The literary culture of faking it

HUMANS like to own knowledge, we love to say that we know even when we do not know. There is the innate desire in us to be first and in the possession of knowledge, it is no different. And beyond any other, the world of social media perpetuates this desire. It is why we are ecstatic when our followers increase, when our tweet is retweeted a million times especially by a celebrity. It is the act of being in the know. More than any other time, we have a ton of information available to us at the click of a button yet more often than not, we are too busy to actually really know. For instance, literature requires that we know, that we take our time to go through the pages of a book, form an opinion and then discuss it but these days, we seem to skip straight to the last bit even in academic literature. The ever changing climate and endless online battles require that we lend our voice quickly with rapid information that we skim through on our timelines. Rather than simply admitting “I do not know” we fake it.

I read a post online once where a woman explained that she had written an article on a literary work and a man had responded with a counterargument that was far off the mark. He had admitted a few minutes into the discussion that he had not really read the book but he was absolutely sure of what he was saying because it was his personal opinion gleamed off of social media presumably. She had to respectfully explain that he was explaining a book she had written her whole thesis on and so between the two of them, she knew better. That is the perfect example of faking a literary culture or knowledge. You assume that a book must be important if everyone is talking about it so you read a post on social media or get a link to an opinion essay on the literary text and believe you know it. That little information is what you grandiosely repeat next time the topic comes up among your colleagues and since everyone seems to be blown away by your wonderful insight, you assume you need not bother. In other words, you fake it.

Like Karl Greenfeld points out, “we live in an era where it is easier to fake our way through any conversation, and pretend to have some knowledge of the subject at hand, because it is easier to pick up data and various bits of information from our social media feeds.” The real advantage of literature is in its having being carefully pored over and digested rather than merely engaging in it for the sake of sounding intelligent. The literary greats did not become great by being content with peripheral knowledge for its own sake but in the deeply fundamental process of acquiring knowledge to build up the mental capacity. And there should be nothing wrong in not being aware of something just because it is popular. There is no wrong done in admitting that there are certain Classics you would never read in your lifetime and that is okay too rather than coming “perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.”

The literary culture is a vast one that is exclusive and unless you are a part of the intellectual class you might find it difficult to blend in. But in a world that demands so much from us at the same time, it is getting harder to find the time to quiet down, take a moment and immerse yourself in a book. It is easier to scroll through a live feed or a post, understand it and take that as the law. It takes self discipline to actually really know and so most of us become content with getting the surface without really getting into it ourselves. Time is relative. It goes by so fast but literary texts remain the same whenever you read it. Twenty years from now the opening text of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” will not change but the culture and beliefs then would have changed enough to put new meaning into those words. I for one have never actually read the book but I have read so much about it to nod along whenever the subject comes up. That of course is the problem, I really should stop faking knowledge of that Classic text and just admit that is not my strong suit. It is time we changed the culture, stopped faking just to form personal opinions but actually be content with admitting our limited knowledge of a certain part of the literary world. The world would not end if we do. In fact, we will be more at peace. Literature is living and true and maybe it is time our culture starts reflecting it too.

  • Wale-Olaitan is of the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.