Deadline extended: MLA 2023: Writing Work
After D. H. Lawrence’s mother died, his father “struggled through half a page” of The White Peacock. After he had finished reading, he asked his son what he had been paid for the novel. When Lawrence told him his father
looked at me with shrewd eyes, as if I were a swindler. “Fifty pounds! An’ tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in thy life.”
The comment illustrates the difficulties of integrating writing into dominant working-class models of labor. The problem centers on the understanding of productive work. As Ross McKibben argues, a “kind of folk-Marxism, quite independent of actual party-political allegiances” pervaded the kind of early twentieth-century British working-class communities inhabited by Lawrence’s father, with many maintaining that “their own work was the source of all value; the only work that mattered. Without it society would not exist.” This claim not only provided a basis for campaigns to improve wages and conditions, which were articulated as efforts to ensure workers receiving a greater share of the wealth they generated, but, more generally, a coherent, materialist working-class identity. It was widely shared on the Left, including by many who were not working class.
Working-class authors often struggle to locate their writing within these systems of value or articulate their own position within communities structured by specific notions of productive work. The difficulties they experience raise valuable questions about writing as labor, the value it produces, and its relation to other forms of work. Radical theory has often struggled with these problems; Marx’s famous description of Milton as an “unproductive labourer” who wrote Paradise Lost “for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk”, because it was “an activity of his nature”, is just one illustration of this. There is consequently a considerable amount of theoretical and interpretative work to be done. Engaging with these ideas does not mean taking a narrowly utilitarian view of literature but it does mean rejecting the notion that it is defined by its separation from other productive acts. This panel will explore the functions literature serves, how this can be understood in terms of theories of value, and how working-class authors can help us to analyze writing as a social practice. In so doing, it will intervene in broader debates about the division between productive and unproductive work. Intersectional papers, that consider these questions in the context of ideas of gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality, are particularly welcome.
Please send a 300 word abstract and a short (100 word or less) bio to email@example.com by March 5.