I remember one time taking a class from a very well-regarded author (I still think his work is incredible) and being very impressed with his erudition. I was only 20 at this time, and I’d read primarily science fiction and fantasy for the last decade, and I was awe-struck at how this person seemed easily able to call upon trenchant and apt quotations from sources ranging from W.H. Auden to Plato. I thought, “This is who I want to be someday.”
This person was very into the post-structuralists (which, as far as I can tell, nobody cares about these days) and when I began my junior year of college, I checked out a bunch of books by Roland Barthes, who I still believe to be the most accessible of the bunch, and went on a bit of a reading spree. To be honest, I didn’t really get it, and I eventually lost interest in literary theory, but the experience has left me with a lingering feeling of inadequacy when it comes to literature.
It’s a very odd feeling to quite literally be unable to understand a text that’s written in English. But to this day whenever I encounter most works of literary theory, I can’t make heads or tails of them. Now, it’s not that I’m stupid, it’s that generally speaking, you don’t just sit down and read an author like Barzun or Lacan or Barthes. You study them. In a class. Or you read an annotated version. Somebody explains them to you.
Which of course leads one to wonder: why can’t we just read the explanation and skip the text itself?
I have a private suspicion that, just like the texts they purport to analyze, most works of literary theory are themselves subject to a plenitude of interpretations. It’s not a question of understanding the text at all; it’s a question of what you come to understand after reading it. This, to me, seems like a much kinder way of saying that much of it is somewhat nonsensical. But of course this is the view of the outsider.
Thirteen years after my class with that extremely erudite writer, I’ve come to realize that his quotation-dropping was a mark of intellectual insecurity. He didn’t graduate college, and he acquired his literary knowledge primarily through voluminous reading. Like me, he didn’t have that firm grounding in the language of literature and academia, and so he felt the need to constantly reestablish his bona fides by pointing out all the big, important, difficult works he had read.
(None of this diminishes his worth as a writer by the way. This author was truly one of the greats. And in conversation he was scintillating and full of insights.)
It’s the curse of auto-didacticism. You know a lot, but you don’t know what you don’t know. And one of the things you end up not knowing are the subtle signs and signifiers that mark you as an expert. Because of this, there always exists a persistent sense of wrongness when the auto-didact discusses any subject (but particularly the humanities) with people who come from an academic background.
One of those absent or incorrect signifiers, by the way, is the auto-didact’s focus on “the classics”. An interesting thing about academics is that they often seem singularly unconcerned with master texts. Because their education is more concerned with grounding them in patterns of thought, they tend to have somewhat of a scattershot approach to the classics. And while they will be absurdly well-versed in their chosen field of study–to the point where they’ve read, for instance, Gothic novels that nobody aside from academics has read in the last hundred years–they might have significant gaps in adjacent areas. For instance, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to meet an academic who’s never read, for instance George Elliott, or Dickens, or Balzac, if their research interests didn’t mandate it, while most autodidacts usually get around to these authors before burrowing down into more obscure ones.
I do wonder what role there is for autodidacts when it comes to conversations about books. I mean, I do think we serve a purpose. Because, let’s face it, literature isn’t entirely, or even largely, about examining power relations or figuring out deep structures that hold together semiotic systems. It’s about having your consciousness expanded by great writing. And autodidacts tend to approach books in exactly this experiential way. But…you still don’t want to turn it all into a bunch of book reviews. That seems equally pointless. I mean the doofuses who review stuff on Amazon can do that just fine without our help.
Writers usually don’t make great critics. We read in a very different way. And we read very different texts. Although there is a creative writing academia, and it does have its own little canon (mostly of mid-20th century short story writers) that it likes to push, the way CW academia talks about texts tends to be a little facile, and as such most MFA-holders–even those who went to highly academic programs, like I did–tend to graduate mostly untouched by any formal approach to reading and writing.
So we end up being good at talking about books with other writers, but I’m not sure we’re great at communicating with other people.
As an aside, many writers are not very well-read! It’s sort of astonishing. I’d say the bulk of writers primarily read in the genres in which they write. If they write science fiction, they read science fiction. If they write contemporary literary fiction, they read contemporary literary fiction. Obviously nothing could be less astonishing than this. It’d almost be odd if it wasn’t the case. And yet the lack of interest many writers evince in the classics does continue to be a source of wonderment to me. Maybe we simply don’t like being reminded that acclaim is evanescent, and that only a very, very, very few books will survive the lifetimes of their writers.