I’ve recently (in the past year) become something of a PBS addict, which, given that I grew up without a television, only means that there has been more than one show on PBS that I planned ahead in order to watch. Most recently, I’ve been making time for The Abolitionists, which I have found fascinating, although I do want to hear what my historian friends think of it, particularly those who work on that period in U.S. history. It’s made me wonder, though, about the role of public academic practices, and in particular, of course, since I’m in comparative literature, public literary practices.
I don’t mean things like book signings by famous authors, or poetry readings or bestseller lists or book reviews or even performance pieces by writers who do something exciting like writing a poem in the window of a bookstore. I mean something along the lines of what PBS manages to do with so many of their series: explaining one of the objects of study to a wide audience. Of course, I don’t delude myself that a PBS show is in any way as in-depth or as complex even as the variety of work that historians do, and I’m not about to send a pitch to PBS for a new series about, say, Boccaccio’s Decameron.
But it’s interesting to consider what kind of models might exist for such an enterprise.
We have, of course, museums dedicated to famous authors: the Emily Dickinson Museum just down the road from me, Hemingway’s house in Florida that was just in the Times because the cats that live there come under federal regulations about zoos. Or one of my favorites: the Casa di Dante in Florence, Italy, which was completely remodeled after a major fire maybe a decade ago, and where I had a friend take a picture of me “with Dante’s own elevator,” much to the bemusement of the museum docent. (I was joking.) But these museums are mainly about the history of the house and the author’s connection to it, about the author’s biography, about the historical period in which the author lived. And while certainly connected to the practices of literary study…
We have as well the BBC miniseries, the “major motion pictures,” the plays based upon prose works; the performances and recordings of dramatic literature; the readings; Burns Suppers; the liturgically-timed (or not) readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy; these last admittedly mostly the province of Scots and New Zealanders, and Italianisti, respectively. In this respect, we are lucky as scholars of literature. We have texts, objects of study, that lend themselves to performances of various kinds. In some ways, of course, and for some pieces of literature, the existence of a text is the result of the scholarly activity of textual editing and philology. I wouldn’t argue if someone said that to a certain extent, all literature relies on that kind of intervention. But I would still say that these performances and recordings, while more or less textually-bound, more or less historically and literarily informed, are not to the discipline as I practice it what PBS shows are to the discipline of history.
I don’t doubt the existence of television shows about works of literature, about the creation, history, “biography” of a particular piece, even including, as PBS history does, “re-enactments” of the text in cinematic form. I can think of one: Looking for Richard. What is it, though, that makes these less prominent? Am I again simply ill-informed (these are professional reflections in the sense that they are about the profession and the field, but not in the sense that I pretend expertise in all the areas that attract my attention for blog posts)? Is the practice of literature as a discipline so esoteric that it can’t be presented in a manageable form? Or so uninteresting?
In order to think about this, I also need to wrestle with questions of audience. PBS is not universal, although it’s got “public” in the title. And I, of course, am not an average television consumer (not for being superior, just for hardly ever watching television). But I think that the question is worth asking: what is it that I find so compelling about literature that is so incompatible with one of the major communication formats of today? What is it that I do as a scholar that is hard to portray engagingly through this medium? It’s not just that I am a scholar–so are historians. It’s not just that I am interested in distant and sometimes cryptic objects–so are paleontologists.
I’m not suddenly planning to shift to some kind of cinematic pedagogy that allows students to interact with text solely through this particular medium. But I do wonder whether the reasons that literature as a discipline is difficult to film are the same reasons that students have trouble connecting to it. What can be added to the study of literature to allow access from this particular perspective and then convert, if we wish, that interest into study?