Whilst reading various and sundry threads currently unraveling along the Internets, it was called to my attention (via the comments) that Serious Folks attend MLA to "network," display one's feathers, and suchlike.
I am apparently exceptionally unserious.
1) Of course I go to the MLA--when I'm presenting a paper. Or sitting on a search committee. (Since I'm committee-ing this year, I will be at the MLA. In case you're wondering, I've already suggested to my chair that we switch to Skype. We've hired excellent people via phone interviews; we can certainly continue to hire excellent people via Skype. And I suspect a lot of us would rather not travel to the MLA to sit in a hotel room.) I most certainly do not attend when I'm not doing one of those two things. (But then I'm not at an R1, which makes me an unserious scholar in at least some folks' eyes...)
2) I do not find MLA congenial for networking (or netting, or knitting, or any other form of connection). The conference itself is too unwieldy, the panels too dispersed across too many subjects with no rhyme or reason (making it difficult to actually run into someone who shares interests), and the social events too likely to revolve around alcohol (which some of us do not drink, as unfashionable as it still is to admit that**). Let's not forget the notorious Badge Check of Doom, in which people like, er, me (let alone someone at a Directional State or a community college) find themselves convicted of not teaching at an R1. Plus the notoriously adversarial Q&A sessions. The most effective networking I've done has all been courtesy of smaller disciplinary conferences, like NAVSA, or, for that matter, this blog.
3) The conference is too blasted expensive for me to attend unless I'm paper-ing or committee-ing. My college's travel allowance is generous for our sort of institution, but it covers, at most, airfare + perhaps two nights in a hotel for any given MLA. (If the MLA is across the country from upstate NY, then it may not cover a single night in a hotel.) Most of the chipper suggestions for saving on travel do not, in fact, apply if you are living in an isolated region in upstate NY. (In fact, having family near LA also did nothing to save on expenses when the MLA was last there--the commute from my parents' house can easily get up to two hours one way, depending on traffic.) There are other things I can do with the money--for example, pay for vet visits for my geriatric cats (who are now racking up plane-ticket-size bills for each visit, courtesy of some unpleasant health issues). Or repair my thirteen-year-old car. Or, for that matter, buy groceries. And, of course, books.
If a tenured faculty member like yours truly finds the conference a financial burden, then it should hardly be a shock that contingent faculty and graduate students are becoming less and less willing to put up with the expense.
4) For gregarious types, I'm told, MLA can be a fun conference. I am not gregarious--"painfully shy" is a better descriptor--and the crush of people can become physically and mentally agonizing. (That's before one ponders the likelihood of coming down with some particularly unpleasant virus, which is a Known Thing.)
5) Dare I say that the prestige of presenting at the MLA is probably oversold? No doubt it looks nice on my or anyone else's CV, but it's not the sort of thing that causes a search committee's collective heart to beat.
6) Now, I'll grant that the book exhibit is instructive and useful--you can see what's being published, meet useful people (like acquisitions editors), and buy books at a discount. It's hands down the best part of the MLA.
*--Of course one can go to cash bars and stand around drinking a Coke while everyone else gets tipsy. I've done that at various conferences. It's...often rather unpleasant, actually, unless you manage to find others with a similar lack of interest in the alcohol on display.