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12 March 2021

What is literature for?

We should start owning our reading and asking more serious questions about what place literary education has in our collective life today.

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

People are reading more during the pandemic. But it is wrong to think we are reading simply to escape a grim reality. Reading is more radical than we give it credit for. It always has been. What we do with its power is another matter. 

Everyone seems to agree that reading is good for us, but we no longer, if we ever did, agree why and to what end. As an academic subject, English literature has always imagined itself as being good for people. In the 19th century, the poet and impassioned inspector of schools Matthew Arnold was in no doubt about the civilising benefits of literary culture for the anarchic masses. Before English first became a degree subject in Cambridge in 1919, literature courses were developed in the colonies as a way of instilling a sense of Britishness within its subject populations. The postwar, Cambridge critic FR Leavis trained a generation of teachers committed to creating responsible readers for a new age of educational opportunity. 

But people have come to literature, to books and writing, precisely because they were in search of ways of becoming human that were, if not always exactly in direct opposition, certainly often perpendicular to the civilising mission assumed by the discipline’s pedagogues. 

Writing has always called us to experiment with what Virginia Woolf described as the different “combinations that might make good wholes in human life” – a sentiment that has often been in tension with what happens in universities and departments of education. 

In 1961 my smart working-class mother, for complex reasons, did not get to take up her place to read English at the University of Birmingham (where I now teach). My early reading was my mother’s lost legacy. Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, DH Lawrence – a lot of DH Lawrence lined her bookcase in tidy orange rows and found their way into untidy heaps in my bedroom. When I was given Wind in the Willows to read at secondary school, she thought this was a ridiculous choice of book to set young adolescents and had me read Barry Hines’s working-class classic A Kestrel for a Knave instead. When she was patronisingly told one parent’s evening that my reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was inappropriate, she did not respond, but that weekend bought me a copy of Anais Nïn’s erotic collection Delta of Venus

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Nothing was ever said during these exchanges; my mother was not on a mission to educate me and I was never really encouraged to go to university. There was simply a tacit, clandestine passing on of literary knowledge that she assumed might be as helpful to me as it had been to her. 

[See also: The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices]

Mine is a classic Bildungsroman: a story of becoming through reading. The Bildungsroman has been where people have gone in search of unrealised freedoms ever since its origins in the 18th-century novel. From the European boys, and sometimes tragic girls who would be Napoleon in novels by Stendhal and Flaubert, to the good liberal selves (think of Jane Eyre) fighting both their passions and the authorities in the English novel, to the modernist refuseniks such as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, escaping from history, to the prison-busting of anti- and post-colonial fiction, characters in novels read to discover the possibilities and limitations of living, and we read them reading to discover our own.

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Usually the literary education that really matters in these novels is not of the official kind, but the one passed between people, including between women and their bookcases. Take the following description of a literary coming of age from the contemporary masterpiece of the Bildungsroman, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988):

It was good to be validated in this way. Most of it did not come from the lessons they taught at school but from Nyasha’s various and extensive library. I read everything from Enid Blyton to the Brontë sisters, and responded to them all. Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds. It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything gravitating towards me. It was a time of sublimation with me as the sublimate.

The novel, the first of the sequence to which the Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body sequel was published last year, is set in pre-independence 1960s Zimbabwe. There was literally nowhere the novel’s protagonist, Tambudzai, could feel at the centre of things other than in a library of her sophisticated cousin Nyasha (also an avid reader of DH Lawrence).

The point is not that this is a happy discovery, or that the freedoms grasped at through novels can be realised. In Dangarembga’s fiction the point is precisely that they cannot be realised; and this is the difficult, almost unbearable, thing about literary knowledge that cannot be contained in any English department. For if it is Nyasha whose books introduce Tambudzai to new ways of being, it is also Nyasha who at the end of the novel, mad with rage, shreds her history book to pieces with her teeth: “Their history. Fucking liars. Their bloody lies… breaking mirrors… jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh… They’ve trapped us. But I won’t be trapped. I’m not a good girl. I won’t be trapped.” 

At the grinding extremes of colonialism and patriarchy are also misery, madness and rage. When we forget that this writing is not simply literature, but also telling a literary truth about reality, we forget too that reading can be a powerful way of being with people in the world. 

Nearly 30 years ago, the philosopher Richard Rorty argued in a lecture for Amnesty that a literary education was good for cultivating a human rights sensibility towards “people unlike ourselves”. Prompted by postwar welfarism, feminism and decolonisation, since the 1960s English Literature departments began opening their doors and inviting new people in. Now there are more women professors in English departments than ever before, and many of the most brilliant writers and critics of this generation, such as Claudia Rankine, Zadie Smith and Saidiya Hartman, are women of colour. 

But if the democratic mission of English Literature has succeeded, the world to which it opened itself has still not really been let in, not really. As Bernardine Evaristo argued in the New Statesman last October, the longform patriarchs still prowl the literary perimeters and if the growling is growing softer, the brilliant writers and critics remain under-recognised and absent from core reading lists. 

The threat now is to the subject of English Literature. Undergraduate admissions are down and young people are actively being dissuaded from wasting their time and cash in the pursuit of discovering what new combinations might make good wholes in human life. This should not surprise us. A country that no longer believes that it has a moral mission – however compromised that mission has been historically has no need of literary education. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the current government does not know what to do with a literary education that is now staffed by those who might be serious about experimenting with literature as a way of insisting that it is still possible to experiment with life. 

Woolf once suggested that if university education could not truly reform to embrace the creative and collective work of becoming human, it might be best if we simply burned the colleges down: “Let the daughters of educated men dance around the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education’!”

We could just give up with the whole project of literary education. Much of the most exciting writing and experimenting right now is coming from outside the universities. There are more women and more women of colour in publishing than ever before; more brilliant women critics writing crossover books, more powerful agents and editors, more authors not only winning prizes, but pushing at forms, genres, boundaries. Compared to the explosion of creativity and anger, joy and new confidence happening right now, what takes place in many university English departments can look tame.

But it’s also because of that energy, because of the reading, writing, learning, the experimenting, the rubbing up against reality – testing it, shaping it, resisting it  that we should start owning our reading and asking more serious questions about what place literary education has in our collective life today. We can begin by insisting that the “people unlike ourselves” are ourselves (and are staying), and that literary truths about the realities of the world we share matter.

[See also: “There is no either or when it comes to identity”: Yaa Gyasi on publishing’s race problem and human recklessness]

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special