I have, once again, a terrible case of esprit d’escalier. Earlier today, a colleague opined that literary criticism was silly and “made up.” While there is a certain amount of bullshit in the discipline, the study of literature is anything but silly.
I have long thought that literature (all fiction, really) is made up of a nearly infinite thought experiments. Literature is the good, the bad, and the ugly of human experience, the sublime and the ridiculous, the demented and terrible, the uplifting and moving. Our thousands of years of shared literature are the product of countless authors wondering “what if?” and then writing down their answers.
Every genre has merit. (Yes, even romance.) No one genre is more or less worthy of study than another. Science fiction asks where we are going and where we might end up. Mysteries take us into deep psychological territory and ask us to examine the worst of our impulses. Romances sweep us away in fantasy and wish fulfillment. Historical fiction places us in the shoes of our ancestors. Literary fiction lifts up our quotidian experiences and has us look closely at how we function in our roles or fail to function.
When we study literature, we not only examine the questions authors throw in front of us, we also look at how a bunch of sounds and symbols can evoke emotion and meaning. I see this part as no less than magic. It can be a little torturous to read this kind of criticism, but it is revelatory when a poem that one has struggled with for weeks suddenly opens up when one spots a subtle rhyme scheme or the menacing use of consonants.
English majors, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re being silly for studying literature. You’re studying meaning and life and you get to read some awesome books doing it.