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Professing Literature in 2008 | The Nation

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Professing Literature in 2008

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Professing Literature, Gerald Graff's history of American English departments, has just been reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition (Chicago, $19). Published at the height of the culture wars--it came out a month before Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind--Graff's book brought a cooling sense of historical perspective to the inflamed passions of the moment. We'd been having the same arguments, it turned out, since universities started teaching English literature in the middle of the nineteenth century. The positions may have changed, but the issues had not. Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists, but across the barricades of each revolution, the same accusations were flung: obfuscation, esotericism and overspecialization; naïveté, dilettantism and reaction. Teaching versus research, humane values versus methodological rigor, "literature itself" versus historical context.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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What's happened since? Graff's new preface reaffirms his belief that the answer to the mutual isolation of competing critical schools is to "teach the conflicts," but it doesn't tell us what's happened in the past twenty years (which happen to be the twenty years since I decided to go to graduate school). Broadly speaking, the past two decades have seen a move back toward historicism from the purely rhetorical realms of deconstruction: postcolonialism, New Historicism, cultural studies, history of the book. But the uniqueness of Graff's study was its attempt to offer, in the words of its subtitle, an "institutional history," not merely a chronology of intellectual trends. What's been going on there, at the more fundamental level of institutional structure and practice?

There's no better way to take the profession's temperature, it seems to me, than by scanning the Modern Language Association Job Information List, the quarterly catalog of faculty openings in American English departments. If you want to know where an institution is at, take a look at what it wants. The most striking fact about this year's list is that the lion's share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the "service" component of an English department's role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you've got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.

That's more than half the list, and we still haven't gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what's left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. "Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures." "Postcolonial emphasis" is "required." "Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable."

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. And there weren't that many jobs in American fiction to begin with. Graduate students aren't stupid, not even in practical terms, not anymore. So nearly everyone is studying at least some minority literature, and everything else--not the totality of what's valuable in twentieth-century American fiction but certainly the preponderance of it--is getting studied a lot less.

To be fair, the list reflects not so much the overall composition of English departments as the ways they're trying to up-armor themselves to cover perceived gaps. More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: "Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies"; "literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture"; "visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies." The items on these lists are not just different things--apples and oranges--they're different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions--apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two. There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism--whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children's literature, even in something called "digital humanities."

What's going on? Three things, to judge from their absence from Graff's history, that have never happened before. First, the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we've gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more "practical" majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.

In other words, the profession's intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers. This is also unprecedented. However bitter the ideological battles Graff described, they were driven by the profession's internal dynamics, not by what our students wanted, or what they thought they wanted, or what we thought they thought they wanted. If grade schools behaved like this, every subject would be recess, and lunch would consist of chocolate cake.

Graff's critical movements were proud, militant insurgencies, out to transform the world. This year's Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It's not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It's the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star--a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom--emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market's long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the "conflicts" still exist, but given the larger context in which they're taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

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