The ‘Story Behind the Story’: Making Lit Matter

In one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate, the English professor walked into class one morning invoking the name of Faulkner as if it were a sacred incantation: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read Faulkner.”  We students shivered at the sublimity of the name.  Since this trick seemed to work with his students, I figured I, now some 20 years later and new professor in my own right, would try the same trick with mine: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read—Faulkner.” But something was conspicuously missing here.  Students just stared at me.  After class I overheard some of them whispering down the hall: “I hear Faulkner’s novels are zig-zaggy and confusing and filled with all this weird stuff about race.  Why, oh why, must we read Faulkner?”

My own undergraduate experience immersed me in a sense of the gravitas of Great Literature. Matthew Arnold had claimed that “the best which has been thought and said” had the power to elevate the mind and transfigure the human spirit. The school of New Criticism elevated the critic as high priest of the poem, then later the poststructuralists gave the critic full apotheosis as one who, through the act of criticism, unveils vast hidden structures of domination. All in all, I felt a form of belief palpitating throughout my college education: a belief that Great Literature, the act of engaging with it, especially in its torturing difficulty, carried with it near metaphysical weight. So I was only happy to take up monastic vows to Literature: night after sleepless undergraduate night, followed by eight grueling graduate years at the poverty line.

But now I found myself standing before students far less concerned with Literature’s sublime powers than with gaining tools for a precarious job market and towering college loans. So what they wanted to know is, Why? Why subject oneself to the sound and the fury of a plotless modernist novel, or the white noise of a fragmented postmodern novel? Why all this needless obscurantism?  And why must these novelists fuss so much about race?  Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  In response, I continued proclaiming heady metanarratives: “Look, this has been considered by the best minds to be important!  The best that’s been thought and said!  It’s GOOD for you.”  They yawned, checked their Twitter accounts, and at the end of the semester left me a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars.

As American society increasingly questions the importance of what we in the humanities do, in the classroom I’ve been able to depend less and less on the grand narratives that long ago motivated my own passion for literature. I’ve instead had to learn to approach the stories I teach with what my yoga instructor calls the beginner’s mind: There’s a difficult text sitting in front of me. Why read it?  Why do all the work it will demand of me?

I’ve had to learn to teach with a mind to relevance particularly in my course on 20th-century postcolonial literature. What relevance in the world do high theorists Homi Bhaba and Gayatri Spivak have to students who, hailing from all-white towns tucked happily in the Midwest, have never really had to deal with race? On the surface, none. However some years ago, I began the semester of postcolonial literature by asking students to reflect on an insight from the critic Michael Warner: “A City on a Hill demands a Sodom on the Plain.” I teach at a Christian college where most students hail from devout religious homes, so they could relate readily to the idea of imagining themselves as a City on a Hill. Some students confessed having at times felt personally more righteous or pure than the person sitting next to them. Other students related this feeling to their particular Protestant sect, which they admitted at times spoke of other sects as degradations.

In these dialogues, we gradually uncovered a “dialectic” (a term that I added) whereby they perceived themselves as radiant and exalted, and the “Other” (a term that I added) as dark and sinister. Layer upon layer, we unveiled how the colonial psychology, far from this thing emanating from a distant Europe in a distant past, bubbles out of their own hearts. Only after illuminating the darkness of the heart could I meaningfully discuss the Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.  Only after having seen Kurtz deep inside themselves did they at all care about this indeed important piece of canonical literature. Now they were willing to apply themselves to texts that would otherwise have felt unapproachably abstract or gratuitously racialized: and it was because they were beginning to mourn over the dead bodies swinging at the end of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, swinging at the end of Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?  And they were beginning to feel inexplicably complicit in the destruction of these characters.  Now they were listening.

To make this class work, I had to imagine an importance for literature—a story behind the story—sourced not in grand abstract metanarratives, but in what students themselves find viscerally and deeply important.  I am currently in the final weeks of my fifth iteration of this course, and after class just last week a student came up to me and asked: “How can I have a meaningful identity as a Christian woman without re-creating this terrible Sodom on the Plain?”  Whatever answer she and her classmates devise will determine the course of our discussions these final three weeks of the semester.

Erick Sierra is an associate professor of English at Trinity Christian College.

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