WHY AM I SCARED OF THE WORD LITERATURE?

Warning: I’m going to preface my stance on literature with perhaps a few too many details about myself, so feel free to skip ahead!

I am currently studying English Literature at university (which I understand most people see as a degree in bullshit), and I remember that when I began scouting out possible university choices, I found myself, like most, at a loose end. As with thousands of other students I was anxious and frankly intimidated by the institutions. Nothing unusual there. However, what I have realised since is that this intimidation stemmed directly from the English Literature courses themselves. Admittedly, I am anything but a book snob—a film or videogame will likely take precedence in my free time—and as a result I found the academic literary environment terrifying. The course descriptions and introductory lectures at open days I attended were typically hyperbolic: This is a course for book lovers only. There is a phenomenal amount of reading required. You must be accustomed to the classics and greats. I simply wasn’t comfortable with any of this and three years into my course, despite being able to cope with and enjoy literature, frankly little has changed.

Books

A small slice of the university literature pie…

 

For those who skipped ahead, come back!

All this pointless anecdotage leads into what I have been questioning a lot lately: why does English literature have to be so intimidating and traditional? Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Jonson, Dickens, Austen—all names that crop up repeatedly. They are canonical classics for many, so their position is admittedly expected and arguably deserved. For me though, the problem lies in what we consider worthy. What differentiates high-flung art and pop culture?  Through three academic years of higher level English study, it feels more and more as though what people enjoy should be kept separate from what is defined as ‘worthy’. But why?

In its simplest form, the Oxford English Dictionary defines literature as: the result or product of literary activity. It is simply something that is written. So the problem seemingly lies in what the general consensus for literature is. Surely it should simply include any product you want it to. If you love Shakespeare, and you love Star Wars, then you should have no qualms continuing to enjoy them. Likewise, if you want to study and consider both more deeply, why can’t you? What stops us from being creatively liberal enough to accept both?

 

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 Finally, Shakespeare or Star Wars in perfect harmony

To reiterate my point even further (to the point of death even!), I feel like the prejudice extends into the modes of literature itself. When I suggested analysing video-game and film adaptations in conjunction with a classic novel for my adaptation-focused dissertation, I received a few raised eyebrows and discerning comments. Whilst video-games, graphic novels and the like are frowned upon, literature found in the novel or play-script forms are deemed worthy enough to be just that: literature. It troubles me too that I simply can’t enjoy or consider such traditional art in the way I can with pop culture modes like film, TV, etc. I have also encountered students who have expressed a desire to analyse such pop-culture as the Twilight series of books only to be scoffed at.

What I think I am attempting to say then is this: enjoy what you enjoy, and take value in whatever the hell you want. If somebody finds worth and a personal attachment in what others deem trivial—even to the extent of considering it academic ‘literature’—who are we to disagree?

Post-scriptum—this topic has cause no end of debate about a certain 50 Shades of Grey within our house of friends, so feel free to extend the debate in the comments below.

Jordan Watson

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