An English Teacher Wonders: What is Literature Anyway?
"I frequently found myself questioning the very base of what I do."
It’s very strange to take a full year off of doing something that you’ve been doing for over 15 years, knowing that you’ll return to it but are utterly detached from it in the meantime. For me, that is teaching literature at the college level. Going into sabbatical, I trusted that I would reflect on what (and how) I teach, and hopefully come up with some new ideas, maybe even some new methods.
Over the course of the year, I frequently found myself questioning the very base of what I do: what is literature, in the first place? In fact, this has been a nagging question for me; when I started a blog (it sounds so quaint now) in 2008, I called it “What Is Literature?” I meant this question in earnest. Even as I read more literature, taught literature classes, and wrote about literature, I was less and less sure I knew what it was, or what it did—beyond the easy definitions of poetry, fiction, and drama and their respective social functions. Because, for me, literature has also included airports, advertisements, long walks, Lego toys, and art, among myriad other things.
But even if we rein it in: what is this thing, literature, that seems at once so important to culture—people’s stories, shared traditions, structures of meaning—and yet sometimes all too disposable, just extraneous fluff? English professors can take themselves way too seriously, and can act as if that literature is the beginning and end of all things. I don’t want to fall into that trap. I want to step back and think slowly and deliberately about some of the literature that has impacted my students and me—in class and beyond (I hope). I don’t want to take the work of literature for granted—not in these accelerated times of general hostility to the arts and cultural diversity. But not just in these times. As I said, I’ve been asking this question—what is literature?—for at least ten years. And I want to keep asking it.
I find working answers in literature, often in small pieces of literature. In my classes, I often assign full novels, but we tunnel into specific passages. I think of when I teach Octavia Butler’s Dawn, a near future, post-apocalyptic alien romance that is also a metaphysical mindbender. At one point an alien is explaining to a human how he might open his mind concerning their new predicament of coexisting with the aliens, even mating with them, becoming part-them (and the aliens becoming part-human in turn). The human here has enjoyed part of this merger, but is frightened by other aspects, and their implications. But as Butler’s alien Nikanj puts it:
Interpretation. Electrochemical stimulation of certain nerves, certain parts of your brain. . . . What happened was real. Your body knows how real it was. Your interpretations were illusion. The sensations were entirely real. You can have them again—or you can have others.
That first word offered by the alien is “interpretation.” What more do students need to get out of an English class, really? Isn’t that the work of literature, in sum: the art of interpretation? But it doesn’t stop there, importantly. For Butler, interpretations are rendered as illusions, but illusions there for the weighing and choosing, and always linked to real-world conditions, sensations “entirely real.” And if you read the novel you’ll see that this is no simplistic dualism between mind and matter—it’s all entangled, fascinatingly so.“English professors can take themselves way too seriously, and can act as if that literature is the beginning and end of all things. I don’t want to fall into that trap.”
Dawn raises troubling questions about domination, biological determination, and free will.And there is a fierce hopefulness that runs through this novel: a refusal to give up and a resistance to retreat into timeworn adages or definitions. What I love about teaching this novel is the impassioned debates that my students get into as we discuss it, concerning not just the plot of the novel but the stakes it raises: how important or unique is the human species, and how might we remain open to (maybe even becoming) something different, perhaps even better? Butler’s deceptively readable fiction invites us into these quandaries, and offers no ready conclusions. Dawn is only the first of a trilogy on this theme, but there’s something about teaching just this book that agitates endless conversation—conversation that, then, spills into the other works we read in the class. When do we not encounter aliens, in literature? What is literature if not an alien form that springs to life on the page?
Literature is a weird thing, and its effects can be grounding even when it unsettles things we think we know. Take a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:
He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a can of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fire and they sat watching the labels char and curl. When the corn began to steam he took the cans from the fire with the pliers and they sat bent over them with their spoons, eating slowly.
After reading this in class, I might ask my students to inventory their backpacks or purses, setting “everything out in a row” and taking stock of what they carry with them. We might talk about the functions of these things, how sooner or later they will use them—like the pliers and spoons that are named and then utilized mere sentences later, in McCarthy’s story. We might re-view our smartphones as things among others. At the very least, we’ll be off our smartphones in those moments, and in inventory mode. This can seem frivolous, or just silly. But it’s part of the work of literature. It slows us down, helps us focus on the things closest to us, if, then, possibly to engage these things more thoughtfully, more respectfully.
I realize this notion of what literature can do may sound wistfully hopeful, and even utopian. But I see it happen all the time in my classrooms: my students—huddled over literature, reading and making connections, often in amazement—are connecting with each other, and with things. And this inevitably spills over the borders of the classroom and into the world beyond.
From The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Schaberg.