Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fluff majors and why I make fun of you.

So, I was all set to write a post on an email I received from my English professor which contained a question and answer session between students and the author of a book we were forced to read. After closer inspection, I noticed a disclaimer specifically forbidding republication of material contained within the email. So while I can't give specific examples of what I wanted to show you, I'll tell you the gist of it. We'll come back to the email a little later.

And this is why I can't take English (and other "fluff" majors) seriously.

What we do in the class is over-analyze everything in an attempt to guess what the author is trying to say. I'm talking about the prof stretching it to extreme. No where in a book will he allow that the author just happened to pick the language that they did, and that every single minute detail means something deep and cryptic.

In this question and answer email, my view, that English is nothing but BS-ing, was vindicated.

The question went something like this:

The book is very profound, with many details hidden deep within, did you fully understand the relationship of the characters when you wrote it? Do you now?

Author's response:

When I started, I really didn't know much about the characters. Slowly, they revealed themselves to me. After talking with many readers, I now know more about them, but I don't know if I fully understand them yet.

So, in review, the acclaimed author had characters reveal themselves to her. She didn't create them, they revealed themselves. (Sounds a little schizo to me.) She only got to really understand the very characters she wrote after the book was published and she talked to readers.
Does anyone else find this odd at all?? She didn't invent all of these "genius" characters on purpose, the way others interpreted the book made it so. The person who wrote this book was learning about it from other people who took no part in its creation.

And of course, we are supposed to be analyzing the text to discern what the author is trying to hint at with subtle details. It's always been clear to me, that analyzing texts to figure out what the author meant, is nothing more than pulling something out of your butt, and English not a real discipline.

Notice that when reading this post I used the word "analyzing" a few times. Notice also that "analyzing starts with "anal" and my conclusion was that English is nothing more than pulling stuff out of your "butt." The author clearly meant for us to see this link. Wait, actually, no. It's just coincidental.


At 11:57 PM, Blogger Chris said...

How true. The flip side of this is that in a pinch, it's also very easy to appear to be a master interpreter of hidden artistic meaning simply by manufacturing connections where there really are none.

With a bit of creativity, assuming you're quick on your feet, it's pretty easy to come off as a literary genius.

As Freud observed, 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.'

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous elliot said...

'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.'

Unless it's Bill Clinton's.

Scott, the fact that your particular professor takes literary exegesis to an extreme doesn't invalidate the study of literature.

Much of writing takes place at a subconscious level. The author will usually have broad themes in mind as they write and those themes will often reveal themselves through the writer's conscious (and unconscious) choice of words, images, colors, names, and allusions.

I too once had a professor who thought that every comma was freighted with significance. In general, that's pretty unlikely. But to deny that authors often use all the tools at their disposal to imbue their writing with deeper meaning just makes you sound narrowminded.

You should be careful about denigrating other people's studies.

For example, I could point out that chemistry is nothing but a bunch of recipes and that physicists laugh at chemists.

I wouldn't be completely right, but then again, neither are you. ;)

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Scott Mehring said...


I do not mean to denigrate ALL of the study of English. Undoubtedly, there have been many works of literary genius created by authors who knew what they were doing.

My beef is with the people who believe that ALL authors imbue their works with MANY deeper cryptic layers intentionally for the reader to find it, when in fact sometimes it's just a coincidence.

The author I referred to actually admitted she didn't know what the book was going to be about when she wrote it. She also admitted that she didn't see connections that some readers made but is learning them.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with people who study how to communicate well or write literature. I think everyone here knows I could take a few more of those courses.

I see no point, however, in finding the secret meanings hidden in every word when it is obvious that many times the author intended nothing by the fact that she mentioned a maple instead of an oak. Sometimes they just wanted you to think of a tree.

Please tell me the study of literature is something more than that.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous elliot said...

I agree with you.

My professors wanted me to be a professor myself.

There wasn't a chance in hell I was going to spend the rest of my life studying the usage of commas in Paradise Lost.

Plus, I figured I'd go to prison for attacking coeds. ;)

At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Way to go, Scott. In a juvenile and trivial way, you've begun to scratch the surface of everything that is important in literary theory in the last 75 years. Too bad you haven't actually read any of it to understand why it's important.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Scott Mehring said...

Way to go, anon. In a completely bitter and humorless way, you've showed no evidence for your arguement.

Pray tell, what are the important breakthroughs in literary theory and why are they important?

Furthermore, lighten up. I think a better response would be something like Elliot who said, "For example, I could point out that chemistry is nothing but a bunch of recipes and that physicists laugh at chemists."

That was a good one. I laughed. It was funny, and it has a bit of truth to it.

Oh, and one more thing. Read this.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Textual analysis is just one part of the study of literature. If your professor seems fixated on it, maybe he's just not a great professor. It happens.

The point of analyzing text is to get you to think about it. It's one of those skills that you probably won't use in real life, but then again most of us don't use algebra, either. So why study any of this stuff? Because it expands your frame of thinking, which is the point of being in college unless you think education is just about preparing for a job. And because it's mental exercise. You go to the gym and do crunches and pushups even though you don't do them in real life.

Besides analyzing texts, English majors learn to write. The learn how to present ideas clearly. They learn about the ideas and cultures and philosophies that inform writing. Some of it is purely intellectual, while some of it has real-world applications. A major that prepares you to edit magazines, prepare speeches for presidents, write screenplays, teach kids and communicate clearly in fields from marketing to public relations is hardly a "fluff" major.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darn, I just like to read the stories... I guess I'll never be an intellectual, but to Scott's point, who cares?

At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Tonya said...

Even when they're "just telling a story," authors must make a range of choices solely so that their texts will be understood--unconscious choices that we all make whenever we're trying to translate thoughts or images in our head into language that other people will understand. No one author can know in advance all the various meanings created by the infinite number of narrative and language choices that go into even the most Dickinsonian of lyrics. This is why any attempt to determine authorial intent is so often meaningless.

What can the words, images, symbols, and grammar of Paradise Lost tell us about early modern faith and belief? That's a fascinating, non-fluffy, and incredibly complex question. And whether Milton likes it or not, it has very little to do with what he in fact intended.

Indeed, we might make a reasonable premise that all the greatest works of literature are smarter than their individual authors ever were.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Lets all just agree that economics is the superior academic field.

Analyze that hos.

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent, love it! »


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