Booking it

In his book-lined office on the second floor of Boston University’s Editorial Institute, Christopher Ricks explains that the ALSC, or Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, has decided to add a “W” to its name.

“For women?” a puzzled colleague asks him.

No &- for writers, he clarifies, though gender imbalance has never been a problem for the organization. The ALSC became the ALSCW in order to include creative writers, publishers and editors in the discussion it facilitates, says Ricks, a past president and preeminent literary critic. Its name, members agreed, should reflect this.

Founded in 1994, the organization’s original purpose was to combat disconcerting trends in literary study, ones that overemphasized politics and literary theory while forsaking literature as an act of imaginative expression.

“The academic study of literature has been increasingly weighted towards the study of contexts rather than texts, towards study of the cultural and political motives and implications of literary texts,” said Secretary-Treasurer Tim Peltason.

Founding members wanted to provide an alternative forum that encouraged free thought and an exchange of ideas, independent of any political agenda. Today, the ALSCW is largely dependent on the volunteer help of students and professors alike in order to reach its almost 1,000 members across the globe.

Reading, Writing, Revolutionizing

We are advocating and helping to create a broad, vital literary culture,” said Rosanna Warren, a former president and founding member. “We are trying to connect lovers of literature inside the academy and outside the academy.”

The ALSCW engages professors, critics, K-12 teachers, editors, writers and members of the reading public during an annual conference, held in a different North American city each year.

“It’s a showcase for the best literary scholarship we can find, both classical and modern, also featuring some of the best creative writing,” Warren said.

Recent speakers have included authors Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates and Azar Nafisi.

In addition to the conference, the ALSCW publishes the journal “Literary Imagination,” edited by Peter Campion and distributed throughout the English-speaking world by Oxford University Press, the pamphlet “Forum,” which deals with the implications of literature on public policy and the quarterly newsletter “Literary Matters.” The conversation continues during local meetings, which any member can organize and that always include readings, lectures and book discussions.

“Most literary organizations have rather narrow missions &- to study Shakespeare, for example, or to promote education in the classics. This is fine… but ALSCW has a much more ambitious agenda,” said ALSCW Councilor David Rothman. “Our goal is to study, teach, participate in and advocate on behalf of the literary imagination as something that has value in and of itself.”

Not-so-silent-and-sustained reading

The tone of ALSCW gatherings has not always been friendly. Current President Susan Wolfson was met with a less-than-warm welcome at the conference in 2000, when she presented a paper on the 18th-century poet and novelist Charlotte Smith.

“With just a few exceptions my paper was not well received, and there were many in attendance who took a dim view of my interest in gender questions and my membership in the Modern Language Association and let me know this,” she recalled.

But the social climate has changed since then, and as the teaching of literature as literature became more widely accepted, the ALSCW became less reactionary.

“At our founding, back in the “90s, we did not wholly escape the culture wars that were raging at the time,” Councilor Lee Oser admitted. “Nowadays, more and more people are coming around to the view that literature is a good thing, a major element of any real education and well worth having.”

At Ricks’s encouragement, Wolfson rejoined in 2007 “with a sense that the association had evolved from its character in 2000,” and became president in 2009.

“It’s time to stop quarreling with the MLA,” Ricks said. “We need to accentuate the positive things we’re doing instead of complaining about other people.”

Non-profit groups were hit hard by the economic downturns of 2008 and 2009, and the ALSCW was no exception.

“The utilitarian, practical, vocational drive of education and culture at large has tended to move resources away from the arts,” Wolfson said.

However, the ALSCW is fueled more by the work of individuals than by funding. Its office at 650 Beacon Street is mostly staffed by volunteers &-&- students and professors dedicate several hours a week to keep the organization functioning.

“I’m optimistic about our ability to keep on doing our work with relatively little money,” Warren said. “In some ways I think we’ve been energized by the economic crisis. Everyone is working harder; our membership is growing.”

Reading into the future

Boston University has provided a home for the organization since its inception.

“Over the years, BU administration and faculty have played a leading role in the growth of the ALSCW,” Oser said. But the ALSCW’s membership &- and influence &- extends far beyond its strong campus core. Membership has grown by 50 percent in the past year alone, and new developments are sure to reflect this change. Already in the works is a new conference series, “Our Associations,” which will be a combined effort on the part of the ALSCW and the MLA.

“We need to find productive alliances with other associations devoted to literature and literary imagination,” Wolfson said.

Another short-term goal of the ALSCW is to involve more students and young people.

“We are as hospitable to undergraduates who love to read, think about and talk about and write about what they read, [and those who] write in literary genres themselves, as we are to seasoned professors who do the same,” Wolfson said.

With student membership rates at only $32 and abundant volunteer opportunities, students have never played such a vital role in maintaining the organization.

“This campus is an intensely literary campus, among other things,” Warren remarked. “It feels like a reasonable place for the ALSCW to have a strong membership.”

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