Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The thin line

Keren left a really interesting comment on my last post. It read: Even though your panel last night said the opposite, I really don't think universities are where literature goes to die, but where taste and appreciation goes to be cultivated.

I started to write a response in the comments, but then I just kept writing, and realized it would make a better post all on its own. So here goes.

NB: I want to make it perfectly clear that this is my response. I am not presuming in any way to speak for any of the other members of last night's panel. Not because I think we disagree, but because I don't know. (Look, our conversation in the green room was sort of like this: "Hi, I'm Kat. I really liked your story." Except for when I introduced myself to Larry Block, when I said: "Hi, I'm Kat. Oh, my God, your story scared the crap out of me!")


I love universities. I've pretty much spent my adult life in them, and I'll be teaching at Stony Brook University for the next two years. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't like them, or if I believed they were the graveyard of literature. In fact, as I was walking through the Columbia campus last night with Ellen and Delia, I said how much I liked visiting universities because I loved the idea of them being places where you could go to learn, and to think about things.

I think, in the ideal world, Keren is exactly right, that people can go to a college or university to learn about literature, and cultivate their taste for and appreciation of it. And categories, such as the "mainstream" and "genre" labels that were being tossed around last night can help with that cultivation.

My difficulty comes in when the labels are used as value judgments. While this attitude is not universal, I've met too many academics who feel that some literature is not worth studying, and all too often, the texts that fall into the "not worth studying" category are the ones that are popular - on the best seller list, or with cult fan bases, or both. It's as if they think if people like something, it can't be worth thinking seriously about.

I call shenanigans on that.

First of all, the idea that if something is fun to read, it's not worth studying is ridiculous. It also makes me really wonder about the thought-processes of the people who think this way. Why do they spend their lives thinking about things they don't like, that aren't any fun for them to think about?

But more importantly, the corollary to Sturgeon's Law is the other ten percent of everything isn't crud. So I have no patience with anyone, academic or otherwise, who tell me I can't teach or write about Sandman just because it's a comic, or Harry Potter because it's for kids (or fantasy, or it sold too many copies.) Nor, as I said, do I have patience for people who tell me that Shakespeare wasn't a fantasist because he was good. 

What something is has nothing to do with its quality. It's laziness to think otherwise.

Literature shouldn't go to university to die, just as the people who read it shouldn't have their curiosity smothered because they want to think vigorously about things outside of the canon. Categories should act as guides in foreign lands, not as barriers.


  1. Oh gosh. Well aren't we two peas in one very large pod?

    My undergraduate thesis was actually about the political discourse not-so thinly veiled within the High School English Canon.

    But then again, I also wrote a junior year thesis on the importance of the Pant Suit in women's who know what you can trust in Keren's scholarly world.

    But, having had amazing experience with the GW English Department as well as the Columbia University Arts world, let me tell you that these schools are doing it right.

    I once had a favorite professor, Dr. McAleavy, tell me that before I take a Creative Writing course, I should go into the library, read everything I could for 10 years, then come back to square one.

  2. Also, please tell me you like the book Feed by M.T. Anderson because then we can officially be cyber-best friends.

    And if you have not read it, add it to the reading shelf.

  3. Furthermore,

    I love reading The Tempest as a work of Science Fiction. And I'm not talking about the fanboys that have made A Klingon Version of Hamlet, nor am I discussing Shakespeare's inimitable appearance in Dr. Who. I mean, verbatim, ye olde English.

    "Canst thou remember
    A time before we came unto this cell?"
    - William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.2

    OK OK, I'm effusive today. Enough.

  4. I don't mind effusive.

    My Mom went to school at GW. I'm glad to know they're doing it right.

    And I haven't yet read M.T. Anderson's FEED, although it is on the TBR shelf, as a fairly large number of people have recommended it to me.