Majoring in English as undergrads in the early 1990s, Gen Xers like me hid our passions from the professors. We were literary trash huffers, believing that books like Interview with the Vampire, Neuromancer, and Kindred merited classroom discussion. But our instructors had invested years eschewing contemporary commercial literature. They presented conference papers on pre-industrial artists like Shakespeare, popular domestic stories by Jane Austen, or modernist and postmodernist experimentalisms penned by authors who, for the most part, enjoyed meager success in their lifetimes.
So, we deferred to elder, established academics and took up the study of texts we hoped would edify us: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and maybe Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We wrote dissertations that only mildly interested us, and secretly continued reading books by Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi. We waited for our turn to—well, to do what, exactly? Did we think we’d eventually bend the system, corrupt the process enough to finally teach the stuff that we loved?
It was too late. We’d already devised terms like “guilty pleasure,” “genre literature,” “graphic novel,” and “prestige TV” to assuage the shame we were supposed to feel for loving something we shouldn’t love.
The dearth and death of fun are precisely the reasons students are now turning away in droves from the humanities, resulting in a precipitous drop in liberals arts majors, as described by Nathan Heller in his New Yorker piece “The End of the English Major.” According to Heller, the humanities are collapsing under a multitude of pressures: reading literature is passé; STEM and Big Tech are luring away students; tuitions costs are rising; the professors themselves have lost faith. But the obvious and biggest issue glows smack-dab in the middle of Heller’s opening paragraph: “It’s hard for students like me, who are pursuing an English major, to find joy in what they’re doing.”
Fun has been bleached from the humanities in favor of identity and representation. Instead of demonstrating how these concepts can be enacted and imaginatively employed, we encourage students to talk and write about these ideas within a limited framework of texts no one really wants to read. Set foot inside a Barnes & Noble today or peruse your kid’s high school library. YA fiction, specifically of the dystopian-adventure stripe, is everywhere. These are books awash in identity and representation, ignored by professors yet inhaled by readers of all ages. These books serve as examples of the very things we discuss in our college classrooms, and yet we prop up the same canonized authors instead.
I’ll spell it out: students want to read Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Twilight, and anything by Brandon Sanderson, as well as engage with stories through manga, anime, and video games. Not only are English majors absorbing this stuff but they’re producing it, too, in the form of fan fiction, fan art, and cosplay.
This is why I set out to write a YA dystopian-adventure novel with my students, bringing a new 1,500-word chapter to every class every week—whether it was a writing workshop or a literature class. At the end of a 15-week semester, I had 22,000 words, or a third of my first novel. I wrote the novel my students wanted to read and published it with a respectable publisher and acknowledged them in the book.
But the real fun came when students started submitting their own work to class. I published some of it in anthologies I edit, and helped others get their works published in local and regional journals and magazines.
My classes have long waiting lists. It’s not because I push my students to distinguish between American literary realism and naturalism, or to examine Bartleby through the lens of disability studies. It’s because I encourage them to write characters based on their own experiences and identities. A little joy attracts students and encourages them to challenge themselves as writers and communicators.
They challenged me, and, though I didn’t write the next Lord of the Rings, my novel is 100% fun. And I’m grateful for the experience of spending time with people who love reading at a time when tech and metrics risk muting our humanity, causing us to give up on the humanities.
Jarret Keene teaches literature and writing at UNLV. His novel, Hammer of the Dogs, was published by University of Nevada Press in September.