Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has stepped outside the academy and delivered a damning critique of his profession. He wants his fellow literature profs to give up “readings” of works of literary art. Ignore Marx’s, Freud’s, Foucault’s, or Derrida’s points of view: “just read the books.”
He says the tomes that he and his professors of literature tend to write are admirable in many ways. They are full of learning, hard work, honesty, and intelligence that sometimes, in their way, touches of brilliance.
But they are also, at least in my judgment, usually unreadable. They are composed as performances. They are meant to show, and often to show off, the prowess of the author. They could not conceivably be meant to provide spiritual or intellectual nourishment. No one could read a representative instance of such writing and decide based on it to change her life. Our books are not written from love, but from need. He goes on to state:
I think that it is possible to write books and essays in behalf of literature that will demonstrate its powers of renovation and inquire into the limits of those powers. Such books can and should be inspiring not only to members of the profession but to educated (or self-educated) and curious members of the general public who are willing to do some hard intellectual work. As a profession, our standing in and impact upon society beyond our classrooms now is minuscule. Yet we are copiously stocked with superb talent: Some of the best young minds in America continue to be drawn to the graduate study of literature. But unless we as a profession change our ways and stop seeking respectability and institutional standing at the expense of genuine human impact, they are destined, as Tennyson has it, to rust unburnished, and that’s a sorry fate for them and for all of us.
One must admit that it’s possible to develop too exalted a sense of the transforming powers of literature and the other arts. What worked for me and you and you may not have a universal application. It’s probable that most people will be relatively content to live within the ethical and conceptual world that their parents and their society pass on to them. Burke and Johnson thought of common-sense opinion as a great repository of wisdom stored through the ages, augmented and revised through experience, trial and error, until it became in time the treasure of humanity.
Perhaps the conservative sages were right. But there will always be individuals who cannot live entirely by the standard dispensation and who require something better — or at least something else. This group may be small (though I think it larger than most imagine), but its members need what great writing can bring them very badly indeed. We professors of literature hold the key to the warehouse where the loaves lie fresh and steaming, while outside people hunger for them, sometimes dangerously. We ought to do all we can to open the doors and dispense the bread: We should see how far it’ll go.