Who’s Killing the English Major?

English professors, in general, could never write. So long as they were only writing to each other, of course. Furiously gesturing in their kabuki play of academese, they fling words like “intertextuality” and “signifier/signified,” which, if you do not accept their use, you are not part of the club and should suffer the due condescension.

If you want to see Exhibit A, according to Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, look at the new Cambridge History of the American Novel

This book sounds howlingly awful– a 1200-page professorial circle jerk of which the out-of-touch authors dare you to follow a single paragraph. They’re taking the history of the American novel, something for you and me, and implying that it isn’t for us just in how it’s written. I feel no less indignant about this than Epstein does.

Now, the observation that English instructors typically churn out unreadable cinderblocks– thick while being hollow– is not new. Also not new is Epstein’s argument, for which this Cambridge book serves as his evidence: the study of literature for the enrichment and enjoyment thereof has been commandeered by the liberal majority of academics administering art as social medicine– “automatic leftism” being “the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” Read Eskimo feminist poetry, says your typical English prof today, It’s good for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s even good.

Really, in universities, this is the enduring conflict of the past couple of generations. Liberals bemoan the Harold Bloom-ian old guard as elitists who like their canon white and male and unchanging, and conservatives bewail the takeover of all the P.C. post-posties who insist that diversity in art is synonymous with quality.

I’m fascinated by Epstein’s essay. It contains so many double standards that reading it is like walking a hall of mirrors.

English programs, in terms of respectability and popularity, are in serious decay, and Epstein says that it all started once contemporary novels were being taught in college (The reader is to agree that contemporary=terrible or else, my goodness, we’ve lost him already!). Epstein writes:

“With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today.”

The barbarians he names are Kurt Vonnegut, E.L Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. Granted, I only like 33% of those guys, but it’s curious to see Epstein criticizing the inaccessibility of the Cambridge authors’ book, then pining for the sentinels of taste from the days of yore who slammed the doors on the unwashed contemporary novelists. He likes the gate but loathes the current gatekeepers.

But wait. I think we’ve left something in this discussion dangerously ignored…

The “Good Books?”

Inevitably we get into the question of what the “good books” are that should be taught, but look down at your feet: we’re in the shit now.

So before we ruin our Crocs forever, let me make a statement. Plenty of lousy books are taught today because they are merely culturally diverse. Just like plenty of lousy books are taught today because they always have been; they’re labeled to be “surviving” or “enduring” as opposed to merely “old.”

Has the liberal professor properly evaluated the Eskimo feminist poetry collection for artistic merit and enjoyability before adding it to the syllabus? Has the conservative professor re-evaluated The Last of the Mohicans lately for the same thing before including it yet again?

No matter which side you take, you are assigning many works for some purpose besides quality. Maybe you don’t like Beowulf (I do, but that’s neither here nor there), but it’s being taught because we’re going to learn about the early Anglo-Saxons, goddammit. Or you don’t like The House of Spirits, but you know what, we’re going to learn about Latin-American political history, goddammit.

The point is, you are much more likely to perceive an agenda behind the curriculum if you don’t enjoy the books. And that agenda, you will usually conclude, is a misguided one.

Oh, God, This Has Gotten Political

I like to think that professors and thinkers belonging to both camps first got into literary study from a shared passion for the written word, not because it was an instrument for social change or the reinforcement of traditional values (though those are usually secondary objectives that educators pick up along the way). The Book was the thing.

Epstein would have you believe that he is on the side of the angels, that his is the argument championing The Book, and the agenda-driven academics running the show are the killjoys constraining its value to whatever it says about race, class, or gender. I don’t think his opposition would see it that way. For many of the more liberal professors, enjoyment of The Book may very well be the fact it presents a minority perspective, or questions tradition, or is just plain different. Maybe the fact it is written by Eskimo women is why they love it.

Regardless, they’re teaching the book in relation to other interests, which Epstein sees as folly.

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

What he sees as the dilution of a study is in reality, at least by intention, a multi-faceted campaign to take books and discuss their connection to the world around us. I think we’re all aware of the stigma that English majors battle on a regular basis, which is that their field of interest is woefully inapplicable to real life (and this battle they regularly lose). This context-based approach that works to emphasize the relevance of literature–be it to pop culture, sexuality, politics, globalization, etc.– is a response to the larger student concern.

Does this show a lack of faith in the timelessness and appeal of great books themselves to fill the class rosters? That’s a valid criticism. But it isn’t the touchy-feely interdisciplinary shift in the curriculum that’s been killing the popularity of the English program. It’s the world, for God’s sake. What Epstein is fingering as the gunman is really the bumbling EMT who arrived on the scene to administer the shock paddles in the wrong place.

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The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

The psychedelic movement began earlier than I thought.

How about 1954, when Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception? This unusual essay was pretty influential to the acid-dropping extravaganza of the sixties: Jim Morrison and Co. named their band after it.

I say, old chap, I do believe I am tripping balls.

"I say, old chap, I do believe I am tripping balls."

Until I read it, I was incredulous that Huxley is as much a psychedelic hero as Timothy Leary or Tom Wolfe.  What, this lanky English gent of letters whom Virginia Woolf once called, “a great grasshopper” is the literary Dr. Gonzo?

Sort of. The thing is, Huxley is about as curious a guy as you’ll ever read. And perhaps a bit crazy, I decided after reading Brave New World. But interestingly enough, his essay writing on mystical things is even more grounded and approachable than his novel.

If you’ve read Brave New World, (and if you haven’t, you ought to) then you know that Huxley’s interest in mescalin predated this experiment by at least a couple decades. In the novel, the masses of London are addicted to a synthetic konk-out drug called Soma. Then there are the New Mexicans (an Aztec-like people in this version of the future) who have their own mind-altering substance straight from the peyote cactus—mescål.

The day was going to come along when Aldy would finally try the stuff. So he had a couple friends observe him, ask him questions, and record the responses. Here’s his breakdown of the experience with mescalin:

  1. “The ability to remember and ‘think straight’ is little if at all reduced.”
  2. “Visual impressions are greatly intensified… interest in space is diminished and interest in time falls to almost zero.”
  3. “Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse.”
  4. Observed objects or sensations are often “better” so long as mescalin takers “come to the drug with a sound liver and an untroubled mind”

According to his description, hallucinogens heighten the senses in a way that overwhelms the survival instincts. The build-shelter, drink-water, find-food instincts are no longer regarded because that vase of flowers is so goddamn pretty. (But maybe find-food is sometimes intact, where Cheetos and Pop Tarts are involved) Not useful, of course, in everyday life, but to artists…

He also experienced a breakdown in boundaries between all things living and not. Which is why he stereotypically fixated on the otherwise trifling aesthetic details, like the creases in his own trousers, or a chair in a veranda: “A rose is a rose is a rose. But these chair legs were chair legs were St. Michael and all angels.”

But mescalin, for all its effects, had its limits: “Now I knew contemplation at its height. At its height but not yet its fullness…. Mescalin can never solve that problem; it can only pose it.”

This was about as curious a read as one might expect, especially with such an unexpectedly academic treatment of the subject. I became sorry I that I didn’t have a better grasp of Eastern philosophy, because whatever Huxley’s getting at with his comparisons of the Dharma-Body and so on, I’ll bet there’s something enriching there, too. I trust there is.

I think Huxley’s arguing style, though, doesn’t close up all the necessary gaps. Instead of convincing me of what is, Huxley rather convinces me of what could be, and that to me is still worth the reading.

I also read Heaven and Hell, in which he makes a more detailed argument of the relation between visionary substances and religious experience. This makes it all the more interesting that Huxley’s last words were reportedly, “LSD, 100 micrograms I.M”—which is what his wife then injected him with as he prepared for the hereafter.

Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! by Scott Adams

Cartoonists tend to be reclusive people. Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz come immediately to mind. These are guys who really didn’t want to be celebrities, yet their comics were and are read by millions of people every day, so there’s this Salinger-esque enigma surrounding them.

I can understand a cartoonist’s insistence on privacy, especially in Watterson’s case. If I had my beloved character hijacked by certain interest groups to uncharacteristically kneel in front of a cross or piss on the name of someone’s least favorite football team, I might also retire from the public indefinitely.

So Scott Adams is basically Dilbert without hair.

So Scott Adams is basically Dilbert with a mouth and no hair.

But then there’s the guy who writes Dilbert. If you’ve read Scott Adams’ blog, or done what I’ve done and read his blog collection, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, then you know he is an entertainer who embraces resistance.

The book is an assortment of reflections, complaints, and anxieties from the author, and it’s actually pretty interesting to see what life is like for one of the most influential smartasses in America. He goes on speaking tours, weasels questionable strips past newspaper editors, and responds to criticism in a manner that makes one hesitate before sending Scott Adams an angry email.

The book is 368 pages, and I like it, but I dare say it’s too much Scott Adams. A Dilbert a day is one thing, but after 20 entries or so the cynicism starts to congeal into a solid ball in my stomach. And at that same point it’s hard to ignore that his entries, though very funny, mostly repeat a formula. Monkey Brain’s a blog book after all (and definitely one of the better ones you’ll ever see), so I had the best time with it as a bedside/bathroom/breakfast table book to be read in snatches.

“…And that’s why kangaroos don’t drive cars.”

Adams’ entries feel pretty similar to his comics in the sense that things can quickly take a turn for the surreal.

There’s this Dilbert I remember where a staff meeting is interrupted suddenly when Wally From the Future emerges from a time portal in someone’s chest. And when he disappears, nobody has anything to say except for “Present” Wally, who remarks, “This is awkward.” A lot of Adams’ posts work just like that.

He’ll begin a post describing a impasse he had with airport security (a recurring theme) and before you know it he says the line, “Today is the day I am most likely to hear the phrase, ‘You smell like an apple cider whore.'”

While the collection is pretty random, there’s actually some rising action to the posts once his wedding day approaches. You can sense his groom-to-be nerves firing, which mostly comes out as bitching about how expensive weddings are. (And this is the creator of Dilbert fretting about finances, so Elvis’ Drive-Thru Love Chapel’s looking pretty good right now.)

And what a strange condition Adams has. I’d never heard of spasmodic dysphonia before reading this, but then again barely anybody has it. It’s a loss of speech that’s determined entirely by context: Scott can speak in front of crowds just fine, but in normal conversation his throat muscles spasm and he can barely squeak out a word. It’s not even connected to social anxiety, making it all the more mysterious and frankly scarier. But there’s a post in Monkey Brain unlike the others—where Adams figures out an odd exercise to recover some of his speech and reports, “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”

Monkey Brain’s a witty enough read that you don’t have to look hard for some choice Dilbertisms, but all the same there’s an appendix of selected quotations. Some of my favorites:

“It’s important to agree with people if you want them to think you are a genius. For most people, the definition of smart is, ‘Thinks exactly like me but even more so.'”

“If you think there’s an easy way to explain to your wife why you were thinking of Vladimir Putin while she was telling you about her feelings, you would be totally wrong.”

and

“I believe everybody in the world should have guns. I also believe that only I should have ammunition. Because frankly, I wouldn’t trust the rest of you goobers with anything more dangerous than string.”

Considering how many people he’s miffed, I think he has good reason to feel that way.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

While on a plane to New York, I learned that there’s maybe no more gratifying read while you’re on a vacation… than a travel memoir of someone who is clearly not enjoying theirs. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again made me all the more glad that I was headed to the Big Apple and not to a trip around the Caribbean on a sterile leviathan of a cruise ship packed with yuppies. Though the article was written over 15 years ago, it felt like a sort of phantom holiday was taking place simultaneously with mine, with the late, great DFW reporting nauseously from his cabin.

Somehow this picture conjures for me my first taste of alcohol.

Somehow this picture conjures for me my first taste of alcohol.

I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide….

Harpers magazine paid $3000 to put a tortured genius on a luxury liner and see what he comes back with in his notebooks. The resulting 100-page essay was part personal reportage, part anthropological study, part Animal Crackers, part Notes From Underground.

I found him to be a wonderful reporter on this journey because he’s both a bumbling Joe Blo and a savant. He has the outsider’s perspective in everything from fine dining to skeet shooting, but he can describe his anxieties and observations with a verbal virtuosity and perceptiveness that makes other travel memoirists look like Mitch Albom. Most notably, his outsider status is combined with a shame for being part of a gluttonous horde of materialists in the unamused eyes of the ship’s servers, stewards, managers, porters, etc. His pangs multiply once the ship ports and spills its vacationers out upon the local islanders, and he stays aboard watching the exodus below.

Whether up here or down there, I am an American tourist, and am thus ex efficio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.

Now, I’ve actually been on a cruise before. I was 14 and it was a Disney Cruise, and though my vantage point was in many ways different, I found his descriptions of despair to still be uncomfortably familiar. Back then I didn’t have anywhere near the social consciousness that I have now, but I had at least twice the self-consciousness, and that makes “ASFTINDA” pretty resonant, too. (I was trying to shake off middle school—a period I remember mainly as a series of events in which I said the wrong thing. My experience on the boat, especially considering my interactions with the opposite sex, was merely a continuation of that period in a more surreal setting.)

Also in the essay collection are two pieces centering around tennis: I read one, and just one because I don’t care about tennis. There’s also his article on the Illinois State Fair (the Harper’s assignment that later inspired the magazine to send him on the cruise), which is in many ways the poor man’s version of his title piece. I also read his David Lynch Keeps His Head, which actually helped me better comprehend that guy’s movies, so that’s definitely to DFW’s credit. But really, “ASFTINDA” alone is worth the book price.

Consider the Foster

After this and Consider the Lobster, I can definitely say I enjoy DFW while dogged by the awareness that someone else might find him unbearably self-indulgent. I’m trying to figure out what makes the difference.

Maybe it’s that he’s convinced me of his sincerity—that his brand of avant-garde writing is not just some pretentious post-postmodern literary wankery. To use a phrase my girlfriend often does when she discovers this about an author, He Earns It. His idiosyncrasies simply work for me, down to the infamous footnoting.

And see, normally I don’t tolerate meanderings well. But DFW’s signature footnotes—with one stretching over two and a half pages to describe his tablemates at dinner—go to some fascinating places, and the lengthiest are often most worthwhile. This is just another part, though, of his sort of semi-controlled whirling dervish of a writing style; e.g. sometimes he’ll write something in the main body that kicks off a footnote just so he can tell a joke in it.

Sure, he isn’t always talking to you (when he is it’s strikingly intimate), but here’s a guy who, when he talks to himself, you want to hear what he says.

Shakespeare Wrote For Money by Nick Hornby

I picked up Hornby‘s book  because I want his job. I don’t mean that purchasing a collection of Believer columns is the official first step in applying, but I just like seeing how other people talk books, in case things they do are worth emulating/avoiding/envying.

(He doesn’t write Polysyllabic Spree anymore, and Shakespeare Wrote For Money is its final compilation, which makes these columns feel… a bit ghostly. But I got that same sensation twofold from one of David Foster Wallace’s essay collections, one I’ll be talking about very soon.)

Yeah, I said it! What now, huh?

"Yeah, I said it. What, you wanna scrap?"

Here’s Hornby’s setup, a thing I envy: for each month’s entry he compiles a list of Books Bought (usually half a dozen, give or take) and a list of Books Read (usually Books Bought minus two), and then he goes on for five pages writing pretty much what he feels like, often involving the Books Read for good measure. I knew I was sampling something very unique when I came to his column of September 2006, for which he read nothing. Not a book (but he did buy two). I also learned just how British he was—his excuse for the illiterate August was the World Cup.

I wish I were present for the discussion over that column.

Editors of Believer: So what have you got for us this month?

Hornby: I didn’t read anything.

Believer: Oh! Well… was it to work on your novel? Or—

Hornby: No. I just watched football all month.

Believer: Really? Oh, that’s right, you’re English! Yeah, wow, the World Cup! Wasn’t that something?

Hornby: I’m going to just write about football.

Believer: No, that’s totally cool, Nick. Write about football, er, soccer, er—football. Go for it.

For all of Hornby’s experience in the fiction and film and music industries, it’s a bloody wonder he’s not sounding jaded as he weighs in on them. He’s laid-back—even plucky at times.

With only a couple exceptions, Hornby apparently operates under the dictum that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. All that seems to matter is highlighting good literature as opposed to condemning the offenders. But I can’t help feeling like he’s keeping things from me. I know you got to select all the books that month, Nick, but surely you didn’t enjoy all of them? (C’mon, we’re friends, Nick. Tell me, which one was crap? You’d better say or else I might read it.)

I almost wished I hadn’t bought Shakespeare Wrote For Money when I took a closer look and saw that of the books he reviewed, I’d only heard of 30% of them, and read maybe 5%. Which is why I spent the first half-hour with it leaping the pages from one familiar name to another. The most notable of these was McCarthy’s The Road, which he (of course) thought was brilliant. He describes it as a “miserable book” in the most positive terms, but miserable nonetheless:

Reading The Road is rather like attending the beautiful funeral of someone who has died young. You’re happy the ceremony seems to be going so well, and you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life, but the truth is that you’d rather not be there at all.

Then there’s the month where he just reviews movies! Okay. And says things like The Simpsons Movie

was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together—an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel.

Yes, I do want Nick Hornby’s job, and yes, I realize that I don’t get to have it unless I become a successful novelist and one of the voices of a generation. I’ll find my own way to that, eventually. Once I’ve published my futuristic-zombie sequel to Madame Bovary, that’ll have been step one.

The Problem With Required Reading (Now That I No Longer Must Read It)

I used to think the best books are the ones that compel you to say the most about them. I was recently reminded that they can also render you nearly speechless. With that in mind, here comes the shortest book review I’ve written on Thwok! so far:

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Holy. Shit. Juan Rulfo, I want to hug you.

I think illuminating the particulars of Pedro Paramo would tarnish the experience significantly for those who’ve yet to read it. I instead invite anyone to read the synopsis, and, if it strikes any cord of interest, hesitate not a day to read it.

Moving On

I discovered this book in the store on a “Required Reading” table for such-and-such high school. This novel seemed like such an odd work for the traditional high school canon; usually when someone wants to teach the topic of Mexican spirituality, they’re falling back on Bless Me Ultima. I am ever grateful to the mysterious teacher who assigned Pedro Paramo because I’d have never happen upon it otherwise.

But now I think back on the fact that the book was “Required Reading,” and I’m torn. While it’s an inspired choice on the part of the mysterious educator, I don’t think teaching Pedro Paramo to high school students is a good idea. This has nothing to do with its subject matter or quality but merely the way the book ought to be enjoyed.

There’s a Billy Collins poem that says this better than I can, but I’ll try anyway.

In some ways, I’ve had to re-educate myself on how to enjoy literature. For high school and college, where the grade is the thing, reading isn’t a stimulating pastime but a formulaic survival skill.

I had to bury my mandibles into a novel like a deer tick until I grew fat with its allusions and extended metaphors. Timelines and geneology charts for the characters were referred to. Sparknotes and pinkmonkey.com were consulted.

At the end of the process the novel became an obstacle, an adversary, and God forbid the thing was magical-realist, or surrealist, or absurdist — a work that, at times, I wasn’t supposed to fully understand. I hated Faulkner. I wanted to break a pool cue on him.

Reading literature outside of college/high school changes everything. The pressure’s off. You let the work affect you only as it may, you involve yourself in it only as you would, and your relationship with the author isn’t jeopardized by your need for him/her to be wholly understandable by Thursday’s exam.

How do you test a high school student on the objective details of a surrealistic work? A book that you’re supposed to be lost in sometimes in order to appreciate it? One that affects you in ways you likely lack the verbal gymnastics to describe? It’s like asking the kid to summarize the plot of a David Lynch film, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. And it misses the point of the work.

Sure, you can have them discuss the book, and do so in essay form. Even then, you’re not eliminating the grade bugaboo that corrupts the blooming of appreciation.

Hold On.

Maybe the idea of teaching a surrealistic novel isn’t what bothers me. Can it be the idea that merely a book I love is being taught in classrooms? This is a thing of mixed feelings as it is. We all have a favorite novel that we’d impel everyone else to read, but at the same time we wouldn’t allow an English teacher within 500 feet of it, to risk the novel being ruined for others by a noxious cloud of pedantry.

I feel just this way about The Great Gatsby.

So perhaps that’s why I’m so bothered by Pedro Paramo’s being a “school text.” I want the tree frog to spring about in your backyard; I don’t recommend killing the thing in a classroom dissection.