I know, we've been through this already. Sadly, I'm forced to go there again.
(Kicks out soapbox and climbs on in a huff…)
Dear Huge Publisher of Literature Anthologies,
As I prepared to use your Literature of the Western World, Volume 1 (Fifth Edition) for the first time, I was appalled and dismayed to find the following statement in the introductory material to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Romance, as a literary term, refers today to a kind of formulaic fiction about love affairs, written quickly, sold cheaply, and consumed thoughtlessly, as a pleasantly erotic diversion. […] A ‘romance’ is generally a vulgar, subliterary work. (1613).As an instructor, it is difficult enough for me to convince a sophomore engineering student that literature has anything worthwhile or important to teach him. Your statement only makes a bad situation worse, as it perpetuates the myth of an arbitrary standard set by academic demi-gods separating Great Literature from Trash.
When faced with sweeping statements that denigrate a very popular genre, students are led to believe that if they read and enjoy such “vulgar” works, then they are obviously unable to read, understand, and appreciate the texts taught in literature classes. Perceived literary elitism is the bane of all classroom teachers; to have the elitism spelled out and endorsed by the class text practically guarantees that many students will not even attempt to connect to the texts in any meaningful way. After all, they aren’t part of that academic elite that is too good for genre fiction.
It is the height of arrogance for anyone—regardless of his or her academic credentials—to condemn an entire genre in such a manner. I also find the editors of the complete volume to be negligent in allowing such a discriminatory statement to pass uncontested. Northrop Frye found ten common characteristics in all of Shakespeare’s comedies. Is Shakespeare a “formulaic” writer? Austen’s Northanger Abbey is easily consumed in one sitting and seldom requires the reader to participate in any manner of deep thought. As most “great” texts can be bought in student paperback editions costing less than $5 each, the price of fiction does not seem to be a strong argument to its greatness. Shall we disregard both Sappho and the Amarushataka because they may be a “pleasantly erotic diversion?”
May I remind the author of this statement that Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, and countless others were once dismissed as nothing more than popular trash. Only time and academic study have raised these authors to their current level of literary respect. To quote Samuel Johnson,
Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes cooperated with chance; all are perhaps more willing to honor past than present excellence […] The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns and the beauties of the ancients (A Preface to Shakespeare).Perhaps the author of the introductory material should be less quick to pass judgment on any modern text.
Although the Preface to the fifth edition claims to avoid “imposing a single interpretation” (xxii), you have done just that. You have provided students with only one narrow, prejudiced point of view about a genre many of them enjoy. In doing so, you have alienated them from the text, the class, and literature as a whole.
That is unacceptable.
I hope the editors will remove this dismissive and arrogant statement from the sixth edition of the anthology. In the meantime, I will be lobbying the department heads at my university to find a text that encourages its readers to approach all literature (regardless of its genre or time period) with an open mind for its possibilities.
The Problem Child
That's what I wrote Monday instead of my WIP. It'll be going in the mail soon.
I hate arrogant, elitist academics. Literature snobs give all English teachers a bad name. Yes, it's their textbook, but they don't own the literary canon. They just need to pull the sticks out of their as...ahem. Sorry.
(Gets off soapbox and goes to get a strong drink to calm self down)
Don't forget--tomorrow is our super-duper dual guest blog with Michelle Buonfigulio of Romance: By the Blog. Lots of fun and great prizes!