THE SOURCE: "Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research" by Mark Bauerlein, in The Chronicle Review, July 24, 2009.
ABOUT 30 YEARS AGO, LITERARY criticism toggled from being a field of humble, if erudite, explication to one of creative and adventuresome interpretation. Gone was the critic who explained a work of art, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, replaced by a performer who did "a reading" and inspired a new generation of critical jujitsu artists.
This liberating new role for the literary critic launched a torrent of written works. Older scholars had earned respect for their conclusions to the extent that works of literary art yielded up their mysteries. Very soon, Banerlein says, "the interpretation didn't have to be right. It had to be nimble."
Dissertations, books, essays, and reviews in the fields of languages and literature increased from 13,000 annually in the 1960s to 72,000 in recent years. But as production rose, sales went south. In 2002, the Modern Language Association reported that some editors at university presses estimated that books of literary criticism might sell a maximum of 200 to 300 copies. At what point, asks Bauerlein, "does common sense step in?" When will the field accept that the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) may have been adequately explicated several decades ago, or that the enigmatic lyrics of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) were unveiled quite thoroughly in 19657 In recent decades, foundations, humanities research centers, and other organizations have subsidized 225,749 new items of scholarship and criticism on American literature alone. …