Friday, April 15, 2005

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Does anyone in the academy read Saul Bellow?

The common perception of academia is that being a professor is a cushy life. This isn't the post to debate that point, but it's always stuck me that this observation elides a really important fact: getting a tenure-track job at a good university has become increasingly difficult over the years. A ratio of three hundred applicants to one faculty position is not unusual. So even if these are good jobs, there ain't a ton of them to go around.

This fact carries an even greater bite in the humanities. As tough as it may be to get hired in political science, it's a cakewalk compared to getting a position in, say, English departments. I know far too many acquaintances who are whip-smart but drop out of academia because they picked the wrong department to get a Ph.D., and so their hiring market sucks eggs.

The point is, those people who do manage to get the good jobs have to be pretty talented in their area of specialty. Which is a fact I keep reminding myself of this fact whenever I read about an academic saying something stupid about their subject in the mainstream media.

Take for example, this Patrick T. Reardon story in the Chicago Tribune about why "relatively few college and high school courses study Bellow." Here's how Erin G. Carlston, an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, answered the question:

"The truth is I dislike Bellow so don't teach him myself. I'd guess from informal conversations with friends that my dislike for Bellow is fairly widely shared among women scholars, at least. But it's also highly idiosyncratic and all about gender and ethnicity, for me.

"I'd say in a general way that most post-World War II literature by American white men strikes me as incredibly whiny. It's trivial and narrowly focused, and they go on and on about how it's the end of Western Civilization because they can't get women to pick up their socks anymore.

"Bellow, being Jewish, is less offensive to me on these grounds than [John] Updike and his ilk, for whom I have no patience at all -- I mean, American Jewish men have actual cause to be insecure . . . and their relationship to power is much more complicated than it is for WASPs.

"But he still fits, in my mind, with a kind of writing I think of as self-absorbed and trivial. There's no real tragedy, no joy, no relish in humanity. It's all kind of flat."

The really appalling thing about this quote is that, according to Calston's UNC web page, "Prof. Carlston's research interests are in comparative modernisms and especially the intersections between sexuality studies and Jewish studies." She's also working on a book chapter that "looks at the way race, religious confession, and sexuality have been defined in relation to the modern, Western nation-state and notions of citizenship." So it's not like Bellow is completely irrelevant to her area of expertise.

This would be the equivalent of me telling a reporter after George Kennan's death:

The truth is I dislike Kennan so don't teach him myself. I'd guess from informal conversations with friends that my dislike for Kennan is fairly widely shared among Jewish and minority scholars, at least. But it's also highly idiosyncratic and all about ethnicity, for me.

I'd say in a general way that most post-World War II grand strategy by American white men strikes me as incredibly whiny. It's trivial and narrowly focused, and they go on and on about how it's the end of Western Civilization because democratic publics in these countries are exercising more influence over foreign policy.

Carlston's current research project is a "book-in-progress, Double Agents, considers literary responses to several major espionage scandals of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries." This sounds pretty interesting, actually, and I hope it proves to be a path-breaking work on the subject. Because it's banal statements like the one above that cause me to doubt the way my profession works in practice.

posted by Dan on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM


How hard was it for Ward Churchill to get hired?

Come on!

posted by: Matthew Cromer on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Reminds me how dissapointing it was to love to read literature, but discovering that I hated college English. Talk about killing the joy.


posted by: PD Shaw on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

"incredibly whiny", "trivial and narrowly focused"

Don't those phrases describe a large portion of the women's studies curricula around the country?

posted by: Wayne on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Oddly, I majored in English in college, but ended up with a career in business. I knew at the outset that I loved English literature, but I had no love for academia (no offense to those who do, it's just not for me). But, I was always struck by how narrowly focused the so-called post-modernists were: they really knew very little outside of their subject matter (literature and its critical interpretation). They had little real world experience that they brought to bear on their jobs.

One of the reasons that I find blogs written by political science, econ, and law profs so interesting is that, in addition to being expert in their field of study, these profs also have obvious experience outside of academia that they bring to bear on their observations.

So, to respond to Drezner's observation: yes, Bellow is relevant to a lit professor's job, but one couldn't expect a lit professor to know that. Bellow, after all, was a straight white male, and therefore, by the logic of the multi-culti diversity-crats, not worthy of serious academic inquiry.

posted by: Dave on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

"I don't like Shakespeare. All those funny
sounding words. The anachronisms. The silly
morality. Plus, he's a dead white male.
So I don't bother teaching him. ...
Chomsky on the other hand is a living Jewish
anti-Semite. Despite the fact his rantings
are incomprehensible, I LOVE teaching him!"

/makes as much sense as Carlstons comment and
I didn't have to major in English to write it

posted by: Ted on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

"the logic of the multi-culti diversity-crats":

I'm torn between great amusement and quasi-indignation by Dave's comment. Depending on if I'm cut by the MCDC due to my WASP background or supported by it. Regardless, it made my day a little brighter. *g*

posted by: Gaijin on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

It's survival of the fittist. Just like the US Senate. The 100 best fitted for the job. I'm not joking. The traits of the people who are in the positions gives the real criteria for that job. NFL linebacker, US Senate, or Chair of Native American Studies. The kooky faculty got their jobs because-of not inspite-of their kookyness. Now don't go postal on me.

posted by: Huggy on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

I haven't read Bellow yet, so I have no comment on whether the professor is right in her assessment. She might be.

Still, even if he sux, he's still important, if not as high art, then at least as history. You still have to teach Heidegger in 20th century philosophy, even if he sux, too.

posted by: h on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Prof. Carlston's quoted observations have a certain element of truth and, considered as a wisecrack (not an inappropriate genre for discussing (a lot of) post WW II American Jewish literature) is quite inspired. In fact, I would argue that the subject of much of Philip Roth's work is something like "Is my whininess really of world historical cultural importance or have I made a horrible career mistake?"

What Carlston, in the quoted statement, doesn't seem to acknowledge sufficiently is that some artists' whininess is, in fact, of world historical cultural importance.

posted by: Martin on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Thank god I'm not suffering through one of Prof. Carlston's classes. She sounds like one of those who think Uncle Tom's Cabin is a great work of literature.

That said, the only Bellow I've read is Ravelstein, and it didn't do much for me. (And I can see why women readers might not find anything to like, at least in that book.) Perhaps the emperor really isn't wearing a stitch. But I'll have to try his more renowned books before giving up on him.

What, I wonder, did Carlston read by Bellow? If anything?

posted by: Anderson on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Because it's banal statements like the one above that cause me to doubt the way my profession works in practice.

Just in practice? You with your Masters in economics, if you had to design the perfect academia market, would it honestly look anything like it does now?

posted by: fling93 on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

So... she studies Jewish sexuality, and she's concluded that "American Jewish men have actual cause to be insecure"? Hmmm. I'm not gonna try to unpack that one.

posted by: anno-nymous on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

I often find that using sound bites from academics at a particular time can be misleading. For example, some professors that I've had say the most ridiculous things in lecture. Their political views or affiliations obscure an accurate presentation of some material. That is, if one were to read the books and articles by a professor that has time to elaborate points, then it does sound very "academic". But sound bites are ridiculous since some professors are encouraged to exaggerate.

posted by: Wilfred on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

What was the name of that book?

Oh yeah, "Prof Scam"

Much of what passes as academic today is just self-indulgent nonsense, especially in the "liberal arts."

The intersection of sexuality studies and Jewish studies?

And to think, we taxpayers get to fund much of this. Swell.

PS: kudos to the MIT students who had a phony paper accepted for presentation at a geek conference - at least their self-indulgence was funny

posted by: Tom on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Rather ironic for a prof like Carlston, whose central academic interest would appear to be gender-based special pleading, to bonk Bellow for being "whiny".

Not like campus feminism is exactly a Horatio Alger ideology of taciturn stoicism and self-improvement in the face of adversity.

posted by: mark safranski on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

Reading this post makes me happy to be an engineer.

We don't have to fight nearly as hard to get a good job, as rare as they are these days. More importantly, except perhaps while analyzing patent language, engineers don't overanalyze and get personal about it.

posted by: Neo on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

That Tribune piece has much more useful statements than Carlston's from other profs and writers. Richard Stern, who was his good friend and colleague, says, "His work is too rich, too complex, apparently, to be digested by the instructors and the students. The action is sort of hidden. ... There's an intellectual music in the works. You have to be a little bit advanced yourself to take it in."
I can see, perhaps, teaching "Seize the Day" in high school, but the longer, later stuff I don't believe most high school teachers are equipped to handle. I was innocent enough to give "Herzog" a try when I was in high school, and I didn't understand what I was missing until a second reading many years later (though its vividness stayed with me - some of those scenes rebounded with a shock). He was, of course, a favorite son of my school, so everyone read him in my community. How he plays elsewhere I don't know, though I liked Steven Zipperstein's comment in the same piece that, "I think it's the cerebral nature -- almost the uncompromising cerebral nature -- of Bellow's fiction that gives him a somewhat more old-fashioned feel." It makes him, I think, almost idiosyncratic - there is no School of Bellow, exactly, though his stature abroad (see Ian McEwan) may change that.
The comparison with Roth - whom Zipperstein says is being read more widely - is interesting, and I'm still trying to get my head around it, though I think it has something to do with Roth's refreshment in Central European writing. Have to think about that.

posted by: grishaxxx on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

I haven't a clue what goes on in academia. But I know it's all down hill with Bellow after "The Adventures of Augie March".

posted by: Bill Baar on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

ive read Herzog, Humboldts Gift, and More Die of Heartbreak, all brilliant and wonderful books and yes you should read them.

Trivial - well yeah, he DOES mainly write about the problems of folks like himself, and how many of us are Jewish College professors with horrible ex-wives and cute shiksa girlfriends? But then how many of us are Bronze age warriors on the plains of Troy, with a special pal on Mt. Olympus? How many of us are british gentry navigiating the regency social scene? You read the stuff for the ART, for the words, and the descriptions, and the structure, and maybe for the hint of something universal in what is FRANKLY a small piece of the world. Maybe Im too much an old modernist to be pomo.

And of course Bellow has famously dissed the pomos and multicultis in public ("who's the Tolstoy of the Zulus?") so naturally they have no love for him.

posted by: liberalhawk on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

I've read Humboldt's Gift twice -- a great novel. More Die of Heartbreak and Dr Sammler's Planet are also recommended. I even like The Dean's December.

posted by: jt on 04.15.05 at 10:05 AM [permalink]

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