Essays

Literature and History: A Response

By posted at 8:46 pm on November 4, 2007 3

A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.

Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):

– Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%
– British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%
– British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%
– American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%
– American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%

Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:

To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?

The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.

I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.

Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.

Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.

And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.

I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.

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3 Responses to “Literature and History: A Response”

  1. mike
    at 6:09 am on November 5, 2007

    Jack Gladney is not a fraud, he feels like a fraud. Two different things. You don't have to speak German to have insight into Hitler.

    There are three post-apartheid novels which use interracial rape as a metaphor for South African politics: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, and The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda. What does Clarissa by Samuel Richardson have to do with that?

  2. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 2:20 pm on November 5, 2007

    Matter of opinion I guess, but I think that Jack is part of Delillo's critique of the way academia is going–i.e. moving away from history and substantial subjects, toward faddish "light" vaguely idiotic sub-topics examined by slightly buffoonish (if amiable) frauds. If you've spent any time in academia, you'll know what he's talking about. "Cuteness," for example, as a scholar's field of study.

    I actually took a seminar on Richardson's Clarissa, taught by Coetzee. He has a PhD in literature–18th I think. Blakey Vermeule, a professor here at Stanford, has argued that Disgrace can be read as a re-reading of Clarissa (obviously, among other things–as you point out with your observation that inter-racial rape is a common trope in contemporary South African fiction). Given Coetzee's deep reverence for Clarissa, his critical interest in it (he's written a lit-crit essay on it), and Clarissa's position as ur-novel about rape in the tradition in English (and Clarissa's interest in rape as an act with symbolic as well as psychic and physical consequences), it seemed more than fair to me to read Disgrace through Clarissa.

    Certainly, Disgrace isn't to Clarissa what Foe is to Robinson Crusoe–takes a little more work to do the Disgrace reading and it is, as you've demonstrated, arguable.

    Thanks, Emily

  3. Martin
    at 8:40 am on November 6, 2007

    I took the GRE in 1991 but never went to the schools for which it qualified me. I completely agree that the Norton Anthologies are the only way to crack it, and well, you learn a lot in the act. Dryden, Congreve, Herbert, Tennyson, Arnold, Blake, pre-Raphaelites, John Gay … it's good to know about these people.

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