No more love for Modernist authors?

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Previously I looked at changing fashions in academic theories and their associated buzzwords, using the articles archived in JSTOR as a sample: see part 1, part 2, and part 3. What about the thing that arts & humanities academics are supposed to study — the text itself? I mean, the vulgar consuming public may flit from one “it” author to the next, but surely academics are above such fickleness?

Most of them are happy to admit that they don’t make grand claims about Truth — that’s only what us evil science people do. But they don’t freely admit to being driven mostly by a blind adherence to fashion — whatever they’re showing in Paris this season — and it’s time to strike back at them for this, after that knuckle-rapping they tried to give us in the ’90s. Again, I’ve already showed how fashion works in their theories — now it’s time to show that their consumption patterns (i.e., which authors or artists they read and analyze) are also driven by fashion.

Here is a graph using only English-language articles and reviews from the “Language and Literature” category of journals in JSTOR:

The search terms were the authors’ surnames, except for Jane Austen, whose full name I searched. This presents no problem for Proust and Kafka, although Joyce is a bit more common as a surname. We don’t have to worry about Joyce Carol Oates, as she became popular when James Joyce was declining in popularity. Still, it’s clear that the order-of-magnitude increase in “Joyce” is due to James Joyce, as no one else with that name was so popular among professors.

The graph starts at 1915 because 1914 is, according to an arts-major legend, the year that Modernism was born. I included Jane Austen for comparison. Even a traditional author like she shows ups and downs, although her popularity does not oscillate nearly as wildly as it does for the Modernists. She is clearly less popular than they are, though.

From the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, Joyce and Proust are neck and neck, but in the post-WWII period, Joyce has always been more popular — for christ’s sake, fully 10% of all Lang & Lit articles refer to him during 1970 – 1990. Even scientists were savvy enough to know that he was the guy you named something after just to prove how clever and initiated you were.

Kafka is only slightly less popular than Proust — which I find surprising, since Proust would seem to have much greater snob appeal, Kafka being the emo band whose posters you plastered your walls with in high school, but who you loudly deny ever having liked once you’re a grown-up. Unfortunately I can’t easily tell where these articles are coming from — are the upper crust of arts departments writing mostly about Proust and Joyce, while the reject departments with no friends write mostly about Kafka and Salinger? I have no intuition here, so arts people, feel free to weigh in.

At any rate, we see that, just as with their theoretical badges, academics make their consumption a fashion symbol too. Between 1935 and 1945, the three Modernists begin to soar in popularity, but somewhere between 1955 and 1965 they hit diminishing returns, peak around 1975, and get tossed out after that. Note that this is not due to the rise of Postmodernism — that only got started in the mid-1970s and was big in the 1980s and ’90s. Already by 1965, Modernist authors saw their growth slow down. Besides, Postmodernism was attacking the assumptions of another group of academics, rather than attacking a group of authors, painters, or musicians.

The data only go up through 2001. Just eyeballing it, it’s conceivable that by 2025, these three Modernists won’t be given more respect than established authors like Jane Austen, and of course some may see their popularity plummet further to zero. This is a separate question from their artistic merit, obviously. For example, here’s some insight into the popularity of Shakespeare in Samuel Pepys’ London:

[A]nd then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

A devil’s advocate would say that academics gradually stopped writing about these authors because they’d exhausted what there is to say about them. But that’s not true: the trajectories are too similar. They just happened to decide “we’ve gotten all we can” from all three authors at more or less the same time? That sounds, instead, like they just grew bored of the Modernists in general and only wore them out to formal events where they’re de rigueur, rather than show them off to every stranger they chatted up at a cocktail party, academic conference, or public restroom.

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  1. “The Great Gatsby,” originally published in 1925, only became a huge hit when the Pentagon distributed it free to soldiers during WWII. Eyeballing the upslopes around 1943, perhaps the War had something to do with Joyce and Kafka’s growing popularity too.

  2. Look, the arts do go through changing fashions, of course. 
    Sometimes older artists whose work was ignored or forgotten come to seem very important – J.S. Bach in music and Johannes Vermeer in painting, for instance. In literature I’d guess Laurence Sterne became more important to academics during the PoMo ascendancy, because Tristram Shandy lends itself very well to PoMo analysis. 
    As for modernist writing, its not surprising there should be a wave of interest which later abated. At one time it seemed that Finnegans Wake represented the ultimate fate of the novel. Now it doesn’t. 
    I’m guessing, if you looked at music, you’d see academic writing about Arnold Schoenberg following the same trajectory. There was a time when Serialism seemed to be the music of the future, so academics wrote about it a lot. Now Serialism seems dead. So academic interest has probably waned too. 
    At the same time, interest in Schoenberg’s contemporary, Stravinsky, has probably gone up. His mid-period Neoclassical scores (written during the 1920s to the 1940s) used to be despised by critics, unlike his Modernist early works (written up to just after the end of World War One). But later, his Neoclassical music came to seem like PoMo before the fact. So academics got more interested in it. And once Minimalism became the established style of new classical music, that reinforced Stravinsky’s importance. You can hear how, say, Steve Reich’s “Tehillim” is influenced by Stavinsky’s “Les Noces”. But there’s no Schoenberg (or Second Viennese School) influence on Minimalism at all. Minimalism is a pretty conscious raised third finger to Serialism. 
    The point is, it’s the work of writers, artists and composers that forces the pace of academic discourse. Music journals used to be filled with articles by Allan Forte and George Perle about “pitch class sets” and “combinatoriality” in Atonal and Serial music. This was because the most important living composers – Boulez and Stockhausen – were both profoundly influenced by Serialism (more Webern than Schoenberg in fact). Now Minimalism has taken over that writing just feels less relevant.

  3. I wonder if perhaps one factor is simply that the number of authors who were “worthy” of an article or of research has broadened. That is, rather than their stock having fallen it’s that their impact has been diluted. The cultural studies aspect of literature studies, especially in the last 20 years, makes for a far larger pool of works to be studied. 
    Incidentally, based on my purely anecdotal experiences (I’m a PhD student in English Lit at a larger midwestern university), I would say that close reading is indeed coming back into fashion. There seems to be a “theory-exhaustion” and a pull back to the fundamentals.

  4. I wonder if perhaps one factor is simply that the number of authors who were “worthy” of an article or of research has broadened. That is, rather than their stock having fallen it’s that their impact has been diluted. The cultural studies aspect of literature studies, especially in the last 20 years, makes for a far larger pool of works to be studied. 
    That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of. If we borrow a metaphor from ecology, the population of Modernists saw the growth of some other population (those who benefited from “expanding the Canon”), which is slowly crowding them out of their niche. 
    Did the expanding Canon start around 1955 – 1965? If not, we just change the newly invading population to something that did increase during that time.

  5. I think that Dickens would have been a better control than Austen — Austen was popular with many modernists (e.g. F.A. Leavis). Sir Walter Scott might be good too. It would be interesting to see if they revived. (Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold almost certainly didn’t). 
    I think we’re looking at late Modernism, though, not really post-modernism. At a certain point there wasn’t much new to say about J, P & K.

  6. Of course arts go through changing fashions, but a great work will also withstand the test of time. And, one would expect that a lot could be said about a text early on, and less and less over time. I also note that Austen’s popularity has been creeping up — this may, however, be a demonstration of the increased numbers of people studying literature, which would also affect the numbers for Proust, Kafka, and Joyce. I would like to see a graph showing the number of scholars entering the field over the same period. I would also be interested to see what has been replacing the Big Three (perhaps with their decreasing popularity, they need a bailout?).  
    As far as Kafka is concerned, he has popularity for all ages of academic. The reason is that he anticipated many features of the 20th century, including the dominance of bureaucracies and their oppressive nature. He anticipates Existentialism, and the attempts by the postmoderns to turn us all into isolated automata. In many ways, then, he is a transitional writer, and thus a tragedian of sorts.  
    Joyce has such a high curve because he was a difficult writer, and that just gives scholars a lot to work with. I wold be willing to bet that you see something similar with Heidegger, for the same reason. In fact, it might be fun to see the trend lines for various philosophers, to see their popularity over the 20th century. May I suggest: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Plato, and Aristotle.