An Impassioned Layman’s Defense of Literary Study

It’s come to my attention that folks have been spreading all manner of Internet-generated untruths about something very dear to me.

I need to clear up a few things about how reading works—especially the reading of fiction and poetry, which are a little, let’s call it “Hard to Read.” I’m going to address this, mostly, to an imaginary phantom reader who has belittled everything I hold dear both personally and professionally. Dear Regular Reader of this blog, I may call you horrible things. Do not take it personally: a rose by any other name, if you will.

Now: poetry and fiction and plays and “literary” writing are hard to read because, when they’re good, they’re meant to reward active, clever, and insightful reading. Poems and books contain little trinkets of buried treasure. Sometimes, as in William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” this treasure comes in the form of gold dust too minute to spend. It takes hours of thinking, over years, to brush it all off. Some people don’t like Williams because reading these gems is a laborious process for little payoff. “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow,” they argue—“but not that much, really.” And indeed literary study of Williams is best left to those with a love for the meditative work of dusting for gold.

Sometimes, as in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” there’s a sprinkling of coins here and there, and one magnificent treasure to be dug up at the center of it all. The roman à clef  or “key novel” is like this. The greatest thing of value is locked in the middle of the story, and you need to comb through the story for the missing pieces of the shattered key. When you find them all—or enough of them—the key unlocks the treasure.

But every piece of literature—scratch that, every good piece of literature—rewards careful and thoughtful reading. Whether we’re talking potboiler mysteries, or comic books, or good movies, or Victorian novels, anything worth reading as literature is worth reading twice.

This doesn’t include the things we’re used to reading in everyday life. Menus, traffic signs, ingredient lists, and most news stories don’t generally fall into the buried-treasure business. Note that good magazine articles—Time and MacLean’s runs some good ones often venture into the buried-treasure business, as do a handful of very good blog posts (I humbly hope this is one of them). But in general, Associated Press-style just-the-facts news briefs are meant to communicate a key set of facts in as short a time as possible. Some scientific reports, even (especially) very good ones, do this as well. In these fields, you don’t want buried treasure. You want nothing but surface. You want your audience to absorb everything there is to absorb, and to get it as fast as possible. There is an art to writing this stuff, just as there’s an art to writing short stories.

But that art involves making things as obvious as possible, and writing your (sometimes complicated) thoughts at the lowest possible grade level, so that the widest number of people can understand them.

It goes without saying, or it should, that people who have the skills to read this kind of writing, and fancy themselves equipped to read literature, are wrong.

An Associated Press article written for a 4th-grade reading level has exactly one thing in common with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”: they are both written with words. Yes, well, a Scottish claymore and a ’72 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda are both made out of steel; and we have no difficulty understanding that being a fine weaponsmith does not make you any sort of auto mechanic. Yet those who are literate at one kind of writing seem to fancy themselves equally capable at another, though they have none of the tools or knowledge required to do so.

As a brief aside, let me say that this doesn’t necessarily have to do with education as such, though I’m going to talk about that quite a bit. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to go to school and be an English major to read literature well. John Milton was a self-directed scholar, as is somebody modern like Noam Chomsky, whose formal education really covered a narrow band of applied linguistics and did not extend to foreign policy, political science, cultural studies, and everything else he absorbed through independent study. As a teacher of English Literature, it’s humbling (but true) to admit that literature existed long before there were literature teachers, and it will exist long after them. Literature is not the province of arcane specialists huddled in mouldy libraries. Laymen can, and should, read literature; they should read as much of it as time and circumstance permit.

But this brings us to my main point this week: that doesn’t magically make literature easy to read. Nor should it.

Literature that is difficult to read performs a completely different function from literature that’s easy to read (oddly enough, really bad poetry falls into the “easy to read” category as surely as an AP article). But it performs that function when you work at digging for meaning, seek out evidence in the text, remember inklings and maybe even commit them to ink.

This, as mentioned, is Hard Work. Having an English degree doesn’t make it any easier—though depending on how much time you put in and how serious and open-minded you are about your learning, the things you learn in pursuit of an English degree can make this much easier and more rewarding. But hard work it was, and hard work it remains.

There is a small, albeit vocal, group of whinging self-entitled “readers” who resent this work—often because they cannot or will not do it—and resent the feeling that this robs them (which it does) of most of the treasure of reading. Most of them are convinced, dead convinced, that they are literate. Many of them, in spite of their extremely basic literacy, their cloth ears for rhythm and sentence flow, and their incompetence with punctuation, have squeaked through good creative writing programs, or done exceptionally well in terrible ones, and feel that this somehow entitles them to that inviolate holy of holies, Their Opinion (ahhhhh) on literature of all sorts, from all ages, without any effort or thoughtfulness.

These people do not represent the lay reader, not by a longshot (we are easily misled in this because they’re so loud about it, however). They take the stance, half out of sloth and half out of fearful necessity, that because what I’m calling “literature” here is a little different from straightforward factual writing, the business of reading literature is a completely 100% soft fuzzy non-science, and everyone’s opinion is exactly as good as everyone else’s.

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I need to restate, this is not my academic elitism (if I have any left) coming to the fore. Nowhere in this should it be implied that an English degree at Harvard or Oxford makes your opinion about Milton worth any more than the opinion of a high school dropout like John Keats. What both the Oxford professor and high-school dropout John Keats have in common is this: they respect the difficulty of literature, and do not cower from it, nor foolishly deny its existence, but joyfully run to engage it.

Cowering, of an intellectual sort, is one hallmark of the self-entitled, lazy type of lay reader. Irrational hatred of teachers is another—this may include elaborate fantasies of persecution, usually on the grounds that (a)teachers “play favourites,” or (b)they “give a bad mark because they don’t agree with your opinion on a book.” Almost never is this true in such simple terms—but then, the world is a simple place to simple people.

In answer to (a), let me explain something about human beings: when you have a rampant and transparently obvious disdain for the thing they have chosen to make their calling in life, it is only natural for them to feel hostile to you. The teacher who can maintain his or her impartiality in the face of your overwhelming, precocious, disrespectful, and dead wrong opinion (there’s that holy word again, opinion) of them and their profession is truly saintly. If we are talking about grades, there are systems in place to prevent biased marking. If we are talking about “favourites,” you have no diplomatic immunity to the disdain you invite upon yourself—not in the classroom, not in the professional workplace, not in life. Behaving like a spoiled child and doubling down on your ignorance when confronted head-on with it will earn you nothing but disfavour. This is not a tip from an academic, but from a human being living on Earth. Fleeing from formalized education will not free you from this binding truth.

In answer to (b), bad marks don’t go to dissenting opinions: they go to dissenting opinions which are devoid of facts and evidence, based on conjecture or ignorance, presented in sloppy arguments couched in sloppy language, and passed off brashly with the attitude that everyone is a super special magical snowflake, and ergo your weird unfounded theory that Catcher in the Rye is about alien abduction is worth every bit as much as the opinion of your classmate who read the book, learned how to punctuate a sentence, and said something about it that is worthwhile.

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When we’re talking about human rights, equality is good and discrimination is bad.  But there is a difference between good pizza and bad pizza; between T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats and some Hallmark hack’s ungainly, badly-rhymed doggerel on the same animal; between an opinion that is well-founded and an opinion that is baseless and of so little worth that people are fair to call it “worthless” as a matter of course (even though nothing is truly without worth—that’s a philosophical argument for another day).

The argument that nothing is completely worthless does not exonerate a poor thesis or a baseless, confused, or dead wrong opinion. These things are not equal: we must have some standard of discriminating between them. Otherwise, that drug dealer’s opinion that you should buy and use his heroin is just as good as your mother’s opinion that you shouldn’t. You may as well flip a coin, since we live in a world of equal opinions. I’m not convinced this isn’t how some of these people go through life, which explains 90% of the trouble they find themselves in. Some things in the world are better than others—for a variety of reasons. But just because two different things can be neither better nor worse, just different, that offers no guarantee that they are.

So it goes with literature. If you are a precious individual snowflake, dear misguided whinging reader, then everyone is a snowflake. I’ve known enough people, both personally and professionally, to know this is true. Everyone is singularly beautiful and special and different from everyone else—which removes your intangible magic individuality from the equation. All things being equal, a snowflake who writes an A paper is doing better, empirically better, than a snowflake who writes a D paper but feels entitled to its opinion.

“But literature’s not Imperial!” comes the answering whine (they mean “empirical”). “Literary interpretation isn’t goddam math, it doesn’t have hard fast rules.”

Right you are, dear comma-splicing reader. Literary interpretation isn’t math. It’s more like detective work. We arrive at the book as if arriving on a crime scene. Once there, we look for clues. We slowly piece together a narrative of what happened here. We decide what was important and why, and we build a case for that theory. There’s almost none of this:

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You know what? In fiction, as in detective work, sometimes there are red herrings. Sometimes we make mistakes in determining the “author’s true meaning.” This is a good time to point out, I think, that the “author’s true meaning” is not the Holy Grail of meaning in a literary text; it hasn’t been since the 19th century. But that debate doesn’t belong in the Layman’s Defense, not really.

So the curtains were blue. To a non-detective, that’s it. It’s a boring fact, one line in a book; move on. To a trained detective, a literary scholar of the forensic, let’s look at the other clues in the narrative. This woman’s outfits are colour-coordinated, even her underwear. She’s extremely fastidious in her fashion sense and her decorating, and everything else in here is made up of brown and green—earth tones. The curtains are blue. That’s remarkable. Given what we know of her character, this inconsistency tells us something. She would never have hung these curtains. Scratch that; she would never have suffered anyone to hang these curtains—not while she was alive. So the curtains went up after the murder. Why?

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[Literary criticism—it’s like being an investigator, only better.]

Let’s turn back to page 120, the scene with the neighbours, who remember there being curtains in that window.  Sure enough we were right: they were brown. So where are the brown curtains? Why remove them and take time to put up new ones? There’s signs of a struggle in here—maybe there’s blood, not hers, on the curtains. DNA linking the non-existent brown curtains to the killer? That sounds promising. Let’s start by finding those curtains—or, worst-case scenario, let’s hit the home-outfitter stores and find out if anybody bought a set of blue curtains of this make and dye lot (We’ll leave determining which dye lot this is to the forensic analysts—the practitioners of “textile criticism,” if you like).

Now to someone without the tools to even understand what’s going on, of course this looks baseless and weird.  When Sherlock says “find me this unique blue dye, Inspector, and I’ll find you a killer,” none of the flummoxed policemen standing around see anything remarkable at all. In a world of flummoxed policemen, literary study makes you Sherlock Holmes–or at the very least, a marginally capable Inspector Lestrade. If you’re any good at all at it, reading literature goes a little something like that crime scene investigation. There are no “hard fast rules,” if you insist on such redundant stock expressions; but there are techniques, best practices, guidelines, a common language, a system of documentation. A careful reader who cares about finding out what happened here will always, always come away with a better opinion than someone who bungles onto the crime scene, trashes the place, disrespects both the space of the novel and his or her fellow investigators, and then whines that no one validates his/her made-up fantasy of what might be going on in the text. You are not “sticking it to the Man” by deluding yourself.

If you’re good at your job—or, if you’re a reader (of any education level) who engages with the text and reads mindfully, this is what reading literature is like. It’s exhilarating. It makes the story richer. It tells you things about the characters, and the world, and the universe, that you’ll never, ever learn if you decide that curtains are blue because you’re a lazy snowflake who thinks it can decide the facts based on nothing but whim, entitlement, misreading, and powerfully misplaced overconfidence.

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There is some truth (not much, but some) to the adage that those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach. I have seen this in action once, when my high school music teacher, a brilliant classical musician and a 20-some-year veteran of the classroom, was shunted into his second teachable area, “Business,” after a gross downsizing of the music department. Of course, Business was his second teachable way back in 1970; in the late 1990s, high school Business meant “Intro to keyboarding, spreadsheets, and computer use.” He was one of the best teachers I ever had, but I’m sure in this impossible, resentful situation he was just awful.

But recognizing his story, his narrative, involves a literary mind. It involves seeing story beneath the surface. To you, dear gentle deeper-meaning-hating reader, that guy who’s always mad and can’t work his computer is just an incompetent jerk and a bad teacher, end of story. I pity the simplistic, hostile world you imprison yourself in with your ignorance. Everybody in your whole world must be an idiot, except you of course.

I’ll be teaching An Intro to Narrative this term, to some very engaged, very thoughtful young people. I couldn’t be happier about that. Maybe two (three, if I work my tail off) will be “hooked” for life, and will wind up doing what I’m doing—or whatever the 2026 equivalent of that is—selling ad-sponsored Youtube videos of English Lit classes to overseas executives, I predict. The rest will get a B.A., either in English or in Somethingorother; go on to do a job unrelated to their piece of paper, using skills very related to how they got that piece of paper; and remain engaged and richly empowered Lay Readers for the rest of their life.

I accept that they’re not all Little Dr. Maynards waiting to blossom. I love it. I love that poetry and stories mean something to ordinary people, not just to Academy stuffed shirts like me. I love that whatever they go on to do in life, they will have the mental toolbox, and the right mindset to read both kinds of writing out there, and to make sense of the narrative of their lives in ways that the haters of literary study—the misinformed, the lazy, the willfully ignorant—will never understand.

My job as a teacher is not to give good grades or bad grades. It’s to use what I know about this important thing I do to help you learn more about this important thing I do—not least of all why I do it, and why it’s important.

If you, dear reader, want to see us English teachers as monstrous adversaries because of your own fears, that’s your business. Suffer through our classes and you’ll overcome us, or at the very least turn tail and get away from us. But we are not the Guardians at the Gate, not really. We are not hateful monsters digging our grammar-dripping claws into you. We’re just trying to shake you awake. We are not monstrous adversaries to be overcome: on the right hand, we are mentors who have gone before; and on the sinister left hand, at our worst, we are symbols of things that are monstrous and adversarial within yourself.

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Call us whatever names you like; it does not change us. A stinking, poxy, plague-infested Shakespearean theatre, by any other name, would smell as sweet—and so would those of us in the business of making literary allusions our stock in trade.

I should end, naturally, by saying that this isn’t a defense of the Academy. It’s a defense of reading literature with care, something that should concern everybody who’s ever picked up writing more artistic than an owner’s manual. You don’t need teachers to become good readers of literature. I think we do help; the best of us do; but especially in the age of the Internet and freely available information, anyone with the desire to build his or her own literary toolbox can do it without help. Just not easily. Reading Literature Is Hard. It should be. Most rewarding things are.

Lay folk, as I’ve been calling them, don’t need literature teachers to be good readers of literature. They just need to have an inquisitive mind, the sort that asks questions rather than inventing its own answers out of nothing but ignorant self-absorbed bluster. The word student just means “one who studies.” You don’t need to be the student of a teacher to be a student of literature. Everyone who gains something from reading a book or a poem is a student, no matter where you live or what you do for a living. We teachers are a little bit of inspiring vapor; we are nothing more than metaphors ourselves, transient projections of your fears, your challenges, and own gestating wisdom. Anyone capable of really reading literature would have caught that by now.

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One thought on “An Impassioned Layman’s Defense of Literary Study

  1. Like analogy of reader to crime scene investigator. Enjoyed the ‘rant’ reminding that there are texts which demand the reader interact and make study of symbols and words and choices made. The challenge for readers up to the challenge is benefit of astute, well-verses teachers/readers? This learning how to read lit must not necessarily happen in a classroom. Enjoyed the post.

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