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We Need a Movement, Not Just a Moment: Modernism and #MeToo

“What should we do with the art of terrible men?” asks Emily Nussbaum in I Like to Watch.[1] Reading this book reignited my anger over #MeToo. Nussbaum asks a question that was inescapable in the fall of 2017. The question is difficult, in part because it frames a complex set of issues as resolvable with a single answer. To get an intellectual handle on the question, I had to lay out the nesting-doll questions hidden inside the big one. Two of them are the focus of my essay: what is the role of literary criticism in the era of #MeToo? Do modernist critics have distinctive responsibilities or knowledge pertaining to #MeToo? My answers to these questions emphasize praxis: what those of us working in the field of modernist literary studies can do to ensure the lessons of #MeToo aren’t forgotten. Modernist scholars assume many roles, of course. The essays in the cluster “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” address the implications of #MeToo for modernist pedagogy. This essay complements the cluster by directing our attention to a different (though sometimes overlapping) role, that of the literary critic. ​I outline in practical terms some of the implications of #MeToo for modernist criticism in the hopes that such concrete thinking will spur conversation about ways to embed the lessons of #MeToo in our critical practices.

Central tenets of #MeToo include: 1) separating creative works from the creators facilitates patterns of abuse, 2) naming abuse is powerful, especially when naming is a collective effort, and 3) believing women who name abuse is an ethical imperative.[2] I agree with and support the spirit of these tenets, but they, like many ideas that spread on social media, lack nuance. For instance, “believe women” is a pithy catchphrase but people of all genders suffer harassment. Furthermore, the power that comes from naming abuse is conditional. Tarana Burke, a Black Civil Rights activist, created #MeToo in 2006. Yet the initiative did not gain national attention until Alyssa Milano happened on a similar idea in 2017 and spread the idea via her large social media network.[3] In this instance, fame, wealth, and whiteness influenced the extent to which women were believed and their abuse taken seriously. Likewise, we would be wise “not to overstate the political efficacy of speech, or of representation more broadly,” as Alix Beeston argues, since many of the abuses named by #MeToo have been named before and they still occur. Nevertheless, these tenets provide a starting point for thinking through the ways #MeToo might inform modernist studies.

What is the Purpose of my Criticism?

I’ll take each of the three tenets of #MeToo in turn, starting with the injunction against separating creative works from their creators. Modernist critics have distinctive knowledge on this issue, studying as we do many writers who advocated aesthetic autonomy and impersonality. But if we take these tenets seriously, do we need to “cancel” Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis the way HBO “cancelled” Louis C.K.?  In literary criticism, cancelling would mean withholding attention from the works of people deemed terrible and giving it to underrepresented writers instead. The issue is particularly complicated with regard to someone like Eliot who did not physically abuse or assault women. He certainly enjoyed misogynistic banter, however, as the letters exchanged among him, Pound, and John Quinn demonstrate. Eliot also used women to advance his career. Consider, for instance, his claim that marrying Vivien was preferable to marrying Emily Hale, despite his lack of love for Vivien: “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivien nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”[4]

Contending with question of cancelling requires answering yet another one: what is the purpose of literary criticism? For those whose critical approach is historicist, the most tenable answer is not to cancel. We must acknowledge, for instance, Pound’s anti-Semitism, but we cannot stop discussing Pound, because doing so creates an incomplete picture of modernism. I asked earlier whether modernist scholars have distinctive responsibilities related to #MeToo. From the perspective of historicist criticism, we have a clear a responsibility to contextualize abuse and harassment, in both the works and the biographies. If literary scholars don’t, who will?

If, however, the purpose of my criticism is drawing attention to literature worthy of it, the answer to the cancel question is less clear. This approach, which some call the “spotlight” function, carries connotations of moral judgment that might seem outdated. In 2008, Rita Felski argued, “Old-school beliefs that exposure to literature and art was a sure path to moral improvement and cultural refinement have fallen by the wayside, to no one’s great regret.”[5] Yet Felski was writing in a different context, and #MeToo is giving new life to the spotlight function. Sarah Mesle recently wrote, “Criticism is a way of taking things seriously. It’s both a looking closely and an argument that things should be closely looked-at. It’s this second part, the should, that makes things interesting and complicated, because it’s where personal attentiveness intersects with social pressure.” Arguing for literature’s moral improvement potential is not identical to “taking things seriously,” but Mesle’s point suggests a likeness between these positions that #MeToo heightens. The impetus behind cancelling the works of terrible people is a moral one: what they do is wrong, so we shouldn’t reward them with our attention. To be sure, the “spotlight” and historicist approaches are only two of many, but considering these approaches shows how critics might arrive at divergent answers to the cancel question.

Naming Abuse

The second of the tenets—that naming abuse is powerful—is ultimately about language and the ways it defines our lives. The relationship between language and subjective experience is another area in which modernist critics have distinctive knowledge. In a practical way, our field is already attending to this tenet. We are paying closer attention to scenes of abuse and more likely to name them as such. The essays in the cluster “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” is perhaps the most visible example, but is not the only one.[6]

This tenet also encourages us to reconsider a term literary scholars love to hate: relatable. When used in lieu of real engagement, we have good reason to deride it. However, in light of #MeToo I see more value in the term. Tarana Burke’s main point is that knowing you’re not alone helps “de-stigmatize the act of surviving by highlighting the breadth and impact of sexual violence worldwide.” #MeToo encourages readers to name moments of sexual abuse as “relatable”; it creates a community of survivors and makes that community legible. “Relating” to Rachel Vinrace when Richard Dalloway forces a kiss on her has similar potential if we name his actions accurately.[7]

Believing and Citing

The power that comes from naming abuse depends on the third tenet: the extent to which we believe people who name abuses. Dozens came forward before accusations against Bill Cosby (et al.) were taken seriously, a reminder that women’s concerns don’t carry as much weight as men’s. Virginia Woolf wrote at length about similar issues, perhaps most memorably in A Room of One’s Own: “it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction.”[8]  Feminist modernist scholars are well-versed in the various ways that women’s words are devalued, especially if the women are queer or dark-skinned.

This third tenet raises an issue that is thornier, because not so salutary, when phrased as “whose authority do I recognize?” Put another way, what lessons does #MeToo have for my citation practices? Given all we know about the inequities and bottlenecks of the academic job market, might we do a better job citing precarious academics, unpublished dissertations, blog posts, and even tweets? Citing ideas shared on social media is particularly relevant regarding #MeToo. Much of the conversation happened online and the rapid pace of transmission helped give the movement force. I’m not arguing that we cite tweets instead of peer-reviewed sources, nor am I saying we should cite half-baked theories. Yet incisive ideas sometimes appear first on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. Citing these sources acknowledges the wisdom that exists outside academia and on the peripheries of power.

At the outset, I asked: what is the role of literary criticism in the #MeToo era? Do modernist critics have distinctive responsibilities or knowledge pertaining to #MeToo? I haven’t arrived yet at conclusive answers for my own criticism. I am, however, convinced of the necessity of wrestling with the issues #MeToo raises. Avery Alder tweeted: “Really telling that its [sic] called a ‘#MeToo moment’ . . . Canadian Lit gets its #MeToo moment. The games industry gets its #MeToo Moment. Not a reckoning, not a re-orientation, not a transformation, not a commitment, not a purge. Those who share their pain are only given a moment” (@lackingceremony). Thinking concretely about the implications of #MeToo for our critical practices is a step toward transformation.



[1] Emily Nussbaum, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (New York: Random House, 2019), 110.

[2] The creative arts are not the only fields affected by #MeToo but they are central to the movement.

[3] Aisha Harris, “She Founded #MeToo. Now She Wants to Move Past the Trauma,” The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2018. Burke builds on a long line of feminist scholarship about race, gender, and sexual trauma.

[4] Rafia Zakaria makes a similar point about Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes.

[5] Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 2.

[6] See also the cluster of essays in Feminist Modernist Studies on “Modernist MeToo# and the Working Woman,” edited by Alix Beeston (whose introduction I cite above).

[7] I discuss this scene in greater depth in my introduction to the American Book Review special issue on Harassment. For more on the term “relatable,” see Brian Glavey, “Having a Coke with You Is Even More Fun Than Ideology Critique,” PMLA 134, no. 5 (2019): 996-1011.

[8] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, ed. Susan Gubar (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005), 67.