Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Outlook for Humanities and Writing Even More Depressing in a Recession

As the New York Times reported last week, economic downturns usually spell doom for the humanities: “In this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.” Anyone who attended 2008’s Modern Language Association conference in San Francisco (when the Dow hovered at a relatively rosy 8600) could sense the palpable tension as newly-minted humanities PhDs wandered, dazed, through a convention where news of canceled interviews, hiring freezes, and staff cuts dampened the usually festive atmosphere. Two months and a thousand point on the Dow later, certified and aspiring MFAs descended on Chicago for the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The state of the economy—and possibly pharmaceuticals—was on everyone’s minds. Our intrepid Phoenix Poet David Gewanter reports from the trenches:

In Chicago, the “hog-butcher of the world” as Carl Sandburg calls it, the abattoir known by the guttural acronym AWP Conference is open for business. Burly, heavy-coated, scalded by the cold outside, eight thousand writers bump and shuffle through the glittering halls of the Chicago Hilton, and suspiciously eye the stuffed elevators, lest they be shoved next to some needy graduate from the Depression State U. writing program. Yet if it is an abattoir, where porcelain flesh is cut, heads dangle loosely, and trotters twitch, still there is no blood. Not this year: no money, no blood.

The US economy is in a free fall, and universities are selling off their art collections (Brandeis), taking three-day furloughs (U. Maryland), or watching their well-endowed holdings droop and shrink by several billion dollars (Harvard). The economy is falling, and every writer thinks that it is about to fall upon him. On more precisely, upon his next book—the breakthrough work, the one to put his face before the public at last, and to purge from memory the presence of those other writers (the pretenders; the dissemblers; the yeasty attitudinizers). Will the Press cut his next book? For the magic paper mountain—the magazines, booklists, promotional copies, blurbspeak and bromide—this great beast is sagging under the weight of the US Recession, an economic reality so palpable that it punctures the finely cultivated, and eternally fecund Depression of the writer. Or nearly so.
Everyone carries a black conference bag of books and festschrift, and shuttles from Pedagogy talks (“The Family Verse-Novel”; “Put Punch in Your Plays”) to the many Tributes for the Recently Dead, where Mark Antony speeches are delivered by the deceased’s students, spouses, and amanuenses, themselves looking a coppery green under faint chandeliers. After promising to attend each other’s talks, most participants sneak out to the Edvard Munch exhibit at the nearby Chicago Art Institute, where an overmedicated curator has labored to persuade us that Munch merely constructed a persona of despair and remorse, that he only said Death stood by my cradle because it helped create an audience for his paintings: as if the “Anxiety” series or “The Scream” were actually the droppings of a bon vivant, some virtuous American dieter and tennis-player. Surely, our American positivism must crash into a tree sometime, so that the Scream is caused by the painting looking at the writers looking back at it, with all their terrors and insufficiencies written in their faces. At the AWP, if a painting really saw the cost of Art on a life, it would scream.
Back at the Conference, in the airless, infernally hot basement, the ranks and ranks of bookstalls. It looks like an ugly debutante’s ball; no one buys the journals or reads through them. Behind the table sits the editor, kindly, underfed, and with tattoos peeping from the collar; he writes for other journals but not his own and jokes with a writer thumbing through his own story or essay in the journal, and who preens and presses for more exposure, more copies. Didn’t Larkin say that replication was not increase? The hubbub is tremendous, a field of giant crickets rubbing their wings—but only for the noise: no sex here. Soon, this year or next, many of these journals will go bankrupt, their remainders sent to the Limbo of or directly to the afterlife, where they are wetted, shredded, and pulped for phone books.
At last the cricketer shambles off to his own panel, another half-empty ballroom where he will be listened to in the fullness of his sentence and sensibility. Every author, a chirping monad, a bubble-boy of language; and besides, shouldn’t you be listening to me, isn’t this MY time at last, the magic moment in which I, no longer the phantom of the underappreciated writer, now claim the rostrum? A Socrates making his peroration among the snoozing dinner guests. A Joyce holding his book praying, Hoc est corpus meum. An Emily Dickinson nearly saying, “I’m Nobody—Who the hell are You?”
Yet even as the warm breeze of recognition freshens the deeps of writers’ Dis, the wing of despair shadows all. In the foyer, Senior Novelist to Young Writer: “I just finished reading your book, it was really terrific!” Young Writer: “I haven’t written a book.” And it’s the young writer who feels ashamed. Meanwhile, our eyes dart here and there, hoping to glimpse the deus ex machina, the great money machine of poetry: John Barr, the former corporate executive, present poet, and head of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which some years ago received $100 million from the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, and thus became the envy of all. So many great causes and writers: will the Poetry Foundation give out its rings and life-savers? The Death Valley Parnassians need a leg-up. The Center for Peripheral Studies must relocate. Yet Mr. Barr never crosses the Hilton threshold; a remote and kindly wizard of Oz justifiably fearful of crowds. Still, the Poetry Foundation has prompted so much complaint that my friend says the money should go back to the drug company, so that they could better medicate us.
The last day of the conference is literally on Valentine’s Day, except that every day is Valentine’s Day for the writer, a day of affectionate self-regard. This morning, each writer gives himself a flower(y speech), and grabs a (chocolate) kiss from another failing literary mag, from Hambone Quarterly or Lemon Sphincter Review; but the very materiality of these self-gifts tends to wear on each soul, so that by the time ‘happy’ hour arrives (noon), people begin to feel grumpy with themselves, begin to ignore themselves, and even to bicker slightly—or maybe they are muttering into invisible cell-phones—so that by evening, they blurt out some unforgiveable remark, sit like absinthe drinkers through a silent dinner, and finally retreat to the chaste gloom of their hotel rooms, where the porn channels await them, the eternal pleasure dome of ardent faces and evident pleasures; where every stroke is real, every gesture of praise brings a stiff and sincere response; where every open mouth is either stuffed or moaning like Orpheus.

For more from David Gewanter, check out his collections The Sleep of Reason and In the Belly.