There’s no denying it. There are fair questions to ask about the study of literature. Other fields can say, we found a vaccine for polio; we have found more resistant strains of wheat; we can build bridges and make planes fly. What can we say? Nothing of that kind. And it is certainly possible to make the study of literature into the pursuit of trivia. Is it relevant to the person on the street whether certain editions of Shakespeare are from his “foul papers” and others seem to be from prompt books? (This last question seems to me intensely interesting, but I understand if you don’t think so.) The subject matter of literary studies, at least in part, is accessible to anyone who can read. If the person on the street enjoys Dick Francis novels, that enjoyment implies an interest in literature, but it may be hard to see how the professional academic in literary studies contributes to the enjoyment of the individual. Even if the academic does contribute to the reader’s enjoyment (as is possible), does it matter, compared to finding a cure for cancer? In a competition for resources, why should we in literary studies have any credibility at all?
The field has a distinguished history of intellectual leadership among other fields, on more than one level. Among academics, we see literary-trained people like Mikhail Bakhtin and Lev Vygotsky forming the basis of theory in a wide variety of fields. Vygotsky is among the dominant forces in educational psychology today, even though he died in 1934. Vygotsky was trained in literature and turned to psychology in his mid-twenties. Bakhtin is even more dominant in a wider range of fields, and is the more remarkable because he never stopped being a literary scholar: his books have titles like Problems of Dostoyevsky`s Poetics
. I`m not at all sure he knew his work had the potential for such wide influence as it has. Search “Mikhail Bakhtin” in Google Scholar, and you will get over 30,000 hits, extending into all areas of social science and humanities, and even as far as medicine (Poirier and Brauner, The Voices of the Medical Record
, but this is just the first one to come up).
Literary scholars have also been important to the public at large. In terms of our views of gender, who is more important than Germaine Greer? She did her PhD on Elizabethan drama, and has published a book on Shakespeare. Further, if you read The Female Eunuch with this in mind, you will see that this intellectual formation had a deep influence on her.
What about the literary critic Marshall McLuhan and communications? Then there are the philosophers with special preoccupation with the problems of literature: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur. Jacques Derrida, too, though it seems to me his star has fallen so far that all four I have listed are more influential than he is.
But should governments support the professional study of literature on the off-chance of producing an academic star?
Last May I went to a conference called “Narrative Matters” in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. It was an interesting experience for a literary scholar, to be in a place filled with social scientists arguing vehemently for the need to overcome the limitations of statistical and experimental methods. Looking through the papers, the two largest groups were psychologists and medical professionals, often nurses. There were some literary scholars, like Elizabeth McKim, who works with the gerontologist William Randall on helping older people make sense of their lives through narrative. The social scientists who use these “qualitative” methods are not always aware of the roots of their approach in literary studies. Many things are obscured, but one thing is very clear: these social scientists are like humanities scholars in that they value richness of meaning over mathematical demonstration. Literary study matters not only at the star level, but also at the level of the working scholar.
I think the importance of literary studies to other disciplines waxes and wanes over time, and I am not aware that much recent work on literature is very important to anyone else, even as older work exerts a powerful influence. It is partly because current work is not widely influential that literary studies are under attack in the Western world.
Here in Hong Kong, the situation is very different. I work in the department of English of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. When the department hired me six years ago, I was the first person ever to be hired into it for the purpose of teaching literature. My colleagues were then, and are now, largely applied linguists. Now there are four specialists in literature, and one more who teaches primarily literature, though his research field is literacy. Hong Kong has a long history of simplistic “practicality” in its approach to education, trying to train its pupils to do what must be done, i.e. make money. This is good for getting a high ranking on surveys of basic skills like the PISA studies, but bad for rounded education. The Hong Kong system has been extraordinarily bad at encouraging extensive reading, and this is one of the things that the study of literature is good for.
I don’t know just how, but it has become the received wisdom in Hong Kong education that new language teachers should know literature, and (even more) drama. For the first time last year, a student told me she had gone for her interview, and the principal asked her, “What novels have you read?” And, she said, all I could say was Jane Eyre, because I read it for your class.
I think that if literary studies is to maintain a significant place in the Western world, its advocates must emphasize two things: its important place among academic disciplines in terms of intellectual leadership; and its role in developing education.