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Academic literary theory is killing literature Careerism: Self-perpetuating graduate faculties have slaughtered the authors and now are busy burying books.


For more than a decade now, graduate literature departments have virtually ceased to teach literature. Courses in "Post-colonial society" teach Toni Morrison! Is America a former possession of one of Europe's imperial powers, akin to Tanzania, Kenya and India? History has gone south. The Syracuse University English department focuses on "Saussurean linguistics" and its impact on "textual study." The disciplines have shattered. Anything goes.

In place of fiction, courses once devoted to literature now concern themselves with the arcane theories of writers with fancy French labels. The big names are Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Sometimes Julia Kristeva is added, for gender diversity. (Miss Kristeva appears, if I'm not mistaken, as the character Olga in John L'eureux's naughty satire of an English Department in extremis "The Handmaid of Desire" (Soho. 264 pages. $23). L'Heureux's nastiest epigraph, by Foucault, is his first: "The author is dead and his intentions are irrelevant."

You must use the word "text" when you mean "novel" because novel implies that a person, a writer with original thematic purposes, wrote that book. In place of discovering what the author had in mind, we are given "reader response theory" which says that a book means what a given reader at a particular time says it does. With the author declared dead or sentenced to death,, who is to say otherwise? Anything goes.

None of that matters because few actual novels make it into the curriculum anyway. The Swarthmore English department offers

such courses as "The Bodies That Surround Us" which asks: "What happens to your body when you're reading?" "The Subject In Question" explores "what discursive economies enable the shaping of identity?" "Illicit Desires In Literature" examines the "differences that race and gender have made in the literary expression of a range of sexual desires."

When literature is mentioned, it's enlisted as what a recent apostate, a Duke professor named Frank Lentricchia has called a "political instrument": a knife! a hammer! a gun! The study of literature is reduced to slogans: Faulkner was a racist! Conrad in "Heart of Darkness" was an apologist for imperialism! (by the way, a misreading). Literary history has succumbed before the need to ravage the "text." If you want to know what they mean by the "cultural studies" now in fashion consider a course on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," where the students explore floor plans of ante-bellum mansions: Now, where was the kitchen?

It began with a thunderous fragmentation: In the wake of the sixties attack on the admitted narrowness of the core curriculum, English Departments splintered into separatist redoubts: black studies, women's studies, queer studies, Chicano studies.

In right-wing nationalist mode, each principality was presided over by faculty which consolidated their power by electing each other to department committees. Then they proceeded year in and year out to parcel out merit raises to their own.

To justify their palace coup, they proclaimed themselves of the "left," no matter that their politics was entirely careerist. Neo-cons, suddenly awake to their own power shortage, delightedly allowed the university separatists to call themselves the "left," the better to isolate them, and attack them in the hope of preparing a palace coup of their own. So far they've had no luck.

Identity politics are about protecting one's own; the university becomes a grand therapy enterprise devoted to students' self-esteem. One women's studies professor I know devoted class time to going around the room and asking each student whether she had ever been raped. All this has nothing whatever to do with challenging social injustice, with progressive, or "left," politics.

Worse, students are not being brought to the wide world of knowledge beyond their own experience. Meanwhile, revealing a hidden contempt for their undergraduates, these professors almost uniformly refuse to teach the fundamentals of grammar which today's undergraduates badly require, even when the students themselves request it.

I confess to having written a book in the mid-seventies called "Women and Their Sexuality In The New Film." It raised the question of the absence of strong women in European and American cinema. I never dreamed that two decades later students would be taught to vulgarize that question into: Where are the strong women in "Moby Dick." Meanwhile English department students who write dissertations on Immanuel Kant or Ludwig Wittgenstein need never face examiners trained in philosophy.

A dearth of fiction

I could have continued cultivating my own garden in the creative writing program had it not been that my students were confronted by the dilemma of being unable to find on the graduate curriculum any course whatsoever devoted to works of fiction. Last spring, rejecting "A History of Print Culture" and "Media Studies," they settled on a seminar on Melville. Melville's fictional strategies were hardly useful to them as writers, but at least this was a course devoted to literature.

Students who argued that none of the theory constructs applied to the Melville book they selected to examine on their final papers were given B's, not A's. The creative writing students concluded that the message was: You can believe anything you want as long as you believe in the idea of theory. Meanwhile the turgid jargon which runs through these courses ("the performativity of the text") deadens their ears to language.

Has the naked emperor been exposed as naked? Is sanity returning? In a lecture at Princeton last spring, Columbia's Edward Said appeared to be bailing out. Another positive sign may be Mr. Lentricchia's confession in Linguafranca magazine (Sept./Oct. 1996) in which he reveals that even as in his graduate courses at Duke he taught theory, in private he read the great works of literature he always loved.

No leftist, no activist, Mr. Lentricchia's solution was to retreat from teaching graduate courses. Now, his classroom door tightly shut, he teaches literature to undergraduates. Having been a participant in laying waste to an entire discipline, Lentricchia, who still cannot resist substituting the word "text" for novel, discovers no responsibility to clean up the mess.

Perpetuating insanity

It won't be easy. Graduate students, who know that jobs in English departments all demand theory, are the most vociferous in perpetuating this madness. As for me, after years of being denied the opportunity to teach graduate courses because I would not teach theory, a few years ago I succumbed. (Since I was untrustworthy, I was the only professor required to submit a course syllabus to the graduate chair before the semester).

Then at the end of my film theory course one of the students asked: "But is 'Ivan The Terrible" a great film?' I had taught them little about the art of film even as they wrestled gamely with the mirror of Jacques Lacan.

Because the admission of creative writing students now outnumbers the beleaguered Ph.Ds willing to brave these waters, I have now been allowed to teach a course in contemporary fiction entirely devoid of theory. Novels will be read in terms of their craft, not perceived through the darkness of that infernal mirror made in France.

A piggy bank will sit on the seminar table. Those of us who slip and use the word "text" must pay a quarter; the word "discourse" demands a dime.

At the end I hope our class party will not be overfunded and that we celebrate at a cozy bistro rather than at Philadelphia's legendary and most expensive restaurant, Le Bec Fin. But it will be worth it if the students become better writers, the purpose after all, of the exercise.

Joan Mellen has written 13 books, several of which are about literature and film and which include a number of biographies and a novel. She received her doctorate in English at the City University Graduate Center in New York under the guidance of Irving Howe. Having joined the faculty of Temple University in 1967, she has been a full professor since 1977.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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