Reclaiming Literature for Its Own Sake

Losing the Ability to “Lose Oneself” | The American Conservative.

This superb piece by Gracy Olmstead explains how the academicization of the study of literature has placed a barrier between us and fiction. Quoting William Geraldi from VQR, she notes:

Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop.

Bravo, cubed. I want to read Grapes of Wrath, The Last Tycoon, Black Boy, and The Color Purple as stories about people, not political tracts on workers rights, the corruption of Hollywood, civil rights, and homosexuality. If there are messages on those themes, fine, but ease up: the author managed to avoid pedantry, so why throw it back in?

While we’re reclaiming literature, let’s rehabilitate Dead White Guys. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett happened to have been male and caucasian but were culpable for neither, and to deny ourselves a vast chunk of the Western Canon simply because the authors were masculine palefaces is as stupid as ignoring great works of people of color because they were, in fact, people of color.

We can argue about what makes a book great, good, mediocre, or awful. But please, let us stop using the author’s race, religion, color, sexual proclivities, gender identity, slave ownership, personal foibles, or country of origin as a means of either elevating or ignoring a great work.

If we could just remove politics from our study of literature, then maybe we could all feel good about losing ourselves in great books again.


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