English departments have diversified. Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms. One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist. Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence. Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.
In part, it has happened because English has kept pace with broader cultural changes in the United States in the last four decades. That’s the implication of a short commentary by Joseph Bottum in The Weekly Standard last week. It has the title “The Cocktail-Party Test,” which denotes a social injunction that no longer holds. If you attended a cocktail party on the Upper West Side, in Cambridge, or any other intellectual haven, what novels do you have to have read in order to avoid embarrassment? Back in 1952, Invisible Man would count; in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath; Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973; and many others from the 20s to the 70s. But, according to Bottum, nothing since Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. The “fundamental art of Western civilization for almost two hundred years,” he says, “the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves—just doesn’t count for much anymore.”
Culture has moved elsewhere, which for Bottum puts defenders of Western culture in a difficult position. They want to blame Leftist politics, or MFA programs that turn writers into tenure-achievers, and Bottum charges novelists themselves for losing confidence in their ability to broach Big Topics such as the human condition.
In any case, I think it patently true that the novel has declined in social import, and this spells a far-reaching problem for English departments. As long as novels (and poems and plays and literary essays) occupied a central place in U.S. society, the English department maintained its power and prestige on campus. There weren’t many other places where people go for discussion and study of this primary art of who we are and where we’re at. Now, the publication of a great novel has a microscopic impact compared to the next development of Facebook, the iPod, and Mad Men.
With the decline of the novel comes the decline of English. English tries to keep pace by spreading out into social concerns, media studies, visual culture, political criticism, and the like, but the diversification doesn’t help. Before, nobody did the novel better than English professors. But when it comes to media, race, sexuality, etc., there are other departments to be found, and they have handled those topics longer than English professors have. Ask a film professor some time what he or she thinks of film studies in the English department. The answer will be, “Well, they have some interesting ideas, but there are many aspects of film that English professors know little about [the technology of it, the history, the research base].” Social scientists who study race and sexuality, and political scientists and economists who study capitalism and politics say the same thing.
This, then, is the choice for English professors: to maintain their credibility by focusing on a secondary cultural expression, or to take up primary cultural and social matters and be taken as dilettantes.