant that you learned about the story by carefully reading the story. It was as close to a natural reading experience as you could get in academe, I guess. Nowadays the schools favor teaching literature by feminist theory, queer theory, and all sorts of frames that I wouldn’t have much respect for. But I think, by having some backbone and a mind of your own, you can still find the good teachers and enjoy getting an English degree.
    My entire 6 years of study was reading great literature. (I got a master’s in English, too.) I’d do it again, if I could.

    • chichikir says:

      I regret not taking English courses in college, especially literature. I majored in mathematics and later education. 😦

    • Nicola says:

      I just graduated a year ago and my experience was similar (I’m in the UK, if that makes any difference). It wasn’t New Criticism we did – we used the text as the basis for study but did look into context and critics’ writings – but we didn’t do feminist theory or anything like that. We learned about them in first year in a descriptive sense, but we never read books through a specific lens. I wouldn’t have wanted to have studied English if it was all literary theory, either, which I found dull to even think about, let alone *do*. I also think it’s a bit backwards; you’re deciding on a theme before reading the book and then looking at how it fits into that theme, rather than reading the book and extracting its theme(s).

  9. My regret is that, when I was invited by a theater major to work on a production of a play, I turned her down. I think it would have been a fascinating experience.

  10. good2kno says:

    For me, it was a required course in poetry (for an English major) that really opened up literature for me. All that close focus on the words, the language, the sounds, the rhythm is something I have taken with me. Are some courses dreadful? Absolutely, especially if they try to make the mechanics or semiotics or politics more important than the story. But being able to read and hear the poetry in prose makes novels that much more fun.

  11. Pingback: Excellent analogy here – | Rusty Blackwood – Author

  12. Nicola, I agree wholeheartedly. And I was fortunate that my professors were generally not strict devotees of New Criticism; we also got some basic smattering of Freudianism, but not enough to really bother anyone, and we read some background and critical essays. My most challenging class was Modern Novel, simply because of the heavy reading load, 2 or 3 novels per week. I never got to “Portrait of a Lady”, and it’s been weighing on me ever since 🙂 Someday I’ll have to read that one.

    Good2kno, you are so right about the study of poetry. That is where one becomes most conscious of the art of language.

  13. Pingback: Have English Courses Killed Literature « sintaxpoetry

  14. hdtee says:

    what an interesting read! i think it applies to different people.

    those with genuine interests in novels would benefit from the courses much better than those who were forced in the english major! language is such a tough subject to teach, i believe lecturers/tutors have to distinguish the need to be too technical or too ambiguous in their teachings.

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