Eng Lit courses: alive and well? Not very

I get an occasional letter from the English Faculty at Cambridge. I don’t normally bother to read it. I did English and scraped along on a minimal amount of academic work. But when, years later, I did a creative writing course, I realized that I was much more interested in the craft side of writing, than analysing literature from an academic viewpoint. And I came to question the whole thing about making “English Literature” a fully-fledged academic subject. I’m not convinced it really is a worthwhile academic discipline, as opposed to, say, the sciences, mathematics or philosophy.

One of the difficulties is practical. Being forced to read novels quickly (I’m a slow reader) in order to extract theories about them is not, in my opinion, a fruitful way of approaching literature. How about reading for pleasure in your own time? I think the standard Eng Lit course is killing off people’s love of literature because of this. And it doesn’t help at all with writing literature yourself. The problem is this: Eng Lit courses are looking for the intellectually interesting aspects of Lit – which inevitably moves toward theoretical concerns about the use of language, or its cultural meanings and so on. You do not want this focus if you intend to learn how to write. To learn how to write you need to master character, plotting, concise description and exposition. All these subjects are anathema to modern-day Eng Lit courses. Oh plot and character! Ha ha, how quaint! Plot summary is for middle school at most.

Another development in Eng Lit is to take the theoretical aspect further – by delving into post-modernism, linguistic and cultural studies, and, more generally, philosophy. But here is my view: if you are going to do philosophy, Eng Lit at best does it in a less thorough, somewhat second-rate way – if that’s what you are interested in, simply do philosophy, which is centrally focused on theory and, in my view, is a worthy academic subject.

And if Eng Lit verges into sociology and also cultural studies of various kinds? My point is the same – do those subjects in their own right. I think, slightly sadly, that there is a major effort to squeeze Eng Lit into these areas – since it is increasingly being perceived as irrelevant. Behind this, is the rapid fall-off in the number of students studying English. Here’s the intro to the circular I received, from the Chair of the Faculty:

The subject nationally faces huge challenges, which are escalating rapidly. Future projections of the numbers of English Literature students applying to UK universities suggest  a large decline. These are being contested, but some universities already have them in mind as they make cuts. Closely related to this – a cause of the downbeat projections, but also another symptom of the general problems in attitudes towards our subject – is the steep decline in the number of pupils taking English Literature A-level.

The Chair follows this with an endearing section where he seeks to reassure past students of English that no, they really did try and work hard, and their self-criticism is not deserved:

People think of their younger selves as rather hapless, somewhat idle and chaotic. Lectures passed by in a daze, seminars were dominated by the need to stay out of view, supervisions were mostly bluffing; essays were last-minute and fragmentary, and exam success was more or less inexplicable…In every specific case I have encountered, this seemed to me to be an unfair characterization of student achievement, sometimes radically so. They came from people who had covered lots of ground, constantly come up with interesting ideas, and in some cases had battled against adversity of one kind or other, to their great credit.

Unfortunately, in my case, this is not an unfair characterization of my ‘student achievement’. I really did bluff my way through supervisions, I did try to stay invisible in seminars (and sometimes succeeded by not attending at all).  I was hapless, chaotic and idle – though I did do meaningful things, such as voluntary work, away from Eng Lit, while a student. I did somehow conjure my way through exams, even though I’d covered very little ground (though, to be fair, I was interested in the things I actually covered). And, on mature reflection, I’d never take an English Lit course again – there are better subjects to study.

So, a few extracts from the articles below that came in the faculty letter. It’s interesting to see where Eng Lit is currently at, based on the assorted contributions. Some articles I enjoyed – especially a piece about making a radio play out of Susan Cooper’s novel The Dark Is Rising. But, very significantly for me, this is all about a craft perspective – about how a new work was produced and broadcast. There was also the following article, about how literature could be used in palliative care. I’ve experience of observing writers working in hospital environments, and feel supportive of this approach:

There is an established body of scholarship around arts therapies and creative activities in palliative care, and Rita Charon’s work on narrative medicine has, over the last twenty years, been instrumental in bringing story-telling and the structure of literary narratives into the training of healthcare professionals in the US. But there remains a great deal to investigate. Much of the existing work on poetry and non-narrative forms in relation to end of life is vague, and the dominance of medical paradigms and terminology around such key concepts for patient choice such as the nature of care and the experience of pain continues to mean that expressing wishes and communicating authentically is often harder than it might be.

Of course, this is once more, a very practical application of literature. Perhaps literature can open up more choices and thinking in a hospital context – it’s a bit of a stretch in some ways, but I’d feel churlish to say, “don’t try it.”

But then, there followed a pretentious and unreadable account of going fishing where Ted Hughes had gone fishing.

Then an analysis of colonial architecture, written by a new member of the faculty. I think there is almost certainly some truth in her analysis – does such architecture express racist attitudes? – no doubt it does. But look at the clanging, leaden prose below – identify colonial logics and narratives of heritage preservation and the preservation of structural racism. It feels as if it’s written in a straitjacket. Unfortunately, in my view, there are many orthodoxies that you can’t challenge on the academic left – and so you end up with this kind of heavy, almost unreadable prose. It intones the truths that the reader must solemnly bow to, or else there will be trouble. This does not make me want to enquire further. Instead it leaves me feeling dismal. I don’t get a sense of intellectual curiosity here. Instead, I have the impression of “monumental” unquestionable, orthodoxy:

Third, Restoring looks closely at the aesthetic remainders and inherited political silences of postwar imperial heritage culture to identify colonial logics that still operate in contemporary invocations of traditional architecture and planning. The defensive tracts of conservative British intellectuals such as Roger Scruton and the classical architectural mandates of white supremacist organizations such as Traditional Britain Group make vivid the relation between the protection of empire’s monumental structures through narratives of heritage preservation and the preservation of structural racism.

Another article follows – about people researching political pamphlets that challenged colonial regimes through history. I’m afraid, here too, I have a sense of clanging orthodoxy – and I challenge their basic assertion that “we” are not given a sense that there is an alternative to “neo-liberal capitalism”. Really? The problem with the term “neo-liberal” is that it’s applied so widely and broadly that some apply it to anything slightly to the right of Che Guevara – especially anything enacted by the centre-left, or social democracy. If you are academics, define your terms – please don’t use all-encompassing slurs like “neo-liberal”. And what is socialism too? Strict socialism? – the abolition of private property and private enterprise of any kind? It seems poorly thought through, and, to my mind, the pitch and tone of this feel out of date.

The team underline the ongoing significance of the project and highlight how it raises important questions for today about borders and citizenship, inclusion, exclusion, and migration. “We are living in a moment where we’re not given a sense there is an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism, and these journals were written where there was a sense of an alternative and they raised questions around what socialism means.”

OK at first read-through I thought the following article was pure bullshit – but maybe there’s the seed of something here. The author argues that the modern-day lament about distraction from digital devices is not necessarily something new. He argues that in the past “close reading” of texts was often done in a group/shared context – not just the lone figure in his/her study model. Well OK – and he does some experimentation with his classes – having his students react to literature while on a walk and so on. Which sounds fun. There seems to be a tendency here to merge into sociological research and history – and an attempt to claim that literary criticism can serve this function. Really? My question: wouldn’t it be better to simply carry out this research, more thoroughly and rigorously, in a sociological or psychological academic setting? 

Literary criticism as attentional practice

My present research aims to redress this shortfall, by considering more explicitly the widespread yet curiously unaddressed claim, that literary criticism represents a form of attentional practice. By charting a broader history of readerly protocols and routines,  I seek to put pressure on the belief, shared by Leavis and a good many critics who otherwise share little, that past historical periods betray a cognitive plenitude that contrasts with our own contemporary digital distraction. Cultures have never not been distracted, and never not worried over distraction: the historical archive repeatedly offers something more dynamic than the black-and-white contrast between unitary focus and passive diversion.

Then another article, which admittedly has a little bit of interesting history about the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, giving radio broadcasts during and after WW2. But I’m not hugely convinced that this article and research is bringing some new thought into play: radio helps with loneliness because you can hear a human voice. And it’s a useful way to pass on psychotherapy. Yes, but is that it? Essentially, yes, that’s it. And couldn’t such a subject be better covered by neuroscientific and medical studies and sociology? 

If the capacity to be alone has not been achieved and loneliness poses a psychic risk, then, the radio and the therapist offer vital transitional objects through which the individual can play with voices and experiment with forms of belonging. What radio listening offers, then – that more recent digital technologies do not – is an engagement with the human voice that proves instrumental in generating a sense of imagined community and collective presence that draws the lonely subject out of their isolated place, softening the quills of the prickly porcupine. 

Another article on puppets – and a particular kind of “head” in puppetry – somewhat interesting I suppose, but I’ll let the highlighted phrases speak for their own pretentiousness. I mean, I don’t think I need to be reminded that puppets are physical objects, or do I?

Though the brazen head’s puppet status seems straightforward, it and many other objects have escaped classification as puppets based on a narrow view of puppetry, limited often to marionette or glove puppets, like those used by Ben Jonson. My work over the past few years has aimed to highlight the range of early puppetry styles by making familiar objects visible as puppetry and using puppetry as a lens to reexamine object agency. Recognizing these objects as puppets enables us to see them entangled with puppetry’s extensive set of theatrical practices and cultural associations. The brazen head is embedded in the rich intersection of religion and puppetry in both plays, linked to Reformation associations of puppetry with iconoclasm (the hammer smashing its face) and idolatry (priests bowing down to the head as an Islamic idol). We can elaborate these contexts and the extensive cultural meanings of puppetry in relation to these plays’  larger themes about power, interpretation, magic, and more. Puppets are especially dense conceptual objects, but they are also physical things whose presence in performance is directly shaped by their materiality, movement, and sound.

One more article, considering the idea of uploading a human consciousness onto a machine. Again, the text is most interested in “locating” this subject on cultural “sites” – and of course, in relation to power dynamics. Relations of power in society are the staple diet of much postmodern “scholarship” – Foucault has a lot to answer for. Yes, it’s somewhat interesting in parts, but again, the sheer orthodoxy of writers, dutifully relating everything to power dynamics. I’m sorry, but yaaaawwwn. And no, I don’t agree Mr. Author – I am more interested in whether this technology will become possible, much more so than what it “means’:

By allowing for a more nuanced understanding of mind uploading, we see how it is less of a specific type of technology and more of a cultural function with broad societal implications. Whether mind uploading will ever be a possibility is not the question. Nor is looking at the past and gleefully evaluating what we got wrong when thinking about the future. I am more interested in asking why. Why do we want to create technological immortality? What are the implications of these technologies? How will ideas of power change or not change? Does mind uploading offer a liberating possibility? Or does it only further entrench current power dynamics, especially around class, race, sex, gender, dis/ability?, to name some. Mind uploading, therefore, becomes one element of a larger rethinking of human-machine relationality, power, embodiment, and immortality.


One thing to note: not a single article here contains literary criticism as traditionally understood – ie the analysis of novels, plays and poetry. I think this is a tacit recognition that literary criticism is a busted flush. I should also note that I am not opposed to book reviews – these can contain insightful, informative analysis, which tells us about the content and meaning of the books, assesses how well they are crafted, and places them in a cultural context. That’s all well and good. I don’t think, however, that book reviewing should be elevated into an academic discipline – in fact a whole academic industry, the Eng Lit industrial complex.

On the contents of the articles here, and their implications: a very mixed bag. My dominant impression is of an academic subject struggling for relevance, and also becoming submerged under left-academic orthodoxy, which, I believe, is stifling true thinking, true curiosity and creativity. There is also a considerable amount of BS in the current Eng Lit sphere.

I wonder if Eng Lit will survive for much longer? Possibly not. It could well be evaporate into other subjects, and perhaps that is a good thing.


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