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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Should we Teach "Bad" Literature?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My previous post about the problems of the historical novel has another dimension to it. In that post, I posed two questions, working with C.J. Sansom's popular Tudor detective novel, Dissolution: whether a good historical novel is harder to write in a period of poor general education, and whether the historical novel works less effectively when narrated in the first person. Both problems arise because the novel appears more didactic than fictional. Now whatever the answer to these questions, my point is that they were not raised out of my engagement with some great work of literature. Indeed, I suggested that the best historical literary fictions, such as John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman, actively bring such questions to the fore through devices such as metafiction, by which they reflect on the processes by which the story is being crafted. So, in a sense, my two simple questions hardly seem worth asking about this book, because the novel has pre-empted them and is interested in deeper, more complex issues, such as the degree to which we can ever transparently and accurately represent anything through language. It is perhaps only in less carefully constructed literature that basic questions come to the fore, at least for literary critics, because the problems with the fiction stand out so clearly.

And this brings to mind something I said to my students at the start of the academic year. We were looking at Robinson Crusoe, and in my initial questions I ascertained that the majority of them had not enjoyed it. Some of them were even bold enough to call it a "bad" novel. Ever the optimist, I tried to put a positive spin on things by saying that this was a pretty unique work on their course. Most of the novels, poems and plays they study over the three years are there because they have some intrinsic aesthetic merit, at least according to the lecturers who include them on syllabi. Robinson Crusoe, however, is there by virtue of its historical significance, as one of the earliest English novels. And so it is a unique book for them to study, because it is one of those rare works that has some quite obvious deficiencies in style and structure, even if it is contextually an important work of literature. In the tutorial, we were able quite easily to discuss issues of realism, because of how sharply this is breached when Crusoe swims naked to the shipwreck and returns with biscuits in his pockets. We also pinpointed that one primary objection to the novel is that its allegorical and didactic religious intentions bubble like froth on the surface of the plot, and so we almost automatically put up barriers against its moralising. The development of the novel over the three centuries since Crusoe can be read as the development of increasingly clever ways to conceal social and political issues beneath the text, in ways which are more effective because they sneak in by the back door of the book's potential readings. As with Dissolution, this problem of didacticism in Robinson Crusoecame out because of, rather than in spite of, the developmental weaknesses of Defoe's embryonic novel.

I wonder, therefore, whether literature courses are perhaps too much built around the canon of good literature. Should courses be bolder and also look at works of questionable literary quality? This of course feeds into broader debates about the role of literature departments: should literature departments exist to maintain taste and inculcate generations of students about what a good work of art looks like (a Harold Bloom kind of view), or should departments reflect the literary predilictions of culture as a whole, studying those books that happen to be popular even if not considered good fiction by trained literary critics? My own opinions would sway towards the latter, since my research looks at popular science fiction (arguably the most academically overlooked genre of significance), including film and computer games. Over the years, I have drifted away from being a pure literature student into a cultural studies researcher.

But regardless of my personal convictions and this broader debate, I am sure that even the conservative, Bloomian school ought to acknowledge that the teaching of literature loses something if it only ever focuses on the good, without providing a counter-image of the "bad" against which fine writing defines itself. Not only would such an "anti-canon" (as one might tentatively call it) help to guide questions of taste, it also might point to significant theoretical issues, such as those to which my attention was drawn in my previous post. The risk of only ever looking at "good" literature is that we focus intently on the intricate stylistic complexities that combine to make it excellent. We talk about Austen's free indirect discourse as a way of creating psychological intimacy, or George Eliot's omniscient narrator in Middlemarch, or John Fowles' historiographic argument in The French Lieutenant's Woman. And we overlook the very basic fact that a novel (and in a different way, a poem) tells a story, and that novels that have few stylistic innovations or have significant stylistic problems can nevertheless tell "good" stories. Just look at the longevity of the Crusoe myth in popular culture, or the fact that, in spite of my critical objections, I am absorbed in Dissolution's murder mystery, turning the pages as my light burns late into the night.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:08 pm

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