English literature and composition

No Field, No Future

I gave a paper recently as part of a colloquium at George Washington University whose general title was "Futures of the Field." The tension in that plural -- "Future s" -- carried the weight of much of what I had to say about the current state of literary study.

My audience and I were seated around a seminar table in what has long been called, and continues to be called, an "English" department. The name "English," I pointed out, designates a primary activity involving the reading and interpreting of literary texts in English. (This would include foreign literature translated into English.) If we want primarily to involve ourselves with historical texts, we go over to the history department; philosophical, the philosophy department, and so forth. What distinguishes our department, as Judith Halberstam wrote in her essay, is the "appraisal of aesthetic complexity through close readings." Not philosophical or historical, but aesthetic complexity.

This model of the English department, and the carefully chosen canon of great aesthetic works which comprised its content, has in most colleges and universities collapsed. The value and nature of our reading (that is, when English departments feature reading at all, film, television, music, and material culture courses having displaced to some extent written texts in many schools), has radically changed, with the inclusion of cheap detective novels and poorly written political essays, for instance, now routine in departments that used to disdain prose that exhibited little aesthetic complexity and/or stylistic distinction.

On the other end, there's also now the inclusion of notoriously over-complex -- to the point of unintelligibility, never mind stylistic ugliness -- advanced critical texts in our courses. A character in Don DeLillo's White Noise says of his university's English department, "There are full professors in this place who do nothing but read cereal box tops." But there are as many professors there who read nothing but the densest, most arcane, and most poorly written critical theory.

All of which is to say that there is no "field," so there can't be any "future" or even "futures." That "s" in our GW lecture series title is trying to reassure us that instead of a profession-killing chaos what we have now is a profession-enhancing variety, richness, flexibility, ferment, inclusiveness, choose your reassuring adjective. Yet when there's not even a broadly conceived field of valuable objects around which we all agree our intellectual and pedagogical activity should revolve, there's no discipline of any kind.

Instead, there's a strong tendency, as Louis Menand  puts it, toward "a predictable and aimless eclecticism." A young English professor who has a column under the name Thomas Hart Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it this way: "I can't even figure out what 'English' is anymore, after ten years of graduate school and five years on the tenure track. I can't understand eighty percent of PMLA, the discipline's major journal. I can't talk to most people in my own profession, not that we have anything to say to each other. We don't even buy one another's books; apparently they are not worth reading. We complain about how awful everything is, how there's no point to continuing, but nobody has any idea what to do next."

The English department mainly survives as a utilitarian administrative conceit, while the English profession operates largely as a hiring and credentialing extension of that conceit.

If we wish to say that we've retained disciplinary integrity based on our continued close attention to texts of all kinds -- aesthetic and non-aesthetic -- that sharpen our ideological clarity about the world (or, as Menand puts it, texts that allow us to "examine the political implications of culture through the study of representations"), then we have already conceded the death of the English department, as Halberstam rightly notes. Indeed, since highly complex aesthetic texts tend to be concerned with personal, moral, and spiritual, rather than political, matters, we shouldn't be surprised to find in Halberstam an outright hostility to precisely the imaginative written texts in English that have more or less from the outset comprised the English department's objects of value and communal study.

Menand notes that the "crisis of rationale" I'm describing here has had serious negative consequences. Among a number of humanities departments that are losing disciplinary definition, English, he says, is the most advanced in this direction: "English has become almost completely post-disciplinary." (Menand has earlier pointed out the inaccuracy of another reassuring word -- interdisciplinary: "The collapse of disciplines must mean the collapse of interdisciplinarity as well; for interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. The very term implies respect for the discrete perspectives of different disciplines.") The absence of disciplines means the "collapse of consensus about the humanities curriculum," and this at a time of rapidly escalating outside scrutiny of the intellectual organization and justification of the expensive American university.

Further, "the discipline acts as a community that judges the merit of its members' work by community standards." When there's no self-defining and self-justifying community, English departments, Menand continues, become easy marks for downsizing administrators. "Administrators would love to melt down the disciplines, since this would allow them to deploy faculty more efficiently - and the claim that disciplinarity represents a factitious organization of knowledge is as good an excuse as any. Why support separate medievalists in your history department, your English department, your French department, and your art history department, none of them probably attracting huge enrollments, when you can hire one interdisciplinary super-medievalist and install her in a Medieval Studies program whose survival can be made to depend on its ability to attract outside funding?"

Halberstam acknowledges these effects and proposes that we "update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities." By "update," though, she means provide a decent burial: "The discipline is dead, we willingly killed it," and we must "now decide what should replace it." In place of the "elitism" inherent in close readings of aesthetically complex works, Halberstam proposes an education in "plot summary," a better skill for making sense of our current reactionary political moment (as Halberstam sees it).

Indeed throughout her essay, Halberstam attacks religious Americans, conflating religious seriousness with politically reactionary positions.

Now, a huge amount of Western culture's high literature involves religious seriousness. If, like Halberstam, you regard contemporary America as a fundamentalist nightmare, and if your very definition of the American university is that it is, as she writes, "the last place in this increasingly conservative and religious country to invest in critical and counter-hegemonic discourse," then you have a problem. You either want to steer your students away from much of this literature, since, though perhaps not fundamentalist, it assumes a world permeated with religious belief (or, as in much literary modernism of Kafka's sort, as suffering from an absence of belief), or you want to present this literature in a way that undermines, to the extent possible, its own status as a document that takes religion seriously.

It's just this sort of cognitive dissonance relative to the very body of knowledge that, as an English professor, Halberstam has been trained to teach, that in part accounts for the death of English. Halberstam's primary motive as a university professor is political and social - she has situated herself in an American university because that location is our last best hope for changing the politics of the country. Indeed, if there is a "consensus" about anything in many English departments, it lies here, in the shared conviction, articulated by Halberstam, that focusing upon and changing immediate political arrangements in this country is our primary function as teachers and scholars.

One assumes, that is, a socially utilitarian attitude toward what one teaches.

There was nothing inevitable about this turn outward to the immediate exigencies of the political and social world, by the way. As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, the intellectual is, more often than not, "cut off from practical life; revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind." But this withdrawal also drives the intellectual's critical power: "Only someone who keeps himself in some measure pure has hatred, nerves, freedom, and mobility enough to oppose the world."

No one's arguing here that we return to a very narrow canon, to uncritical piety in regard to the literature of our culture, and to monastic withdrawal from the world. Instead, what I'd like to suggest is that we return to the one discrete thing that our discipline used to do, and still, in certain departments, does.

A few years back, in The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, an English professor at Columbia University, announced "the sad news… that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and themselves… . English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase - a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions."

Delbanco continues: "The even sadder news is that although students continue to come to the university with the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one's own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself, this craving now, more often than not, goes unfulfilled, because the teachers of these students have lost faith." In similar language, Robert Scholes writes, "As our Romantic faith in the spiritual value of literary texts has waned, we have found ourselves more and more requiring knowledge about texts instead of encouraging the direct experience of these texts."

Notice the language here: direct experience, contact. The political and more broadly theoretical abstractions that have been thrown over the artwork from the outset, as it's often presented in class, block precisely this complex, essentially aesthetic experience. This experience, triggered by a patient engagement of some duration with challenging and beautiful language, by entry into a thickly layered world which gives shape and substance to one's own inchoate "cravings" and "longings," is the very heart, the glory, of the literary. Students -- some students -- arrive at the university with precisely these powerful ontological energies. Certain novels, poems, and plays, if they let them, can surprise these students, both with their anticipation of particularly acute states of consciousness, and their placement of those consciousnesses within formally ordered literary structures.

One of the noblest and most disciplinarily discrete things we can do in the classroom is to take those ontological drives seriously, to suggest ways in which great works of art repeatedly honor and clarify them as they animate them through character, style, and point of view.

One of the least noble and most self-defeating things we can do is avert our student's eye from the peculiar, delicate, and enlightening transaction I'm trying to describe here. When we dismiss this transaction as merely "moral" -- or as proto-religious -- rather than political, when we rush our students forward to formulated political beliefs, we fail them and we fail literature. Humanistic education is a slow process of assimilation, without any clear real-world point to it. We should trust our students enough to guide them lightly as they work their way toward the complex truths literature discloses.

Margaret Soltan
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Margaret Soltan's blog, University Diaries, chronicles all aspects of contemporary American university life. Her essay "Don DeLillo and Loyalty to Reality" appears in the MLA's forthcoming Approaches to Teaching White Noise. She and Jennifer Green-Lewis are completing a manuscript titled The Promise of Happiness: The Return of Beauty to Literary Studies.

Starting Out in the Evening

If you love a book, there is a special thrill that comes from seeing the phrase "soon to be a major motion picture." It is a thrill of dread. In the case of Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening, though, my initial reaction was disbelief. Starting Out, first published in 1998 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award that year, is one the best things I've ever read -- possibly the best -- about being a writer. But that makes it seem unfilmable almost by definition.

At its center is the relationship between an elderly novelist and the young woman who is writing a thesis on him. The most important and difficult truth Morton portrays about the life of an author is that so much of it must be spent alone. It can color a writer's dealings with other people in various ways, some of them quite complicated -- but that's not always the same thing as being dramatic. So how would this be portrayed in a movie? For that matter, could it be?

Well, in any case it has been, in a film that opens in a few days. "Starting Out in the Evening" already has some critics mentioning an Academy Award nominaton for Frank Langella's performance as a novelist in the final season of his career. Earlier this week, Langella was named Best Actor at the Boston Film Critics Awards and runner-up (to Daniel Day-Lewis) at the LA Film Critics Awards. Lili Taylor plays his daughter Ariel; as ever, the fact that Taylor is in the film is itself a recommendation.

Hurl all the accusations of phallocratic ocularocentrism you want but I do enjoy looking at Lauren Ambrose. She plays Heather, the graduate student who hopes to edit The Leonard Schiller Reader for the University of Chicago Press. Unfortunately the screenplay leaves her character rather thin -- as it does that of Casey, played by Adrian Lester. As Brian Morton originally portrayed him, Casey seemed very much to be one of the young African-American public intellectuals who were assuming the cultural role played by Jewish writers of an earlier generation. Despite a fine performance by Lester, that very mid-1990s dimension of the novel does not make it to the screen.

It is difficult to picture Brian Morton himself -- a wry and quiet man who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College -- walking down the red carpet during the Oscars. But who knows; the experience might make for another novel. At the very least, Starting Out in the Evening should now reach a new audience. The author answered some questions by e-mail, from which the following interview was assembled.

Q:I read "Starting Out" right after it appeared and identified most with Heather: the young person going to New York and trying to find her way, driven by admiration for literary heroes, but also by a good bit of raw ambition. About two years later, I reread the book and found that it was actually Schiller whose life felt most familiar, this time. His reputation, never huge, is fading, but he keeps on working, because persevering is the best a writer can manage, most of the time.

You somehow conveyed both of those kinds of experience without simply playing one of them off the other as superior -- the younger person treated as full of illusion, for example, or the older as being just bitter, or out of touch. There is a graceful acceptance of both phases of life as necessary and, in their way, right about things. At the same time, they have their limits. Heather really is a bit callow, and Schiller has armored himself against life in ways that he comes to regret. The balance is extraordinary. How did you do it? Where did the novel come from?

A: First of all, thank you. If I did portray both of these characters persuasively, I guess it was because I identified with them both.

In answer to where the novel came from—to a large extent it came from my attempt to work through my disappointment about the fate of my first novel, The Dylanist. The Dylanist was published in the summer of 1991, and went out of print less than six months later. Before it came out, I was aware that it might not live forever in the annals of literature, but I didn't really anticipate that it might have approximately the shelf life of milk. I was already 36 by the time the book was published; I'd spent thirteen years writing as seriously as I knew how; and it was devastating to see the book go instantly out of print.

Schiller, the main character in Starting Out in the Evening, is a 71 year old novelist who has written four books, all of which are out of print. So, although I'm not sure I was perfectly conscious of this when I was actually writing the book, I think that by writing about him, I was asking myself what it would be like if I spent the rest of my life writing novels that didn't do any better than The Dylanist had. I was trying to ask myself whether a writing life that came to nothing in terms of external recognition would be worth living.

Photo: Roadside Attractions


I used different parts of my own experience in writing about Heather. Her initial love for Schiller's work, her feeling that reading him was such a profound communion that it almost felt as if he was somehow interested in her as deeply as she was interested in him, seemed like an an experience that any reader has from time to time. (Schiller's nothing like Raymond Williams, but I kept having this experience as a reader of Raymond Williams's work all through my twenties and thirties.) After she meets him and grows disillusioned with him, starting to suspect that his monomaniacal focus on writing had drained his later work of vitality—well, the questions she was asking about him are questions I've asked about myself.

Q: Interesting to think of Raymond Williams as a source for Schiller. You edited the review section of Dissent when Irving Howe, one of its founders, was alive. I always figured he there in the novel, too, somewhere. Is that wrong?

A: No, it's right. I worked with Irving for 10 years, and learned from him, and loved him. My mental picture of Schiller's body -- his height and weight and the way he held himself and moved -- is drawn almost completely from Irving, or rather, from the way Irving appeared near the end of his life. And you could say that Schiller's attitude toward his own writing had something in common with Irving's attitude toward democratic socialism.

By the end of his life, I sometimes thought that Irving's fidelity to democratic socialism might be summed up in T.S. Eliot's line: "Sometimes we must fight for something not in the belief that it will triumph, but in order to keep the idea of it alive." (I can't remember exactly how it goes, but it's something like that.) Schiller was completely uncertain about the strength of his own gifts; he kept writing not because of any faith that his work would live on, but simply in order to pay tribute to his own conception of beauty, whether or not anything he wrote would ever fulfill it.

Also, Ilana Howe, Irving's widow, thinks that Schiller's nearly empty refrigerator was based on hers and Irving's, but I think I was just describing my own.

Q:Some scenes in your novel are not so much satirical as sharply observed. There's a bit about how all the up-and-coming literary editors in New York have exactly the same editions of the same authors on their shelves, for example, and how someone could sneak into their apartments late at night and exchange their libraries without anyone noticing. In another scene, you describe how a young writer who is on-the-make is just a little too amused at the jokes of a magazine bigwig. Did anybody reading the book protest? When I first read it, the part about the guy laughing too hard gave me a brief, paranoid flashback to my 20s.

A: No, nobody's ever complained. In some of my books I've had characters who were too obviously based on people I knew, and who were portrayed very unkindly -- caricatured -- and I've hurt a few people that way, which is something I'm not proud of. But that's a different story. I can't remember anyone feeling personally insulted by any of the scenes from literary life.

About the time we met in 1990 -- are you implying that the things I said that day weren't really that amusing?

Q:Let me plead the Fifth on that one..... Some novels -- even works of "literary fiction," as the expression goes -- feel destined to end up on screen. The possibility of adaption for film now often seems to condition the writing of a novel, or the experience of reading it, or both. But I've never thought that was the case with your work. How did it come to pass that Starting Out in the Evening turned into a movie?

A: I never imagined it as a movie either. There's so much interiority in the book -- so much "Was she thinking I was thinking what she was thinking I was thinking?" Kind of hard to film.

It became a movie because Fred Parnes thought he could see a movie in it. Fred is the kid brother of one of my best friends from high school, and he'd already made two movies -- a documentary about the a capella group The Persuasions called "Spread the Word," and an indie comedy called "A Man Is Mostly Water." Fred wrote a screenplay along with his writing partner, Andrew Wagner, who ended up directing the movie. They put it through many, many drafts, none of which I saw. They asked me if I wanted to look at it, but I didn't. I understood that in order to turn the book into a movie, they'd have to change a lot of things around.

I knew Fred well enough to respect his integrity -- I knew that whatever changes he made, he wouldn't turn Schiller into an elderly New York Intellectual who had a little business selling skag on the side. We wouldn't have a scene where Schiller, sick and tired of years of critical neglect, sticks a Beretta under his belt and goes out to gun down James Wood. So, since I trusted Fred's integrity, I didn't want to be standing there breathing down his neck, saying "Schiller would never do that! Heather would never say that!"

Q:What's it like to see your characters on screen, in the shape of famous actors?

A: When they were shooting the movie, Fred told me that it was remarkable to see Langella arrive on the set each day, a strapping Italian in a leather jacket, and then, after putting on a button-down shirt and a tie and a pair of glasses, transforming himself into an infirm Jewish intellectual. I only visited the set for one afternoon, but I instantly saw what he meant.

They were preparing a scene; people were bustling around and making a lot of noise; and Langella was sitting in a corner, buried in Leonard Schiller's overcoat, looking down, reading something from an index card he was holding in his hands. Looking at him, solitary in the midst of all that activity, it seemed as if he'd somehow managed to create a zone of quiet around himself. You could almost touch it. As I watched him, I thought, "He's got it."

John le Carré had a character named George Smiley in many of his books; after Alec Guinness played Smiley in two miniseries -- played him brilliantly -- le Carré said that he couldn't write about Smiley anymore. He said that Guinness took the character away from him. I'd never had any plans to write about Schiller again, but if I had -- well, I won't say that Langella's performance would have made it impossible. But it was so damn good that I would have had to work hard to wrestle him back.

Q:Langella's performance really makes the film. It's no surprise that the expression "Oscar-worthy" has come up in describing it. I found the final scene overwhelming -- lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, a sense that the whole course of Schiller's life was concentrated there in the expression on Langella's face.

But.... how to put this.... An awful lot of your novel isn't on screen. Most of the characters and incidents are there, but only a very small part of the spectrum of tone. As a movie, "Starting Out in the Evening" is pretty solemn, while one of the things I love about the novel is how it moves between serious and comic perspectives. How do you feel about that? Was it something you just accepted as inevitable?

A: Well, if you have a song and somebody does a cover version, you have to expect that they're going to interpret it in their own way. Mostly, I'm flattered that Fred and Andrew made a movie of it, and I'm glad that it's led a few people to discover the book.

Q:You teach writing at Sarah Lawrence. Have you had students who know you as the author of Starting Out in the Evening? Who imagine themselves as the Heather to your Schiller, perhaps? Do you expect a rush of people trying to audit your classes and show you their screenplays?

A: The student community at Sarah Lawrence has somehow intuited that I shun the limelight, and has tactfully conspired to help me feel as if I'm working in obscurity, a condition in which I thrive.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

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