When Things Go Awry in the Lit Department

Interpreting art is not about decoding secret messages, but that's what many people think

The documentary Room 237, explores different conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Nine interview subjects discuss nine wildly different interpretations of the film, each of them believing they have decoded hidden messages that reveal a secret meaning. One believes the film is about the genocide of the Native Americans, another the Holocaust. One even asserts that deviations from Steven King’s novel are Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing footage for NASA.



I didn’t learn a single thing about The Shining  from Room 237. However, it did make me think about how some many people erroneously approach and interpret films, novels, poems, plays, and other works of art.


In high school, I believed poems, novels, et cetera were intellectual puzzles for readers to solve, not something crafted to make me feel. Each one was a mental labyrinth, at the center of which was the author’s Big Message. To help guide you through the labyrinth, the author had left clues in the form of coded symbols scattered throughout the text (allusions, symbolism, imagery, et cetera).


As a result, reading a novel was like playing the game Myst. Feeling and emotions weren't needed. And the reason we studied literature in high school and college was to gain skills to better navigate the labyrinth. Otherwise, we might get lost, or worse, only scratch the surface and never even enter the labyrinth. How a story made me feel was irrelevant.


I really believed all this. Many of my students over the past few years also seemed to think this way, because they fretted about creating allusions, symbols, and coded images in their short stories.


The people interviewed for Room 237 definitely think this way. According to them, every painting and carpet pattern in the Overlook Hotel is a secret message from Kubrick only they have deciphered.


When I see this belief in my students, it worries me. Not all of them think this way, of course, but plenty do. These students obsess over encoding messages and symbols into their work, and want their stories to make big generalized philosophical statements about life, the universe, and everything. Inevitably, this goal leads to a story with thin, unconvincing characters and an absence of genuine emotion. They've put more effort into encoding their clues than creating compelling characters. It’s also really hard to write a story like this! It leads the author to think in circles, second-guess everything, and doubt their own work. Will a reader get this? Will they interpret this symbol wrong? Does this image have too many potential meanings?


When this happens, students say to me in an exasperated voice, something like, “I’m overthinking this aren’t I?” Clearly, something has gone awry.


My students have usually taken multiple literature courses, but have not taken a creative writing class before. I can only conclude that they went astray during those lit classes. Literary scholarship and criticism are not about decoding hidden messages. A BA in literature will not help you get to the center of the labyrinth. But I understand why students feel this way, and why that feeling leads some students who love literature to become so frustrated with their courses they reject literature as a discipline. I know because I was one of those students.


As an undergraduate at the University of Florida I wanted to write novels but it seemed my literature classes were really political science classes in disguise — novels were presented as political manifestos rather than works of art. At the center of the labyrinth was a political message.


I don’t think my English professors at UF were bad professors. In fact, when I look back most of them were great. The problem was, I didn’t understand the purposes and methods of literary scholarship and criticism and I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.


This is how things go awry in the literature department.


The other day I was having a conversation with my department’s director of graduate studies and she said she felt English, as a discipline, did a bad job at explaining its tools and methods and making the distinction between each clear. I suspect every discipline is bad at explaining its methods to outsiders. I bet even most scientists, who could easily explain the basic steps of the scientific method, could not explain how science came to be codified and formalized during the 17th and 18th centuries as the primary means by which human knowledge is created. In other words, why the scientific method is what it is.


We need to treat every undergraduate literature student as an outsider. They don’t really know or understand what goes on in the lit department — they don’t understand what lit professors do other than teach lit. I certainly didn't when I showed up. As outsiders they need to be taught, in explicit terms, "these are the goals of literary scholarship" and "these are the tools we use to get there."

— 31 March 2013