Specialized Professionals on the Subway

I always knew I didn’t want to be an academic, and a story like this reminds me why. Oh God. The jostling, the ogling, the sucking up, the trend-sniffing, the star-chasing, the pretension. I’d rather be a prison warden, a chicken plucker, a bus driver.

And that’s especially true of the MLA. There’s something about…what used to be called literary criticism, but is now called, in a move that to my mind reeks of pretension and seriosity-envy, ‘literary theory’, that makes me want to grab a shovel and cover myself in mud. Which is odd enough, because I’ve always been a literary type. But then again maybe that’s why: after all literature, unlike other academic fields, has always been a ‘popular’ or general or non-technical subject. The mystification and guild protectiveness and fencing-off aspect of academic literary study is bound to raise the hackles of people who think that at a pinch we can read Shakespeare and Keats on our own.

And that thought may have something to do with the main subject of the article: the scarcity of jobs and opportunities to publish for literary academics. The sad truth is that it’s hard to care very much. How many books and articles about literature do we need? How much research can literary ‘theorists’ do, what sort of discoveries can they make? It’s odd that the article never mentions this aspect of the subject, for all the time it spends on cutbacks and job interviews. But perhaps it’s not odd after all, when the people in the field are so divided (or is it opportunistic?) about whether they speak to Everyone or only to Specialized Professionals. Witness these two comments from Stephen Greenblatt:

“We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club,” said Mr. Greenblatt. “It’s as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories.”

“It would be great to sell a lot of books,” said Mr. Greenblatt, “but you don’t say to a physicist or a chemist, ‘Write for a larger audience!’ Any serious profession produces specialized work that is obviously not going to sell tens of thousands or hundreds or thousands, but a very small number of copies.”

Well which is it? Whichever one is needed for the argument at hand, probably. (Not to mention the fact that surely literature is about more than ‘stories’, which one would think Greenblatt of all people would know.) But it’s that tell-tale ‘physicist or chemist’ that gives the game away. Oh dear oh dear. Sad but true: lit crit, even literary theory, is not physics or chemistry. It is a mistake to compare them. Now, where is my shovel…

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