While reading Amy Hungerford’s article “On Refusing to Read,” which described how curiously blind literary scholars can be of anything happening in the wider world of books outside of their own interests, I was struck by the author’s assertion:
Articles beget other articles; the rising generation of scholars making their way as assistant professors knows that writing about a relatively well-known author or work will make it much easier to get their scholarship published. And so the cycle begins.
Hungerford makes frequent mention of how popular fiction and contemporary fiction are ignored by scholars, either for the cynical reason she described above or because of the sheer volume of new books coming out.
One might think that young scholars would be eager to carve out new territory. After all, it’s getting mighty hard to say something new about Hamlet. But I can see the general timidity of literary scholars (young and old) and critics every year. One of the professors of an advanced English course likes to use a new work of contemporary fiction every fall and spring. Newer fiction feels like less of a slog than canonical literature and students like it—until it comes time to do their research paper. Every time I teach a workshop on library research for this class, without fall, we run up against a resounding lack of literature.
Oh I can find a few articles here and there if a book or its author have won awards. Mid-twentieth century science fiction is growing a respectable body of research. That said, it frustrates me no end that critics and scholars mostly refuse to touch popular fiction. There’s no reason for it other than academic laziness (as Hungerford says, albeit more politely) or snobbery. After all, Dickens, Shakespeare, the Brontës, and the vast majority of authors in the canon were the popular fiction of their day. There’s no reason for snobbery as long as a book is original, interesting, and well-written.
Hungerford’s advice to scholars who play it safe with their reading and scholarship by sticking to what the mandarins of criticism and publishing say they should read is to:
In the face of a multitude of books curated most often by the profit motive, it is incumbent upon those somewhat protected from market imperatives — that is, scholars paid by universities to spend their time reading and thinking and teaching and writing — to stuff the omelet deliberately. To do that, we will all need to scour the shelves for the most delicious ingredients, and also set some loudly touted ones aside.
I like the idea of scholars bucking the norms and seeking out good literature in whatever genre it might be found. If the discipline can get critical mass (sorry about the pun) for contemporary fiction, I imagine that scholars could uncover a wealth of information about how our culture copes with identity, displacement, gender fluidity, sexuality, and a whole host of other topics that older literature could often only discuss with subtext.
In refusing to read, we’re all missing out.