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In Defence of Ignorance

Academics, writers, and the space between them

I don’t regret going to university. Given the almost unbearably limited and provincial background I came from – and the fact that I was, let’s face it, never going to be a lumberjack – university was a necessary escape. My life would have been very different had I never boarded that train one morning early in March 1979 – the Bluebird, they used to call it – bound for university in Adelaide, the state capital, three hundred and fifty miles away. At the station, my father said: “It’s a marvellous opportunity for you. You won’t have to take any rotten old job if you’ve got an education.” He added: “Oh, you’ll meet people, and you’ll think some of them are better than you are – but you’ll find out they’re really just like you in the end.” With that, he shook my hand gravely and I turned and boarded the train. No trains run on that line any more; country rail in South Australia died years ago, as did my father, although, like the railways, he lives on vividly in my mind. The things he told me that morning were true. No, I don’t regret going to university. But I have – I’ll admit – sometimes wished I’d studied anything there except English literature.

Don’t get me wrong: the first few years were good and I wouldn’t take them back. From writing one single essay in second year (about Dickens) I learned pretty much everything I know, to this day, about how fiction works. I’m not saying the essay was all that brilliant. Probably it wasn’t. But writing it, for me, was like a light going on. Suddenly I knew what literature was, how it does what it does, and why it matters. (Don’t ask me to explain. This is about things getting under your skin, not facts you can set out with bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. Nothing important can be said in a PowerPoint presentation.)

Well, no doubt I should have stopped there. But – hey-ho! – being “good at English,” and not wanting a job in, let’s say, the South Australian Public Service, I stayed on at university to do first my “Honours year” (I got a First), and then what was meant to be an MA, but turned in due course into a PhD. The Public Service might have been a better option. English classes at high school had been important for me. I had a splendid teacher in my last two years who brought books alive in a way that only the best teachers can. I was never to meet his like again; but, that said, there were lecturers at the University of Adelaide l liked very much – each of them, I now realise, mavericks of a sort within that conformist world. The best university lecturers, as in that work of unexpected profundity, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, are almost always the ones considered to be wasters by senior members of the department. To be a “distinguished” academic means that you are, in essence, a bureaucrat, the sort of person who would have risen to a high position in the Soviet Union, passing without expression through squalid villages in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine.

My undergraduate studies took place in what were, I now realise, the dying years of old-fashioned “English”: where classes actually talked about novels, poems, and plays instead of “critical theory,” where your hero might have been William Blake or D. H. Lawrence, not Roland Barthes or J. Hillis Miller (J. Phyllis Diller, as a friend and I used to call him). By the early 1980s, those years were over. As a postgrad student, I had to start engaging with all the boring, alienating, anti-literary crap that constitutes contemporary academic “English studies.” I actually read Re-Reading English, ed. Peter Widdowson, and Critical Practice by Catherine Belsey (Dame Catherine Belsey, as that same friend and I used to call her), and even, dutiful creature that I was, tried to plough through the deeply tedious oevure of Jacques Derrida. There are many things for which, as F. R. Leavis – virtually the only great critic from the university world – rather unfairly said of Henry Fielding, life isn’t long enough, and principal among these is that body of right-on convictions referred to by literary academics as “theory.” Which raises the question: What should one advise today’s prospective student of Eng lit – the student, in particular, who wants to write?

At this point I call on an expert witness. Here are five quotations from In Defence of Ignorance (1960), by American poet and critic Karl Shapiro (1913-2000). Shapiro is talking about academic criticism, why it has nothing to offer writers, and is, in the end, anathema to literature. Remember the date: 1960. This was written in the heyday of the American “New Criticism” (before structuralism, deconstruction, and all the rest), but everything Shapiro says was only to become only more relevant as time went on:

(1) “Most writers find out to their dismay sooner or later that the modern critic does not care about literature except as a bone of contention” (p. 11).

True. In many years in English departments, I almost never heard literary academics speak with enthusiasm about works of literature. Each one had his or her “field,” a narrow range of specialist knowledge, and within that field was concerned typically with ideological point-scoring against other academics. Few were “well-read” in any true sense of the word. In the common room, they talked about movies, television, politics, and sport. Nowadays (I’ll bet) it’s all computer software.

(2) “The absence of judgement in modern criticism is beyond belief. Critics in fact no longer exercise judgement about literary works; they discourage it” (p. 11).

True. Academic criticism has nothing to do with judging authors except in terms of their politics, to which the right-on modern critic always feels superior. To generalise is indeed to be an idiot, as Blake wryly generalised, but the politics of a writer are seldom of more than incidental interest. In any good writer we find an apprehension of life deeper by far than the superficial verities of this or that party allegiance, this or that belief that society should be organised in such-and-such a way. That sublime poet Alexander Pope’s claim, or boast – “Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory” – is the proper condition for a writer. Kipling enchants us because he wrote Kim and The Jungle Book, not because he was a British imperialist. So were plenty of other people: it was, at the time, an obvious thing to be. Kipling wasn’t an intellectual. But he was, perhaps, a mystic: a man who could see things, and make others see them – through the power of words.

(3) “Textbooks designed for the ‘understanding’ or ‘exploration’ of poetry have probably done more to warp the literary judgement of college students than the Collected Comic Books of the Twentieth Century. Because they are based on the ‘depersonalized’ view of literature and life, they all tend toward the extinction of the faculty of judgement, one of man’s most vital characteristics. My experience with students who have been subjected to these dry and terrible tomes, the very paper of which seems impregnated with lead, is that they are utterly and permanently stunned into literary insensibility” (p. 12).

Long ago in the English department at a supposedly “good” university (Queen’s, Belfast) I was required to teach first-year students from a dreary tome called Contexts for Criticism. In a series of articles with appended questions, three “texts” (Hamlet, “Ode to a Nightingale” and – to add feminist cred – Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) were analysed relentlessly from one critical “perspective” after another. The object was to teach methods of criticism, which, clearly, were considered more important than the literary works. Students who had come to university thinking they might learn something about writing – and, by extension, about life – found themselves instead relentlessly contemplating the pompous point-scorings of academics. One of my greatest pleasures on giving up that job was chucking out my copy of Contexts for Criticism.

(4) “What is the remedy against criticism? There isn’t any except the creation of new poems which will divert attention away from intellectualism and toward the work of art itself. Nonparticipation is the only rule; no criticism against criticism will do much good, even the kind I am presenting here. We must create a stoppage of meaningless critical work, simply by ignoring it” (p. 26).

More than fifty years after Shapiro wrote this, “meaningless critical work” has increased in bulk by a vast factor. But he’s right. There comes a time, and if you’re lucky it comes to you sooner rather than later, when you realise that – let’s invoke the phrase again – life isn’t long enough to keep up with both literature and literary criticism, unless it’s Johnson or Coleridge or Hazlitt or other critics who really could write. Generally speaking: Why read articles on Hamlet when you could read Hamlet? (Scholarly footnotes are one thing, and I agree they can be useful. Dame Catherine Belsey’s take on the subject is another matter.)

(5) “The intellectual considers his ‘exile’ at an end when he has established himself in society, at the top. The honest poet knows that he is a member of no society, past, present, or future” (p. 28).

True. In Britain, deconstructionist academics who presented themselves as “radical” in the 1980s are now almost all “distinguished” professors and sit on panels judging such rubbish as the government’s “Research Excellence Framework” – an absurd bean-counting exercise in which academic staff are scored according to critieria such as how many scholarly articles they’ve published in “distinguished journals” within a given time period. In other fields of endeavour, that’s called selling out. We might add that anyone capable of reading most supposedly distinguished academic journals – without either (a) falling asleep, or (b) running, screaming, from the room – must be “utterly and permanently stunned into literary insensibility.” Academics take bad writing to levels undreamed of by the most abject hack on a Murdoch paper (who is, at least, trying to communicate with an audience, in however debased or exploitative a fashion).

Shall I play Devil’s Advocate here? Truman Capote (who never went to university) said that a writer didn’t need a university education. He was right. The academic world by its very nature is opposed to, and hostile to, the world of creativity. Go to university if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher: you can’t do those things in our society, as presently constituted, unless you have a degree. But you don’t need a degree to be a writer; you don’t, perhaps especially, need a degree in English. All the time I was forced at university to mull over “contemporary critical theory” is time I consider wasted. You don’t need “critical theory” to read Shakespeare or George Eliot or E. M. Forster – and reading Shakespeare or Eliot or Forster is fifty thousand times more worthwhile than reading Peter Widdowson or Dame Catherine Belsey, let alone that charlatan Jacques Derrida.

 

POSTSCRIPT

And what, somebody asks me, about “Creative Writing”? When I went to university, it wasn’t an option. Had I been able to do it, I certainly would have. That might not have been a good thing. In those pre-theoretical undergrad years – those dying days of the ancien régime – I was at least exposed to a wide range of literature. Time not spent reading Dame Catherine or Emperor Jacques was time spent reading Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Patrick White. Literary study of this sort is probably, at least for a while, a good thing for the would-be writer. With the friend who joked about J. Phyllis Diller, et al., I once had a conversation in which both of us longed to write novels instead of the critical crap we were required to churn out. There was nothing stopping us: we could (as it were) have got jobs as lumberjacks, and written fiction after felling our daily quota of trees.

Creative Writing – as an academic subject – has in any case its own orders of bullshit. At undergrad level it is dubious, because the average student, let’s face it, has too little experience of (a) life and (b) literature to write anything worthwhile. Reading Kant or Karl Marx is a better use of your time than “workshopping” the crap (and it most likely is crap, possibly these days semi-literate crap) written by the kid sitting next to you: Kant instead of cant. How much teaching does a writer need? If you don’t have talent in the first place, you certainly won’t acquire it by doing a degree. You may meet people who will become important and even useful to you; but, with degrees of this type now proliferating, you may not.

Creative Writing is increasingly becoming another generalist arts degree like English or History; and, as the average English or History student will not, it is certain, grow up to be F. R. Leavis or A. J. P. Taylor, so most people who study Creative Writing will never be writers – and, in all likelihood, have no wish to be. This is not, except for dreary pragmatists of the training-college type, an argument against such degrees; what it does imply is that class assignments and real writing may be very different things. I am no absolutist. The study of Creative Writing might help you set up good work habits and cut through the mysticism surrounding writing – writing, assuming you can do it in the first place, being largely (largely, not entirely) a matter of arse-on-chair, not divine inspiration. To learn that early on would be an excellent thing: I wish I had. No, I wouldn’t tell anyone not to study Creative Writing. But I would say: Watch out. Shakespeare didn’t have a BA (Hons), let alone MA, from Avon University (formerly Stratford Polytechnic). Would he have been better if he had?