Yes, Virginia, there can be a point to MLA.
There usually is not. For the slow reader who ordinarily spends 90% of his day alone in a room feeling guilty about writing too fast or reading too little, The Social Network of MLA is always overwhelming—all that preening at the bar in your Sunday clothes. The awkwardness is like constantly running into people you mistakenly slept with, except that you didn’t even get an orgasm out of it. And then, to go to the odd panel and hear what might be a perfectly good idea or reading set into the most boring arrangement possible; or to hear what is the silliest reading imaginable uttered forth with the conviction only a devout narcissist can manage; or to watch a graduate student giving his first talk literally wrinkling the paper he clutched in terror as he read (son, relax—the audience is all half hung-over anyway): these are some of the reason I too was half-hung over most mornings in Los Angeles.
For someone who tends to the gloomy side of life, the public face you must put on at MLA is exhausting. It took me many years to figure out, but I will tell you the dialectical secret to professional, MLA success: in public, you must always be relentlessly optimistic; you must describe every reading as brilliant; you must gush enthusiasm at your current project, or someone else’s current project. No negative utterance is ever allowed in public. In private, you must never utter anything positive. Catty comments would be too tame: as Exxon used to say, put a tiger in your tank.
Machiavelli might add: the tricky part is knowing which moments are public, and which moments are private.
And so I found myself, inexplicably—why, why, why do I go to these things?—at a panel at 8:30 in the morning that was chaired by Virginia Jackson. She was not scheduled to talk, but, through a number of snafus, gave a paper on rhythm in poetry (not an auspicious topic: people who like to talk about meter usually are people who really need a new hair-do). I won’t try to summarize her paper, in part because I would butcher it, and in part because, half hung-over, I didn’t have a pencil with me to take notes. And anyway, it will certainly be coming to a journal near you soon. But let me just say that it is not easy to be sharp, funny, and a little moving at 8:30 in the morning, even when you are still on east coast time. I left her talk thinking of all the things I could do with what she said, the fixes to readings I’ve been working on, the lectures I could make sharper. You know that little moment when you start to figure things out and every detail in the world seems suddenly to snap into place? I used to think it was an effect of getting the amount of caffeine just right, but maybe it is rather a result of someone else saying something very, very clearly to you.
That excitement, of course, was crushed the second I walked out of the room into the hotel lobby and ran into someone whose talent combines tedious readings, tedious delivery, and bad hair, all in one passive-aggressive package. But life, fortunately, has its odd lyric moments, little Roman holidays that have to come to an end. And when you get the blues, do what Johnny Cash and Virginia Jackson say: get rhythm.