As a recent graduate, I admit that it sometimes feels like my decision to major in English was a mistake. There's no point in denying it: not many people are interested in my opinions about Shakespeare, no matter how dense and abstract I attempt to make them. I sometimes lie awake at night cursing the heavens, wishing that God had never forged a love of the written word from the steel of my very soul and instead forged something that would have allowed me to invent Candy Crush.
Luckily for me, this kind of teeth-gnashing self-pity is all you really need to write literary commentary these days. It seems like every other month or so, a new eulogy is written for the humanities or the Canon or, more to the point, the ability to reliably make a living off of them. If you meet someone who claims to write about literature, she or he is more likely getting paid to write about how underpaid, underappreciated, and in desperate need of attention they are.
Of course, I can't really blame academics for feeling anxious about an uncertain literary future: the English major and its canonical Dream Team of dead white dudes is losing ground to a much more current sociological interest in gender, race, class, and sexuality. In the eyes of David Lehman, this represents a "coup" in education that seeks to replace a reverence for the classics with "a consumer mind-set based on narcissism and political self-interest."
Despite the sneering tone that most of it takes on, I share some of the literati's anxiety. I admit that I've always preferred traditional literature and criticism: I don't really "get" contemporary poetry; queer criticism, for all its intricate novelties, has never interested me; I have read Toni Morrison's 1987 triumph Beloved twice now, and twice I have found it to be just okay. More to the point, I read the Canon because I actually believe in its enduring ability to speak to the human condition.
This is the part where most academic essayists wax poetic about literature's universal appeal, but I've never been a fantastic poet: the point is, basically, that despite the structures of inequality that supported them, the great writers of Western civilization were able to movingly portray the essential joy and sorrow that comes with being a human being and not, say, a barnacle. Provided that you are not a barnacle, you probably spend much of your time thinking, often about yourself and your life, and there is something in Paradise Lost for you.
Yet despite their consensus on this point, the alarmists at Harper's, the Atlantic, and the New York Times aren't giving the canon a chance to prove itself. If this universal appeal really exists, shouldn't these books stand out from the new ones being placed alongside them? Just because people are critiquing the classics, does that mean they've stopped consuming them? If you think that these works stand the test of time, why won't you let a new generation examine them on its own terms?
It's probably because the new generation is too wrapped up in itself to think about them right. If there's one thing these critics hate more than everything that's pulling young people away from great literature, it's the young people themselves. Many of them argue that soft upbringing and addiction to social media have planted a narcissism in us that shows in our academic interests and in our writing. As a grown man who regularly publishes photos of himself, I feel like I'm barred from disagreeing.
I guess I'm just wondering at what point narcissism became an impediment to writing. Literary masters have a tendency towards self-importance because it seems to go well with attempting to capture the essence of the human condition - I could list some famous narcissistic authors, but it wouldn't surprise anyone. In my own personal experience, I've met some incredibly inspiring, hilarious, talented readers and writers, and not one of them had the ability to think about somebody other than themselves for longer than two minutes.
My point here is that if you're one of the few people who get paid to write about themselves and how unappreciated they are, "narcissism" is a pretty heavy stone to be throwing around in your glass house. And if you think that reading somebody who isn't straight, white, and dead makes you guilty of "narcissism and political self-interest," you might as well hold shot put tryouts in your living room. College students are supposed to question what they're taught. If you respond to them by ignoring them or calling them names, they're not going to take your courses.
As this "coup" continues in English departments across the country, it will produce reactions, reactions headed by young readers and writers who see more value in a work's aesthetics than in its social politics. But as long as literature sets itself up in constant opposition to new ideas, new technology, and new people, it's literature and the English major that students will be reacting against. What we need, then, is faith not only in the power of the Canon, but in the ability and willingness of future generations to defend it.
But if you insist on cranking out these obituaries, I know a few unappreciated English majors just cranky enough to do it.