Consider academia’s contrasting treatment of Erich Segal in the 1970s and Cornel West today.
Forty-five years ago, a Yale assistant professor of classics named Erich Segal published a best-selling romantic novel after completing his academic opus on Roman comedy. Although the book on Roman comedy was widely and positively reviewed in academic journals, Segal was denied tenure. Whether the success of his novel “Love Story”—which also became a blockbuster film in 1970—accounted for the denial, the perception within academia was that it did. The division between high and low in the humanities was then strictly enforced: A scholar didn’t stoop to writing popular fiction.
Today, Segal’s success would be applauded as a sign of savvy entrepreneurship, and his university would no doubt welcome the publicity. He could then spend the rest of his career analyzing the semiotics of his success, connecting “Love Story” to classical narratives, hosting a blog on the afterlife of the protagonist, Oliver Barrett IV, and parsing the meme: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
For an actual example of how things have changed since 1970, consider the 2001 case of philosopher Cornel West, who was chastised by then-Harvard President Larry Summers for recording a rap CD and writing the kinds of books reviewed in newspapers rather than in serious academic journals. Incensed, Mr. West decamped for Princeton, where he was embraced by that university’s president, Shirley Tilghman. Mr. West has since amicably parted ways with Princeton and is now employed by the Union Theological Seminary, where he has continued to write popular books and articles and appear on talk shows.
What happened in the interval between Segal, who died in 2010, and Mr. West?
By the end of the 20th century, the humanities departments in universities had become closed enclaves. The writing of scholars in these disciplines had grown increasingly dense and jargon-filled, inaccessible to anyone without years of graduate study. For some academics, this enforced isolation became stifling. They sought new forms of expression. Thus literary theorists Wendy Steiner, Frank Lentricchia and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have turned to opera librettos, mystery novels and PBS documentaries. Harold Bloom and Stephen Greenblatt have largely abandoned scholarship for popular nonfiction, while others have escaped into blogging and personal memoir.
Driving this change is the emergence of a new media landscape. An academic book in the humanities from a good press used to have guaranteed sales to most university libraries and a solid readership among scholars in the field. Now, as fields have splintered and libraries have cut back on print acquisitions, an academic author, even a well-regarded one, is lucky to sell 300 copies of a book that may have taken years to write. Only the most masochistic scholar would cheerfully submit to that process.
Another motor of change has been the growth of creative-writing programs. To be a creative writer now doesn’t impinge on being an academic. In fact, an MFA in creative writing can sometimes provide a better route to a university position than a Ph.D., as students clamor to take courses in which they can write their own work rather than read the work of others.
A recent issue of PMLA, the official scholarly journal of the Modern Language Association, devotes a number of its pages to what it calls “The Semipublic Intellectual: Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age.” The articles under this heading concede that online writing and reviewing (forms in which footnotes and theory are minimal) will soon have to be considered in tenure and promotion evaluation. PMLA, in short, is acknowledging its own imminent obsolescence.
There was once a generally agreed-upon hierarchy of what was considered original and important. Serious books were at the top, and television was at the bottom. (In the 1950s, the radio comedian Fred Allen quipped that “imitation is the sincerest form of television.”) That hierarchy has mutated. Check out the repetitive subject matter and the duplication of references in books from the most-prestigious university presses. Television, on the other hand, has become an enormously creative medium. There are now many TV series available—from “The Wire” to “Blunt Talk”—that can surprise and delight a viewer with their insight and wit.
Academics my age have passed through two eras. We grew up revering great books and good writing. We then saw the books we loved become fodder for deconstructionist theory and politicization while the writing in our fields grew ugly. No wonder that many of us have turned to other forms of expression, connected to personal experiences and popular culture rather than the great tradition we were trained to study.
The future of the humanities seems to depend on finding our way to the following: a curriculum of serious reading that conforms to what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world”; a support for research-driven and critical writing that is accessible and graceful; and a perspective on popular culture that is intelligently appreciative when warranted. (This is what the eminent literary critic Christopher Ricks has done with his 2003 book on Bob Dylan, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin.”)
The challenges to getting to such a place are considerable, given where we are. But I hope the next generation of humanities scholars—recognizing the value of inspiring students to read great work and write eloquently about it—will take on the mission of renovating their disciplines.