Tuesday 10 November 2015

The Joy of Reading

Every week or so a literature professor publishes an eloquent essay about what literature is good for. Here's a nice example. The backdrop is the decline of literature degree programmes in the Anglophone world. This is why you need us!, they argue, somewhat plaintively.

These essays tend to circle around the same handful of arguments. An especially prominent theme, most frequently associated with Martha Nussbaum's defence of the humanities, is that literature is good for us because it promotes empathy, and the practice of empathy is the heart of liberal ethics and the functioning of civilised society.

Unfortunately, defending literature in this way multiplies rather than reduces philistinism. By mistaking means and ends it excludes the very heart of the matter from consideration. The joy of literature is transmuted into duty. This is in line with how professional academics understand literature - as their daily work, albeit work that they love. But if this is how the people who claim to love literature talk about it, no wonder reading is in decline.

Whether you call it neoliberalism or something else, we are living under a cult of egoistic instrumental value in which the value of anything depends on what one can get or do with it. The transformation of university education from a kind of extended holiday camp of self-development into an investment in human capital formation is part of this. Unsurprisingly, students are switching from academic subjects and the humanities to vocational subjects and STEM.

These arguments for the usefulness of literature are in part a leftist response to the neoliberal framing of education. "Look", they say, "literature will make you a better person even if you can't make money from it. All that practice in empathising with strange minds will make you wiser and a morally better person. And it will make our society as a whole kinder and more tolerant."

The left's pitch for literature is that it promotes civilisation: a society whose prosperity is measured on relational criteria like solidarity rather than by the sum of the economic transactions of its individuals.

I'm not entirely against that kind of argument, up to a point and in its place. But I think using literature in this way does it a disservice. It too closely resembles recommending sport as exercise with health benefits, or religion as a place to make friends and feel part of a community. The neoliberal critics of literature focus on the opportunity cost of the study of literature. Every hour spent this way is an hour lost to some more productive purpose, such as studying finance and increasing your chances of a well-paid job. But the supposed defenders of literature have accepted the instrumentalist terms of the debate, and merely dispute whether non-pecuniary achievements should also be counted.

The central mistake is the confusion of means and ends. Literature may do other things for us too, just as video games may teach hand-eye coordination and team-work. But it is primarily a form of entertainment, like roller-coasters. It should be analysed under the category of consumption not production.

Novels, for example, are thrilling out of body adventures. Genre novels, like romance or detective stories, are those that take us on a familiar journey that we nevertheless enjoy revisiting, much as we may enjoy going to the beach on a sunny day or strapping into a rollercoaster. Literary novels may be defined by their promise of something quite different, a bespoke 'designer' experience. They offer a journey whose destination is more under the control of the author than the reader, and which by its novelty and the quality of its design may have a significant impact on our view of ourselves and the world.

Although novels are best understood as entertainment, and thus as competing for our attention with other forms of entertainment such as movies or pop songs, novels do some things that nothing else can. One good definition of the novel is 'events in the mind of imaginary persons'. While movies can also provide an out of body experience of an impossible world - indeed they can bring the impossible more vividly to life than can many people's imaginations - they cannot reach underneath the appearances. (Although sometimes they try, with crude devices like voice overs.) Only novels can give us the impossible experience of the superpower of seeing into other people's minds.

If reading novels is so fun, why don't people read them anymore? One reason is that we have more alternatives these days for entertainment, which some people prefer, and also that the kind of uninterrupted private leisure time that novels require is less common. But a further reason is surely the academic defenders of literature themselves.

First, they exaggerate the capacity of literature, for example that is a source of truth
There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close. (Gary Saul Morson)
This is fanciful nonsense. Novelists may be better than academic experts at communicating to the general public, but they themselves have no particular access to the Truth. If you want the truth about psychology, study that - not Shakespeare or Eliot or Austen. If you want philosophical analysis, read an actual philosopher not some amateur with a nice turn of phrase that makes you feel clever to read. (Further on this, Peter Lamarque on Philosophy Bites.) 

Fiction is fun because it is not true, and not merely because it may also sometimes communicate particular truths with special clarity and eloquence ('All happy families are alike....') or create the feeling of insight - big-T Truth - in the reader by the author's extraordinary command of language. If you read novels looking for Truth you will not only miss out on the real sources of truth; you will also miss out on their distinctive pleasures, and even see their inherent playfulness as irresponsibility. 

Second, literary studies academics relate to their texts in a rather indirect, intellectual way. I am not disputing that the academic study of literature can have its own distinctive pleasures (I certainly enjoyed Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher) but they are not the kind of pleasures most people enjoy and should not be mistaken for the main or highest value of reading literature. It is dispiriting that the books that tend to be taught by the academy are rarely much fun at all to read. They are considered significant because of their usability as illustrations in teaching intellectual stories about other things, whether the history of literary techniques (Joyce's Ulysses), history history (Uncle Tom's Cabin) or endless moralising about social injustice that American humanities departments  seem to have taken up as their new mission (anything by Joyce Carol Oates). 

Most pernicious of all is the academics' distinction between literary and genre fiction, analysed by B.R. Myers in his Readers' Manifesto. Anything with "self-conscious writerly prose" that feels like hard work to read counts as literature, if not necessarily good literature, while any book you enjoy reading, where you become caught up in the story and the characters and want to turn the page to find out what happens to them, is mere genre. On the one hand this sets the wrong agenda to writers who aspire to be literary. On the other hand, it drastically reduces the audience interested in reading them.

Poetry seems already to have succumbed. As Philip Larkin observed in a famous little essay on The Pleasure Principle, "We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try." Where once poetry drove national culture and even politics, and poets were rock stars and revolutionaries whose posters adorned the walls of teenagers' bedrooms - and in some parts of the world that is still true - poetry in the English-speaking world has been banished to narcissistic warbling in teenagers' diaries and a closed academic micro-economy of MFA faculty who get their jobs by publishing with university subsidised literary magazines and presses that even they don't read. 

The academic approach to literature taught to English lit students at university, and thus to our future high school teachers, serves to exclude the most natural and accessible pleasures of literature, the thrill of exploring impossible worlds. Worse, it makes such easy non-intellectual pleasures the object of suspicion and derision. Thus, one reason most people don't read novels anymore is that we have been taught since high school a way of reading that only a few can enjoy. One can only hope that the academics striving to defend literature against the callous superficiality of market forces don't succeed as well as they have have done for poetry!

The further problem with this attitude is that once one looks at literature as an object of study - as something to write essays about theories about - it is hard to avoid being drawn into a dispute about the productive value of different university study programmes, especially in the age of austerity. And it is easy to forget that literature is something distinct from its study, as music is distinct from musicology.

We spend far too much of our so limited time getting ready to live our lives rather than living them. Literature is a poor substitute for philosophy or history or ethnography or psychology. It is frankly silly to defend it on those grounds. Nor is reading it some kind of civilisational responsibility we owe to ourselves and our society. Literature is worth our time, as friendship is worth our time, because it the kind of thing a well-lived life is made out of. It is a destination in itself.

Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.