When I used to enter some of the chain bookstores that existed inq` shopping malls, I was struck by the way they classified their books. There was usually one section called “Fiction” and one, much smaller, called “Literature.” Invariably the “Fiction” section was crowded with browsers, while the “Literature” section stood nearly deserted. Occasionally these stores made a further division and offered a section of “Poetry.” If “Literature” was nearly deserted, “Poetry” looked like a quarantine zone.
What could these divisions mean? There are several possibilities to consider. One is that “fiction” and “literature” are regarded as quite different things. “Fiction,” for example, is what people read for enjoyment. “Literature” is what they read for school. Or “fiction” is what living people write and is about the present. “Literature” was written by people (often white males) who have since died and is about times and places that have nothing to do with us. Or “fiction” offers everyday pleasures, but “literature” is to be honored and respected, even though it is boring. Of course, when we put anything on a pedestal, we remove it from everyday life, so the corollary is that literature is to be honored and respected, but it is not to be read, certainly not by any normal person with normal interests.
The bookstores, of course, were not wholly to be blamed for making this artificial distinction. They simply reflected societal attitudes, attitudes that are still shared by devotees of both fiction and literature. Sadly, it is the guardians of literature, that is, of the classics, who have done so much to take the life out of literature, to put it on a pedestal and thereby to make it an irrelevant aspect of American life. Even an eminent critic like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., someone who is concerned with the nature of literature, once wrote in the Book Review section of the New York Times (February 27, 1989) that “no one went into literature out of an interest in literature-in-general.” I hope that Gates’s statement is mistaken; I know that in my case it certainly is. What this statement illustrates, however, is the power of specialization, which forces people into a much too narrow view of the field of literature. It would surely be more accurate to say that “no one went into literature out of an interest in the poetry of Matthew Prior” (just to choose one example). People study literature because they love literature. They certainly don’t do it for the money. But what happens too often, especially in colleges, is that teachers forget what it was that first interested them in the study of literature. They forget the joy that they first felt (and perhaps still feel) as they read a new novel or a poem or as they reread a work and saw something new in it. Instead they erect formidable walls around these literary works, giving the impression that the only access to a work is through deep learning and years of study. Such study is clearly important for scholars—I work in some highly esoteric fields myself, and I enjoy reading other scholars’ publications—but this kind of scholarship is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way, for most people to approach literature. Instead it makes the literature seem inaccessible. It makes the literature seem like the province of scholars. “Oh, you have to be smart to read that,” as though Shakespeare or Dickens or Woolf wrote only for English teachers, not for general readers. Is it any wonder that people who have learned about literature in such a system tend to shy away from it? We do not tell students that they must learn music theory before they can listen to music. If they like music enough, they should want to understand it. The same is true for literature.
The teacher of literature has to remember why he or she entered the field of literature. The motivation was likely a love of words and of stories and of what good writers can do with words and stories. That sense is what we have to convey. When I see a good play in a baseball game, I call whoever might be home to watch the replay; or when I hear a new piece of music, I invite someone to listen with me. I want to share my enjoyment. So, too, with literature. I love The Iliad. It provides both aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, and I want to share that enjoyment with my students.