The Politicisation of English Literature Criticism
It's a problem
I was an English major in college for a long time. Longer than was good for me.
I got into it because I’d liked to read and I thought this was the place that I belonged. I liked stories, but as time went on, in third and fourth year courses especially, it became not about the stories anymore. It became about politics.
Must there always be a political perspective in English studies? I am distinctly apolitical. Life’s got me going every which way these days, and it takes more effort to take sides than I’ve got. I don’t even like fence-sitting, I refuse to get on the fence. When politics gets mentioned, I go and eat a samosa and some French fries. I leave all that fence nonsense to the next fella in line.
Politics, in my opinion, is a question that doesn’t have an answer, like brown bread vs. white bread. Some people say white bread tastes better. Some people say brown bread is more nutritious. But regardless what decision they choose, these people insist their decision is the right one, and everybody else is wrong. I just can’t bring myself to do that, it makes me feel unright
So what am I talking about? In English lit, the classes will start talking about Aristotle’s contribution to modern literary theory for a few minutes, but end up, for the rest of the hour, talking about the environment, about aboriginal rights, or about how evil white people are. Now, I’m sure white people are really evil, but I’m not happy about paying money just to hear that. There are a lot of masochists in the class who seem to really enjoy it, but I just find myself getting bored.
Maybe it depends on where you go to school, but I found my school’s English department to be unbelievably political. Personally, I think this phenomenon has to do with the fact that English literature people (students and professors) feel guilty. I don’t mean the concept of liberal guilt, whereby, aforementioned evil white people feel bad for actions committed by their ancestors. I mean guilty in another sense. They’re guilty because all they’re really doing is reading books.
A plumber fixes pipes, and a musician makes beautiful music. But what does the lit major do? Write things? No, the journalism and creative writing students do that. Basically all a lit major does is read books.
So what happens when a lit major’s friend comes by and says, hey I’m a surgeon, I just saved a human life. What are you doing, buddy? The lit major is then speechless.
He could recommend a good book or two. (And that’s even in an ideal world). In reality, I’ve found that most lit majors don’t even read books. They’re there for the credits or they want to go into education or (more rarely) law and lit is just a stepping stone. So on the one hand, you’ve got people that don’t care about books, and the other, people that feel guilty about doing what they love.
Ironically, the only place I found people who read books, was in the creative writing department. The ironic thing is that finding a creative writing student who actually WRITES books is about as rare as a well-read English major.
So what happens in this swirling mess? In order to remedy this perceived flaw in the doing-nothing-ness of an English major, the student takes on a social perspective. He is no longer just reading books, he is reading books with a perspective. In other words, he is making the world a better place. Now, he’s going to write about what he just read, and with humanity and love oozing out of every pore, he sets about bringing peace and happiness to peoples of all classes, colours, sexes and trees. He will show you how Gravity’s rainbow is actually about class struggle. He will show you how racist Dickens was. And by reading his essay, you will be less racist, and he will have made the planet a better place and justified his existence.
Forget social injustice. Read these instead
Beautiful story of the world's most unique social misfit
In invisible cities, setting is character and character is setting. By the end of the book, you'll forgot all about the narrator and instead be rooting for the cities
A generational story about a family on the edge of magic. A book at least two decades ahead of its time. One of the precursors to slipstream
Recently made into a movie, perfume is the story of a man with a sense of smell so attuned, every other sense, including conscience, loses all importance
What can we do about it?
But is so wrong. You don’t have to feel guilty, my poor dear English student. There is nothing wrong with just liking books, it’s a mistake to think every human has to make a difference in this world. You don’t have to latch onto politics to justify all that time seemingly spent unproductively and sedentarily. It’s okay to just like books. At least I think it is. What do you think?
If you need to have a purpose, make it one dedicated to your literature, not your politics. Being a teacher of fine books. Teach people which ones are good and which ones bad. People love being entertained. There’s a purpose to your life. Forgot about changing the world. Leave that to the socialists. Stick with what you know, English professors. You’re classes will be better for it.
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