It’s funny where a cascade of blog links can take you. I started out with a link from the Prof to this Arnold Kling piece on academia (it’s part of the ongoing response to the Duke philosophy head’s ‘conservatives are too stupid to work here’ letter). That led me to another, older Kling column that in turn linked to this long and facinating Johnathan Yardley WaPo rumination on American literature.
After passing along the Yardley piece to an old college friend who’d gone through the university writing school Master’s sequence (I myself was an engineering major who became something of a curiosity, or maybe mascot in the Auburn English department), I got the following thoughts back in an email…
I think Yardley’s wrong to point the finger at preoccupation with the self. God knows Faulkner, Bellow, Hemingway, Roth, Fitzgerald, Twain and others all drew from their life experiences and were to varying degrees self-obsessed. But he’s right about lack of story. Lit professors tell students they should be more sophisticated than to read for plot, that they should instead be reading to apply the works of some critical theorist to the text. Lacking those larger life experiences, academic writers take those lessons to heart with their own writing. There’s a deficit of story in contemporary literature, and that shows when you see so many people from academia loving Harry Potter–because they aren’t getting story from the other crap they’re reading. Most people are drawn to English Lit because of story–Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, Hamlet, even Absalom, Absalom! are all great stories, but then they get into class and are told that that thrill they had finding out what happened next is not a sophisticated approach.
Looking at some of the impenetrable stuff on the shelves these days, it’s really no wonder that a J.K. Rowling or Tom Clancy can sell in the millions. Just because depth and art are desireable (hell, preferrable), “story” ought not to be a bad word.