MLA: That's entertainment... and we can learn from it

December 20, 2002

Most English academics suffer from ‘entertainment deficit disorder’, an inability to see that show business is their real job. To overcome this - and in doing so improve teaching - they should quit writing and learn juggling or magic tricks to pass on to students, argues Jerry Herron

Take Charles Dickens, or Ethel Merman, or Eminem, Spider-Man or Papa Smurf, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Madonna or Monty Python. That’s entertainment, and if it didn’t exist, neither would we, although this point is generally misunderstood.

The modern English department (which dates in the US from the later decades of the 19th century) is the product of a successful revolution that introduced vernacular “popular” culture - novels and poetry, for example - into a traditional curriculum based on classical texts, rhetoric   and philology. So successful was this revolution that vernacular culture is now all we study. The reason people think they need English academics still is (rightly or wrongly) attributable directly to the existence of vernacular entertainment. We, of course, have our “work” to show for all the time and money invested in English, but if that’s all we had, we’d be done for, despite professorial delusions to the contrary. We still exist because entertainment exists in the world, and because people - some at least - still believe there’s a meaningful connection between all that entertaining stuff and the work they think we do. And that’s where the crisis in English comes from: professors’ bungled misunderstanding of who we are and why we’re here.

What we’re suffering from, in other words, is “entertainment deficit disorder”. It won’t be some governmental meteor that sends the dinosaurs of English into extinction. Even the craftiest politicians don’t know enough about the professional nonsense we produce to get at us that way. Besides, they’d have to read it first, which is unlikely. It’ll be the mischief we make on our own, when nobody is watching, that will be the end of us - nobody, that is, except our students, thousands and thousands of them. And it’s those poor unfortunates who are the real subjects of the crisis at hand. They’re the ones paying for the disorder that afflicts their professors, so our crisis is really a crisis of teaching.

For instance, think about the Big Three (by which I don’t mean class, race and gender) - the real big three that define our jobs: research, service and teaching. Take away research, and nobody outside the academy would know the difference. Take away service, same result. Take away teaching, and we’d be up on charges by the end of the day because that’s what we are thought to be getting paid for. And the majority of academic teaching is dreadful, and dreadfully unentertaining. Just look at the research that supports it. Or look at the level of public discourse. A mess. And where did that discourse come from? From us, because we taught the teachers. And what we’ve taught is that it’s irrelevant what quality of attention we pay to the multifarious entertainments our culture is made of. Otherwise, we wouldn’t write and talk the way we do. And that’s the root of our disorder.

Here, I defer to the founder of modern entertainment studies, Alexander Pope. Specifically, his Essay on Criticism :

“True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind...”

When Pope sets out to write “criticism”, he recognises at once that he is part of the entertainment industry, so that’s what he does, entertain, because as a pre-professorial entrepreneur, he had no choice. And people bought it. The trick, and the basis of true “wit”, is to write about a matter of general concern, but in such a way that the audience recognises spontaneously, as if it it were self-evident, the aptness of what’s being proposed: something whose truth convinces on sight. That’s entertainment.

That is what all great entertainment does, from Sophocles to Spielberg. That is the business we should be in: show business. In fact, it’s the business we are in, except we’re disastrously bad at it, and have been ever since English professors got institutionalised a century ago. As to how we might improve, I’ll take my cue from two modern masters, Ethel Merman and Rodney Dangerfield.

Let’s start with Merman. Could she sing? No. But could she sell a song? Yes, because she had the wit to grasp her situation: “There’s no business like show business like no business I know.” The operative word here is business. Merman and Irving Berlin understood this; we don’t. Our business is to show, not tell.

Which brings me to Rodney Dangerfield, and his brilliant exposition of entertainment deficit disorder, Back to School (1986). Rodney plays himself, basically, a stand-up guy who goes back to college with his ego-challenged son. Rodney is entertaining, the professors aren’t. Except the English professor, who conspires to turn the academy around by forcing on the faculty the truth of their inadequacy; namely, that they’re in the business of making a show of themselves and they just don’t know how to do it well. That truth has kept Back to School in constant circulation, on cable and network re-runs, since its first release. The same truth makes David Lodge’s academic satires great popular successes. People are ready to be entertained by the problem that professors pose, because we don’t know what our business is. So, we ought to make the most of our entertaining situation, except not negatively, because we fail to get it, but positively, because we do.

Most academics are incapable of writing a decent poem or short story or essay, let alone a play or novel or film script. (That’s not how we’ll become entertainers.) But we do write great volumes of boring stuff that nobody reads; and then we afflict our students with imitative humiliation, forcing on them the same obvious failure that we confront. What we should do is stop. We should quit writing, and they should quit, too. (If anyone refuses, hire real writers to teach them, but only writers with sales figures to prove they’ve the wit to entertain.) Once we start not writing, we’ll have time to capitalise on a vernacular revolution that Pope could only dream of. Everybody is literate now, especially when it comes to popular entertainments. These popular forms contain the open secret of who we are by virtue of their being entertaining to us all, and the basis of a media empire that America has globalised. That’s the way out of crisis, and EDD.

But it also leads right to the “ Baywatch Conundrum”: the fact that an execrable TV series is the most-watched entertainment vehicle in human history. So we ought to start there. Not to show how much smarter than television we are, but just the reverse, to show how much smarter it is because, despite a generation’s worth of deconstructing, it’s Baywatch and not us that people are entertained by. The trick is making academics as entertaining as TV. No, more entertaining, if we’re going to do any good, and there’s plenty of good that needs doing. But there will be time, since we’ll be freed from the drudgery of writing, which we’ve never cared enough about to do well anyhow.

Here’s what I suggest English academics do: study acting, learn to juggle or do magic, take singing lessons. And then teach students to do the same. (I can endorse sleight-of-hand tricks.) Not that any of us will be particularly good - we won’t. But until we try, we won’t have a clue what it means to entertain, unironically. And not until we know that will we have a clue how to talk to our audience and how to entertain them with things that are serious and important, particularly the entertainments that Americans are so greedy for that we’re willing to take the world to war over them. It’s a serious business, show business. But I think we’re up to it.

Jerry Herron is director of the honours programme at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He will speak at the “Future of English studies: what next?” at 10.15am on December 28.

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