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Hutner appeals to academics

Gordon Hutner, a professor of American literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a lecture at Carnegie Mellon last Thursday.  (credit: Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) Gordon Hutner, a professor of American literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a lecture at Carnegie Mellon last Thursday. (credit: Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

As part of the Carol Brown Lecture Series, Gordon Hutner spoke last Thursday in Rangos Hall on “Writing the Literary History of the 21st Century: A Brief Introduction.” Hutner, a professor of American literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been widely published in the field of literary history and is the founding editor of the journal American Literary History.

Hutner’s most recent book, titled What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920 – 1960, examines how the literary works remembered by academia may not be the ones that were most pertinent to the general reading public. The novels that were forgotten were those that pertained mostly to middle-class values — novels that he described as “literature not of the great, but of the pretty good.” Hutner said the “critical memory” of academia is assigning less value to “middle-brow” works, and instead favoring bourgeois values. This work led Hutner to consider the current literary climate.

Hutner means to create a system of reviewing novels that avoids the mistakes of previous generations of academics. It was intimidating for him to decide how to start. Initially, he considered doing close readings of a handful of key novels, but decided that this method would not be representative enough of the century as a whole.

Instead, he gathered prize-winning novels — works that had already earned accolades and had value according to the prize panels. The idea of this method provoked murmurs of assent from the audience. However, he discovered that the panels were almost exclusively comprised of other novelists. He wittily described it as “pigs giving reviews about bacon.” But this realization led him to wonder why there aren’t more academics involved in evaluating literature.

The most interesting part of Hutner’s lecture was his response to the problem, “Who is paying attention?” He argued that there is a lack of literary criticism, which is replaced by reviews in newspapers and magazines. Hutner speculates that this lack of criticism results from the shrinking of print culture, the close relationships between book publishers and reviewers, and the fact that the spirit of argument has been replaced with the habit of praising the strong and ignoring the weak. His focus on the evolution of literary reviews gave context and lent interest to his topic.

Hutner recommended that academics get back into the criticism game to alleviate this issue. English professors need to read modern works and evaluate them seriously in order to create a true history of the 21st-century novel — one that is more representative of the works being written as a whole and those that are more relevant to the readers of the time period. During the Q & A after the lecture, there was some debate as to whether or not professors can be expected to do this. Hutner said that it should be included in the job description, and while this answer may not have convinced the questioner, it reinforced Hutner’s position.

Hutner realizes that his solution is not foolproof, and acknowledged that the books that stand up to the test of time may be the ones by “less heralded” authors, or even “books I haven’t heard of yet.” The goal of Hutner’s project is a noble one, and addresses the need for a more complete literary history of the novels that address the problems of the time, be they middle-class ethics, race and gender issues, or other everyday topics. He presented his ideas in a fashion that was both engaging and informative, bringing life to the subject. There are many works worth preserving, and the consensus in the room was that there needs to be action to make that happen.