The Single-Author Study (still not prestigious)

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This is the script of the talk I gave at MLA in January 2020 for a panel called “The State of the Single-Author Study,” organized by Sheila Liming, and featuring great talks by E. L. McCallum, Mike Miley, Matthew Luter, and Robert Ryan. I’ve made a few modifications to the text. It’s a highly stylized and kind of evidence-free argument, meant to provoke conversation. 

(Crossposted at Substack)

When I was in grad school, in the mid-2000s, it was a piece of professional common sense that you shouldn’t write a dissertation on a single author. It just wasn’t done. Or rather, when it was done it was somewhat frowned upon. When someone asked you “What’s your Archive?” — and they did ask you that question — early Pynchon was not a good answer, at least if you were a grad student.

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Looking back now, I’d say the taboo extended beyond the single-author study as such. It extended also to the notion of organizing dissertation projects around authors at all. To be sure, you were expected to write about specific authors. We were still in an English department, and some habits die hard. But the prospect of writing about authors at all was vaguely disreputable. The rationale for writing about this or that author needed to be more wide-ranging. Authors might illustrate a larger claim, but they weren’t in themselves the main event.

The projects that were most celebrated were those that found a way to fuse a range of heterogenous materials, theories, and histories. The prestige of these wide-ranging projects — projects that incorporated many texts or media objects, archival research, theoretical discussions, and so on — had something, perhaps, to do with the lingering prestige of New Historicism and Theory in the first decade of this century.

In the Theory Era, the figure of the author occupied a paradoxical position. It was the author, after all, who ostensibly wrote the textual traces that were being strip-mined for insight, but when Theory becomes your vocation, those texts and authors and traces dissolved into a larger field of textuality — and into questions whose stakes seem more profound than the fate of the individual text or the individual literary career. If any author came to prominence in this era, it was the Theorist themselves, who as Rita Felski has recently noted might themselves become an object of cathexis or identification.

The low prestige of the single-author study also had something to do with the job market crisis. It was understood that writing a single-author project would damange your prospects of finding employment. You had to show the range of your knowledge, the heterogeneity of the classes you could teach, and so on. This market demand for wide-ranging candidates has become, if anything, increasingly powerful in the post-financial crisis era. If two tenure-line colleagues retire and your Dean only gives you one back, your new hire might be expected to cover both fields. In this way, the shape of our disciplines, our intellectual practices, our epistemological habits, our methods, and so on, reflects everyday staffing considerations and the grinding economic machinery of Austerity.

Our story so far: as the Theory Era gives way to the Austerity Era, the low status of the single-author study persists. But the reason for its persistence has changed, shifting emphasis from putatively intellectual considerations having to do with textuality, the death of the author, and the political ambitions of advanced criticism to more nakedly economicones having to do with staffing, precarity, and field coverage. Of course, the Theory Era had an economic dimension: it was a sort of exfoliation of the midcentury boom in higher education and the rise of the academic star system. And the academic practices of the Austerity Era are not without intellectual justification. Indeed, I would argue that if the taboo against single-author study has in any way persisted today, the intellectual content for this taboo, and not just its economic determinants, has changed. 

I’ll offer as an illustration of how the taboo has changed a project that I’m working on. I have been writing a book for a new series by Columbia University Press called Rereadings. The editors of Rereadings, Nicholas Dames and Jenny Davidson, have asked contributors to write a sustained book-length essay on a single work of contemporary fiction. When asked to pitch a project, I proposed to write about Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai. It was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books, and tells the story of a single-mother who is trying to raise her precocious and intellectually gifted son. It’s a great novel, and perhaps an appropriate novel for me to be discussing today, since it’s ultimately a book about a precariously employed former doctoral student whose intellectual potential is thwarted by the brutal and remorseless logic of global capital. It’s a novel precociously about precarity and the economic threshing machine that has fucked up the lives of so many intellectuals. But I won’t actually give my reading of DeWitt’s novel right now. What I want to do instead is ask what the existence of this series tells us about the status of the single-author study today.

On the one hand, it tells us what we already know: that the single-author study is in many ways doing just fine. Whatever strange taboos circulate in the halls of the English department, prestigious scholarly publishers still want to publish single-author studies. And this is, of course, not some surprising new phenomenon. As I confirmed when I asked Twitter for recommendations, there is a vast universe of remarkable single-author studies, widely read, widely praised, foundational to so much of the work we do. The Rereadings series, like many other University press series, gives evidence that publishers are interested in these kinds of studies. So perhaps there’s no need to defend or advocate for them. Our job’s finished. We can go home. Or to the hotel bar at the Sheraton, such as it is.

On the other hand, the Rereadings series is also explicitly conceived of as “writerly.” What the editors want isn’t a standard academic monograph on a single book. You’re not getting the reader’s guide to Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses. Such books still frequently get written, to be sure — but what Rereadings is asking for, by contrast, is an affectively charged, even personal reading of a book.

So — maybe I’m wrong about this claim — my sense is that though university presses often publish single-author scholarship, there’s still a felt sense that one’s focus on the single author, or on the single text for that matter, is something that stands outside the normal protocols of scholarly communication. Maybe you have a side project collecting the interviews of an author you like, or doing an edited collection on a specific popular author (I’ve done two of these). But writing about an author as your main line of scholarly research is somewhat unusual. To do so, what is required is a writerly bonus, what I would describe as the idiom the New Public Intellectual that so many graduate students, postdocs, adjunct faculty, and younger tenure line faculty have pursued.

Newly professionalizing academics are supposed to apply for that job that asks for a very broad area of disciplinary competence. But they’re also asked to show their worth by writing in and for the public, explaining the value of what they do in various para-academic settings, including Twitter. If once upon a time, before the Theory era, we studied Authors, and in the Theory era we studied Theorists as if they were Authors, today it’s Aspiring Academics themselveswho are often being asked to shape themselves into Authors.      

In this context, the single-author study offers another opportunity to add to that portfolio, but only if such a study breaks out of the traditional bounds of specialization. The hypothetical general reader still “connects with” single authors, we’re told, and in an era of Austerity the great ambition of the single-author study is, often, to get out of the library annex and into the hands of those who may not be academics, or at least those who do not have any prospects of finding stable or permanent employment in the academy.

In conclusion I’ll say, I don’t offer this highly stylized description of the status of the single-author study as an endorsement or condemnation of the genre — I obviously like the genre and have enthusiastically pursued it, and the Rereadings series is awesome (buy my book!) — but rather I offer my description as diagnosis of the conditions under which many of us write today, ultimately offering what I hope is a very conventional claim, that the economic and institutional conditions of academic labor have intellectual and aesthetic effects.