How Literature Degrees Eat Themselves

A lot of people call English Lit a pointless degree. Erroneously, to my mind. As demagogues rise on a tide of fake news, no one could claim that a population well versed in dramatic irony is a bad thing.


Yet that, of course, is not what thousands of literature students enrol for each year. Some do so out of the pure love of reading, others because it bypasses both dry academia and is-that-really-a-university-subject territory. A not inconsiderable number, however, do it with the intention —be it formed in childhood bedroom or several pints in— of becoming an author. Which begs the question: is there another subject in which so many students fail to attain the job they are ostensibly pursuing?


Actually there are several: the honour role of British actors, directors and artists is a fraction of the number of students taking related subjects. At the other end of the campus, forensic science courses notoriously produced thousands of students for a few hundred jobs, in what is know as the ‘CSI effect’. Those who clawed their way into one of the few open positions were presumably disappointed by the dearth of space age touchscreens, slo-mo shootouts and opportunities for copping off with buxom Californians.


However, there is one thing that sets Literature degrees apart, and it is to be found in the books themselves. You don’t need to read musical notation to enjoy a song, any more than you need to have inhabited Stanivlaskis’s system of acting to enjoy good cinema. Of course, students and specialists in such fields can better appreciate what is going on, but being an ignoramus doesn’t impinge my own enjoyment. And this sense of enjoyment is the sticking point. Of course modern people can read literary fiction, but do they want to?


Quite possibly not. The century-long shift in syllabus from rote poetry learning, latin and greek myth to physics, IT and sociology has resulted in a population more adept at identifying trends and solving logical puzzles, but less knowledgeable of classics and verse. This is not just lazy stereotyping: compare, for instance, the upward trend in IQ scores (which indicate problem-solving capability) with the decline in proportional sales of The Illiad (which indicate that its a bad idea to run off with another man’s wife). And so, as the number of university students have grown, readership of literary fiction has lagged behind. Of course the brilliance of modern television, that long-form rival for our attention, has contributed. For those born in the 90s, it can be hard to fathom precisely how bad television was in the 20th century, and what an upturn has taken place. Characters would reset to factory setting every week, and character development was as rare as mother-in-law jokes were common.


Literature is therefore an acquired taste. It takes work to build up vocabulary, to exercise the brain’s faculty for imagination and to become used to working a little bit harder for your entertainment. Reading books can seem a useless fetish when TV does so many of the same things so well. And yet there are of course a great many people who still go out and buy books. So what’s my point? Essentially, that a disproportionate number of the people who buy literary fiction are current or former English Lit students.


Which is not altogether surprising, perhaps. But it throws up some strange implications, namely that such degrees do not produce writers, but readers and buyers. It is these foiled authors who keep the literary scene just about alive by buying the novels of the lucky few who do make it. It is through their bookwormery, their inability to resist the striking cover of a rereleased favourite, that sales remain up. This keeps the novel firmly in the zeitgest which, in turn, keeps literature courses running at most universities. The resulting picture represents something of a perpetual motion machine, powered by an inexhaustible supply of bibliophiles. But it is to the classics that we must turn to find the most apt image: that of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.


It is not all doom and gloom, however. At the risk of sounding like the very worst kind of grey-suited christmas-cancelling bureaucrat, permit me to continue in an economical vein: it is undoubtedly a great boon for employment that the publishing world should stay small.


Why? Purely because more people than ever wish to work in the creative industries and, frankly, if they all became writers, there would be a lot of under-read authors knocking about. If only there were another means of artistic expression, which required a huge team of people in it’s construction, but was short enough that we could devour several in a week and so create mass demand…


Yup, cinema might struggle to replicate the mental workover of a Ulysses or Infinite Jest, but when it comes to keeping people in work, and, hell, even launching a refreshments industry off the back of the whole thing, it’s definitely got the novel beat.


And for those budding authors unwilling to let the dream die? Well, a glance through the literary pantheon, from Maugham to Greene to Le Carre, suggest that one has a better chance of making it if you enter the profession via MI5, as opposed to any Creative Writing course. At least that way, even if you can’t manage an epochal novel on the state of the nation, you can go into the tumultuous years ahead able to break a man’s neck in three places.

Author: Alex Bryson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *