Thursday, March 24, 2011

This is, of course, why we can't have nice things

I had a conversation this morning that really clarified a lot of things for me. I was getting out of my car in the SBU parking lot, when a gorgeous Boxer got out of the next car over, and came visiting, asking for pets. "Pretty dog," I said to the guy on the end of the leash.

"Being able to hide my dog in my office is one of the perks of being a grad student. One of the only perks."

"Yeah, I know how that can go."

"Are you a grad student?"

"No, a postdoc in the English Department."

"The English Department has postdocs? What kind of research could you possibly be doing?"

"Well, my areas of focus are medieval and speculative literature, so - "

"Wait, so you don't even mean literature, then, do you? You mean popular books. That must be easy."

"Just because something is popular, doesn't mean it's not literature."

"Of course it does. Anyone can write popular fiction. You don't even need to think, you just tell a story everyone likes. I can't believe they let you work on that stuff."

Yeah. I think I'll put that on my business card: "I teach popular books. The kind that anyone can write."


But I guess that's why I keep seeing two conversations take place. One, about how the humanities aren't necessary - our research, which looks like reading and writing, rather than lab coats and test tubes and Large Hadron Colliders, doesn't look like research, and so why should my department be funded, why should the library get money for books or journals. The other, about how all ebooks should be priced crazy-low, $0.99, because anyone can write popular fiction. And I can't even really respond to these conversations, because thinking about them makes me tired. 

Please don't mistake me. I know that my research does not look like the research of the people on campus who are trying to cure cancer. But you know what? Most research in the sciences doesn't look like that either. I don't have a problem with the seeking of knowledge for it's own sake - wanting to know things, to understand them, for the sake of increasing knowledge and understanding - well, I think that's kind of wonderful, and I'm all for it. But what I'm not all for is this idea that all our striving for answers has to look one way. It's as ridiculous an idea as the one that says that all our art must be paid for (barely) on the same scale.

Because to me, just in case this wasn't clear from my choice of professions, I think that stories are one of the most important things in the world. Stories are what makes us human. They are a language that connects us. I believe that the people who write stories, and the people who think seriously about what stories mean, deserve to be paid for their work, because their - our - work is important, and it is hard, and it is not something that anyone and everyone can do. They are the way we fight against silence, and despair, and even entropy. And that has worth.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I'll pass this link on.

  2. "Anyone can write popular fiction"? Wow.

    I don't see why people feel the need to gravitate towards an either/or proposition. Either science is valuable, or the arts/literature/fill in the blank is valuable. Why can't it be both?

  3. Thanks, Juliette. Much appreciated.

    Amy, I completely agree. Not just because I was a science major in undergrad, and still count some of those classes as among my favorites. I want people to feel like they can be curious about anything, and have that curiosity seen as worthwhile.

  4. That guy sounds like a narrow-minded jerk.

    And, fwiw, the best scientists I had the pleasure to know are also very well ALL kinds of literature.

    I think I'm going to write some popular fiction now.

  5. Steffi, I think the best kinds of people in all fields know that there are important things beyond the scope of their fields. It's why I love interdisciplinary work so much. Realizing that our way of doing things isn't the only possibility is what makes us better thinkers.

    And I heartily like your plan to go write popular fiction.

  6. I worry about humanity, sometimes. Anyone can write popular fiction? Really?! That a special breed of crazy, honestly. That is a) insulting and b) really presumptuous. Technically, in his time, Shakespeare wrote popular fiction. Does that mean we have hordes of Shakespearean level writers just popping out plays? I think not.

    I agree with you completely. Stories are important. They do so much -- they capture, they explain, they probe shadows and light equally. They can even take us out of an ordinary day, into a new little universe. They may not cure cancer, but when I'm feeling low? A good book and some chocolate work magic.

    I find his logic appalling, too. Popular doesn't equal literature? That is a ridiculous, unfounded conclusion.

    I'm going to pass this along, as well. Thanks for sharing this, Kat. ~Ali

  7. Anyone can make a sandwich, too, but there's a big difference between balogna on Wonderbread and a perfectly toasted Croque Madame.

  8. Thanks, Ali. I've never understood the "things that sell lots of copies must be bad" reasoning. It makes my head hurt when people try to use that as an argument.

    Mikki: Awesome. Also, now I'm hungry.

  9. People say some really amazing things.

    I suppose this is the kind of guy who would have complained that Dante was writing in Italian, and not Latin, had he lived in Florence. I mean, it's just popular fiction.

    And while I work in Engineering, and not Science, it's not like we're curing cancer in my field. Do you want better Wireless on your video game? I work on that. I'm sure there are tons of postdocs in the field. Is that more worthy than the study of popular literature? Why?

    Sorry. That was a long and roundabout way of saying that I agree.

  10. I like long and roundabout agreement. Especially when it's so eloquent. Thanks.