A GUEST POST BY DANIEL DECKNER
[Daniel Deckner is a German graduate student of literature at the Philipps-Universität Marburg and is currently enrolled as a visiting student at the University of Alberta.]
Mark Bauerlein’s essay “The Research Bust” poses questions about productivity policies in literary studies at research universities, but before we revise policies, we need to ask a fundamental question about the purpose and focus of literary research.
How are we supposed to select worthwhile subjects for our research if we haven’t determined the role that literature plays in people’s lives? I believe that the lack of such knowledge is one of the main reasons for the meager impact of literary scholarship. The real problem with this scholarship is not that its reception is meager within its own field, but that its reception anywhere else is virtually nonexistent. Scholars in other fields have little use for this work and I have yet to meet the person, within or without literary studies, whose first urge after a delightful read is to go through the secondary literature.
Why is this so? Because most of today’s literary scholarship misses the main point. It typically proposes ways to understand literary texts. Criticism is interpretation. In one of his lectures on aesthetics, Adorno related that the notion of the author laboriously encrypting some meaning in a text, on one side, and the reader laboriously extracting that meaning on the other reminded him of a popular folk story:
Two Swabians come across a toad. The one Swabian tells the other that he will give him 10 bucks if he eats it, which the other does. He gives him the money and they go on. After some time they come across a second toad and the Swabian that ate the first toad tells the other that he will give him his 10 bucks back if he eats this one. The Swabian does so and is returned his money. After a while the one looks at the other and asks: “What for did we just eat those toads?”
If the main function of literature is to communicate propositions to its readers, most of it would have to be seen as a failure, inferior to the expository prose written about it. I do not think that this is the case, of course. The most interesting and important features of literary texts lie elsewhere.
A professor at my current university, for instance, asked 32 literature students in their second year to read a short story and then select two passages they found striking. The students were then to provide written commentaries on the passages they selected. Among the components of these commentaries, 16 percent referred to the plot of the story, 6 percent on its stylistic aspects, and 5 percent on historical context. In comparison to that, 45 percent of the components referred to the students’ feelings during reading. It has to be emphasized that these are the responses of people who have chosen to spend a significant part of their foreseeable future with the kind of analytic reading that is expected of them in academia.
Empirical research on reader response shows that the main attraction of literature is its ability to change moods, arouse feelings, and allow the formation of beliefs that merge text understanding with new understandings of themselves and aspects of the world around them. Current literary scholarship largely focuses, then, on aspects of literary texts that seem to be among the less relevant to readers. How surprising is it that it fails to generate much interest?
Our field needs a shift in focus and a significant extension in methodology. It is already being conducted by scholars who have turned their attention to the way actual readers respond to literary texts. In order to arrive at a body of knowledge that is extensive enough to be of significant relevance to other fields and able to inform individual reading habits, education and cultural policy, much more needs to be done along these lines.