Intellectual Smack Down: Kicking A$$, Taking Names

April 19, 2012, 8:44 am

This seems to be smackdown week among the intelligentsia. Let’s have fun with it.

First of all, there’s nothing I like better than some good snark, but I can’t understand why B.R. Myers at The Atlantic felt it was necessary to do a full tilt trashing of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown 2011). I sometimes worry that book reviews are just an arm of the marketing department, but no fear here. Myers hates, hates, hates this book.  And you know what else he hates? The middlebrow reading public, MFA programs, magazines that promote novels, authors who get large advances, authors who are well-connected, readers who are dumb enough to be led to the literary slaughter by mass media book promotions, small novels that are a big hit because they have pretended to be small novels but are actually figments of some marketing department’s imagination, and people with no authentic education or taste who read a book just because a friend recommended it.

Be careful buddy: that last criticism could put The Art of Fielding in a category with game-changing novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). Even though I liked Harbach’s book enormously and think it is far more complex than Myers does, I don’t think it reaches the standard of high art. On the other hand, should I be embarrassed to have liked it just because “everyone else” did? Please.

Words Myers uses to describe Harbach’s novel include “shallow,” “trivial,” and “high school-level.”  Given the prominent role that an intergenerational gay romance plays in the plot (the younger lover is a brilliant multiracial student and the older lover a bisexual, white college president), and that Myers dismisses the depiction of this intellectual/sexual bond as on the level of “young adult fiction,” you have to ask: is homophobia at work? Is the seamless blending of this love affair into a plot where love appears in many complex forms intolerable to Myers?

By the by, what young adult fiction can you name in which a teacher and a student are having a hot affair? Enquiring minds want to know.

Can we explain how Chad Harbach wrote such a terrible, and yet successful, book? Why yes.  The proliferation of graduate writing programs. “Obviously the nation’s M.F.A. programs still teach no solution to the main problem facing today’s young ‘social’ novelist,” Myers asks: “How to offer a realistic portrayal of the most garrulous generation in American history without boring the reader?”

I can’t quite imagine what was in James Bennet’s mind — or more properly, the mind of the Atlantic’s book review editor — to publish such a piece long after Harbach’s novel became a bestseller and after the hot buzz about it had largely subsided.  Perhaps this smack down was meant to anticipate the possibility that The Art of Fielding would win the Pulitzer?

Well, no chance of that, since Ann Patchett has the Pulitzer Board on the mat over at the New York Times for their failure to award a fiction prize this year: see “And the Winner Isn’t” (April 17 2012).  Interestingly, in naming all the novels that might have won this prestigious award, she does not mention her own State of Wonder (Harpers 2011).  Acknowledging that the failure to award a Pulitzer is not unprecedented, Patchett nevertheless insists that the marketability of fiction at this perilous moment requires the publicity that the honor confers. “The brick-and-mortar bookstore,” she writes, as a part owner of one, “is not exactly a thriving business model… and the publishing industry, especially since the Department of Justice has decided to be Amazon’s bodyguard, is struggling as well.”

And yet, is this a reason to give a prestigious national award when no one book seems to emerge as a clear winner?  I think not.  As a veteran of numerous academic prize committees, I can’t tell you how quickly a committee can want to cave and make the award to two, or even three books. People who you would never imagine as vulnerable to spasms of empathy often want to confer honorable mentions to spread the love around just a little bit more.  I heart Ann Patchett for many reasons, including her work and her sometimes sharp tongue, but here we disagree.

Our final smack down is over at Bully Bloggers, where the BB’s take on “Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” It’s definitely worth your time to read this (although I would say to my fellow Bloggers, hey, a blog is not a journal where you publish a whole panel and expect that a lot of people will make it to the end.  Break it up into a series.)

Celebrating Jack Halberstam’s new book The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) the fabulousness of which I have shilled earlier at Tenured Radical, the group (Halberstam, Lisa Duggan, Gayatri Gopinath, José Esteban Muñoz, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ann Pellegrini) also takes on Michael Warner’s recent queer studies retrospective in the  Chronicle of Higher Ed (“Queer and Then,” January 1 2012).  Writing to commemorate the end of Duke’s Series Q, which published many early classics in the field (is it un-queer to say a text is classic?) Warner speculates on how queer studies continues to make distinctive contributions.  However, queer scholarship has drifted from its political origins, acquiring many of the characteristics of a conventional academic field while at the same time ceasing to be a common project:

Queer theory in this broader sense now has so many branches, and has developed in so many disciplines, that it resists synthesis. The differences have often enough become bitter, sometimes occasioning the kind of queerer-than-thou competitiveness that is the telltale sign of scarcity in resources and recognition. That impulse can be seen, for example, in the title of a special issue of Social Text called “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” And given queer theory’s strong suspicion of any politics of purity, it is ironic that queer theorists can often strike postures of righteous purity in denouncing one another. The Gay Shame Conference at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2003, for instance—to discuss aspects of lesbian and gay male sexuality, history, and culture that “gay pride” had suppressed—featured a remarkable amount of mutual shaming, as though everyone had missed the point.

I’m not sure that Warner’s article is really intended to announce the death of queer studies, although I may have misread it.  The central issue that the Bully Bloggers raise, other than declaring that they’re not dead yet, is whether it is possible to create a field of study that is so revolutionary that it can insist on its scholarly chops and simultaneously makes everything that constitutes conventional  ”academia” irrelevant. In other words, as Halberstam notes, Warner’s

pronouncement [is] premature and even immature! Not only is queer studies not dead, but it was never trying to be the kind of thing that would eventually be bypassed or made redundant later. That notion of a set of ideas that have currency until they are replaced is part of a straight temporality that queer studies has tried to upend and decenter.

It’s worth thinking about, at any rate. I don’t entirely agree with all of the premises stated in the Bully Bloggers post:  for example, the claim that queer studies is a more free field of inquiry because it has the unique distinction of never having coalesced as a discipline is debatable. I think there is plenty of evidence that queer studies has all the trappings and conventions of other fields that straddle numerous disciplines and practices, beginning with the fact that one selects referees in the field as outside experts in tenure and promotion cases. We might also take the existence of this interesting panel as an example that queers studies has institutionalized itself, albeit as a minoritized discipline.  Scholarly talent in queer studies has clustered in a highly meaningful way at and around New York University, as it did several decades earlier at Duke, through multiple distinguished appointments. Numerous creative collaborations also intersect at NYU: the journal GLQ, Bully Bloggers, the editorial board of Social Text and the NYU Press Sexual Cultures series. That this intellectual center is porous and open to transformation makes it no less visible as a location for intellectual authority and a set of recognizable techniques and methods.  Identifying as a discipline also doesn’t mean that a field of study must become one “the zombies of intellectual life” as Lisa Duggan asserts in her own compelling contribution, nor is it necessary to be anti-disciplinary to be intellectually flexible and playful in the ways that Halberstam’s work promotes.

One might make an analogy — as Muñoz does playfully and skillfully — between queer studies and academic formations like the Frankfurt School, formations that were fully disciplinary and yet pathbreaking.  Is Jack Halberstam the queer Adorno? Muñoz asks.  (I hope so — I never knew the other Adorno and it’s cool to get a second chance.) In other words, some kind of disciplinary claim is perpetually being made in the guise of no-claim when queer studies scholars start arguing about what they do and it is this that is worth watching.

Although I’m not sure it was necessary to kill off Michael Warner to declare the Eternal Life of queer studies, this Bully Bloggers post showcases some of the best writing and argumentative styles that the “field” has to offer.  This multi-authored manifesto is worth a read: if it is capable of such an efficient smack down, queer studies is definitely not dead yet.

We at Tenured Radical are blogging a mile or so up in the air and hoping that failure might be put off until a safe landing in Milwaukee is achieved.  Tune in for news for the Organization of American (Zombie) Historians Annual Meeting, held in conjunction with the National Council on Public History, April 18-22.

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