The Use and Abuse of Literature

BOOK: The Use and Abuse of Literature
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Shakespeare and Modern Culture
Patronizing the Arts
Profiling Shakespeare
Shakespeare After All
A Manifesto for Literary Studies
Quotation Marks
Academic Instincts
Sex and Real Estate
Symptoms of Culture
Dog Love
Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life
Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety
Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality
Coming of Age in Shakespeare
Dream in Shakespeare

Copyright © 2011 by Marjorie Garber

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: Alfred A. Knopf: Excerpts from “The Man on the Dump” from
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
, copyright © 1942 by Wallace Stevens and renewed 1970 by Holly Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. • Anne Bernays: Letter to the editor, printed in
The New York Times
, March 7, 2008. Reprinted by permission of the author. • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: Excerpt from “Burnt Norton” from
Four Quartets
by T. S. Eliot, copyright © 1936 by Harcourt, Inc. and renewed 1964 by T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. • Random House, Inc.: Excerpts from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” from
Collected Poems of W. H. Auden
, copyright © 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Garber, Marjorie
The use and abuse of literature / Marjorie Garber.
p.  cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-37962-7
1. Literature—Philosophy. 2. Literature—Appreciation. I. Title.
PN45.G312 2011    801—dc22    2010035417

Jacket design by Brian Barth




This is a book about my lifelong engagement with literature and language, about the way I have come to think and live through literature, and about how literature thinks and lives through human beings.

The genesis of the project came in a conversation with my editor, Erroll McDonald, and my agent, Beth Vesel. To them I am enormously grateful, as always, for their commitment to the vital centrality of reading, writing, and thinking about literature and culture, and for their extraordinary faith in me.

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Sol Kim Bentley, whose editorial eye and unerring sense of literary form and style was joined with a generosity of time and spirit as she read, with care, through the final text. Alexander Raymond, Sanders Bernstein, Eliza Hornig, and Daniel Wenger worked with imagination and energy to help find documents and check sources. Sara Bartel was of great assistance in helping me to balance teaching, scholarship, and administration during the time it took to assemble the materials for this book, and then to write it.

The book is dedicated to Jane Gallop, a wonderful close reader. To her I am indebted for gifts of friendship and of writing and reading that I can never adequately repay. William Germano has been, throughout the writing process, an invaluable ally and friend. Finally, I thank Joanna Lipper, who has given me a vision of the future that extends, like literature, far beyond what the eye can see.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the National Endowment for the Arts reported a disturbing drop in the number of Americans who read “literary” works. Drawing upon responses to the 2002 Census survey, which had asked more than seventeen thousand adults whether they had read any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in their leisure time, the NEA noted that 45 percent said they had read some fiction, 12 percent had read some poetry, and only 4 percent had read a play. These findings, published in
Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America
, showed an alarming decline of reading in all age groups across the country, and especially among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. The chairman of the NEA termed the results an indication of a “national crisis,” one that reflected “a general collapse in advanced literacy,” and a loss that “impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

Among the report’s “10 key findings” were that under half of the adult American population now reads literature; that although women read more than men (“Only slightly more than one-third of adult American males now read literature”), reading rates were declining for both men and women; that reading among persons at every level of education, including college graduates and postgraduates, had declined over the past twenty years; and that “literary reading strongly correlates other forms of active civic participation,” including volunteer and charity work, cultural involvement with museums and the performing arts, and attendance at sporting events. It was less surprising to find that competition
with other modes of information, like the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices, had a negative effect upon the number of adults who regularly read.
Race and ethnicity seemed not to be crucial factors: the rates of decline included whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. “Listening” to literature counted as a kind of reading for this survey, although watching films did not: women are more likely to listen to novels or poetry than men, whites more likely to listen to book readings, African Americans most likely to listen to poetry readings. Here the report suggests that “in part” the reason may be “the popularity of dub and slam poetry readings in the U.S.”

The idea that fiction/nonfiction should be the determining category for “literary/nonliterary” is spelled out in a brief section called “Literature vs. Books,” in which “literature” is explicitly defined as including “popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary fiction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.”
So a work of “literature” for the purposes of respondents to this survey could be a Harlequin romance or a Sidney Sheldon novel but not Gibbon’s
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
, or Machiavelli’s
The Prince
, or David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. I can understand why the survey wanted to make some kind of distinction, and I agree with the democratic decision not to judge works on their putative “quality” (which, in any case, a longer historical view would show is likely to change over time). But the decision to exclude “nonfiction,” or what an older tradition once dubbed “intellectual prose,” does seem to undercut a little the message that “anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy in American society will respond to this report with grave concern.”

There was a time when the word
meant an acquaintance with “letters” or books—the confident possession, that is, of humane learning and literary culture. “He had probably more than common literature,” wrote Dr. Johnson about the poet John Milton. “His literature
was unquestionably great. He read all the languages which are considered either as learned or polite”
Although Milton
great literature, that is not what Johnson’s sentence says. It says that he
literature, which is to say learning, a familiarity with and understanding of words and texts. The nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth uses
in a similar way, describing “A woman of considerable information and literature.”
This sense of the word is now generally obsolete, and would, as is the fate of such obsolescences, undoubtedly be regarded as an error if used in the same way today. For example, if I were to write that J. M. Coetzee “had great literature,” any copy editor would immediately “correct” my phrase to say that Coetzee
great literature. The new meaning, the only meaning current in departments and programs of literature, is this:

Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect. (
Oxford English Dictionary

It’s worth noting that the first instance of this use of the term given in the historical dictionary of the English language is comparatively recent—1812—hundreds of years after Chaucer and Shakespeare (and, of course, thousands of years after the Greek and Latin “classics”). Thus, over the centuries in England, the U.S., and indeed in France, “literature” has changed from a personal attribute or characteristic (something one
) to an institution and a product (something one

Concurrent with this development was the emergence of a personage called a “man of letters,” whose profession was the production of literary work, whether or not he—or, latterly, she—actually earned a living by writing. Here is Sir Walter Scott, one of the most financially successful of nineteenth-century novelists: “I determined that literature should be my staff, but not my crutch, and that the profits of my literary labour … should not … become necessary to my ordinary expenses.”
For Scott,
literature was a product of “labour” and produced “profits” of a pecuniary as well as of a more rarefied kind. Despite his disclaimer, he speaks here as a professional man.

At the same time that a specifically high-cultural sense of literature was coming into currency, what we might call the general case of
as meaning any body of writing on a given subject (“the scientific literature”) was developing, again concurrent with the establishment of academic and technical disciplines, each of which was supported and buttressed by specialist publications that came to be called a “literature.” And below that, if we might speak for a moment in terms of cultural hierarchy, was the most general case of all, the equation of
with all printed matter. It’s instructive to see the sequence of examples offered by the
for what it still calls a colloquial usage:

“In canvassing, in posters, and in the distribution of what, by a profane perversion of language, is called ‘literature.’ ”
“A more judicious distribution of posters, and what is termed ‘literature.’ ”
“It is some literature from the Travel Bureau.”
“Full details and literature from: Yugoslav National Tourist Office.”
“I talked my throat dry, gave away sheaves of persuasive literature.”
BOOK: The Use and Abuse of Literature
7.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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