Easy P.C.

I’m currently reading Roger Rosenblatt‘s new novel, Beet, a send-up of academia that pokes a lot of fun at extreme political correctness and at the ridiculousness of lots of liberal arts scholarship. (One graduate of Beet College’s Department of Ethnicity, Gender, and Television Studies wrote a thesis titled “No Transgender Asians on Will and Grace: An Oversight or an Insult?) I’m not far enough into the book to register an opinion on it, but I did ask myself pretty much immediately: Isn’t this an old story? I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago in the early ’90s, the height of the P.C. wars; I vividly remember much seminar-room squabbling over themes of oppression in the video for “Baby Got Back,” and a female classmate who found a short story’s portrait of a sympathetic mother completely untenable because, she said, “I hate my mother.” That’s all done, now, right?

Writing in the Nation, Yale English professor William Deresiewicz suggests that the handwringing over what’s proper to study hasn’t ended, and that it creates a smaller culture of literary scholarship that isn’t doing a whole lot of reading of literature:

More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: “Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies”; “literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture”; “visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies.” The items on these lists are not just different things–apples and oranges–they’re different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions–apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two. There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism–whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called “digital humanities.”

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