The Biggest Cocktail Party in Town
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
I’ve just returned from the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA), which met this year in Chicago from December 27-30. It’s a terrible time to meet, of course, but in spite of this, the meeting regularly draws close to 10,000 attendees, most of whom are professors of English, theater, languages and literature, linguistics, folklore, and popular culture. The topics covered in the 784 sessions at this year’s meeting were diverse and covered subjects (and this is a mere selection) as various as “Samuel Beckett and Bilingualism,” “Walter Benjamin’s Intellectual Corporations: Franz Kafka and the Avant-Garde,” “Why Teach Literature Anyway?,” “What is Beastly About the Middle Ages?,” “Religion and Spirituality in African American Literature,” “Poe and Translation,” “Class and Antebellum American Literature,” “Faulkner and World Cinema,” “Tillie Olsen’s Legacy,” “Vladimir Nabokov: Angles of Vision,” “Edith Wharton and Illness,” “Filiality in Chinese Literature and Culture,” “Joyce Lost and Found,” “Retaking Slavic Classics in the Twenty-First Century,” “New Approaches to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead,” “Music and Poetry in Troubadour Song,” and “Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries: Transnationalism in Hungarian Film and Literature.” At these sessions, various scholars read their papers to each other and to other listeners gathered to hang on the reader’s words, as if some honey might fall from a golden tongue to be savored for days. In addition, graduate students eagerly interview for positions at colleges and universities, hoping to join the many teachers of language and literature already shepherding students through the intricacies of French, German, or Italian, guiding them through the labyrinthine rules of grammar, and leading them through the beauties of American or British or French poetry and prose. In the evenings, various learned societies, publishers, and universities hold social events where members of the societies, alums, and authors can meet to drink a few rounds and generally relax after a hard day at the sessions (which continue to 10:00 pm every night). Participants at the MLA range from full professors to graduate students, and it’s not unusual to find a panel comprised of people occupying this range of ranks.
There is an exhibit hall at the MLA, at which over seventy-five publishers display their wares for the participants hungry to buy the latest works in their fields at a substantial discount (ranging from 20% to 70% during the conference). The MLA provides university presses as well as trade publishers an opportunity to display their newest releases and their deep backlists (one of the few times during the year that publishers get the chance to display and sell their backlists) as well as to chat with prospective authors about potential projects, whether academic monographs or academic trade books (those that professors might be able to use in the classroom or that might appeal to a broader audience interested in a particular subject). Several trade publishers displayed this year galleys of forthcoming books such as Stape’s The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad from Pantheon and others excitedly discussed their forthcoming books, such as Penguin’s new translations of the Koran and its new edition of the Book of Mormon. Penguin also had on display a broad range of its classics, including the new translation of Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil and Zola’s The Beast Within (La Bête Humaine) as well as J.M. Coetzee’s newest, The Diary of a Bad Year. Other interesting books include Richard Cook’s new biography of the American literary critic Alfred Kazin (about which more in a future column), published by Yale, Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers), and Helen Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Harvard).
Although I no longer teach literature in a small liberal arts college, I am the senior editor at a university press, so I now attend the MLA in a new guise. Years ago, when I was a graduate student and an assistant professor aspiring to tenure and a glorious future in the academy, the MLA as well as a host of other professional meetings seemed exciting to me. I would attend papers at a variety of sessions, listening raptly to papers pondering intertextuality, deconstruction, and new historicism as ways of reading literature. I heard Derrida, Richard Rorty, Wayne Booth, and Jane Gallop, and I even had the opportunity to study with J. Hillis Miller, who was then moving from phenomenology to deconstruction. I’ll admit that those were heady days, but I long ago realized that theoretical readings of literature were more concerned with theory than close readings of texts. Although I likely incorporated some of the principles of deconstruction in my teaching of Madame Bovary or The Scarlet Letter or Middlemarch, what was most valuable to me in the classroom were not theoretical readings but close readings of the details in the texts under study.
I very seldom attend sessions these days at the MLA or other professional conferences. I am too busy meeting with prospective authors and trying to sell books in our booth. Usually I am alone at these meetings, so it is sometimes difficult to do both. However, since it’s my job to acquire books for the press, I am often more absent from the booth than present in it. Every now and then I miss the chance to talk to another prospective author who might not be on my schedule, but he or she will usually get in touch after the conference. Before the conference, I set up a number of appointments with people I want to meet, always leaving some room for the folks who might stop by the booth. Acquisitions happen in a number of ways. The people who stop by the booth with potential projects sometimes have manuscripts that I might want to pursue. I make appointments with prospective authors because I want to discuss with them a particular project I have in mind and I feel that they might be able to write that book. I’ve likely also noticed that they are working in particular areas or on particular research projects that fit our press’s profile, and I want to see if they will consider publishing that project with us. Of course, sometimes prospective authors either those I have planned to meet or those who come by the booth have other projects in mind that are even more appropriate for our press than the ones about which I have contacted them.
This year’s MLA was very productive for me, although we did not sell very many books. I talked to several prospective authors about books that explore the intersections of religion and literature because I am developing a series of books on that interdisciplinary topic. I secured a major figure to be an editor for another series of books that we will begin publishing in the next few years. I secured two translators one of whom famously has translated the most recent editions of Kafka’s The Castle and The Missing Person (formerly mistranslated as Amerika) about future translation projects, one of which is Günter Grass’s lyrics.
One of the more disturbing features of this year’s meeting was the slow sales of books. It’s of course ironic that even though bookselling is slow, we’re still acquiring books that, as one of my colleagues pointed out, won’t sell again next year. Amazon and its discounts have cut into conference sales, and the presence of Google and its program to provide open access to books has indeed cut into sales of books. Even so, it’s evident that scholars in the humanities still think of the printed book as the repository of scholarship and the form in which knowledge continues to be transmitted. That’s why MLA continues to be exciting; it’s still a hothouse of ideas and for publishers, especially university press publishers, the future of the printed book continues to look bright.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at