It’s hard for me to believe, and even harder to say out loud, but I’ve actually really enjoyed my contemporary fiction class this semester. As I’m sitting down to write my final paper, I’m realizing that there’s a real liberation in writing about contemporary works, which is that there isn’t an enormous body of critical literature to consume on top of the text itself.
We’re told, as literary scholars, that we have to make an original contribution. But we’re also told that we have to situate ourselves in the scholarly debate over texts that have been around for, often, upwards of three hundred years. That becomes an incredibly daunting task. I, for example, had an article rejected from a journal this winter because the readers didn’t think I had engaged enough with current scholarship on the subject. It’s a fair, and very common, criticism, but the thing was that this is a topic I’ve been researching for three years. I wrote my master’s thesis on it. And I honestly felt good about the research I’d done, felt like I really had looked at everything. The readers felt otherwise.
As exhorted by my professors, I had an original contribution to make; in fact, the reviewers agreed that I had an insightful, new angle on the material. They just didn’t think I’d used enough of other people’s recent scholarship. That’s what makes it refreshing to sit down with a book like Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001), which I’m writing about in my final paper, and simply write about it. It’s liberating to know that I can simply make my contribution. I did a literature search; I have half a dozen sources. But I can also be reasonably sure that I’ve exhausted the critical material that’s been written about it.
Certainly I see the value of research. I’m willing and able to conduct it. But at some point, does the literature search become just an exercise? The bar for tenure and even hiring in the humanities keeps rising: we have to be published even to get a job these days, and we have to have a book contract to be considered for tenure. But the bar for publication, too, keeps rising.
I’m not thinking of changing my field. But I am thinking.