Blog Post

Engaging Reality Through Fiction

Who wants more reality? Not the culture we live in, if we are to believe the current trends that made "Avatar" a  hit and finances' fictitious dream-making our burden.

What strikes me in the current quandary about the place of literary criticism not only in the intellectual sphere, but more importantly in our common experience of life, is the paradox of finding ourselves in an age when the culture at large embraces fiction as never before as an accepted, even desirable template for experiencing the world

(think avatars, gaming, social networks role playing, "reality” shows…) and yet, literary studies, with their vested interest in understanding fiction, what it is, what it does and how, is not able to engage a wider audience with a topic people so obviously care about, and practice on a daily basis as a new way of imagining their own lives, identities, and leisure. (The same could be said about the importance of representation in our society, or even, to come back to a topic that I brought up before, narratives.)

Maybe what we need is not as much more "reality" in literary studies, as Roland recently suggested, but to find a way to relate what we already have in common to this desired audience: an interest in creations of the mind and alternative lives.  What do literary studies have to say about people's very real experience of consumers, creators of, or players in all sorts of fictions? And what is the best way to say it in order to be heard?

Why is it that the most engaging, lively works of literature turn (sometimes) dead once converted into literary criticism? If our writing could be as alive as the works we study, would we not get a larger audience of readers? We blame ourselves for not being able to engage with the general public, while other fields have supposedly not lost this connection in spite of their high degree of specialization. But what works in philosophy, the social sciences, medicine, or physics, do speak to the general public? Not the abstract, not the arcane, not the narrowly focused, but narratives that speak to concerns and curiosities shared by others outside of their fields. In other words, well written books.

I have to strongly agree here with Bil Benzon’s suggestion in response to Roland Greene's latest post that the obstacle that seems to get in the way of literary studies reaching a wider audience has more to do with its language, than with its degree of specialization. I would even rephrase this as a problem of writing (as in good vs bad writing, however simplistic that sounds) rather than language.

For all the Stephen Hawkings who are able to engage the general audience, how many astrophysicists continue to do extremely minute, ultra specialized, and probably unreadable scientific work? I don't think that the general public is asking us to go back to the humanist discourse of 50 years ago, with a broad approach (one of the least appealing templates of which being the "the author, his life, his works" model) that let go of the nuances and rethinking that specialization can bring about. What readers want, any kind of reader, is a new experience of the world (and cultures and literature are certainly part of the world): not just knowledge, or a crash study that sums up past opinions on a single topic, but to be exposed to a new vision. That's true when you read a novel; but that's also true for any other piece of writing. I propose we rekindle that thirst for visions.

In a way, maybe one approach would be to think of ourselves as teachers also when we write books (at least for that kind of books that we hope would reach a wider audience). I have always been saddened by the discrepancy between the liveliness and passion that I can put in my teaching, and that is reflected back to me by the passion my students find in reading literature, and the strictures of specialized academic writing, where editors and scholars alike have created this fantasy of a dispassionate, unbiased reader who demands to be addressed in a similar dispassionate, abstract, reasonable, objective fashion, thereby draining any last drop of juicyness (and style) from the text.

Cecile Alduy's picture
« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945 A prescient definition of blogging, no? Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.