Pop lit and Great Texts: what they have in common…

by Anna Blanch on February 12, 2009

Unlikely Allies against Abject Mediocrity in Academia: Great Books and “Pop Lit”

Why is it that the world of English academia (and to a lesser extent, secondary education) so concerned with rarefied expressions of literature? Why are we so averse to talking about popular literature? Students and educators alike wonder at these questions. Sometimes the canon betrays itself even as parents, and the public, marvel at the inclusion of comic books and recent films in High School and College curricula. This article, “Swapping the Bard for Battlestar,” by John Birmingham, is one such musing.

Sometimes the naysayers who condemn the exaltation of the canon have point. It isn’t like everyone in “the canon” (whatever that actually consists of) writes brilliantly providing exemplars by which we should measure everything since. Or, maybe that is just it; the books codified as acceptable for academic study provide exemplars for the Great (the epitome of the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly) across the board. Why is there, then, within academic circles, a pervasive pretentiousness and arrogance? This pretension is an expression of the root of self assuredness that my work is more serious, my work is real scholarship, than whatever author, period, or theoretical approach, with which you are obsessed. Every department, University, nation, and hemisphere, has touchstones – the acceptable PhD topics, the ones that won’t get a job, the ones that are “obviously” not worth four or five years of your time.

Admittedly, there do need to be boundaries and standards, and as much as we like the idea of ultimate academic freedom, every academic knows that it is in all of our best interests to protect ourselves from ourselves – we are after all a running joke as it is. The profession of the academic is not the cakewalk that many in the ‘real world’ would like to believe that it is – it is a nice idea (for some) to think that one can work four hours a day, Monday to Friday, spending your afternoon at home or lounging in a local café surrounded by fawning co-eds, and lazing away long summers in a hammock – but the reality ain’t that bright, nor that bleak, if your aspirations are other than superficial.

However, the question is still begged. Why are academics so scared of popular literature? When I look at trends in scholarship eighteenth and nineteenth century popular literature I see a burgeoning field of chapbooks and periodical literature – in part made difficult because this is not the kind of literature preserved in libraries, nor printed for preservation consequently meaning that the paper is often bad quality, an archivists nightmare. But Academics like looking at dead authors – it is notoriously difficult proposition to write about an author who is still alive – they might, after all, answer back (disagreeing with your proclamations)! Academics like Don Foster, publicly humiliated by Joe Klein even after correctly identifying Klein as “anonymous”, the author of Primary Colours, have deigned to use their scholarly skills in the public eye by being involved in not only contemporary events but by examining bestselling contemporary literature.

A friend recently asked me this question: “what is contemporary literature?” – he’s a lawyer, so really his aim was to have me define my terms. What i felt suprised me. I was uncomfortable with the question because I’ve never much liked the term “contemporary literature” – I ended up trying to explain that it was a dynamic term that denoted recent, in chronological terms, literature of about the last 40 years. Even in saying that I knew many academics would disagree with me about the time period, but as my friend pointed out, the term “contemporary” is a placeholder until we find some other academic-speak way of labelling it as being part of a movement, whether based on time, theme, or the author’s school.

Academics are scared of popular literature because the terms are not codified. Our readings may be wrong – we may overstate or understate their importance and we may, in a real and visceral sense end up engaged in a war or words and ideas far more violent than the sedate scholarly conversation those of us who wrote on long since dead authors are normally engaged. Recent debates about Harry Potter have begun to be labelled the “Harry Potter Wars”. I don’t wish to speak about Rowling or Potter or the degree to which scholars debate over the status of the series as “great literature” and the attempts to define Rowling’s place in the context of British Children’s literature. The Harry Potter debates, however, are relevant for a discussion of the culture wars and the ways in which literature is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, used as a cultural weapon. The choices of quotations, the choices of which texts to include in syllabi are important, and are fundamentally ideological decisions, and sometimes the self-reflexity of popular literature is instructive.

New Media challenges simple definitions of artistic works. Does a scholar of literature only confine themselves to the work on the page – How does viewing a play differ from a movie? How about consider the aural value of a poem as opposed to a visual? We consider the way poems or literature plays off art – Ekphrasis – but what is so wrong about examining the ways in which artistic representations of words occur, in art, comic book literature and artistic response to poems or books in the form of visual art and film?

Conversely, why is there also an increasing movement back towards great books? Is this also part of the same phenomenon – a growing disillusionment with a canon developed in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century’s that may be in dire need of some revision. The foundation provided by a course of study in Great Books can be incredibly enriching.

Related posts:

Previous post:

Next post: