An answer to the very difficult question of “What for?”

Why teach literature at all?  I easily develop an anxious attitude about the difficulty of demonstrating specific value and utility for things like literature that are hard to evaluate. I feel an unconscious responsibility to have an exact answer about things that I love. As usual, I find John Gardner’s take on the question really gratifying and liberating. Literature brings me joy. For almost any purpose, that is enough of an answer. The details are less important. I’ll let him explain

The business of education is to give the student both useful information and life enhancing experience, one largely measurable, the other not; and since the life-enhancing value of a course is difficult to measure – since, moreover, many people in a position to put pressure on educational programs have no real experience in or feeling for the arts – it is often tempting to treat life-enhancement courses as courses in useful information, putting them on the same “objective” level as courses in civics, geometry or elementary physics.

So it comes about that books are taught (officially, at least) not because they give joy, the incomparably rich experience that we ask and expect of all true art, but because, as a curriculum committee might put it, they “illustrate major themes in American literature,” or “present a clearly stated point of view and can thus serve as a vehicle for such curriculum objectives as (1) demonstrating an awareness of the author’s purpose and (2) reading critically, and (3) identifying organizational patterns in literary selections used to support a point of view.” One cannot exactly say that such teaching in pernicious, but to treat great works of literature in this way seems a little like arguing for the preservation of dolphins, whales, chimps, and gorillas solely on the grounds of preserving ecological balance.

John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is the best book on the difficult task of fiction-writing I have ever read. I have only read a few such books, but I would bet money that Gardner’s is one of the very best.

Do you have to cite things on a blog? Probably not….? Here’s the APA citation just in case.

Gardner, J. (1991). The art of fiction. New York: Vintage Books. Pg. 40-41


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