Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No more love for Modernist authors?   posted by agnostic @ 11/18/2008 09:14:00 PM

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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