Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

I'd just like to draw attention to what seemed to me to be a slightly problematic assumption in this paragraph below: "This is an old story, but let's stop for a moment to consider what the many ads like the last one, for a tenure-track position in twentieth-/twenty-first-century American fiction, actually mean. They mean that you can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you're an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God's own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren't going to get".

I wanted to ask, if this hypothetical scholar is an expert in this huge roll-call of fine writers, wouldn't his/her interest have naturally extended to exploring say, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright (to mention a few names that immediately come to mind), just as further worthwhile examples of significant "American" writing? It appeared as though there is an either/or being evoked where there needn't be any, not at least in the questing of the "brilliant young scholar" who presumably is a genuine lover of the good stuff wherever he or she may chance across it, along with having to necessarily worry about carving out a "strategic" job-seeking niche.

And perhaps their criticism could practice such a boundless one-breathed love of any and everything fine, exactly as is reflected in the paragraph above, and open some breaches in all these demarcating walls. Which also reminds us that once names such as Bellow, Malamud and Roth railed against being corraled together in the rear-wagon of the term Jewish-American writing, and today, find their rightful place in the glorious heart of (at least one) American mainstream.

Rajorshi Chakraborti

Edinburgh, Scotland

Mar 12 2008 - 8:11am

Web Letter

Over twenty-five years ago, I turned down the English PhD program at the University of Virginia because the academic study of literature had abandoned its subject in favor of theories about its subject--or even theories about theories about its subject.

Such a self-referential approach to the subject of literature assured it a shrinking audience and growing irrelevance. I saw nothing but a dead-end.

Unless something changes, the navel-gazing that passes for literary scholarship will soon die a richly deserved death. Then, perhaps, students and teachers who want to use great works of literature to more fully comprehend life will return to the classroom.

Ben Rast

Columbia, SC

Mar 11 2008 - 8:17pm

Web Letter

The older I get the less willing I am to spend time reading fiction. I think probably we have been sold a bill of goods about the value of fiction. What once seemed more real than reality now seems rather artificial and contrived. English departments should probably be abolished, along with Comp. Lit. Let students study history, biblical scholarship and science. The rest is bologna.

Norman Ravitch

Savannah, GA

Mar 11 2008 - 6:54pm

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