In 1929—after he had been injured in the trenches of World War I, after his education and his marriage and his literature and his world in general made him a series of promises that they proceeded to break—Robert Graves published a memoir. It was called Good-Bye to All That, and it offered a detailed account of the causes and effects of what Graves summed up as “my bitter leave-taking of England.” The book was a tale of disillusionment—the kind that sets in gradually and then suddenly, the kind that would get its author and his cohort alternately praised and derided as “the Lost Generation.” The book was, Amazon reports today, “among the bitterest autobiographies ever written.” Graves was only 34 when it was published.
Robert Graves was surely not the first human to feel betrayed by the world, nor was he the first to turn loss into literature. But something about his book—something about its very particular idea that the best way to deal with disappointment in something was to leave it—resonated with later generations. “Goodbye to All That” was resurrected, as a title and as a conceit, in Joan Didion’s famous 1967 essay. Didion’s piece, in turn, was resurrected in many other essays and essay collections and songs and films, making the departure declaration a literary form unto itself. As The New York Times put it of a very specifically Didionesque subset of the genre: “The ‘Goodbye New York’ essay has become a de rigueur career move for aspiring belle-lettrists.”
Lately, though, the modernist genre has taken on a more modern flair. The “goodbye to all that” essay has expanded into a less literary form that has come to be known, ironically, as “quit lit.” The term, if not the genre, is currently most prevalent in academia, a field that has recently birthed a spate of “why I quit teaching” essays. The “why” in question might best be summed up under the heading “because reasons,” but those reasons generally include: demanding students, poor salaries, unnecessary bureaucracies, limited opportunities for creativity and self-actualization, a vaguely Gravesian sense of expectations unmet and promises unfulfilled.
Quit lit—“the ‘lit’ designator seems generous,” my colleague Ian Bogost noted earlier this week—also tends to involve, at the peak of the form, glorified humblebrags. As the author of Vox’s recent and widely circulated entry in the genre explains, humblebraggily:
I graduated from college at 19. I went to law school and passed the bar exam. At 24, I was admitted to the history Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh. There, I made connections with brilliant academics, won prestigious fellowships and grants, and, at the age of 29, just five years after starting graduate school, I landed a tenure-track job.
I can’t understate how rare this opportunity is: Tenure-track jobs at large state universities are few and far between. Landing one without serving a postdoctoral appointment or working as a visiting assistant professor is about as likely as landing a spot on an NBA team with a walk-on tryout—minus the seven-figure salary, naturally.
The author goes on to declare that he had, in getting his plum professorial job, “not just survived the academic Hunger Games,” but “emerged triumphant.” Which, in the context of the essay, does the work of clarifying to the reader the significance of the author's willful sacrifice of the reward he’d claimed in his victory: the tenure-track job. This particular example of quit lit, in other words, treats quitting not according to its traditional, familiar, Protestant-ethical logic—“quitters are losers”—but according to a different morality. Quitting, if you graduated college at 19 and got a tenure-track job at 29, isn’t shameful. It’s noble. It’s enviable. Look upon my non-works, ye mighty, and despair.
But quit lit, in its a contemporary form, isn’t specific to academia. Quitting itself has in some ways become a decidedly active thing, and the subject of contemplation across the culture. People quit Twitter, and write about it. They quit watching TV, and write about it. They quit Facebook, and write about it. (A lot: The Huffington Post’s “quitting-facebook” tag appends not just of dire warnings about the social consequences of Facebook-freedom, but also of contemplative essays about what it means when the social network is the “all that” being said goodbye to.) They quit watching/reading/listening to the news. They quit gluten and sugar and carbs in general and dating and weed and yoga pants and makeup.
And sometimes, they say goodbye to the thing that encompasses so much of the “all that” of the world: the Internet. In 2013, the Grist writer David Roberts, explaining that “I need some time away from all of it: from climate change, the media, blogs, commenters, Twitter, the news cycle, the endless battle for a livable future,” quit the web writ large for a year.
In 2014, he wrote about it.
On the one hand, there’s little that’s literarily new about goodbye-ing to all that. (“Seventeen years ago this month I quit work or, if you prefer, I retired from business,” Fitzgerald wrote in his essay collection The Crack-Up, by way of introducing the chapter titled “Early Success.”) And yet there is something particularly contemporary—and particularly Internetty—about quit lit. It is a luxury to be able to quit something, whether that thing be a job or a food or a pair of Lululemon Luxtreme Wonder Unders. And it’s a luxury, too, to be able to write about that quitting. The quit lit genre may be about rejection, but it’s also about embracing a fusion of things that involves, variously, privilege and insecurity and selfies and social media and activism and slacktivism and entitlement and anxiety and Uber and information overload and peak TV and the gig economy and failing fast and the end of endings. As Ian put it: “Why should anyone be impressed that somebody can quit something? Much more impressive is figuring out how to live with it. More staypieces, please.”
Which is all to say that literary goodbye-ing—today, just as it perhaps has always been—is about much more than quitting. It’s about turning the quitting into a kind of moral declaration. “I quit,” goes the text. “And you should, too,” goes the subtext. In that sense, a professor publishing a “why I quit” essay isn’t just an exercise in explanation or performance, though it may well be those things, too. It is also, more basically if slightly more passive-aggressively, a declaration of an injustice, of a wrongness, of a problem that begs for correction. It is a boycott of one. In that sense, quit lit’s smarms and entitlements aside, the genre has something nice to say about the world and its disappointments. Whether a protest involves academia or gluten or yoga pants, it is generally made in the hope that, on the Internet, protests can change minds and gather voices. The latest form of the “goodbye to all that” is predicated on the belief that, today, a “goodbye” might actually signal the start of something better.