A novel way of looking at literature

June 6, 1997

Should English literature be seen as a political subject, with an impact on the views and opinions held by broader society? Should the writers of literature be held to account for what they write? Should students have opinions, and should seminars be seen as forums to air those opinions? Should the study of English literature move with the times?

I have no hesitation in answering "yes" to all these questions. But having studied English literature for almost three years, I cannot help feeling that what is seen as the "politicisation" of literature and the emphasis on "personal engagement" has gone too far.

The analysis of literature according to the way students in the 1990s react to ideas and language is not only a bad way to study literature, it is an incredibly restrictive way to conduct academic debate.

For example, since starting college, I have heard Milton condemned as a misogynist and Alexander Pope described - by the male members of the group - as having "disgusting" views of women. Mills and Boon novels are about domestic violence, and the problem with William Morris is that he did not foresee the consequences of the Soviet Union and the process of fascism. Whatever the accepted ideas were in the period these authors were writing, and whatever the impact they had on society at the time, is subsumed beneath the criticism that they did not articulate the views perceived as right today.

On one level, this means studying English literature becomes easy. If it is a choice between reading a weighty post-colonial novel or a couple of secondary text essays attacking the author's representation of the "other", it is easier to read the essays. Unfortunately, critiquing an author's political views does not do much for an aesthetic appreciation of the work as literature, with plot, characterisation and style playing as important a part as social commentary.

But I could live with this if all that was at stake was the quality of my own degree. Much more disturbing is the effect it has on academic debate in general. Because not only are dead authors attacked for their failure to be right-on but students and academics who disagree with the mainstream wisdom are silenced as well.

One of the phrases I am becoming sick of is "from my own personal experience". This phrase embodies the essence of opinion-first analysis, in the sense that only students who are personally affected by a particular prejudice are entitled to comment on the nature of this prejudice, and how it is expressed by the writer.

You do not have to sit through many seminars to realise a judgement that a particular writer is sexist or racist or heterosexist is often given with the full force of an individual's particular moral authority. I know that if I pronounce Milton to be a woman-hater, there are few male students who will dare to take me up on it. On the other hand, I find it very difficult to argue that the West Indian origin of Rochester's mad wife is not necessarily deliberate racism on the part of Charlotte Bront .

The authoritarian nature of this kind of discussion is not unique to my university. Books such as Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: sex, fear and feminism (Hamish Hamilton, 1993) give a useful critique of more advanced trends taking place across the Atlantic. In a chapter entitled "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" Roiphe, a recent graduate in English literature from Princeton University, illustrates her perception of the problems of opinion-first literary criticism with a description of Sarah, a classmate of hers. Sarah is a feminist who, "when she disagreed with your argument", would "attack your upper-middle-class prejudices, your male prejudices, your elitist, ethnocentric prejudices, and whatever prejudices she could uncover in your incomplete worldview".

The most important thing about Sarah is that she attacks people's prejudices when she does not agree with them. After all, taking up the content of disagreements about literature is hard work. By contrast, attacking people's prejudices is the easiest thing in the world. Calling someone a racist or a misogynist may not shut them up, but it will put them on the defensive. What started as a literary dispute descends to name-calling and centres not around what the author meant at the time, but what the students themselves think about the world they live in today.

As it happens, most of my tutors at Sussex are sensible enough to bring the Sarahs of this world down to earth and most of my class mates are motivated enough to want to read the novels. But unless we want to start sipping tea with the Mad Hatter, English literature students should think back to why they chose a literature degree in the first place. Presumably, it was not because they wanted to talk about racism and women's oppression for three years, but more because they appreciated artistic talent and liked a good story.

Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.

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