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English Literature Is Not A Real Subject

Posted on 31st March 2010. 13 Comments

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Stevie Martin on the pros and cons of the  ’joke’ degree.

‘The view of those who study the creative arts  as vacant and disorganised is proliferated by certain people…’

You can be the sort of person who walks into a glass door and spills Cheerios over someone’s lactose-intolerant terrier, causing it to maul the newborn baby lying in an adjacent room whilst still being able to receive a respectable degree in English Literature. The view of those who study the creative arts as vacant and lazy is proliferated by certain people intent on appearing as useless and eccentric as possible, giving the rest of us a pretty bad rep; there was a guy in my lectures last year who wrote notes with a cartridge pen and an inkpot. An actual inkpot. Similarly, another budding writer decided to prostrate himself fully in front of the altar Boheme by growing a handlebar moustache. Upon being told he looked like the entire cast of Monty Python amalgamated with Victorian Penny Farthing advertisements, the tash was shaved and nothing more was said. He was the sort of person who, three days before the 8,000 word dissertation was due in, would absently tell you  ’Oh… it’s coming along,’ whilst blinking vaguely and attempting to light a pipe with a monocle. When asked questions in seminars, he would flop his arm in a foppishly appealing manner, discussing the corrupted folio of Faust and forcing even the tutors towards mass self- doubt. The connection between Faust and Joe Sacco’s 2003 graphic novel ‘Palestine’ appears ridiculous to me but,  on the other hand, this guy appears to be making notes on the back of a Tobacconist receipt. In French. Therefore he is right and I am wrong.

Being informed that your degree ‘is not a real subject’ is like telling a Historian ‘look, no one cares about things that happened ages ago’

Without wishing to generalise,  English students tend to be a little scattier than, say, those who bloody love Algorithms and regardless of what Tarquin Belby-Poppington tells you,  it’s not the easiest subject in the world. It’s all relative. Being informed that your degree ‘is not a real subject’ is like telling a Historian ‘look, no one cares about things that happened ages ago’.  Of course some people care, just like some people care about literature.  If English students ‘just read books and write about them’, Historians ‘just look at old stuff’.  Oh and while we’re on the subject, I really don’t care whether you ‘did it at A level’. It’s not A level is it?! I did French at A level and can now only confidently communicate on the subject of yoghurt. J’aime les yaourts. Tu aime les yaourts? Ou est les yaourts? Je joue avec les yaourts. Try writing an A level English Lit essay at degree level and you’ll be laughing on the other side of your Yaourt.

I’d like to see an A level student tackle Ulysses and come out with a first; not only is it nigh on impossible to formulate an individual opinion when the innumerable critical articles devoted to such significant elements as a green doily referenced once (but why is it green? Jealousy? Naivety? Does it signify Environmental Awareness? I wonder if she turns the light off after leaving a room?) are considered, but the bastard itself is over 600 pages long. Every other sentence implies some sort of historical, cultural and linguistic context only visible to the eye of someone with an IQ of 450 or enough time (and, arguably, considerable lack of a girlfriend) to have memorised the entire history of the World. On top of that, there is a lot of pretention to wade through. Most critical texts helpfully earmark a particular paragraph as ‘Absolutely crucial to understanding Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great’ before presenting said paragraph in Latin. Or French. Or a mixture of both with some Haitian thrown in for a bit of a laugh.  It’s a pity there isn’t more humour in the critical industry; I myself can hardly take a book seriously when it comes to such sentences as:  

‘Men and women do not so much talk to each other here as pile up meaningless irreconcilable lists on dishes garnished with indifference.’

HAHAHA WHAT?! I mean, this isn’t useful. And don’t get me started on the psychoanalytic perspectives, enticing leading critics into making such hilarious declarations as: ‘Mrs Ramsay’s sexual organs are her eyes’ without so much as a hint of irony. You’d think critical books about other books would be a sort of Dummies Guide To <Insert Relevant Author>, and yet most academics are either so far up their own arses they declare people’s genitals to be located on their faces, or suffix ‘-ness’ onto the end of every possible word.

Contrary to what many may think, this is not an attack launched on the English Literature course.

While we’re at it, ‘ironical’ is one of those purely academic words that fills me with the inexorable urge  to  garnish a dish with indifference and drop kick an critic directly onto it.  Like an intellectualized cream-pie-in-the-face. Why? BECAUSE IT SERVES THE EXACT SAME FUNCTION AS THE TERM ‘IRONIC’.  It becomes apparent, however, that examiners want this stuff. Sort of. It’s not enough to present a well argued case for Mrs Ramsay’s silverware as a reflection of her left shin’s communist leanings, the upper echelons of the 2:1 can only be broken into with register, or, ‘flair’.   Try commenting on the staging technicalities of Renaissance playwrights in an extravagant fashion and you’ll soon recognise this ‘flair’ thing as an incredibly difficult nut to crack. With regards register, sometimes I am too ‘colloquial’. Sometimes I am too ‘dry’. Sometimes, when I am neither ‘colloquial’ nor ‘dry’, I have inadvertently plagiarised an academic from 1976 of whom I have never heard of with a name like Ellis Boobcrab. As if I could have read Boobcrab and not remembered.  The most irritating comment I’ve had on an essay is: ‘don’t try and write like the academics. You sound like a ponce’. I recently managed to get the word ‘Pooncakes’ into my dissertation which I feel will provide some much needed equilibrium … fingers crossed!

Contrary to what many may think, this is not an attack launched on the English Literature course. We took the course because we love reading, and I think anyone will tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than having a massive argument about whether the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde symbolises gay sex (Dr Jekyll when about to transform into Hyde,  goes through the back door of his house. Yes! As in BACK DOOR! As in… well, yknow). However, there is pretention to ignore, there is pedantry to observe and, most irritatingly of all, there is the ongoing deceptive simplicity.  If my degree is so bloody easy, why is it that I’ve never got full marks?!

Stevie Martin


  • Mark Harmstone said:

    The penultimate paragraph is so, so true.

    Most of my handback sessions seem to consist of the tutor criticizing my use of the style guide. Apparently it’s rather more important than you’d think whether you use one or two spaces in a bibliography. It’d be fine, if every academic didn’t say different things…

  • Richard said:

    very funny and well written.

    mega lolz, as they say

  • Luke said:

    This a damn good article, especially the bit about Jeckyll and Hyde. I think they satirized the gay symbollism in the graphic novel of “The League of Extrordinary Gentleman” in which Mr Hyde buggers the Invisible Man to death. Charmin’.

    = )

  • Superoba Martins said:

    So essentially you’re moaning about your shit course but you’re saying it’s great because you get to read books and chat about them?

    Bear in mind I’ve never heard anyone call English Literature a joke course. Your article is based on an ill-founded persecution complex, on which it then goes on to elaborate in 1141 words of painfully mundane prose before climaxing into a grammatically inept conclusion.

    Well done, here’s your first.

  • Tim said:

    Superoba Martins = twat

  • Superoba Martins said:

    Tim = desperate virgin trying to get with Stevie Martin on the Internet

  • Tim said:

    Ha ha ha

    Superoba Martins = twat

  • The Asking said:

    Don’t knock Tim, desperate virgins trying to get with Stevie on the internet = durham21′s male readership. Probably female too.

  • Jon said:

    wow this is puerile, unlike the article which i think is great. write more, and while you’re at it, get other people to write more! d21 has looked bare over the last month…

  • Aaaa said:

    Oh, thanks Steve, you managed to remind me both why I hate and love this course within the space of a few seconds.

  • remont said:

    что касается темы, то мне кажется актуальность будет известна только через некоторое время.

  • Jess said:

    I enjoyed this. Nicely written and funny

  • Jess said:

    I enjoyed this. Nicely written and very funny