It’s always surreal arriving at the annual four-day meeting of the Modern Language Association. You land at a distant airport, check into a strange hotel, and there in the lobby are all the people you’ve ever known, former teachers, former students, ex-lovers, ex-spouses, old friends and (last year’s useful word) old frenemies – people you don’t like but may someday need. The conference attracts literary scholars from all over the world. Sipping espresso at an outdoor café, I met a Swiss critic of contemporary French fiction, on his first trip to the United States. He was shocked by American coffee, but calmly prepared for the MLA. ‘J’ai lu David Lodge,’ he boasted, brandishing his tattered copy of Small World.
Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995
You often give space to academic critics like John Sutherland to complain about the hard time academic critics are having in Great Britain. Now you give space to an academic critic like Elaine Showalter to complain about the hard time academic critics are having in the United States (LRB, 9 February). Could you give some space to the question whether academic critics should have anything but a hard time, considering how little they contribute to the actual creation or genuine appreciation of art or literature or anything else? What is the use of the Modern Language Association, or indeed of any of the university departments of language or literature or humanities, to the cultural life of this or any other country?
Vol. 17 No. 6 · 23 March 1995
I take it that Nicolas Walter, despiser of academic language and literature departments (Letters, 23 February), does not know how much you have to care for books if you are to persist in squeezing into academia at this time; thinks that Auden and Lowell and Toni Morrison and Douglas Dunn were being foolish, mercenary or whimsical when they agreed to associate themselves with university departments; thinks that Johnson and Coleridge and Seamus Heaney shouldn’t have squandered their energies on all those critical essays; can go through the shelves of Dillons’ Lit Crit department without finding any evidence of feeling for culture or anything to enhance his own understanding of it; is unaware of the extent to which academia fuels and sustains literary publishing in general; thinks that the thousands of young people who unaccountably wish to spend three years thinking and talking about syntax and metaphors should be stopped from doing so; has never read William Empson or Christopher Ricks; has some special motivation for his animus which he would be reluctant to disclose; wishes that the LRB was more like the Literary Review; is a friend of John Major; and is looking for trouble?
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
In her Diary on the Modern Language Association’s San Diego convention (LRB, 9 February) Elaine Showalter refers to ‘a cluster of good bookstores among the bodegas and funky coffee-bars in a district misleadingly called Normal Heights’. I’m not sure about what she thinks is abnormal about this neighbourhood, long known to many of its inhabitants as Barrio Normal. But it certainly would not be a normal California community if it included any bodegas. Such stores are Caribbean Hispanic, mainly Puerto Rican, retail establishments both common in and peculiar to large East Coast US cities such as New York, Newark and, I suppose, the Princeton-based Showalter’s nearby Trenton. In the predominantly Mexican and Central American West Coast Latino areas such as San Diego’s Normal and Logan barrios, East Los Angeles (where I reside) and San Francisco’s Mission District, the little neighbourhood stores are all known as tiendas and mercados.
Instead of selling Malta soft drinks and Pan francés, tiendas and mercados sell Penafiel and tortillas.