Yesterday, Salon.com published an article entitled Think you know how to read, do you? about books over the last several years that have purported to instruct people on how to read literary fiction. The main thesis of the article was that these books are pointless in a way because, as Virginia Wolf put it, the “only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”
While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also agree with many of the authors of these books, who decry the current state of our colleges’ English departments, which seem intent on strangling every last bit of joy out of reading. I was a history major in college, but I had my share of run-ins with the English department, none of them pleasant. Without exception, every English professor with whom I interacted was elitist, smug, and condescending and had a political agenda to force onto everyone else.
The absolute worst encounter I had was the semester I took a creative writing class (poetry and short fiction). I had some credit hours to kill and thought it would be fun. Ha! The professor would routinely start the class with the question, “So, how many of you have heard of [insert name of Random Poet Guy]?” When no one spoke up, the universal scoffing sound would rise from the back of her throat. “Well, he’s only the most prominent American poet of the twentieth century,” she would then snot.
Really? So prominent no one has heard of him? More prominent than Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, Carl Sandburg, Robert Penn Warren, Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot (died British, born American), Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou? Right. I’m convinced that she engaged in this little exercise to make everyone feel ignorant. Most of the time, she barely contained her contempt for us all.
She also once told me that all genre fiction was “junk food,” and that one day I would regret reading it. She was including Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury in that statement. Guess what? Haven’t regretted reading any of them yet.
The thing about it is that her critique of my actual writing was very helpful to me…eventually. At the time, she treated everyone with such snobbish disdain, that I refused to listen to her. Likewise, any time she would actually recommend a writer, I would instantly dismiss that writer as pretetentious, because she was. But by not reading Random Poet Guy, I may have missed out.
Since college, the other serious literary types I have met have exhibited the same characteristics to one degree or another. I once told someone that I liked Edgar Allan Poe, to which she replied, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” Guess what? Haven’t gotten over it yet. Needless to say, I wasn’t too interested in hearing her own reading recommendations after that.
So, here’s the advice for the serious literary types bemoaning the demise of Literature. Maybe more people would listen to you if you were nicer.