State of profession

Brian Reed, who appears to be a Director of Graduate Studies in University of Washington has recently gone through the application pool of 520 submissions into his English department’s MA/PhD program and has done us a service by reporting back on his findings. This (point 4. in particular) reminded me of something that I have long wanted to blog about. He notes with some mild crankiness (and honestly, it would probably be hard to fault him too much for that):

A surprisingly large number of students and professors maintain that we have moved into a new literary period, variously called post-postmodern, post-9/11, or post-ironic. There also appears to be a truly remarkable degree of agreement concerning the Great Books of the present day: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Blood Meridian, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thomas Pynchon, too, is cited over and over as the harbinger and presiding genius of the New Period.

This dovetails perfectly with my own experiences from the last year’s ACLA conference. Of course, there were plenty of panels also on Thomas Hardy and Henry James, but whenever the topic had something to do with modern American literature, those names that Reed mentions reigned supreme. If I could make one addition to that canon then it would be Don DeLillo, who consistently came up in the same setting and drew the very same epithets of post-irony and -modernism. At the same time, I was struck that there were no papers or indeed, hardly even any kind of references or informal discussion on any of the authors that I would have thought as those defining the American literature — such as Salinger, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald — or, for that matter, Philip Roth who has been seen as the main contender to the Nobel for a while now. It is as if people studying and teaching literature in the US are embarrassed over this particular body of writing. There appears to be some kind of a literary fault line that is marked by the publishing of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 (or perhaps it would be kosher to go back to Heller’s Catch-22 as a way of casual reference) — with everything written before that being a suitable subject of scholarly study only once you’ve secured a tenure and thereby don’t need to prove how very over Salinger you really are.

It may be that this curious exclusion has something to do with those authors and their books being a part of the standard high school curricula, which then supposedly makes them unsuitable for serious study.. anyway, I found it curious. As it happens, I will be attending the same conference this year again, in a couple of weeks — so we’ll see if something has changed meanwhile.


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