The ‘Story Behind the Story’: Making Lit Matter, by Erick Sierra

An English professor reflects on teaching literature and linking it to what students find viscerally and deeply important.

As American society increasingly questions the importance of what we in the humanities do, in the classroom I’ve been able to depend less and less on the grand narratives that long ago motivated my own passion for literature and instead imagined an importance for literature—a story behind the story—sourced not in grand abstract metanarratives, but in what students themselves find viscerally and deeply important. 

by  • The Chronicle for Higher Education

Signifying nothing?
Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?

In one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate, the English professor walked into class one morning invoking the name of Faulkner as if it were a sacred incantation: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read Faulkner.”  We students shivered at the sublimity of the name.  Since this trick seemed to work with his students, I figured I, now some 20 years later and new professor in my own right, would try the same trick with mine: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read—Faulkner.” But something was conspicuously missing here.  Students just stared at me.  After class I overheard some of them whispering down the hall: “I hear Faulkner’s novels are zig-zaggy and confusing and filled with all this weird stuff about race.  Why, oh why, must we read Faulkner?”

My own undergraduate experience immersed me in a sense of the gravitas of Great Literature. Matthew Arnold had claimed that “the best which has been thought and said” had the power to elevate the mind and transfigure the human spirit. The school of New Criticism elevated the critic as high priest of the poem, then later the poststructuralists gave the critic full apotheosis as one who, through the act of criticism, unveils vast hidden structures of domination. All in all, I felt a form of belief palpitating throughout my college education: a belief that Great Literature, the act of engaging with it, especially in its torturing difficulty, carried with it near metaphysical weight. So I was only happy to take up monastic vows to Literature: night after sleepless undergraduate night, followed by eight grueling graduate years at the poverty line.

But now I found myself standing before students far less concerned with Literature’s sublime powers than with gaining tools for a precarious job market and towering college loans. So what they wanted to know is, Why? Why subject oneself to the sound and the fury of a plotless modernist novel, or the white noise of a fragmented postmodern novel? Why all this needless obscurantism?  And why must these novelists fuss so much about race?  Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  In response, I continued proclaiming heady metanarratives: “Look, this has been considered by the best minds to be important!  The best that’s been thought and said!  It’s GOOD for you.”  They yawned, checked their Twitter accounts, and at the end of the semester left me a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars….

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Erick Sierra is an associate professor of English at Trinity Christian College.