Lit critters need selling

June 21, 2002

English is as relevant as any subject. The world just needs to be told, says Bob Eaglestone.

Something is rotten in the state of English. The study of literature and language is flourishing. It has more students than any other arts or humanities subject and continues to recruit healthily. According to a recent report, students, teachers and employers see it as a demanding "premier league" subject. It is intellectually vibrant and productive. So what is wrong?

Despite its popularity, there is a huge gulf between what goes on in English departments and the public understanding of English, between what students and academics actually do and what the media presents us as doing. While English as a subject is happily in the 21st century, it is treated as if it were in the early 1960s. The media love reductive and dated debates such as "who's better, Bob Dylan or John Keats?" But when the Today programme wants to know about contemporary authors, it asks psychologists, not critics. Leading figures in English departments avoid describing themselves as English academics. Perhaps this comes from feeling ashamed that one's career revolves around reading and teaching books, not, for example, conducting experiments or getting one's hands dirty.

But English is no longer what it was - higher gossip about nice novels. The theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s changed the subject. Literary studies, freed from the formaldehyde of civilising sensibility, has become a central place for coming to understand an array of intellectual and social concerns. For example, the pros and cons of globalisation were discussed in English departments 20 years ago.

Moreover, English offers a unique and important way to understand contemporary problems. Robert Young, one of Britain's leading theorists, writes that feminism and postcolonialism both "give value and attention" to the "personal and the subjective". The origins of these two wider movements "were often located in literature departments, where subjective forms of knowledge were taken seriously. Before postcolonialism, for example, there were plenty of histories of colonialism. But such histories rarely considered the ways in which colonialism was experienced or analysed by those who suffered its effects." As even the AS/A2 criteria for English say - and this shows how profoundly the subject has changed - it is as much about "different interpretations of literary texts by different readers" and the "contexts in which literary texts are written and understood" as about "great books". But it is this change that seems to have gone nearly unnoticed in the wider world.

Of course, a large part of the responsibility for this lack of wider awareness lies with the "theorists" who instigated these changes and the "traditionalists" who reacted to them. Theorists, carried away in developing their new approaches, often failed to communicate what they were trying to do and why it was exciting. Traditionalists often hid away in fusty and arcane scholarship. While it is right and proper that academics should have specialised debates about the complexities of their fields, develop difficult arguments and uncover lost details from archives, they also have a duty to explain all this as far as possible to the wider world. And English academics, in the past 20 years or so, have not generally succeeded in this.

But the media has not been helpful either. While historical, psychological and scientific research get serious coverage, literary research, which often explores the key issues of our times, is covered by the "what are those crazy (but mostly harmless) boffins up to now?" story. The literary pages of newspapers, too, are unsympathetic. Expecting quick judgements of contemporary literature for consumers, they find what goes on in English departments difficult and obscure and rarely investigate further. Even the literary journals are not honest brokers. In its centenary issue, the Times Literary Supplement , despite its wide range, declared itself opposed to "theory" and for "Anglo-Saxon empiricism". The New York Review of Books notoriously wrote that "everyone knows that if you want to locate the laughing-stock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department". Is it any wonder that academics in English look with envy at the coverage that science gets, or the media exposure of historians?

How is this gulf to be crossed? There are some ideas already. Catherine Belsey, a theorist at Cardiff, has suggested a committee to discuss the problem and an annual prize for the most accessible work in literary studies. Jonathan Bate at Liverpool University already writes his theoretical work in an accessible but intellectually rigorous form: thus the wide impact of his book of eco-criticism, The Song of the Earth .

It seems to me, however, that many of the new ideas in English need more introduction and development. This is even more the case with cutting-edge science, obviously complex and inaccessible to lay people. However, since the mid-1980s, a cadre of well-informed and dedicated science journalists and academics committed to the public understanding of science have worked to make such things as the human genome and relativity part of our everyday language. Where are those - in the academy, in the media - committed to the public understanding of English? Only with such people can this gulf be crossed.

Bob Eaglestone is a lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an organiser of the British Academy-ICA debate, "Reclaiming literature", June , 6.30pm.

Details: www.britac.ac.uk/events/programmes/0206lit.html and www.ica.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=5303

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