Reflections from a damaged field
The last time The Chronicle Review published a collection of our coverage of literary studies, we called it “Endgame.” We assembled the package at the end of 2019 and published it in the first week of 2020, to coincide with the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. The essays ranged widely, but the overall tenor was elegiac. As Eric Hayot had recently documented, only the most delusional optimist could feel hopeful about the institutional future of the field.
Then Covid came. Hiring, already at an all-time low, paused. What would this mean for scholars?
By now, it’s plain that the hiring crunch that began in 2009 will never be reversed. That’s roughly three academic generations who have been either partially or, since Covid, entirely debarred from the field.
For many decades, what happens in departments of literary studies has seemed to matter to the culture at large, and the collapse of the discipline is no different, as witnessed by the attention its struggles have received in national newspapers and magazines. That attention is due in part to the fact that literary studies has become, for better or worse, a synecdoche for the humanities more generally. The question, “Does literary studies have a future?” cannot be posed without asking whether the humanities do.
In spite of everything, the work goes on, sometimes even joyfully. That’s one of the lessons of Katie Kadue’s lead essay here. Reporting from the annual English Institute, Kadue, herself a victim of the post-Covid hiring drought, finds in this most prestigious of professional gatherings an unexpectedly egalitarian, even utopian, scene of intellectual exchange, in which the field’s few remaining stars (or “stars” — the designation cannot but be ironic when the firmament of the field has become so dim) meet for earnest discussion with all interested comers, including the ever-increasing ranks of the institutionally unaffiliated.
By turns moving and acerbic, Kadue’s essay is a poignant dispatch from a chastened discipline. Read it, along with more than a dozen other essays — some of our best coverage of literary criticism since the pandemic.
Date: January 2023
Digital file size: 5.3 MB
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