A reflection on the Modern Language Association annual convention and its impact over the years (opinion)
For the first time since 1984, I am going to miss the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. Really. Even I’m surprised. For years, being torn away from the best of family holidays was like being yanked out of my cozy nest and dumped into the icy ocean. Having thought of it as a burden for so long, I am shocked to discover just how much I am going to miss it.
Why so dramatic, Lindsay? Slow down. In fact, I will miss the MLA this year for multiple reasons. First is COVID, of course, which necessitated that the meeting be called off. Second is the fact that the university that houses the publisher in which I work now is seeking to unload workers so it can shrink its budget dramatically, and I am taking their offer for early retirement. But how early is this retirement? What’s early anymore? I am 73.
And the third reason that I say I am going to miss it is the plain old sense of the word “miss” — meaning I am going to regret not being there at my booth welcoming authors. I will miss checking in with old friends, emphasis now on old. I will be sad.
I talked a few days ago with Stanley Fish about his memories of the MLA — he’s still going strong — and he remembered that it took him a while to realize how lucky he was seeking jobs. Not just because of his chutzpah, but because when he first went on the job market, it was a seller’s market, even though his dissertation was on who? The Tudor poet and satirist John Skelton. Still did fine. Stanley’s experience was not — surprise! — normal. Nothing normal about Stanley. He realized he was not the typical attendee of the MLA with a jolt one day when he saw an unhappy fellow sobbing in a phone booth, back in the days there were phone booths. He remembers also, by contrast, worrying about the safety of a scholar while he was attending a late-night party in the early ’70s because she’d proclaimed to a whole room loudly that she had 26 interviews. He wondered if she’d get out of the hotel alive!
The MLA is now past its prime, and for this you can’t place the blame on COVID. The fact is that, for years, the MLA has been on the wane. Other academic conferences have been diminishing in size, too. For a few giddy decades back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Lollapalooza of academic conferences: “A three-ring circus of literary intelligentsia … A market as well as a circus,” as David Lodge described it in Small World.
No longer; the small world has been shrinking. Ah, you never miss the water till the well runs dry. But the grand old MLA is a shadow of its former self. The writing has been not just in the books we write, study and sell but also on the walls. Every year for at least 10 years, there have been fewer job interviews, fewer sessions and fewer publishers and book exhibits. Consider just a few facts of attendance over more than a century: starting in the Gilded Age and running until our Tarnished Age, the MLA had very slowly grown from being a small village to a big city. I pluck a few numbers from the record: 40 attendees in 1883; 240 in 1916; 1,100 in 1932; 3,049 in 1948; 10,600 in 1966; 11,750 (the most ever) in 1968. And then steady declines down to 7,300 in 2009; 5,710 in 2015; and 4,500 in 2019.
Yet the MLA still has a vital role to play in our intellectual life, as I’ll try to explain now from my own perspective. In order to tell you what the MLA has meant for me, I need to back up. Like that fellow in the phone booth, my own first negative impressions were based on my personal worries about interviews going badly for teaching jobs at the time I was completing my Ph.D. I picked up my diploma the same week in December 1976 that I picked up my first baby on the South Side of Chicago the week my wife gave birth to him. I attended the MLA as a noncombatant that same month. The hallways were filled with legions of fancily dressed, scared young scholars, none of whom would look you in the eye. Not even look your way. They rushed past you like the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Fear in a landslide of dust.
But my attitude about the MLA changed over time once I became a publisher and took a break from the MLA for several years by attending the American Philosophical Association meetings as a representative of the University of Minnesota Press. What a difference a different academic conference makes, at least for the connoisseur I was becoming, especially a conference in which my soul was not on the line! “They order this matter better” in philosophy. Philosophers did not care what they looked like. At the APA no one except a dean ever wore a jacket or tie. Most people attending were dressed like lumberjacks or farmers in bib overalls.
They held a mass “smoker,” still so-called long after people gave up smoking. All the major departments hosted tables in the main ballroom the night of the first full day of the meeting, and the leading members of the departments and the field sat at the departmental tables. Mein gott! Nothing like that would ever be allowed at the MLA. People with power were always secluded at the MLA; anyone important remained hidden in suites on the top floors of the hotel far from the polloi — suits in suites. After attending the APA from 1978 to 1987, I was relaxed enough to rejoin the MLA, and did.
What I call the go-go years of the modern MLA ran from, say, 1964 to 1984. That was a time of growth: more job interviews and scholarly exchange and bigger book exhibitions. Then a lot of negative press began to emerge about the MLA. When I was feeling bad about the MLA, I was willing to believe the bad things people said about it. But my attitude about it changed drastically in later years, and that’s why I am here to tell you the story of how that change took place and to stand up for the MLA as a serious workplace.
An Electrifying Time
An important and telling encounter took place before my engagement with the MLA would really start. I’d been alerted to the significance of a certain Paul de Man by a missionary from Yale University, who’d come to tell those of us in the hinterlands the news that literary studies was on the move and being shaken up. Thanks to de Man, the rules of literary criticism had been changed in New Haven. So surprising. Nothing like it ever happened before. “On a touché à la critique.”
Curious to learn more, I’d bought a copy of Blindness and Insight the week my child was born and I was granted the Ph.D. When I went to the MLA that year, I took my unread copy of the book to a session on literary history in which I saw de Man vanquish his fellow panelists, including the estimable Richard Poirier, who was visibly shaken by the scuffle. At the end of the session, I asked de Man to autograph his book. I was startled when he said, a glint in his eye, “So, just like having an athletic hero or a movie star for a signature?” That stunned me into silence. As a kid, in fact, I’d collected autographed baseballs from my favorite White Sox players like “Jungle Jim” Rivera. I collected my book, tried to collect my thoughts and moved on.
If I’d been a better soothsayer, I might have seen that the MLA was on the verge of the explosion of its go-go years. A volcano was just about to erupt, and by 1983-84, it had. The joy, the excitement, the buzz of that moment is captured best in three books by professors of literature: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, David Lodge’s Small World and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. For good measure, I’d also mention Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot, because he describes how the plot in which literature and the MLA revolved was ready to explode the way the stories in Lodge’s and Eco’s novels do. The plot had tightened up and was ready to spring boy-yoy-yoing! The professors were building a movement right there on Sixth Avenue at the Hilton hotel, a new Tower of Babel, out of the plethora of interesting books, ideas, events they were churning out. And these novels convey how tightly wound up this moment felt. The MLA stood at its beating heart and provided the arena in which the contest to define what the humanities were would be fought. Or so we believed. “The whole academic world seemed on the move,” wrote Lodge. It was on the move and also in the process of being monetized: “The American Express card has come to replace the library pass.”
Was it bliss in that dawn to be alive? I would not put it that way, so Wordsworthian, but it was electrifying. Keats’s somber words are better: “What men or gods [were] these [attending the MLA] … What mad pursuit?” Looking back I remember just how unsteady on my feet I often was then. The cacophony of talking and writing was exciting to some people and a bedlam to many more. Now that bright show has evaporated, dear reader, I recommend you not feel superior to me and my fellow convention-goers. Schadenfreude strictly forbidden.
One can feel the excitement of the time reading those who exulted in what was going on in and around the MLA star scholars Stanley Fish and Gayatri Spivak. At the last in-person MLA in Seattle in January 2020, I watched people react when the still legendary Gayatri walked toward me and we clasped each other to our bosoms. The crowd, diminished as it was, snapped to attention and marveled at the sight we made as if we were apparitions. Phantoms of MLA’s past, but real people.
But strangely, I did not feel so real. I felt we were in the process of fading away. In mourning the waning of that era, I am not thinking about articles in Newsweek about movie-star handsome scholars like Derrida dashing around in trench coats like Humphrey Bogart. What I am missing badly now and want to celebrate is the ordinary work that was conducted by so many in the decades during and after those go-go years when structuralism, postmodernism and identity politics burst on the American scene. I came to enjoy what might seem to be the humdrum stuff — the launching year after year of sessions that slowly developed assessments of thinkers and ideas, and launched new critical approaches to literature.
The real news about what was going on at the MLA, I contend, was not the media snarking about obscure or salacious paper topics but what happened below the radar. The real news never appeared in The New York Times or the scandal-seeking right-wing New Criterion or in Lingua Franca. It appeared sometimes in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education and in specialized journals and on the lists of university presses.
Meanwhile, I was finding the MLA increasingly valuable as time went on, and I learned to explore the options it made available to me to pursue intellectual goals. When I jumped ship and left teaching in 1977 to become a publisher at the University of Minnesota Press, I thought my careers as a scholar and possibly even as a writer were over. For several years they were, but gradually I got drawn back in, like Michael Corleone in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
And the MLA was the mechanism of this reeling in; it made possible my developing a hybrid career as a scholar-publisher. I had finished off several essays that were meant to be the first step of my scholarly career — essays on Italian Renaissance literary theory, poetics and comparative studies of English and Italian poetry. Unexpectedly, that writing on Renaissance literary theory fed into my interest in the contemporary Italian literary theory of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, and the University of Minnesota Press commissioned me to edit Paul de Man’s Critical Writings 1953-1970 and write a monograph-length introduction to that book. It appeared in 1989, five years after I left Minnesota, with the introduction, written before sunrise on the days I worked at Harvard University Press and cheekily (as I thought it) titled “Paul de Man: Life and Works,” a very nondeconstructionist title for a very nondeconstructionist essay.
Building the Case for Aesthetics
At its most basic, my job as an editor has been to be a hunter-gatherer, foraging for authors in the wilds of academia, hunting for authors and persuading them to publish with the publishing house I was working at, be that Minnesota or Harvard. At the MLA book exhibits, my job as an academic book publisher was to welcome all comers, but that did not mean I was required to let scholars hawking their wares go on interminably. I needed to listen up to a point, but then pick and choose. How? The hunter-gatherer editor must always be testing hypotheses about where a field is going and where it can be pushed to go. I was always asking scholars how their work was going to change the world. With that question I sorted the people whom I wanted to talk to from the ones I preferred keep it short.
My method was like the “Ancient Mariner” in reverse. Instead of my doing the talking, I wanted to see if I could provoke those asking HUP to publish their books to give me an attractive, big-picture account of what their writing amounted to — not some bitsy, narrow-gauge explanation that amounted in the end to the desire to add another line to their CV. If anything, my years of asking this question made me an opponent of blind productivity for its own sake or for the sake of tenure. The main virtue of the MLA for me was that it provided a broad field to search for people who would write books I wanted to read. And so I started pointing myself to books that needed to be written.
How will I miss the MLA? To understand how I will feel not to attend the MLA this coming year is to understand that I am like an addict who is being cut off from what he loves doing. For me my job is part of the physical condition of my being, so I am telling you something obvious about my life when I tell you my work has been for me an addiction.
And it follows that my relation to the authors I have acquired is that of a fan. A fan looks up to the stars. But “fan” seems too weak a word to cover what I mean. Frederick Exley wrote of his adulation for ballplayers: “Cheering is a paltry description. The Giants were my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation.” Baseball was more than a game for Exley, and publishing and working with authors at the MLA and at HUP was more than a job for me. I looked up and still do to all my authors, prospects and those already signed up. Everyone who writes was to me a star. That is why I have a vast library of autographed books and a vast archive of my handwritten records of my interviews transcribed with my authors. I took copious notes when talking to authors, and I did not just take dictation. It was like tennis. Plenty of back-and-forth or nothing.
And that is why the MLA was so much fun for me. Sitting in the booth, books and coffee at hand, was like being back in my mother’s kitchen. My mother had as many kids as Old Mother Hubbard, and there was constant hubbub in her kitchen; same for me at the MLA. I asked questions. I outlined scholars’ arguments on my yellow pad as they talked. I wrote down words in every language of the world and noted how words I did not know should be pronounced. I got the authors themselves to write complicated words and phrases in my notebooks.
I did this as speedily as possible but also slowly enough to really capture the argument and go back and forth with the author. As it turned out, often the authors who wanted to talk the most and were most interesting had not really worked out their whole argument; they figured out the things they needed to clarify in the course of our discussion. A good number of times, my interlocutor would ask me to send back to them a copy of the notes of our conversation because they’d made their project clearer to themselves in the process of talking to me.
Was my addiction to talking to authors and sizing up their work a mental illness? Exley asked himself that question, and one might ask it of me. But one thing is clear, says a long-term assistant of mine, Alison Law Kent, who observed me as I conducted my business at the MLA: the way I pursued authors at the MLA had an impact on my authors. They were often people who were starved for attention, working alone and getting very little notice for it from partners, dissertation advisers, colleagues and other students. They had found a topic no one else commanded and become the world’s greatest specialist on it.
To say they were glad to talk to me is an understatement. And as I had a capacity to become as insanely interested in what they were studying as they themselves were, something uncanny developed in the exchange. I was hardly the only editor who had these inspiring, idea-generating talks with scholars at the MLA. Besides myself I’d number Alan Thomas (Chicago), Richard Morrison (Fordham), Jennifer Crewe (Columbia), Catharine Goldstead (Johns Hopkins), Anna Sevarese (Princeton), Jerry Singerman (Penn), Ray Ryan (Cambridge), Doug Armato (Minnesota), Ken Wissokur (Duke) and Bill Germano (Routledge). These people I would call the friends of promise, because their midwifery has brought writers and ideas to life.
In its humble session format, the MLA also provided an important site for new ideas. A session paper may seem a pitifully small thing, but over time, all those tiny postage stamps pasted on one envelope can deliver a letter with a powerful message. Decisive in my transformation from MLA sourpuss to cheerleader was my decision to throw myself into the process of devising sessions for the meetings in order to further the academic agenda that I came to share with a number of scholars.
The first time I experienced the magic of actively participating in this way was when I answered the call of Japanese and English languages and literatures professor Masao Miyoshi to address a meta-problem of the MLA, namely, the crisis in academic publishing, a complex situation composed of many nonworking elements. The talk I delivered, “The Book Requirement Needs to Go,” about the linking of academic tenure with publication, provoked two senior colleagues in scholarly publishing to rush me at the end of the session threatening to punch me. We’d clearly hit a nerve.
In 2004, I published a small book based on my MLA talk called Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship that was translated into French, Chinese, Polish and Portuguese. I was coming to feel that the mechanism of the MLA organization as an institution could work for me if I allied with cooperative players and threw myself into the works. I had wondered why the internationally famous Edward W. Said wanted to be elected president of the MLA. I was surprised this famous professor cared so much to be elected president of a trade association. But I was beginning to think his commitment to the institution made sense. I was getting attached to the MLA.
Now converted to the session cause, I started to fight back against what I saw as the status quo of fashionable politics generated by Terry Eagleton and his publisher — me. What I set myself to do, slowly but surely, was to rebut the claims of my own best-selling author ever that love of literature and inquiries into aesthetics were the means by which an oppressive capitalistic power structure oppressed all the peoples of the world. I am not simplifying what Eagleton wrote in the book I launched in America in 1983 at Minnesota. Literary Theory was short and went down easy; Eagleton’s claims in this book were extremely simplistic and easy to grasp. It had, as David Lodge wrote in a review of the book in the London Sunday Times, “the kind of racy readability that one associates more often with the English critics who have set their faces resolutely ‘against theory.’”
The extended 1990 version of the book, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, much, much longer at 426 pages, added detail rather than nuance. He reduced what he was talking about and abused it at the same time: “What New Criticism did, in fact, was to convert the poem into a fetish.” “The aesthetic judgment, one might argue, is in this sense the very paradigm of the ideological … The aesthetic is the ideological.” I saw thousands fall prey to the Kool-Aid he — and I, too, I must confess — was selling.
I regret what I did then and have spent all the decades since working to undermine this ideology and revive the field of literary aesthetics by constantly proposing every year panels at the MLA that offered inquiries into aesthetics and made the case for aesthetics. The sessions my allies and I offered at the MLA almost every year from the late 1990s onward aimed to rehabilitate those connections.
There is a beautiful bridge over the Drina River that links Bosnia and Serbia. Over the course of human history, the bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. What I have loved about the MLA for the last 30 years or so is that it has allowed me to work with others to and painstakingly rebuild, session by session, the connections between humans and artworks that, with the help of my Harvard colleagues, I was also actively doing with my list. For more than 20 years, the MLA served as the vehicle for like-minded scholars to keep building the case of aesthetics in the academic world.
To close, a few things I’ll be remembering this January:
I’ll remember with pride how the MLA stood by Edward Said when the membership elected him president and his political opponents jumped on the institution for so honoring him. I am sure even the conservatives would have approved a statement he made at a session at the December 1983 MLA on his book The World, the Text, and the Critic. Said criticized his admirers speaking at that session who praised his revolutionary politics when he cautioned that any revolution that did not foster the tiny revolutions that happen to each of us when we read a book and have an aesthetic experience was not the kind of revolution he favored.
I’ll remember the best piece of advice I ever gave a writer. When I published her work The Secret Life of Puppets, I told the independent scholar Victoria Nelson to join the MLA. She took my advice. Later that year, the book won the MLA’s Scaglione prize for comparative literary studies.
And I’ll remember — and, oh, how I’ll miss — my coffee, my notebook and my MLA booth.
Lindsay Waters is, until the end of the month, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press.