I'm working on an article about horror in fiction. As part of the research for this, I recently read an analysis of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Among some of the smarter pieces of analysis, this article also made some colossally stupid ones: that Hyde represented the need to write for popularity and Jekyll the desire to create art, and that this duality was a manifestation of Stevenson's own feelings of betraying his artistic calling because he had written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in order to make money.
The horror! The horror!
It was one of those moments where I shake my head and blush for my profession. And it would have been a moment I could have snarked about on twitter and then left alone, except then I read about how I am a apparently a dry and bloodless person, in a profession full of intolerant, narrow-minded twits, and the combination of the two things, well.
I mean, look. I get that there are hide-bound people in academia, as there are in every profession, who are resistant to change and new ideas. I took classes from some of them. And yes, some literary scholarship seems wildly out of touch with any actual love for or understanding of literature. You know what? I don't like it, either. I don't think it's good scholarship, and at a very fundamental level, I don't understand choosing to spend that much time and effort thinking about something that gives no pleasure.
Here's the thing: I love teaching literature. I get paid to read works that I love, and think seriously about them, and then talk to smart people about all the cool stuff in those books. That is a really great job. I don't see literary analysis as a way to suck the life and fun out of texts, but as a way to find the Easter eggs hidden inside. I feel pretty safe in saying that bringing in Neil Gaiman's Worlds' End and JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when I teach Chaucer this semester will make the students more, not less, excited about what they are reading, and more, not less, likely to think in braver ways about what we read.
I believe that a truly great book is like the TARDIS: it is bigger on the inside. My role, as the Doctor in the room, is to help students think about the ways in which it is. I know that I am doing my job when I get told that "Shakespeare is kind of fucking awesome, which I didn't know before this course" (still my favorite comment on a course eval) or that "I didn't know fantasy could be like The City and the City" or "I bought all of Cat Valente's books on Amazon last night."
I aim for the same results in my scholarship. Yes, I want to think rigorously about the texts I am writing on, but if I don't make clear why I love them, why I think they are worth thinking rigorously about, then I have failed.
And sure, a lot of this sounds like me trying to defend myself "But I only have the one tweed jacket, and it's black, and dammit, I am dreamy in it." But I think of my advisor, who watched as a seminar on Piers Plowman turned into a discussion of the geography of the Dreaming, of my friend Jen, who blew her class' mind when she introduced them to Ender's Game, of the man in the office to my left who works on Shaun Tan, and the woman in the office to my right who is writing a book on imaginary geography in Renaissance Lit, and I think that the ivory tower isn't such a bad place to hang out.