Blog Post

Notes from the MLA

Under the cascading sunshine in LA, amidst job interviewers in their Sunday best, the slovenly postures of their professors, and the complaints of waiters that teachers are the worst tippers, there was a sense of common purpose in the MLA: the teaching of literature and its role in our lives.

A number of panels were devoted to this topic.
  
Sure there was the mass anxiety that lit crit books don't sell, that Skype may make live interviews at the MLA obsolete, and that people's attention is entangled in a thicket of distractions.
   
There was at the same time the exhiliration that we ourselves are entangled in a great technological and professional change, that we are staring out at the sublime transformations near and far.

But amidst the panels and discussions literature seemed to matter, for us at least.  After all, didn't Jonathan Franzen appear on Time magazine, the first literary author to do so in many years?  And this despite the enticing sirens of the Web. 
   
(On a side note, I could not help but notice in the December 3, 2010, issue of the TLS, its annual "Books of the Year" edition, where 66 contributors were invited to discuss the most important books of the year, not a single one mentioned Franzen's book. How is this possible, you want to know?  Given the unending hype endowing this novel with intergalactic meaning, should not one of these fictions writers,  journalists, and critics have selected Franzen's book?)
 
But lliterature seemed to matter to journalists as well.  The January 2, 2011 issue of the New York Times Book Review contained a special section "Why Criticism Matters."  Leading critics were asked to reflect on what criticism means today.  Of course, the discussion  had a journalistic direction with only one academic invited, showing one more time the divide between journalistic and academic criticism.  But it seemed that they were as concerned about  the future of literature as we were.  
  
(Perhaps, the wave of hysteria over the publication of Franzen's book had to do with its very existence. Here is a novel  after all that would save literature -- it promises wide appeal, could attract an Oprah audience, while also having literary ambitions.) 

So fellow critics, journalists, bloggers, and academics, we are in the same boat, as far as literature is concerned, rocked by the dangers of Chance and Change, as Mallarme would have put it perhaps. 

Captain Ahab is dead and so is Moby Dick.  And we seem to be lost in flotsam of the Internet.  So what will save us? 
  
In the New York Times Book Review a number of writers pointed to good writing.  Thoughtful sentences, compelling thoughts, they claim, will always hook readers' attention who themselves are fishing in the Web. Great prose will win out against hyperbole, mindlessness, and celebrity parading as quality.  Perhaps.  They hope. I hope, as well.
  
These critics are as  challenged by the future role of criticism as we are  in the academy. In any case, the good thing is that we are talking about it, especially at the university.  
  
As teachers of literature we too have the license to get enthusiastic about literature, not leaving this excitement to our students.  And we can try to tell them why it is important. After all, mathematicians don't have any difficulty in explaining to their students the significance of their discipline. Nor do astronomers, doctors, lawyers, physicists, or psychologists.  They speak confidently about their respective fields. 
  
Can't we?

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.