I’ve been working on my nonfiction book recently. It’s called What’s So Great About The Great Books and is tentatively due out from Princeton University Press sometime in 2025. I am having so much fun. It’s an amazing privilege to get to pick apart the issue of the canon and the classics in detail. But writing non-fiction is an adjustment.
My first-ever non-memoiristic nonfiction piece came out in 2021, and I wrote “Myth of the Classically Educated Elite” without really doing any research, just by drawing linkages from my own reading. In fact, I realize now that there are a number of inaccuracies in the piece, though not any overt falsehoods or anything that destroys the central argument.1
After writing the piece I was like, this is easy. I get how literary criticism works. You just use all the knowledge that’s already in your brain, and you write from point to point, so it seems as if you know everything in the world.
Of course I find it impossible to do this in full, because it seems dishonest, so in my nonfiction book I’m open about the classics I haven’t read (have never gotten through Aristotle’s Ethics or Politics for instance).
One could pejoratively call this ‘pseudo-intellectual’ writing, since it lacks the presumed rigor of the academic, who reads extensively everything written about the field. And I think that when it’s applied to, say, a Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Pinker, the charge of pseudo-intellectualism might be apt, since they’re writing about really important stuff, with really important real-life implications, and, most importantly, very clear epistemological standards–you can’t just say shit, you have to prove it and defend it.
I think the standard for writing about literature is a bit lighter. In the humanities, you’re primarily dealing with the phenomenological: what is happening inside your own mind. Not, you’ll notice, what is happening inside “a” person’s mind or in “the average” person’s mind–once you start generalizing, you’ve left the humanities and are now in the realm of the social sciences.
That’s why in the humanities one tends to discuss ideas–the ‘myth’ of the classically-educated elite–and not the actuality itself. How did I imbibe this idea? What evidence do I have for believing it to be true? What evidence do I have that it’s not true? By studying how ideas arise and are supported in the individual mind, the humanities has a broad field–it can study everything. It can even study science, so long as it studies science as the individual consciousness comes to understand it.
The thing about the humanities is that, for a certain type of criticism, a certain level of ignornace is valid, so long as you’re not generalizing your ignorance. For instance, I’ve read a lot of Japanese Heian-era literature. I know very little about Heian-era society. In particular, my knowledge of the relations between the sexes is patchy. For instance, at what age did women enter seclusion? How remote were they kept from their male relatives? Sei Shonagan and Lady Murasaki were both court attendants, I know, but what was their exact role? How much seclusion did their public roles involve, as opposed to Mitsishune’s Mother, who had no public role and was only a wife and mother?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Thus if I was to try and make some claim about the social purpose of The Tale of Genji, by saying, for instance, it taught women what men were like–I could very well be totally wrong, if in fact Heian women had extensive experience of their male relatives.
But if instead I read Genji through my own eyes–as a person approaching a work of art in the 21st century–it’s difficult to be totally wrong. For instance, the most shocking thing about Genji is that he rapes hella women. One of them is so distraught she commits suicide and haunts him! It’s a major plot point in the book. I can’t say how that would’ve been read by a Heian-era woman, but to me it’s intriguing! And it stands in stark contrast to other pre-modern literature, where rape is either elided (The Iliad) or romanticized (Ovid). And yet it’s quite complex, because Genji is the romantic hero, and I, as the reader, percieve him as being a desirable, witty, and soulful person. So there’s a tension in the text that exists for me. Did it exist in Heian-era Japan? I mean…probably? I imagine it did? But it undeniably exists for me, and I don’t need to do any more research to indicate that.
In literary criticism, if you’re careful, the question isn’t ‘validity’ (is what I am saying true?)–instead it’s generalizability (‘would anyone else percieve what I have perceived?’).
Which is just a really long way of saying that in writing my book on the Great Books I’m less interested in forming a complete picture of what’s been said about the Great Books and more interested in creating an impression of what the average, educated person is likely to know or have heard.
But you know what? That still involves doing some research.
The great thing about research–and I realize this is something every academic already knows–is that whenever you read an academic book on a subject, they spend the first chapter summarizing everything else that’s ever been said on the subject. Which means if you read three or four books on a subject, you rapidly get the picture of what’s out there. For instance, I know that a frequent criticism of the Great Books is that they’re ahistorical: they don’t represent a unified ethnic or linguistic tradition, they’re just a set of books tossed together by some dudes in the 1920s.
But then you can’t just leave it at that, you’ve gotta find the quotes, you’ve gotta chase down the sources. It’s a whole deal! It’s a whole foofarraw.
And since I’ve never done sustained nonfiction research before, I’ve had to develop systems over time.
The key thing, I’ve learned, is that you want to capture stuff the first time you read it–or else you spent aeons chasing it down later, and potentially never find it again (oftentimes because in your mind you’ve mistated the case.) Like, for instance, that stuff about the Great Books being ahistorical–that point was raised most succinctly in an essay by F.R. Leavis. But when I read the essay, I didn’t yet have a system in place for logging and recording things.
So now I’m gonna find that essay by googling FR Leavis great books. And here it is, on the website of the journal Commentary: The “Great Books” and a Liberal Education. But so I don’t lose it again, I am going to save it to my citation software: Zotero. This software is also programmed to take a snapshot of the page so if it disappears I’ll still have it. And I have shelved it in my “Canon” collection within Zotero.
But I also like, the first few times I go through something, to extract a few quotes from it, so I’m gonna skim the article again to find some good stuff. And here I find that Leavis has actually made several very common arguments against the Great Books. The first is simply that a liberal education just isn’t for the masses. It’s something that can be attained only by a very small elite, and to pretend otherwise is to doom the project:
I won’t for the moment argue about the relation of the Great Books and the Syntopicon to any intelligent idea of education, but will state my firm belief in this form: it is disastrous to let a country’s educational arrangements be determined, or even affected, by the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority.
Here, though, is a quote about how the Great Books constitute a monstrous and unreal ideal:
The ideal intellectual culture advocated by the promoters of the Great Books is plainly a monstrous unreality fostered by such conditions. The hypertrophied academic innocence, the utter remoteness from realities, the lack of all sense of how things are and what they could be, is proclaimed in the belief that this culture might, and must, be acquired by everybody. Let us not be academic and esoteric—let us bring it into full and living relation with actualities!
Ahhh, but here, farther down, is the money-quote:
There may be some point in a student’s looking up the [Aristotle’s] Poetics when he is going into Tragedy under the guidance of Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Cornford, and the other anthropologizing Hellenists. But the man who leaves the university able to suppose that in the Poetics he has studied an illuminating treatise on the foundations of literary criticism has not used his time to real educational profit—even if he has won high academic distinction. It is characteristic of the academic conventionality of the Great Books ethos to endorse the conventional academic standing of the Poetics.
I am not of course being foolish enough to question the importance and greatness of Aristotle—which brings me to the second head of the proposition I threw out in the last paragraph. Every educated person must know something about the nature of that importance and greatness, but it doesn’t follow that he need have made a study of Aristotle’s works, or that it would have been good economy for him to attempt it. Every educated person must know something about Plato, and will undoubtedly have read some of the works, but it doesn’t follow that he must have read studiously through the oeuvre listed among the Great Books. And when it comes to prescribing that he must also have read the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant and Hegel (I confine myself to philosophers—to which, of course, the Great Books are not confined) it is plain beyond question that the promoters of the scheme not only have no notion of the limitations of the ordinary man (or the ordinary member of the intellectually given minority); they have no notion of the nature of a trained mind—or (shall I say) of that kind of training of the powers of thought which must be central to any real education. The student has to learn, as a matter of firm personal possession, the difference between real thinking and what ordinarily passes for that. It is a difficult and painful business, and one that is far from always forwarded—or even proposed—by the academic regime and environment. To the would-be self-improver faced with the Great Books program as something to be seriously attempted, the difference, unless he is a genius or has unusual luck, will never present itself in any challenging form. The difficulty of learning what it is will elude his apprehension in the ardors and endurances, the confident new assaults on Everests of knowledge prescribed for him by Mr. Hut-chins. The typical product of that liberal enterprise, persisted in (if one can conceive of persistence on a big enough scale for there to be a typical product), will be that large, never-at-a-loss knowledgeableness, that articulate intellectuality, that happy confidence among large ideas, which condemns the possessor to essential ignorance of the nature of real—that is, of creative—thinking. And that is no real higher education which doesn’t bring the student some first-hand experience of creative thinking—enough at any rate for him to know what it is, and to know the worthlessness of mere confident articulate intellectuality.
Essentially, what Leavis is saying is that the point of a liberal arts education is to teach people to think, and that you don’t learn to think by reading a bunch of disparate and very difficult books. You learn to think by reading books that’re close to your own life (he disparages the Great Books program for not including more American authors, since it’s mostly Americans who’re involved in it) and thinking critically about them, often with the aid of outside commentaries. The Great Books on the other hand, is just a hodge-podge.
Of course, in this Leavis is begging the question a bit, since for many the purpose of a liberal arts education isn’t to teach them to think but to teach them morality. However, if your purpose is to inculcate moral behavior, you’re probably still not well served by Hegel or by Aristotle’s Poetics.
The main point, however, is well taken. The mind you need to profit from the Great Books education–to bring everything into line and to think critically and to develop opinions about these books–is a rare one. And it’s not something you can do as a part-time job. To be frank, I haven’t had a full-time job since I was twenty-four. I’m now thirty-seven. It would be difficult for me to have done this course of reading if it wasn’t, in some way, my job as a member of the intelligentsia. And in the course of this reading, I have become something of an expert on them, to the point where I am writing a book on them for an academic press!
It’s an inarguable point: is this a good use of the average person’s time? Probably not,
F.R. Leavis goes even further and asks, is it a good use even of the intellectual’s time? To this I’d say, I don’t know. Certainly it’s not a good use of the academic intellectual’s time. And I agree with him that if there existed an elite in America that was interested, as their birthright, in the liberal arts, I highly doubt they would read Hegel or Kant, for instance, or even Aristotle. They’d read Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, the Federalist Papers, Voltaire, and Edmund Burke–they’d be much more interested in political than in moral philosophy or metaphysics, simply because the latter haven’t really influenced American culture very much. And if they did read philosophical or metaphysical works, they’d likely be Eastern ones: the Gita, the Platform Sutra, etc.2
But that elite doesn’t exist in the United States, so far as I can tell. We have only have on one hand the academic intellectual and on the other hand a freelance intelligentsia that often hails from middle-class or immigrant roots.
What I’m not gonna do is look up everyone who’s ever cited Leavis and find all the arguments for and against him. I won’t discuss his ideas in terms of a tradition or in terms of an ongoing conversation–I’ll take them on their own, as ideas. To do this risks overstating his importance (perhaps this essay wasn’t a big deal) and it risks banality (perhaps there are very easy rebuttals to all his points), but this kind of laziness is the only real way for a non-academic to write literary criticism.
Anyway, having done this ‘research’ I am not going to take these notes and post them into my Obsidian database, where I keep all my highlighted passages and quotes from everything I’ve ever read, so they’ll be waiting for me later if I ever need to refer back to this article.
With this one article I’m backfilling, but from point forward, whenever I read anything online that I might want to write about, I go through this same procedure of highlighting it and filing it, with the hope that it’ll prove useful later
Speaking of which, I was reading a set of essays by the South African writer and literary critic, Njabulo Ndebele, and I came across this extract from the mission statement of the apartheid-era Black South African magazine Staffrider. For context, this magazine was associated with several writing groups in the Black townships, and they are writing about their policy of republishing, without editorial interventions, whatever these workshops sent them.
We define a literary artist simply: a producer of literary works. And we believe that a producer has a basic right of access to potential readers – in the immediate community in which he or she lives and beyond.
The phenomenon of art groups linked to particular township communities in present-day South Africa suggests the appropriate medium through which this basic right can be exercised. The art group puts forward the work it wants to be published, and then assists in the distribution of the magazine to the community. In this way editorial control is vested in the writers as participants in a community-based group.
Those who suggest that Staffrider should appoint an editor whose task is to impose ‘standards’ on the magazine are expressing – consciously or unconsciously – an elitist view of art which cannot comprehend the new artistic energies released in the tumult of 1976 and after. Standards are not golden or quintessential: they are made according to the demands different societies make on writers, and according to the responses writers make to those demands.
If standards are not imposed by elitist criticism but developed and maintained by practising writers the ‘workshop’ concept becomes crucial. It is here, in effect, that standards are set. We do not know of a writers’ group that would not welcome participation of critics in its workshop sessions: this is an invitation to leave the armchair or the lectern and become involved, practically, in building a new literature.
—Rediscovery of the Ordinary
I wish that I’d had this quote available when I was writing my essay in Tablet on writing workshops and MFAs. Here at Staffrider we see an attempt to decolonize the writing world, but it strikes me as much less wrong-headed than the measures propounded by Craft In The Real World. For one thing, there is a clear focus here on the means of production: ultimately a writing organization is meant to produce writing that actually gets read by someone. Here the decolonization is directly linked to a disintermediation–reducing the number of people who can prevent your work from being seen. Moreover, the editors of Staffrider don’t pretend that quality doesn’t exist, and they provide clear and cogent reasoning on how quality can be preserved even under their decolonized system.
Of course, this system fell apart after a few years (the magazine stopped featuring work from the township workshops, but didn’t explain why) so maybe the results were less-than-satisfying in practice.
- The main inaccuracy comes from me eliding about a thousand years of educational tradition. What we call the classical education of the middle ages–the famed trivium and quadrivium–was primarily a rather rigorous scientific education. There was almost no literary component to this education. So to say that people in the middle ages aspired to a classical education would be false. The studia humanitas of the Renaissance era, as absorbed by British public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, is a different matter. The purpose of the British public school was primarily to prepare someone to study at Oxford and Cambridge. Students could attend Oxford and Cambridge rather young, often as young as fourteen or fifteen, and if they wished it was possible at certain times and places to receive a good literary or scientific education at those schools, and the situation obviously varied considerably between 1300 and 1900. My impression is that the overall Latin attainments and reading of the average student was rather higher earlier in that period, as opposed to later. For instance in Shakespeare’s time, Latin education was a broadly available and highly valued tool for social mobility. Which is just to add some flavor to my assertion that the classically educated managerial elite has existed at times but not for as much time as people like to pretend. Nor has the connection between literature and power been as simple as many people, both on right and left, would have you believe. ↩
- The art that high culture can’t survive in democratic societies (those without a hereditary elite) is most familiar to me, and probably to you, from T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, which Leavis also cites. ↩