Surfeit of Kafka?

Mr. Verb has some comments on the recent New York Times Magazine article on the sago of Franz Kafka and his works. In particular he discusses this quote from the article:

Kafka studies now proliferate at a rate inversely proportional to that of Kafka’s own production: according to a recent estimate, a new book on his work has been published every 10 days for the past 14 years.

But is this true? The New York Times does not cite a source for this figure.

A search of the MLA International Bibliography for 2009 publications with the keyword “kafka” comes up with only two scholarly books published on the writer in that year. There were twenty-five peer-reviewed journal articles. There were a total of sixty-seven publications. 2008 saw ten books and 119 total publications. 2007 had nine books and a total output of 123 items. 2006: twelve books and 160 items total. For the decade running from 1998–2008, there were total of 1,188 items, including 78 books and 405 peer-reviewed articles—and no dissertations. If the Times numbers are to be believed, the scholarly output on Kafka should be about triple what the MLA says it is. (The lower number for 2009 may reflect a delay in items entered into the bibliography. And the discrepancy between the Times and the MLA may be that the Times figure includes editions and translations of the works themselves.)

The MLA figures show a robust and active field of study. Yes, it’s a lot of material, but these things go in cycles. Literary criticism is a conversation, with scholars commenting on and building upon each others’ works. In a few years, the Kafka field will be over-cultivated out and the output will fall. Then after a few decades of lying fallow the field will blossom again. It’s probably a bad move, career-wise, for a graduate student to jump into Kafka studies at this point. (Which may be why no dissertations on Kafka are found for any of these years.) But the total output, as documented by the MLA, doesn’t seem excessive.

Mr. Verb does have a point that fields can become overcrowded and the research topics can become esoteric, arcane, and even downright silly, but high output in a particular subject is generally not a bad thing. It shows that ideas are being generated and the work is having an impact.

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