Stories to Live By

studiesI admit that, as the summer started, I had seen the three biggest box office movies although I thought all, as films, were flops.

That surprised me given that review aggregation sites suggested average or better evaluations of each. Although each had a lower rating if the sample was limited to the more credible critics, the worst movie, even if only using these these critics, had a 4 in 10 average rating. 

Perhaps the problem is that I see fewer films than plays, which places me on the wrong side of the relevance ratio. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that, in 2012, almost 6 in 10 U.S. adults in 2012 saw a movie (59.4%) while between 1 and 2 or even less saw a musical (15.2%) or a play (8.3%), which reportedly represent statistically significant declines for musicals and plays since 2008.

I prefer plays, which depend upon live audiences. One reason is that the stakes seem higher — scenes cannot be reshot, for example, and the emphasis is more language than looks — although so are ticket costs, which might be one reason why fewer people participate in this particular form.

Despite my preferences, I am less concerned about what people consume and only that they’re consuming, and considering what they consume, which I realize might be heresy from an English professor. We’re often expected to uphold the highest of aesthetic standards whereas cultural consumption — serious novels and beach books or poetry, spoken word, and even song lyrics — has always been, for me, a personal experience.

This commonly held belief about English professors is one I shared when I started my studies, and it is also the reason I changed my major from, and obviously back to, English more times than I care to admit.

As a graduate student, I acquired a professional expertise that I use to justify these personal experiences, and I sometimes forget that I’m usually being asked for a professional evaluation rather than a personal opinion. Nevertheless, I realize that I can afford, having these credentials, to indulge in my personal preferences even as I still encounter those who seem compelled to critique my criteria.
This conventional belief is also the reason I specialize not in literary critique, or a critical evaluation of poetry, fiction, or drama, but in textual circulation, or the production, consumption, and distribution of texts in social and political contexts.

In doing so, I’ve learned that conventional expectations for literature, as only one type of text, are often based, as literary critic Paul Lauter and others argue, upon Modernist assumptions of complexity, irony, emotional restraint, and linguistic sophistication. At the same time, other communities, especially in other times and places, have have very different ideas about those texts they’d like to preserve and share.

Such a perspective, however, only complicates the question of why we preserve these texts and other cultural artifacts anyway. A traditional argument is that these supply a shared cultural context or a cultural literacy, which educational theorist E. D. Hirsch (1988) has defined as what every American needs to know.

Hirsch and others insist that this shared context is a source of unity within our diversity. At the same time, it obviously privileges those whose cultural heritage is most represented by this context, which seems inconsistent with both the multicultural origins and foundational principles of the United States.

Another argument is that these texts represent philosophical and personal possibilities, or what literary critic Mark Edmundson (2013) describes as ways of (re)thinking about how to live. While serving as a secular scripture seems more useful, this alternative, at least as Edmundson describes it, suggests that different readers could reach different conclusions about the same sources, which could disintegrate into an individualism that ignores anything shared.

Regardless, this debate provides an engaging perspective on the Fourth of July — what do these summer blockbusters suggest about who we are or how we should live? That is something to consider while we wait for fireworks to fill the sky on this holiest of American holidays.


Edmundson, Mark. 2013. Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education. New York: Bloomsbury.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage.

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