Studying literature is a lot like dabbling in indie music. It’s one of those rare microcosms of intellectual society where your knowledge is often based not on the volume of the information, or even its relevance, but rather on its obscurity. It’s as if there’s some point system assigned, and whoever can quote from – or even reference – a piece of literature that no one else has read gains a point. Five for obscure Shakespeare (“Coriolanus”), ten for excruciatingly painful Southern literature (“The Sound and the Fury”), 15 for Joyce, and, best of all, 25 for “Beowulf”. In Old English. In fact, it’s even better if they’ve never heard of it, although this can cause a little trouble in assigning points.
Most sane people would avoid such competition at all costs but some revel in it. In the world of literature, your point value decides everything. It’s an indicator of your social status far more powerful than any statistic in football or basketball. It extends beyond a simple assessment of your ability to read and analyze the most bizarre literature by acting as an actual social determinant. The point value decides your place in the hierarchy of the learned, the scholars, the literati. Too low and your words will be met with incredulous stares from everyone in your seminar regardless of their accuracy. When your classmates have finished looking uncomfortable over your ignorance, one will speak up, almost apologetically: “Perhaps, but in Book II of “The Faerie Queen,” I believe Spenser made a powerful move to discount that by…” You won’t understand it, but, then again, you aren’t meant to.
Of course, this is all nonsense. Yet it’s this sort of behavior that seems so prevalent in seminars and discussions, both in class and out. There’s some of this in every discipline. In political science, it’s the people who insist on talking about the implications of the Austrian Prime Minister’s move to decriminalize parking on sidewalks. In math, it’s the train of thought that leads to the purchase of huge chalkboard installations in some unsuspecting roommate’s hallway. It’s simply the idea that somehow, elitism and obscurity not only makes you smarter, but it also makes you better. And righter.
It’s a mistake. Literature is not meant to be exclusive, nor is it meant to be a means of constructing a social hierarchy. It hasn’t been for hundreds of years, since the Reformation. And no one wants to revisit that.
The worrying part of this trend is not simply that it’s a trend, but that academic society is buying, and perhaps has bought, into it. Maybe it’s the intimidation factor. I know I’ve always had this sort of thinly veiled terror that I would be found out – unmasked and exposed to the world as someone who had not read Joyce, and, no, who had not read “The Great Gatsby” either. There seems to be no room for any admission of ignorance, only blind insistence on greater obscurity spurred on by fear of being discovered as a fraud.
Rather than deepening or extending the study of literature, the obsession with elitism only hobbles it. The nonchalant references your professor makes to George Herbert’s elegiac poems and their relation to modern Christian doctrine will never be instructive. Call the reference a shortcut to meaning if you will, but when it’s a shortcut, only the one taking it can see it: It loses its effectiveness and becomes nothing more than a wrong turn.
Hemingway had it right. Literature is about the exploration of ideas and helping move those ideas from the author to the reader. As soon as the ideas are unnecessarily complex, the author is doing his readers a disservice. The same goes for the social structure that surrounds that literature. Points should be awarded not to those individuals whose references are the most obscure but to the ones who can effectively make their argument with works everyone has read and in a manner everyone can understand. Rather than respect the literature snobs who namedrop Keats and Kyd, we should celebrate those who are devoted to being accessible and relevant.