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.

For the first time in 110 years, the MLA held its December meeting in balmy and palmy San Diego instead of frost-bitten Chicago, Toronto or New York. The San Diego convention centre is a vast terminal-like space, with Piranesian escalators that mirror all too clearly to this symbol-conscious crowd the status anxieties of the profession. Going up? Going down? Who’s on the other side? Still, the conference was so huge that the ten thousand MLA delegates with their partners and families overflowed the glitzy downtown hotels and were housed up and down the coast, as far north as La Jolla, 13 miles away. MLA shuttle buses made the rounds, and beaming taxi drivers, who didn’t believe the pre-convention publicity (‘We expected about 150 woolly professors,’ one said), enjoyed a lucrative week. MLA members spent well over a million dollars on food and entertainment during the meeting.

Since 1978, when Lodge attended the MLA meeting in New York, what he called ‘the Big Daddy of conferences ... a three-ring circus of the literary intelligentsia’ has grown to four rings at least. There are now 2100 papers in 800 sessions, plus readings by well-known authors, meetings of over a hundred allied organisations such as the Edith Wharton Society (a Salman Rushdie Society had its formative meeting), a book exhibit, business meetings, and the annual job market. As usual, some flamboyantly-titled papers attracted the press, but after several years in which the MLA came under steady ridicule and attack from the political Right, 1994 seemed relatively unembattled. The MLA released a survey showing that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth were still the most frequently taught authors in literature survey courses. The convention coverage on CNN and National Public Radio was serious, and the Republican pundits had bigger fish to fry – word was out that they will soon try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, the primary funding source for academic research, and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. Gingrich is also gunning for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, home of Sesame Street and National Public Radio.

The NEA has been a declared target of the Right since the Mapplethorpe flap, but now the rhetoric is about budget cuts and élite tastes, rather than obscenity or political correctness. Why should ‘some poor worker out there with three kids’, Gingrich demanded, pay taxes for an arty TV programme he might never watch? Why should public money go to museums and orchestras, or to help struggling artists? Why should there be a government agency, however modest, that funds scholarly projects in the humanities, especially when Gingrich believes it ‘has gone off the deep end in proposing changes that are destructive of American civilisation’? Republican supporters of the arts have been rallying round the NEA this winter; but the normal Convention euphoria was dimmed by the prospect of another battle, not just bruising but losing.

The real news at the MLA was the economy: the job market for new and used PhDs is dire. According to the official Job Information List, there was a small upturn in 1994 in advertised positions, although it’s still well below the 1988-89 peak. There were a thousand interviews for these jobs at the MLA, followed by call-backs to campuses for the short-list and jobs for the lucky few. Good candidates in fields like African-American literature, where there is high demand and short supply, had as many as twenty interviews. Others, like a student in my department with a superb published book on Edwardian fiction, were lucky to have one or two; most of the jobs for modern British literature wanted post-colonialists. The big graduate schools sent faculty placement directors along to coach students on the market, distribute résumés, network with prospective employers, and offer moral support. The buzz in the halls was that search committees were gentler and kinder this time – there were fewer trick questions or harsh interrogations.

Kind or cruel, there are not enough jobs to go around, and everyone thinks there never will be, as predictions of a wave of faculty retirements in the Nineties have been countered by deep cuts in higher education. Instead of the annual satire on sex-crazed academics in the New York Times, the story this time was about ‘freeway fliers’, the academic gypsies who piece together part-time jobs at different colleges. ‘All I want to do is teach,’ lamented a specialist in early American literature who drives a hundred miles a day to teach at three different campuses. ‘It’s not like I want to rob a bank. What else can I do with a PhD in English?’

Inability to come up with answers to that question, or even to take it seriously, was at the heart of many earnest discussions of the job crisis at the MLA. Faced with the moral dilemma of training expanding numbers of graduate students for shrinking or non-existent jobs, and using them as low-cost teaching staff in fields where apprenticeship now can take up to fourteen years, many faculties opted for the Malthusian solution of admission control. Apart from the problems of implementing disciplinary contraception in big departments dependent on graduate student labour and small ones dependent on graduate seminar prestige, limiting enrolments is at best a clumsy tool. When programmes drop below a certain critical mass, it becomes impossible to offer a full range of seminars, or to provide the intellectual community that is part of professional formation. And scholarly talent can’t always be predicted early on; PhD programmes in the humanities have a notoriously high drop-out rate, and some of the leading figures in literary studies today might have looked like bad admissions risks, coming from obscure colleges with undistinguished records when they were young.

Why can’t PhDs in the humanities assume they have more choices than teaching at universities or robbing banks? There are some notable recent success stories, from Newt Gingrich, with a PhD in history, to Robert Preston, an English ABD (all but dissertation) whose latest non-fiction book, The Hot Zone, is a bestseller. In bad times, the MLA has provided expert advice on non-academic employment. But the graduate programmes themselves have continued to reproduce academics trained to speak and write for each other, and despite the recent interest in cultural studies, have engendered a narrow mentality in which jobs outside universities seem like failure. On the other side, the traditional anti-intellectualism of American society, especially in a year when Forrest Gump and Dumb and Dumber (or Gump and Gumper) were the big box-office hits, makes employers reluctant to hire ‘over-educated’ PhDs. Cutting back on graduate admissions, if indeed it happens, will be a draconian remedy to the current crisis, punishing both those who want to study literature beyond the undergraduate level, and those who are eager to teach them. It would be better to find ways to expand the usefulness of the degree, or to promote graduate study, like travel, as broadening.

Job interviews took place off-stage and behind the scenes, and in the lobbies of the Marriott and the Hyatt, MLAers mingled with costumed football fans in San Diego for the Holiday Bowl between Michigan and Colorado State. Anyone wearing a green and yellow sweatshirt, with ram’s horns on their head, was probably there for the football; a skinhead dressed in black with several earrings was probably an assistant professor; but at the convention centre security guards checked badges to make sure no civilians slipped into sessions on ‘Mayan Textual Practices’ or ‘Pierre Loti Today’.

The MLA offers something for everyone, including send-ups of its own proceedings (Session 482 was ‘How to Stop a Long-Winded Speaker: A Metapanel’). On the second day, at 3.30 in the afternoon, there were sessions on Wagnerian opera, performance theory, Asian-American literature, 17th-century French literature, contemporary feminist writing, Renaissance Spanish drama, visual dimensions of poetry, the teaching of writing, Irishness and late 18th-century prose, masculinism in Canadian writing, literary collaborations, plagiarism in the year 2000, Brazilian literature, Victorian myth-making, lesbian studies, Byron, Middleton, Melville, Stevens, Conrad, Woolf and Dante. In a sobering session on ‘Free Speech and Hate Speech in the Classroom’, a professor at New York’s LaGuardia Community College explained how she handles such student editorialising as ‘Jews are extincting African-Americans out of everything, even their very existence.’

A repeated theme of the conference was the past and future of feminist criticism. At a session called ‘Twenty Years of Feminism: Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying’, which looked at the novel’s reception as a key to changing attitudes, Jong herself responded to the panel, agreeing that ‘there has been a deep suspicion of pleasure in the American feminist movement,’ paralleling the puritanism of the religious Right. On the other hand, she went on, ‘the fascist policing of women’s creative assumptions has not been nourishing to our artists. In the name of protecting or advancing feminism, women writers have been offered ideological straitjackets ... just as confining as those of patriarchal literary politics.’ An enthusiastic member of the audience invited Jong to become our new ‘Jong of Art’, our jongleur.

Later, a panel on ‘Feminist Criticism Revisited: Where Are We Going? Where Have We Been?’ (Barbara Christian, Florence Howe, Jane Gallop, Nancy Miller, and me) attracted 1800 people, who jammed the aisles to hear that although the women’s movement is in disarray, feminist criticism, while no longer a coherent critical movement, has been fully assimilated into the contentious mainstream, a fate which pioneering feminist critics regard with very mixed feelings. In a later session, Naomi Schor, a feminist professor at Duke, spoke on ‘Depression in the Nineties’, applying Freudian theories of mourning and melancholia to her own feelings about ‘the death of feminist criticism’.

The conference, however, offered lots of escapes from depression. There was sightseeing, from trips to Tiajuana (twenty minutes away by trolley) to pelican-spotting and whale-watching in the Pacific; carousing in the Gaslamp District (the conference provided a drop-in centre for AA members); and the party infrastructure of the MLA itself. There are at least three tiers of parties: private department parties in hotel rooms, where nervous job candidates measure sociability against talking too much; open cash bars, listed in the conference programme, where large departments and various divisions, caucuses, societies and organisations entertain anyone with the price of a small expensive drink; and exclusive gatherings hosted by publishers, admission by printed invitation only. Last year, though, even the coveted latter seemed subdued. At a Mexican buffet dinner at the stunning San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, hosted by Cambridge University Press to launch its multi-volume History of American Literature, a young editor cheerfully acknowledged being the fourth one to head the 11-year, and still unfinished, project – ‘the most honest editor’s speech of the convention’, one contributor remarked. The University of Chicago sponsored an evening cruise in San Diego Bay, to honour the publication of Boredom by Patricia Meyer Spacks, the outgoing MLA president; but the prospect of one and a half hours at sea was too restrictive for some in this restless Nineties crowd. ‘Are you going to the Boredom cruise?’ one blasé young critic asked another. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘It’s an awfully big commitment.’

The last morning of the convention is traditionally the time for a stampede as the presses at the mammoth book exhibit sell their samples at half-price, or even give them away. In December there were 118 publishers showing their wares, and handing out goodies, from free coffee at HarperCollins to pink badges reading ‘Definitely Duke’. Stanley Fish, the new director of Duke University Press, sat in a folding chair like Pop minding the store. As in real estate, location was key; the hot spots were near the entrance, and the MLA staked out prime space for its own publishing enterprise. Although they brought hundreds of copies of Teaching Contemporary Theory in the Classroom, they sold out fast. What else was hot? ‘Gay and lesbian studies,’ one editor said. ‘Confessional criticism,’ another opined. The MLA has issued a plea for the preservation of printed literature in the electronic age, but it was still going strong at the convention, and San Diego itself has enough old and rare book dealers to fill a little pamphlet. There’s a cluster of good bookstores among the bodegas and funky coffee-bars in a district misleadingly called ‘Normal Heights’.

The plans are ready for the 1995 MLA, in Chicago, and the following one, in Washington. The exodus began, with promises to stay in touch on e-mail; professors returned to papers and exams; job-seekers went home to sit by the telephone. Some were making New Year’s resolutions never to return. But the MLA is the profession’s inescapable ritual, its most intense, efficient and addictive intellectual fix. Beneath the musak Christmas carols, the musical subtext this time was the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’:

Relax, says the nightman
We’re programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.

By the end of January, Congress was debating possible recision of the NEH’s current budget, with testimony from opponents like Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, themselves directors of the NEH under Reagan and Bush. Unexpectedly, the actor Charlton Heston, a conservative familiar on American TV as a spokesman against gun control, defended both endowments and even quoted Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest. Nonetheless, it looks like the next MLA may be a lot more apocalyptic.

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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?

Dominic Rainsford
Loyola University

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.

Marc Haefele
Los Angeles

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?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

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