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The Politicisation of English Literature Criticism

Updated on February 19, 2009

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

If you can't teach 'em. Eat em.
If you can't teach 'em. Eat em.
What this guy said
What this guy said
It's funny because its true
It's funny because its true
Cats understand me.
Cats understand me.
Something like this.
Something like this.
Not like this.
Not like this.

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

A Confederacy of Dunces: A Novel
A Confederacy of Dunces: A Novel

Beautiful story of the world's most unique social misfit


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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    • Shelly Bryant profile image

      Shelly Bryant 

      8 years ago from Singapore and/or Shanghai

      I LOVED this hub. I loved my lit studies, even learning to like the perspectives politics offer on literature some of the time, but it wasn't what I studied literature for. I studied because I loved books and hoped to eventually write good literature — not criticism — myself. My lit degree is, oddly enough, being put into use in my writing. ;-)

      Your thoughts reminded me of something that happened in my Shakespeare class. The teacher went around on the first day asking each student two questions — why are you doing your masters in literature, and why are you taking this class in particular? My answer to both was, "For fun." She was surprised by the answer, and referred back to it sarcastically very often for the rest of the semester.

    • FreezepopMorality profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Hey guys, glad to see I'm not the only who noticed this problem. Teresa, I think you're classes would have been fun and not 'anti-colonial in any way, I'm sure. Yes, Aya, you're right. College and university has become just something one does. Although, it seems like people are now realising its not true. The trades are getting a lot more respect than you used to. I've often wished I'd gone down one of those paths, but then I remember that I can't really do anything else but be around words and books, even if that means my bills don't get paid on time.

      Lita, I think you managed to correctly identify me. Okay, there are SOME people in writing departments that write, but even they pretend they don't so they fit in with the other lazy artistes. Ha, but I kid. It just surprised me that it was in the writing department that I found readers. Perhaps, its like Aya says, and not many of those "have-to-go-college" types gravitate to writing when they can skate by in English instead.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      FreezePopMorality, great hub! You made a lot of valid points.

      People who are really interested in literature are rarely found in lit departments, because there are so many people there who are NOT interested in literature that they've been driven out.

      Part of the problem is that every high school graduate is expected to go to college today, for no apparent reason. They are told that if they just have a college education -- no matter in what subject! -- they'll make more money at their job. This is not true, but that aspect of it is irrelevant here. Once they decide to go to college, they often find themselves pressured to pick a major. If they're not good at math, then the sciences, engineering and computer programming are right out. That leaves the humanities. If they're not good at music or art or languages, they end up in the English department. There are apparently no prerequisites there.

    • profile image

      Leta S 

      9 years ago

      I don't remember, even though I'm a fan (!), but you have to be a writing major.  I think we are the only ones who really notice these things about the literature departments.  I remember in a specific author seminar the instructor and students actually talking about the stains and markings of a freakin' original manuscript as some kind of literary criticism argument.  And that was the beginning of the end for me...  I absolutely don't mind political discussions and takes on literature--but when we are talking about stains proving this or that in a most pedantic fashion, among other things, time for a breath of fresh air.

      SOME writers write in creative writing departments, lol.  Oh, you'll know who you are--if you keep doing it.

      Your hubs are original and interesting, :).

    • Elena. profile image


      9 years ago from Madrid

      I join the club: I loved this hub! And this line: "In order to remedy this perceived flaw in the doing-nothing-ness of an English major, the student takes on a social perspective." Personally, I think lit is self suficient and the major purpose it serves is enriching the mind and soul, our inner world, more than for the outer one. I wonder what's up in lit classes nowadays, maybe it's just the way you tell it, but I wouldn't know.

    • goldentoad profile image


      9 years ago from Free and running....

      I liked this hub too, even though I never attended any college classes. I read for the entertainment and for the philosophy of the writer, not the political thoughts, but many times the two are intertwined.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Loved this hub -- great illustrations, too. Wish you had been in my lit. classes, since for the last 16 years part of my job was to teach the Brit. Lit. survey courses. (Which of course document for all to see the depravity of the British Empire and the subjugation of women.) (just kidding. . .)


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