Rescuing Literature: The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers at Sixteen

David J. Rothman

Sweet Sixteen?

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) held its sixteenth annual conference in Princeton in early November 2010 (program available at http://www.bu.edu/literary/). Many who attended may not have known that this organization was founded in 1993 (as the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, or ALSC; “Writers” were added in 2009) by a number of people associated with the National Association of Scholars, notably Steve Balch and several literary scholars, critics, and public intellectuals: John Ellis, Roger Shattuck, Norman Fruman, Ricardo Quinones, Paul Cantor, and others. As Fruman wrote in the first issue of the ALSC Newsletter in 1995, they all felt deep frustration about the direction of literary study: “The astonishingly rapid rise of the New Historicism, Cultural Studies and extreme forms of Feminist criticism all contributed to an acutely painful sense that the study of literature was metamorphosing into a morally compromised and degraded branch of politics and the social sciences.” They also thought that the Modern Language Association (MLA) no longer represented their interests, indeed was overtly hostile to literature per se.

The ALSC’s rise was swift. By summer 1994 it was an incorporated nonprofit, there was an office at Claremont-McKenna College, and the founders had received a $67,000 grant from the Bradley Foundation. By June 1995 the ALSC had over a thousand members, the first Newsletter had appeared, and planning was underway for the inaugural conference. Early on, Roger Shattuck nailed up “Nineteen Theses on Literature” to represent ALSC’s views. Number 4: “Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and human nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.” Hard to imagine these as fighting words, but of course the group was labeled reactionary, even though, as Christopher Ricks (later an ALSCW president) reportedly pointed out at the time, the organization’s view was not that “the problem is not the presence of politics at the MLA, but the absence of nonpolitics.”

Mixed Results

Given the high hopes for the ALSCW at its creation, it seems reasonable to ask how it has fared over the years. I have to report that the results are mixed. ALSCW has strong publications, good conferences, and includes many scores of members with substantial national and even international reputations. The challenges have to do with its overall conception of itself as an organization and its commitment to its mission. How the organization meets these challenges is what will determine whether it thrives or fails. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I just finished a three-year term as an ALSCW councilor, the association’s term for a board member).

The ALSCW has done much that is good. Its flagship journal, Literary Imagination, began publishing in 1999 and prospered under its founding editor, Sallie Spence. The current editor is the noted younger poet and critic Peter Campion, who maintains high standards. In summer of 2009 the journal published a particularly brilliant essay, Roy Winnick’s “‘Loe, here in one line is his name twice writ’: Anagrams, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the Identity of the Fair Friend,” which convincingly argues that, based on an abundance of epigrams in the poems, the “Fair Friend” of the sonnets is Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. The piece is a major contribution to Shakespeare studies. And in 2008 the journal published “Sometimes It Seems As If,” a talk by Robert Frost, recorded at Dartmouth in 1947 and never heard since, transcribed and carefully annotated by James Sitar.

Publication Woes and Highlights

Literary Imagination is excellent. But is that enough? Several years ago ALSCW stopped publishing the journal independently and it became a ward of Oxford University Press. While ALSCW controls the content, Oxford now manages the design, which has become mediocre. Even the table of contents strikes me as sloppy and the entire enterprise exudes the feeling of a dusty coterie periodical. This is not particularly surprising. Oxford is in the business of publishing specialized academic journals, which may or may not be attached to academic organizations. ALSCW, however, began as a membership association deeply committed to reform that then created a journal to help advance this larger project. The whole point was to be an “association” first and foremost, an organization that drew like-minded individuals together not only to publish worthwhile writing, but to take action.

The problem is that holding even the best possible conversations about literature is necessary but not sufficient. In this case, it reminds me a bit of trying to paint a burning house. Literature survived Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. It will survive our current cultural moment. In the universities, however, it’s another matter. Certain developments that prescient commentators have seen coming for some time are now upon us. Preeminent among them is the accelerating defunding and dismantling of literature and foreign language departments.

To its credit, ALSCW has been addressing some of these matters in its other publications. Literary Matters, the online newsletter capably edited by Katherine Hala, occasionally takes up pedagogical and curricular issues, but only ALSCW members receive it. More substantially, Forum, an occasional series of pamphlets, addresses such issues directly and publishing it may be the best thing ALSCW does. There have been four numbers in the series so far, of which two are particularly strong: number 1 (2004), “Writing Without Reading: The Decline of the Literature in the Composition Classroom,” a statistical study by John Briggs whose title tells its tale; and the current issue, number 4, “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey,” by Sandra Stotsky with Joan Traffas and James Woodworth. Stotsky’s superb study is all the more discouraging for its clarity and thoroughness, as it documents the fragmentation and systematic degradation of public high school literature curricula more carefully than any previous survey. Both of these studies should be required reading, but they are hard to find unless one belongs to ALSCW.

ALSCW Conferences: Ups and Downers

Another ALSCW strength is the annual conference. At the 2010 conference, held on the Princeton University campus, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Muldoon, and C. K. Williams gave poetry readings at the evening banquets; a panel on “The Common Reader,” moderated by the always witty and erudite Willard Spiegelman featured vivacious talks by Mark Edmundson, Phillip Lopate, Patricia Hampl, and Mark Halliday. A panel commemorating the centenary of Robert Fitzgerald’s birth and organized by his daughter, M.J. Fitzgerald, included reminiscences by former students including Dana Gioia, Elise Partridge, and myself, along with a critical talk by the gifted poet Phillis Levin, and this seemed to go well. Every year the conference includes critical seminars, and I participated in one in Princeton on “Teaching the Writing of Poetry,” chaired by Maggie Dietz, that was a bit diffuse (as such things often are), but well-organized, collegial, and energetic, with a minimum of cant.

The great bomb at the conference was a panel titled “Close Reading,” featuring a number of prominent academics more frequently associated with the MLA: Frances Ferguson (Johns Hopkins), Michael Wood (Princeton), and Garrett Stewart (University of Iowa). Ferguson and Wood’s language was thick and stuffy but tolerable; Stewarts’s interminable and dull address was titled “Stanley Cavell, Gieorgio Agamben and the Poe-etics of Prose.” Beware the dreaded cute hyphen-pun title. While this was but one talk, it was exactly the kind of thing ALSCW was created to counter—an endless, bloated, jargon-clogged display of impenetrable and self-indulgent nonsense in which literature was merely a weeping ghost. Most of Stewart’s sentences appeared to be about two hundred words long. I tried to listen, but soon had to give up in sorrow. I don’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

Burned Bridges

The panel on close reading took place because ALSCW’s president for 2009–2010, Susan Wolfson of Princeton, argued forcefully for building bridges with the MLA and other organizations. In addition to the panel, the ALSCW conference therefore also included an address from MLA vice-president Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford. (There was an ALSCW panel at the MLA convention in Los Angeles this past January as well.) Berman came across as a reasonable man. He presented a sober analysis of the greatest threat to language and literature departments today, which is on the face of it financial. In the current budget climate, he and others are now realizing, the areas most liable to be trimmed are language and literature departments. First on the block are the most vulnerable: comparative literature and foreign language programs at smaller public institutions. This is not a prediction, but already occurring. Berman walks his talk: he has defended such programs in print, most recently in November 2010 in Inside Higher Ed, where he wrote that “Language learning is not just an instrumental skill, any more than one’s writing ability is merely about learning to type on a keyboard” (“Foreign Language or Foreign Policy?” http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/11/23/berman).

The thing to realize is that the recent proposed closures are just the beginning. The elephant in the corner is the question why so many cuts to humanities programs are happening now. After all, there have been financial crises before. One difference, I would argue—a difference overlooked by Berman and by many in ALSCW—is that the humanities are so enervated and dispirited from decades of their own idiotic internal battles that they look like low-hanging budgetary fruit to administrators.

Slimmer Pickings

As many have noted, English and literature departments have been losing students for years. Partly as a result of this, at a number of schools where I have taught and where I have direct reports from colleagues, English department tenure lines have been slowly but surely evaporating until literature programs are reduced to service departments providing primarily composition, teacher training surveys, and a few advanced courses from senior faculty.

According to William Chace, professor of English and president emeritus of Emory, majors such as English and history have lost roughly 50 percent of their majors in America over the last thirty-five years, whereas business majors have increased by more than 60 percent. In “The Decline of the English Department,” Chace muses on a point Berman and many in the ALSCW now decline to confront, even as they seek to defend the humanities:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books. (The American Scholar, August 2009, http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/.)

Consequences

Some in the ALSCW fold have remonstrated with me that “the theory wars are over,” and that we should turn our attention away from the battles of the past. I strongly disagree. As Chace suggests, it is absurd to think that the current financial assault on language and literature departments has nothing to do with the behavior of organizations such as the MLA over the last generation. We can now see that, in the end, the greatest problem with the theory wars was not the nonsensical post-structuralist posturing of so many literature professors, tedious and shallow as that has been. Much of it is mere careerist nonsense and even to take it seriously puts one in dangerously close company with Confucius’s man who chooses to argue with the fool, thereby taking the risk that observers cannot tell the difference. Rather, the greatest problem has been the resulting balkanization of the field in the pursuit of novelty and prestige in the contemporary university.

Many in language and literature departments—having given up faith in their own field because it is not directly about the production of new knowledge and therefore has lost status compared to the sciences and social sciences—have desperately sought to represent themselves as being stocked with ersatz economists, anthropologists, sociologists, and legal and political theorists. The problem with all this is that most universities already have a law school, along with economics and government departments, thank you very much, and the professors in these fields rarely see much value in the claims of literature scholars poaching in their territory. So the reasoning in the dean’s office might go as follows: If you don’t care much for literature…indeed are yourselves suspicious about its very existence…and we already have law, sociology, anthropology, and economics departments…why, exactly, are we funding you?

Self-Immolation

Defending the humanities is a challenge when many in them are in fact hostile to literature per se. Those who think this is not the case should look at the current issue of PMLA (the MLA’s flagship journal). Even a cursory glance suggests profound problems. Here is Richard Klein, professor of French at Cornell, on “The Future of Literary Criticism”:

The future of literary criticism will be Derridean, or it will not be. And if it is not, it will have been Derridean, since it was he who first envisioned critically the possibility of a future from which literature—and, a fortiori, literary criticism—might be absent. (PMLA 125, no. 4 [October 2010]: 920–23.)

Ooh, that’s witty: there’s no escape! To which I am tempted to respond that the author may not have fully imagined “the possibility of a future from which…literary criticism might be absent,” i.e., the loss (excuse me, erasure) of his job. There are half a dozen similarly silly moments in this issue of PMLA. Space forbids, etc.; I’ll simply observe that if English departments and humanities programs are counting on people who write like this to defend their programs to university administrations, let alone their students and the public, it’s time to head for the lifeboats. Memo to MLA vice-president Berman: this is not the path to take to convince folks that the study of literature is all about our broader humanity.

Green in the Ashes

People still love literature. Creative writing programs are growing like weeds and the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs will soon eclipse the MLA’s convention in size. The larger literary culture certainly faces its problems, but there are bright spots. Literature will survive. The question is whether ALSCW will be one of the organizations with enough stomach to fight hard and publicly for humanistic education. Since Oxford took over Literary Imagination and, for a number of years, mismanaged the ALSCW’s enrollment and renewal functions, membership has dropped off by hundreds, perhaps as much as half. Many members of the board were quite uninvolved for a time; others argued, as noted above, that the theory wars were over, and also that they didn’t want ALSCW to be an activist organization. There are nowhere near enough younger people in the association.

All of the foregoing helps to explain why, when the recession hit, the association was particularly vulnerable. With membership and revenue already down, ALSCW lost major grants and, as a result, both its executive and program directors. While those who remained involved were among the most gifted writers, critics, and scholars in the country, the association was beginning to feel more like a shrinking club for the successful rather than an organization committed to reform with a strong sense of the larger stakes. Many ALSCW members enjoy tenure at prestigious institutions that can seem quite far from the ongoing funding and curricular battles in the rest of the profession. Among some in this group there has been a disdain for even talking about fund-raising, budgets, and the brass tacks of running a nonprofit corporation. All while the legislatures and the administrators sharpen their razors.

The hopeful news is that there are signs of change at ALSCW. Susan Wolfson rose to the challenge of running the organization in difficult times. Incoming president Greg Delanty is not only a gifted poet, but also a talented fund-raiser, as are Christopher Ricks and Rosanna Warren, both of whom remain deeply involved. Membership is slowly growing again and ALSCW has reoganized its relationship with Oxford so that the association now controls the registration process.

What remains to be seen is if ALSCW can refocus itself in such a way that, first of all, there is no allergic reaction to pursuing its own financial and institutional health through the best practices of nonprofit governance, and—even more important—recognizing that one cannot defend the humanities and many of those who now claim to practice them in the same breath. An alliance with the MLA may work, but if we are all to work together to defend the humanities in American education, we must find a common and honest rhetoric that affirms the literary imagination as the literary imagination, not as something that exists as mere fodder, say, for a distinction between Derridean and non-Derridean criticism. The stakes are far higher than that.

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