A friend* directed my attention to this Slate review of Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature by William Deresiewicz, which simultaneously inspired two thoughts:
- I love reading a good bitch-slap as much as the next girl, but this one was almost painful and if I were Garber, I'd have spent an hour on the floor of my bathroom clutching wads of toilet paper to my face as I wept uncontrollably and cursed the birth of all book reviewers. (On the other hand, Garber is a Harvard professor, and I'd think that Harvard professors are made of sterner stuff than bloggers. Plus, all press is good press in the publishing industry.)
- The points that Deresiewicz highlight as major weaknesses in Garber's arguments touch a nerve with my own problems with the study of literature
Other than the question of finances and general usefulness of a graduate degree in literature, one of the main reasons I did not further my education in literature was that, from what I've observed, grad students are forced to study "literary studies" rather than "literature"; they read and align themselves with schools of "literary criticism" rather than focusing on the literature itself.
Deresiewicz makes much of Garber's thesis on why literature (or literary studies, rather) is good: "Is literature valuable because it feels good or because it's good for you? Her answer is, neither: It is valuable as a 'way of thinking.'" I, on the other hand, would argue that the answer to the question of pleasure vs. utility is "both." In fact, I'd say that a good piece of literature is like pineapple wrapped in bacon--it brings value while being wrapped in deliciousness that makes it more palatable. Part of the "value" of literature is that it offers new thoughts and new ways of thinking about things, all in a much more agreeable package than sitting through a boring lecture.
Of Garber's arguments, I can only say that, from what I can glean from this review, I'm still incredibly glad I didn't go to grad school.
*Shout-out ot Homero!