Literature

If (the novel) arrives

Well, it appears that my little experimental novel If is now available on Amazon.com.

Thanks to the great Joe Taylor at Livingston Press for giving this novel a shot, and for all his support behind the scenes. And a big thanks to JK at the The Kugelmass Episodes for invaluable comments on an earlier draft. Without the generosity of these two people, I don’t know where the novel would be today, if it existed at all. Also, thanks to our recently married friend (congratulations!) at mangolandia for the superlative blurb.

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As mentioned in earlier posts, the novel has an unusual structure — one that may be familiar to readers of Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, or to those who read a certain series of children’s books in the 1980s in which the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter… If the threat of being sued for trademark infringement were not lurking in the background, I might even say that this novel is the world’s first literary ______ ____ ___ _________ novel (where the missing blanks might or might not be filled by a familiar series title).

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Literature

Vocabularies, blind spots, and defenses of the humanities

A few weeks ago, JK at the Kugelmass Episodes posted the latest entry in our sporadic back-and-forth on defenses of the humanities. Earlier, I had clarified that I wasn’t necessarily offering my own personal reasons for caring about the humanities, or even reasons that might appeal to a committed humanist, but rather that I was trying to think of the kind of reasons that might persuade someone with power over jobs and money that it is valuable to dedicate resources to the humanities. This seemed like a worthwhile thought experiment to the extent that the humanities are under institutional threat, as I think they are — and not only as a result of students lacking interest. JK responded:

If I did come face-to-face with a university administrator, and had to defend the humanities to him, I would say this: the humanities are, and have always been, of great interest and value to the rich. Harvard’s Department of Philosophy is not in danger, after all. At the best private high schools in the country, English has the high profile it deserves, and students may take classes in Greek and Latin. These are the facts, and up to a point, they are genuinely heartening. The significance of such regard for the humanities extends far beyond the Ivy League. Anyone who knows a prosperous, thriving family, knows that books matter around that dinner table. So do films, and plays, and music. In “The Talented Mr. Student,” I criticized using literature to “pass” as privileged. Well, that is an extreme and unrealistic goal. On the other hand, ignoring the humanities is vulgar, and perfectly conspicuous. That is my defense of the humanities, Mr. Administrator! You can’t downsize them without creating a glass ceiling for your students.

Fair enough, I thought and still think — the more defenses of the humanities, the merrier — although if the institutional foundations of the humanities crumble away enough, it might be wondered how long their aura of social prestige will persist.

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Literature

A defense of a defense of the humanities

A big thank you, first of all, to JK at The Kugelmass Episodes for his characteristically generous shout-out to this blog.

Let me start by saying I find very little to blogfight about in JK’s post. I agree with what I take to be his central point, that the reading and writing of literature can have value as an end in itself, as a meaningful form of life. To the extent that we have a disagreement, it’s a disagreement about whether, and in what ways, the humanities need defending today:

[I]n a sense, to engage the question at all, particularly with that sort of breathless urgency that Martha Nussbaum (etc.) employs, is to automatically lose. It’s like arguing with Creationists. To even hold a debate with Creationists legitimizes their attempt to substitute religious ideology for scientific theory. Similarly, to act like the humanities are on trial — even if one defends them brilliantly – automatically sets them apart from, and below, all other academic disciplines.

At the same time, a good explanation of the humanities has some value independent of its unknowable “success” as a defense. It is, for a worthwhile moment, a defense of the humanities within one’s own life, as well as in the larger world.

But aren’t the humanities on trial — today, as we write, in university administration offices across the country — in a way that the sciences and engineering are not?

Based on all I’ve heard and read, the humanities, and especially the close study of difficult works of literature and philosophy, are at risk of being sidelined in the university and in American life generally. Fewer professors, fewer classes, fewer majors, less attention to serious literary study as opposed to rhetoric and composition — above all, less money, which ultimately causes many of the other problems. Outside of the university, fewer readers per capita willing to put in the time and concentration to make sense of difficult literature. Maybe this isn’t a serious problem. Maybe the world will be fine or even better if serious literary study is soon largely relegated to private book clubs run by composition teachers to keep the flame alive.

But my posts start from the assumption that this is not the ideal future.

On the other hand, even if we agreed about this — that the humanities are, in fact, on trial, and that this is a bad thing — it might still be argued that it’s counterproductive to try to defend the humanities, just like it’s counterproductive to try to defend the findings of natural science against Creationists.

I don’t think that’s right. There are at least two reasons why it’s almost always okay to ignore Creationists rather than debating the merits of their claims. First, they have relatively little power. Debates with Creationists generally give them more power than they had before. Non-creationists are like the popular incumbent in the mayoral race, and Creationists are like the fringe candidate. By engaging with the fringe candidate, the popular incumbent legitimates her and gives her attention. Second, Creationists are almost by definition unpersuadable through debate based on shared, non-religious premises — so there’s little point in debating them with the hope of changing their minds.

Neither of these things are true of those who will decide the outcome of the trial of the humanities. They have power — for example, they are the university administrators making decisions about money and jobs — and they are potentially susceptible to arguments based on premises they share with us, at least to a degree that a Creationist is not.

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