December 20, 2008, 09:24 AM ET
Literary Experience and Literary Studies
This week’s Chronicle Review has three strong essays on literature and higher education, and each one is a mix of lament and devotion. Rita Felski, Steven Kellman, and Bruce Fleming signal a decline and offer an explanation, and their complaints overlap at several points.
For Felski, literary studies in the academy have grown so arcane and sophisticated that they have lost contact with the fundamental motivations people have for reading literature in the first place. Kellman observes that other distractions and diversions — “Web sites, movies, TV shows, CD’s, and video games” — have crowded books out of leisure life. “The disappearance of books is as catastrophic as the extinction of French or Japanese,” he says, “it would mean the loss of a mode of thinking and being.” And for Fleming, literary studies has turned into a coterie activity, with experts “killing” the love of reading by overemphasizing interpretative techniques as practiced by professor-priests.
Their pessimism is supported by some recent findings. According to the National Science Foundation, while Ph.D.‘s awarded in all fields in the U.S. rose by more than five percent from 2006 to 2007, the number of doctorates granted in the humanities fields fell by 4.6 percent. And just this week, the MLA reported that job advertisements are down 21 percent from last year. That number will probably get worse as the weeks pass, as more schools shut down searches in the wake of the financial crisis.
We might include other stats as well, such as the fact that average unit sales of monographs in literary studies have fallen down into the low- to mid-hundreds, and that the numbers of graduate programs requiring the GRE Literature exam continue to fall. We might speculate, too, about the extent to which the enormous growth of creative-writing majors has sustained enrollments in literary-studies courses.
It adds up to a bleak picture, and from what I’ve seen the leading practitioners in literary studies have grown less and less confident about the value of their discipline. Some of them have ideological reservations about what they do (literature is elitist, the canon is too white-male and Eurocentric, etc.), while some find the paper chase of publishing and research to be a deadening bureacratic process.
In any case, they are discouraged. Here is Felski’s opening:
“Literary studies is in the doldrums. Wave after wave of revisionism has washed over literature departments in the last few decades, bringing a mind-spinning miscellany of new methods and critical tools, from cultural materialism to critical race theory, deconstruction to disability studies, the new historicism to the new formalism. And yet, even as our ways of reading have become more searching and sophisticated, the stories we tell ourselves and others about what we do and why we have to do it have grown hesitant and faint-hearted.”
If Felski means to bring the question down to conviction about the “story” of literature, what used to go under names such as “The Great Tradition,” she is right on target. What has happened is that literary scholars put all their enthusiasm into various schools of thought and politics, reserving their strongest beliefs for adversarial points (against the canon, against mystification, against naivete, against the “natural attitude,” against sexism and racism). What they forgot was that if they didn’t argue forcefully for the positive and independent value of literary experience and literary tradition, nobody else was going to either. And if they couldn’t articulate a positive rationale for literary study, why should anybody come to them? Why respect the discipline if the practitioners themselves don’t respect their own content?
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