I'm going with hindrance. Studying literature and studying writing are separate things and I think sometimes what we may learn in lit classes can contaminate us as writers. This is based on my own experience as I've encountered a number of lit instructors who were so rigid in interpretation and in what is considered literature that it turned me off some certain books (screw Steinbeck and Dickens). I wouldn't classify any of the books undergrad instructors had required as essential reading for writers. Ethan Frome? Please. This isn't to say that reading isn't important in becoming a writer. No. You need to read everything you can find, that means even holding your nose to read Steinbeck.

Plus, lit classes teach (at least those who pay attention) that there is a hierarchy in literature, with genre writing somewhere around grocery lists and ransom notes. That whole litfic versus genre fiction fight begins here. If you want to get rid of constant discussion, you need to kill it at the source.

And another thing: I truly believe that a lot of people are turned off from reading by lit classes. If I hadn't already been a bookworm and knew that there was so much great stuff outside of the classroom, I don't know if I would be a writer today. But think of the people whose first experience with reading is from these classes. No wonder reading and book buying are on the decline.

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I agree with I.J. Parker. Also, we don't think of it often, but that goes for sacred literature too, I'm sure in all kinds of cultures and religions.
I think a lot of it depends on the quality of the teacher. A lot of students are turned off to literature by the way it's shoved down their throats, taught almost by rote. I used to blow throuhg them as quickly as possible until I got a teacher in 12th Grade who encouraged us to come up with our own ideas, instead of making us look for the conventionally accepted perspective. He got our attention with Hamlet, when he asked, "Why doesn't Hamlet just kill Claudius as soon as his father's ghost tells him what ahppened?" We all raised our hands, debated all the psychological issues, until Mr. Seeley stopped us. "The real reason is because if he did, the play would be 15 minutes long, and no one would pay to see that. Now let's see how he made it interesting."

This was a teacher I could relate to, and who first got me interested in not only what happens, but why and how.
That's almost a chicken and egg thing. Did he set out to write a 5-act play, or did he want to show us the tragic mind of a brilliant young man who is too indecisive to get anything done. Presumably, since he stole the plot, he had a story to tell and decided to make it interesting.
I tend to agree: hindrance. Reading is fine as entertainment, pleasure, and enjoyment. Lit classes take it all way too seriously. While there are works that rate serious study, that's more about the intent of the author (and, to some degree, their skill at executing their intent). What if your intent is to entertain? Make money? Create memorable characters? Write witty dialogue? What if someone is just as good at executing a murder mystery? Lit studies elevate certain intentions above other, perfectly legitimate alternatives. It does not reflect skill except around those certain intentions. I mean, even Poe gets short-shrift because his intentions were often to spook, chill, and thrill. And I think that's the flaw. High-minded intent is the main thing viewed as worthy of study in literature courses.
With respect, help.

Reading voraciously is a perequisite for writing novels oneself. I think a writer naturally gravitates in reading to what they will eventually be writing. I read popular fiction almost exclusively when I was growing up, and I went back to reread the same books over again (small town, smaller library). It formed my taste for fiction, and my taste for what I would eventually write.

When I got to college and was forced to read literature, or what passed for literature in that long ago time (William Gass, bleah), I learned what I didn't want to write. And since my professors were determined to drag in the authors' personal lives, I definitely knew I didn't want to write so well that I wound up dead in a hotel room of cirrhosis, surrounded by dog shit.

I'm being mostly serious here...mostly. I hated Wallace Stegner and Ernest Hemingway on the strength of their subject matter alone, but they were both masters of the craft, especially Hemingway. It didn't hurt me to read both.

Didn't hurt me to read Nevil Shute and Taylor Caldwell, either.
I suspect the old thinking was that kids would read the best-selling stuff themselves in their spare time. Of course, that leaves TV out of the picture. Kids don't read out of their free will very often any more. In other words, by now they are so far removed from comprehending anything written more than fifty years ago (both in content and vocabulary) that an English instructor might as well give up the effort. What they don't understand, they'll hate. It's a perfectly human reaction.

Are we stipulating here that if we're starting kids (of any age) on the easy readers, they'll quite naturally climb to the harder stuff and end up appreciating Shakespeare some day?

One of the the most common complaints by students when asked to read anything literary is "This isn't relevant to me." That one was so frustrating to me that I ended up saying, "Shut up and read. You want a passing grade, don't you?"

Perhaps the attitude accounts for the fact that only non-fiction self-help books sell really well.
I think the way lit is often taught now, at least at the college level, can be not just a hindrance but a serious problem. In many departments these days there's a consuming emphasis on theory; outside of the old-fashioned great-books programs, hardly anyone teaches close reading of canonical works anymore. Combined with the push toward diversity, students are likely to get six different theoretical approaches to "Beloved" and no dead white guys; even the use of the term "canonical" is controversial in many English departments. Still, if it's taught right, a lit course can be a great thing for students--and one of the most confounding issues I confront year after year as a creative writing teacher is that most of my students haven't read anything (except maybe Harry Potter and Beloved over and over, God help them)--no Hamlet, no Moby Dick, no Great Gatsby, no One Hundred Years of Solitude, and so on. What they have read in high school or college they have no coherent context for and can't place in period, much less in the broader sweep of literary tradition. There's no question in my mind that avid and astute readers have a better shot at becoming good writers than non-readers, so we find ourselves teaching a fair amount of lit--from a writerly point of view--in our creative writing classes.
I think it helps.

Many pieces of literature have the same elements that we look for in novels today. Passion. Character development. Dialogue. Plot. Motivations. And the countless other elements.

I believe a writer a couple hundred years ago chose his or her words just as carefully as I try to. The same with sentence, paragraph and story structure.

The teaching of literature CAN cause problems in some circumstances.

In high school, honors freshman english was a nightmare. We were reading Great Expectations, Silas Marner and the like. I remember being assigned Great Expectations, going home and reading the whole novel that night, and being intrigued by imagery, character development and the structure of the English language. And I have this annoying habit of wanting to ask "why" or "how do you know" or stating that I think differently. The teacher was not amused and I became very good friends with the school's vice principal of discipline.

Senior honors english, where we studied the romantic poets, shakespeare and others, was different. My question of "why" sparked great conversations with the teacher and sparked research assginments - she was not afraid to be challenged.

Even if you don't like it, you can learn a lot from it...there is value in learning what you do not like, what you feel does not work, and applying it to your own writing.
I think Clay implies an excellent point here. The teacher is everythign in such a course. What is read and studied is less important than how the teacher presents it, and leads the discussions.
Thank you, and my compliments. Asking "why?" opens up literature to beginners and experienced readers alike. Asking the professor/teacher "why?" gets you answers, but if you ask the question of the literary novel or play or poem, you gain some amazing insights into how the artist worked and what he meant.

Things get a bit trickier if you apply this to your average best seller. :)
I agree Ingrid.

I loved the professors and the handful of high school teachers that would meet my challenge, and then turn around and challenge me to push beyond what I thought, believed, had learned thus far. My honors english teacher my senior year of high school was the first one that really hit me like that.... and I loved one of her stock responses to my inquiries: "Sounds like you got some reading to do. And stay away from the textbook. Won't learn anything there." Or something similar.
That makes sense. I never saw a single textbook used by my daughter's school that was any good.
There is a chance that between the textbooks and the lock-step teaching system in place at American lower schools the kids begin to hate liberal arts.


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