Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

This is an interesting but irritating essay in the Guardian. It takes a look at the question of what books ‘everyone’ should have read by age eighteen or twenty, and also at the teaching and study of English literature at the secondary school level. It contains some peculiar albeit doubtless popular ideas about what literature is, what kind of people like it and why, what it tells us and does for us.

English is perceived as a “girly subject” and it struck me that the essence of the subject lies in being honest about your feelings – your personal response to texts. As Kate in the upper sixth says, it is about “empathy”…For me, this explained a great deal about why English was so much more popular among girls. Boys on the whole don’t want to articulate their feelings or be forced into the dangerous situation of having to confront texts and respond personally to them. The rules of physics are so much safer.

Excuse me, but that’s crap. For one thing, literature is very far from being exclusively about ’empathy’. Is ‘Paradise Lost’ about ’empathy’? Is ‘Don Juan’? ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? ‘The Frogs’? ‘Emma’? ‘Lucky Jim’? Literature is more than just the novel, and even novels are not always about empathy. Satire, epic poetry, Aristophanic comedy, much lyric poetry, and many other genres have little or nothing to do with empathy. And then for the other thing, ‘feelings’ [pardon me while I gag] are not the only possible ‘response’ to texts. Dang, you know what? It’s also possible to have thoughts about texts! Imagine that! One can just sit right there in English class, even one composed entirely of girls, and think about what one has read rather than just emoting over it. And as a matter of fact one will probably get a great deal more out of what one has read if one does think as well as feel. The best literature is not just some emotional waterfall, it is deliberately crafted, using that highly cerebral medium, language. Language requires thought, and thought is often the better for language. Boys are perfectly at liberty to think about literature without having to articulate their wretched tedious feeeeeelings. Can’t we ever get out of this dratted Barry Manilow song?

But at least the teacher agrees with me about good old Stephen King.

This was the class that had just so thoughtfully dissected the war poem, and which had soundly argued opinions on the English syllabus – too much of the canonical and academic, not enough contemporary material, why not some Stephen King (no thanks, says the teacher).

Two elitists in the world, then.

2 Responses to “Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings”