The question academics never ask about literary works
Thursday April 21st at 17.00
‘What is wrong with literary studies?’ Richard Bradford asks, and reaches a straightforward conclusion. It refuses to address the questions that inform all other aspects of literary culture, from decisions made by commissioning editors when faced by an as yet unpublished novel or a collection of verse, through assessments by reviewers and members of book clubs, to the choice made by the casual reader flicking through the opening pages of a thriller in a bookshop: is it any good? It is quite possible that an undergraduate might wonder why exactly Shakespeare has achieved godlike status. Their tutors will certainly not encourage them to take a sceptical approach to the inalienable greatness of the Bard. The same constraint obtains for the rest of the major figures in the undergraduate curriculum, and even at the other end of the spectrum, in modules on say Popular Fiction or Crime Writing, the question of why such works belong in a minor colony of the greater empire of the canon is not addressed. Are they by their nature inferior? If so, what does literary High Art amount to?
Why is the academic study of literature so disconnected from the real world of books and reading? Theory, in its various manifestations, has played a part: over the past forty years the notions of aesthetics and qualitative discrimination have been written off as bourgeois delusions, and even the idea that we can ‘define’ literature (a basic prerequisite for assessing the skill of its practitioners) has been systematically dismissed.
Can we remedy this problem? Do come and say your piece: Richard has promised to be brief, and polemical, before shifting to an open debate.
Late last year he published ‘Is Shakespeare Any Good? And Other Questions on How to Evaluate Literature’ (Blackwell/Wiley) and is currently planning an AHRC Networking Scheme application on the topic of Evaluating Literature. He will be happy to discuss the latter with all who have an interest.