Exodus from the empty spaces

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs.

In “Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy” (Minding the Campus, January 25, 2010), Mary Grabar writes that “students are leaving English departments in droves” as the field cedes more and more territory to theories that have little to do with literature itself.

“Who are you kidding?” I wanted to get up and ask the English professor who was giving a talk at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association convention in November. He was analyzing a graphic novel, the spaces between panels, the line widths of the panels, the lettering inside the “speech bubbles.”

Indeed, the “spaces” may have much to do with the exodus. Why spend a lifetime on empty space?

It’s been a death by slow suicide. The reference to “spaces” coming from the podium was the same kind of self-abusive parsing, I had seen applied by deconstructionists in the 1990s when I was a graduate student. The depressed patient, failing to see any worth in his work, had leveled the greatest works to “texts.” Reading between the lines of “text” has evolved into reading the gaps between panels: “Lots of stuff happens in that silent space,” said the professor.

Now, of course there are empty and silent spaces in literature, but we won’t glean their meaning unless we read the words carefully first. Many lit crit fads (this or that “space,” this or that “lens”) seem to involve evasion of literature, similar in some ways to the “reading strategies” that dominate literacy instruction in our schools. Talk about everything around the text, talk about text as though it were generic, predict what might be in the text, but do not venture into that text.

Grabar sees this as a universal problem:

Much has been said about the decline in reading, but few outside the walls of academia know how much English teachers and professors are actually undermining literacy. The tenured have the luxury of lecturing on “silent spaces” between panels. The heads of professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English expand the definition of literacy to any kind of communication (including the emotive grunt).

I agree, with some reservations. Yes, there is a lot of nonsense in literary theory and in literacy instruction. But there are many students who want to read literature, teachers who want to teach it, and professors (even tenured ones) who have no truck with silent spaces in comic strip bubbles.

Sadly (and fortunately), many of them have learned to stay unruffled and let the trends pass. Trends do pass, by definition, and often the best way to withstand them is to let them through. On the other hand, Grabar is right. Things get trampled down during the stampede. It is time to stand up for a good book or two.


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    could this problem with college lit be directly tied to the poor quality of english and reading instruction in k-12 so there is nothing but the empty spaces as colleges students are so illiterate they have no clue how to read much less comment on what they read?

    wow, what a run on sentence…sorry about that…but…

    seriously when did this trend in college english begin

  2. LOL. It’s as old as English departments. If you would like to *read* some fun satire of this sort of thing, I recommend Nabokov’s Pnin, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, or DeLillo’s White Noise. Fun stuff.

    Really, I suspect root of the issue is publish or perish. How much can be written about the 19th century romantic poets? Eventually, you exhaust the words themselves and have to move on to the white spaces.

  3. one other problem of English departments is making claims without backing them up… are students really leaving English departments in droves, and if they are, is it really because there’s too much theory?

  4. Diana Senechal says:

    Pnin and White Noise are both wonderful. I haven’t read On Beauty, but given that you named it with those two, I think I will.

    I also recommend Alan D. Sokal’s essay Transforming the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” He pretends to apply social and cultural critical theory to physics–and he pulls it off brilliantly. The editors of Social Text took the essay seriously and published it in 1996.

    I imagine “publish or perish” is a big part of it, as Lightly Seasoned says. Also, there must be some safety in unintelligibility. Few will dare ask you what you actually mean. Here’s a paragraph from Edward H. Friedman, “Deconstructing the Metaphor: Empty Spaces in Calderonian Drama,” South Central Review 5, no. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 35-42:

    One might choose to associate rhetoric, or rhetorical strategies, with the space between signifier and signified wherein deconstruction takes place. In this space reside the interpretant, the point of contact between one realm and another, and the différance, the point at which the analogy becomes problematic. Deconstruction deconstructs rhetoric to expose, metaphorically speaking, its seams and our misplaced faith in directness, in plenitude, in the correspondence between element A and element B. If the linguistic, and conceptual, whole makes signifier and signified its borders, then metaphor—with its division via I. A. Richards into vehicle and tenor, roughly equivalent to signifier and signified—may be the rhetorical figure (con perdón) by antonomasia. Metaphor rests, as does the logocentric world, on the direct relation between signifier and signified, vehicle and tenor. Deconstruction of the metaphor would stress deviation, difference. In The Rule of Metaphor, Paul Ricoeur asks, somewhat rhetorically: “But what does deviation mean? The word itself is a metaphor on the road to extinction, and a spatial metaphor at that. Rhetoric battles valiantly with this metaphoricity of metaphor, which leads it to remarkable discoveries about the actual status of the literal in discourse and thus about ‘literature’ as such.” The metaphorical structure of Calderón’s comedias—one might be tempted to say the metametaphorical structure—shows the intricacies and perhaps the fallacies, the trappings and the traps, of sign systems at play. The metaphor is so prominent in the texts that one is inclined to read uncritically—or to view the world on stage, as stage—without examining the middle ground, the mediating space between vehicle and tenor, language and concept, premise and execution.

  5. I read “On Beauty” and couldn’t find the humor. It was 450 pages of people being ugly to each other. I could not get close to a single character, it was stereotypes in collision.

    Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” is a much better satire on English professors.

    Also, read “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud. It is an analysis of the comic art form written in a comic form. With jokes.

    I don’t know whether the professor in the example was BS’ing or not, but his observations could be valid. Comics are a series of frozen moments, so some kinds of movement and change are created in the reader’s mind. In comics jargon, that happens in the spaces between the panels.

  6. I agree with Diane that “publish or perish” is part of it. But I think this doesn’t just raise the problem of running out of things to say about 19th century Romantic poets. Publishing pressures also mean that untenured professors have very little time to read. It’s of course hard to teach literature if you don’t take the time to read it.

    Another aspect of publish or perish is thought control. I know several untenured professors who, privately, are highly critical of postmodernism, but fear they won’t get tenure (or published) if they do research that doesn’t use a postmodern frame of reference, or that criticizes postmodernism.

    Another good satire of postmodernism is Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, originally published (in Spanish) in 1939. Going even further back in time there’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which those in the emperor’s entourage avoid pointing out the garments’ lack substance for fear of appearing unfit for their jobs, or stupid.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I know! I know! The professors are trying to parody themselves and, no matter how they beclown themselves, everybody takes them seriously.
    Must be frustrating.

  8. Math Teacher says:

    Tim10ber: Are you setting an example of poor English instruction? If not, then I believe you exaggerate when you state that “college students are so illiterate”.

    And speaking of stuffy English Departments, here’s another relevant novel: The Handmaid of Desire by John L’Heureux.

  9. Lightly and Walter are on target: White Noise and Straight Man are brilliant. I also agree with Katharine about the amazing “Menard”. Walter’s pan of On Beauty mirrors my reaction, although the college was the best aspect of what was otherwise a tedious novel.

    If you were shaking your head at the passage Diana quoted, while appreciating her insight, you may enjoy Walter Kirn’s memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy. Kirn is thoroughly annoying in the memoir but he does a very forceful job of trashing the emptiness of the post-post-etc. movement. His experience puts a stark face on Diana’s comment about “safety in unintelligibility.”

    I saw Jacques Derrida lecture in 1986 or so — standing room only! ah, college… — and was transfixed and compelled, but then when I got back to the dorm and tried to rave about it, I couldn’t replicate any of it. Baffled, I read his essays, and continued to struggle more and more. Isn’t there a trap in The Princess Bride, or some such classic, from which one can escape only by surrendering?

    I have come to enjoy postmodernism, especially the paradox behind having to surrender to absurdity (somehow “absurdity” doesn’t seem to be quite the right word, but it’s very late…). A foible of those satirizable professors seems to lie in their seriousness about something that pays such homage to playfulness. Nowadays I never meeta meta that I don’t try to have some fun with, somehow or other.

    Thank you all for the book recommendations!

  10. The best sentence in the article? “Grammar, logic, and universal meaning promoted the male, imperialist goal of subjugation. Writing, like male sexuality, was inherently rapacious.”

    I also left graduate English study without a regret. I managed to slide through by finding the older professors, who still taught text, not theory. I am embarrassed to read what passes for academic essays these days.

    It seems that anyone who cared about the craft of writing specialized in Creative Writing. For most college students, learning to write well was once a reason to take classes in the English Department. Rhetoric and all connection to logical argument seem to have been left to, um, Philosophy, Math and History? Lacking any connection to text, argument, the basic tools of writing, and the history of literature, there isn’t anything left to draw the intelligent student. Perhaps they’ve decamped to “humanities.”

    Graphic novels are fine. As graphic novels. One can’t argue that they approach the intellectual challenges found in Milton, or Congreve.

  11. In recent days, the posts on this blogs have pointed to complementary troubles. Six year olds trying to define an author’s intent? That’s ridiculous, particularly if your children attend a school which believes it’s unnecessary to teach spelling.

    To succeed at reading literary texts at the college level, the reader needs to have mastered grammar, and to possess a large vocabulary and a long attention span. The modern public school language arts classroom seems to prize none of these skills.

  12. Graphic novels, like drama, occupy an area that’s sort of between literature and visual art (though in the case of drama, it’s performance art). And just as we often hear that to understand a work of Shakespeare fully, it’s important to understand the play as a performance, not just as a text, the same is true with understanding a graphic novel. Layout choices are as important to a graphic novel as casting is to a play.

    I’m with MS. What’s the evidence that the reason for the exodus is literary theory of this sort?

    Finally, I don’t think it’s “safety in unintelligibility” so much as an expectation of incredible precision, which results in jargon. Friedman, for example, gives definitions or references for most of the words I didn’t know. Granted, I had to read slowly to avoid confusion, but is that such a bad thing? Shouldn’t college-level reading and writing be somewhat challenging?

    It sounds like the problem is that only challenging works that are old can be any good. There’s merit to that, I guess… at least it’s all in the public domain…

  13. Bill Leonard says:

    I’m with Cranberry: Graphic novels are fine — as graphic novels. But don’t expect R. Crumb’s illustrated (that is, comic book) version of the Old Testament to read quite like the King James version.

  14. Diana Senechal says:


    I believe Friedman was basically saying: “Calderón’s plays are so deeply steeped in metaphor that it is easy to take the metaphor for granted instead of examining it carefully.”

    Sure, there may be a little more to it than that. But why not start with a statement like this and then go right into the plays themselves in order to illustrate the subtleties?

    The problem is not with complex ideas. The problem (or one problem, as I see it) is with literary criticism that talks around the literature, that evades the literature.

  15. I agree to an extent; evading the literature would be a problem. I just don’t see that being done in these instances. I think studying form is an important part of studying literature. But I also think that the best way to do so is to examine different works from that form and compare them to see how the work is shaped by the form.

    That looks a little convoluted… I hope it made sense! 🙂

  16. While the purely academic study of literature is essential in so far as it helps sustain our literary traditions, English departments needn’t serve so narrow a constituency and so limited a purpose.

    Perhaps I am too much of a pragmatist, but a primary goal of college English departments should be to impress upon “the other 99%” of the population a love of literature and reading. The greatest role books play in our world is to open our hearts and minds to the unfamiliar. Through this process they make us more compassionate, understanding, and tolerant.

    For so many to miss such an opportunity because they are turned off by esoteric literary theory is a shame. The world needs the wisdom locked up in our books!

  17. It seems to me that the whole discipline of English is in a state of disarray. Postmodernism at the college level has wreaked havoc. It’s devolved into reading strategies in the k-12 level. It seems no one knows whether or not to teach grammar. Everyone (except me) agrees we should have kids write, write, write –for authentic situations, of course –and don’t grade too heavily on penmanship and mechanics, it’s the ideas and organization that count. Am I the only one who feels like we’re rather rudderless?

    If I were to take the helm of the ship, I think I’d reinstate classic grammar instruction; make mechanics and spelling count a lot on compositions through high school; write less and read more. And, in reading, read the best stuff, to show what great writing is, and, most importantly, to teach about the world, the human soul and human experience beyond our limited time and place –that is, to use literature as a mirror and a window.

  18. Please excuse my mangled metaphor –I proposed to take the helm of a rudderless ship! Oy.


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