Literary Détente

Group created to be the anti-MLA and guardian of traditional literary analysis holds sessions and builds new relationship with ... the MLA.

January 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- In some ways, the session Saturday morning at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association wasn't exceptional. Five scholars gave presentations, reading poetry and prose selections to illustrate various points and talking about the significance of words, phrases and sections of various works. Speakers worried about whether they were keeping their talks on time and whether those in the back could hear. The talks received polite applause; the audience chuckled at appropriate points.

What was exceptional was that the session marked the first time that scholars affiliated with the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers appeared, identified as being from the group, at the MLA. The ALSCW was founded and grew in the 1990s as a force in the culture wars, with members talking about how they didn't feel welcome at the stereotypically left-leaning MLA and engaging in much public bickering with the larger organization.

With three sessions here, on topics such as "close reading" and Jane Austen, which build on MLA participation at the ALSCW's meeting last year, the two groups have decided to work together.

"A whole lot of things have happened in the last 10 to 12 years" to both associations, said Christopher Ricks, a past president of the ALSCW and the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. He said that when he joined the MLA and started attending its meetings 24 years ago, he felt that participants were "interested only in radical literary theory ... engaged with race and gender." Ricks acknowledged that this view was in some respects "a parody," and said that there was a similarly exaggerated view of the ALSCW as "dilettante belles-lettres people with our noses in the air."

In fact, as Ricks and others here noted, the MLA has always had numerous sessions on topics that would be viewed as traditional scholarship (even if those don't attract as much attention as more outrageously named papers dealing in some way with sex). And the MLA has gone out of its way in recent years to demonstrate its willingness to hear critics -- going so far as to have David Horowitz speak on a panel at the 2008 annual meeting.

The move to come here is largely the result of the work of the immediate past president of the ALSCW, Susan Wolfson, a professor of English at Princeton University. Her election as a vice president of the association in 2008 (which set the stage for her election as president) was controversial with those in the association who viewed her, in the words of Ricks, as "having fraternized too much with the enemy." But she was elected and moved ahead to build ties with the MLA.

Wolfson, a scholar of the Romantics, said that in her field, she never felt unwelcome at the MLA or unable to voice her views. But she acknowledged that some of her colleagues with other areas of focus did feel shut out. "It seemed that the MLA had become suspicious of and hostile to close reading," she said, and that discussions of many topics were "over-theorized" or dominated by "ideological critiques."

Today, she said that she has found the MLA receptive to a range of views, even if there are still plenty of sessions that she might not personally value. “There are 10,000 people -- almost 1,000 sessions. Of course you can find dozens of people in dozens of sessions who will annoy you, but there are many more that are surprising, stimulating, interesting," she said. "I don’t think the MLA has ever been unwelcoming to anybody."

The ALSCW is not looking to disband, and members here noted differences between their group and the MLA. As is evident by the "modern" in its name, the MLA has never tried to be the professional association for classicists -- while the ALSCW has embraced them. The ALSCW has never tried to organize job interviewing at its meeting, and has never tried to rival the MLA in size. Wolfson said that she likes meetings with about 200 people, where everyone is at every panel -- and that the experience of attending an ALSCW meeting is different in all kinds of ways from that of attending the MLA.

While maintaining a separate identity, the ALSCW wants to work with the MLA on common interests, not only on scholarship like that presented here, but also on policy questions. Wolfson said, for example, that she would like the groups to work together to deal with "the crisis" of budget cuts to departments of comparative literature and foreign languages.

While the ALSCW members here all agreed that it was time to engage with the MLA and to discuss literary theory rather than lobbing verbal grenades at the group, not everyone necessarily wants to get too close to the MLA. Ricks said he was completely on board with the idea of not fighting, but he said that there was a difference between not fighting with the MLA and giving it "a big wet kiss."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said in an interview that when the ALSCW proposed that the two groups collaborate, she was pleased with the idea of each group participating at the other's meeting. "We have so many interests in common as scholars of language and literature, that to have conversations about our values, about what we hope students learn, about what we hope to do as scholars, could be productive and worthwhile," she said.

Asked if she thought the MLA had changed since the time the ALSCW was created, Feal said that the dramatic change is not in the MLA or the ALSCW but in the realities their members face, including deep budget cuts and the threatened elimination of humanities departments at many institutions. "Given these circumstances, we all feel that our commonalities must triumph over our differences," she said. "We really are all in this together."

As for the charges that the MLA was hostile to certain forms of scholarship in the '90s, Feal noted that she was not executive director then and so couldn't comment. But currently, she said, proposals are judged on their intellectual merit and the qualifications of those who want to present -- without any ideological tests or limits. "All approaches are welcome," she said.

While the audience at the ALSCW session here appeared to be primarily people who share the literary perspectives of the ALSCW, seated in the back of the room was Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University and a leader of the MLA's Radical Caucus.

In an interview outside the session, Foley said she had been intrigued to see the group at the MLA. She said she had no problem with ALSCW being at the meeting, but wondered why "the MLA has extended such a welcome" to an organization that has opposed the MLA and the work of many of its members. "I can't help but think that there is a conservative agenda here," she said.

Foley said that she affirmed the right of ALSCW to talk about "the joys of close reading," but she said that the ALSCW and others unfairly describe close reading as superior to other forms of scholarship, such as the Marxist analysis she prefers.

"They falsely bait their critics," she explained, and suggest a distinction between close reading and other forms of criticism. Because Marxist criticism is premised on the idea that "there is a lot more going on than meets the eye," it is in fact a form of close reading. It would be more correct to say that the ALSCW is "fleeing to formalism" than to say it is engaged in close reading, she said.

"They are free to do whatever they want, but I would be distressed if this were to become a dominant tendency," she said.


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