“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When Creative Writing Programs Attack...

In the wake of Ted Genoways' Mother Jones article, 'The Death of Fiction?', a few different Australian journals have picked up his argument that Creative Writing programs are somehow responsible for destroying literary culture. I'm not going to offer a full description of why this argument is absolute bunkum (for the reason that I've written something longer on the subject that I've submitted for publication), but one problematic assumption I've seen in the Australian variants of these arguments is the notion that Creative Writing programs across the world are all the same. This is simply untrue.
I'm not going to argue that Creative Writing pedagogy is perfect (it isn't), or that I've always loved my writing instructors (I haven't), but I have been lucky enough to have several great instructors in both the U.S. during my undergraduate days and Australia during my M.A. at the University of Adelaide. The big difference between the two countries' approaches, however, is that the United States model is far more reliant on the workshop as the locus of pedagogy. But, here, that's just one of several methods, including lectures, one-on-one mentoring, and (often) the requirement that Creative Writing candidates produce as much literary criticism as they do creative writing at the Honours, Masters, and PhD level (indeed, there are very few PhD programs even running in Creative Writing in the U.S., but they are a total commonplace in Australia). At the PhD level, workshops are usually informal and optional (if they exist at all), and there isn't a hyper-competitive culture around fellowships, since Australian scholarships are, by U.S. standards, more readily available and comparatively quite generous (Ask U.S. PhD students in the Arts how they would feel about having a scholarship for four years at $26,000 (untaxed!) per year with no teaching requirements and no coursework, if you don't believe me).
For these reasons, Australian programs are both less exclusive (which means that, for better or worse, you get a wider array of both writing styles and levels of experience), and employ a wide range of teaching techniques. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing, although it means that Australian institutions will never have the prestige of exclusive institutions like Iowa or East Anglia (although, I ultimately think this is a good thing, too, since exclusive institutions tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies – they become famous for producing successes, and then produce more successes because the institutions are famous. You are welcome to dismiss this as ressentiment, if you wish). But I also think that it limits the damaging aspects of over-reliance on the workshop.
Creative writing workshops are great; they exist for the reason that they work, and they are an important tool, but they also have limits. As Rick Moody pointed out in his 2005 essay, ‘Writers and Mentors’, which you should read if you haven’t, CW workshops ultimately do resemble consumer focus groups. Speaking from my own experience, I think that, during the second year of my M.A., the workshop occasionally produced an unfounded crisis of confidence in my own work; whether or not my stories are actually any good (of course I think they are, but I would, wouldn’t I?), I was aiming to write a group of stories that were subtle and understated – I didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with a didactic ‘meaning’ at the end (there is ‘meaning’ there, or at least I intended there to be, but I wanted it to be something the reader had to work to infer, rather than being handed over and validated like a tram ticket). The dangers of understatement – of expecting the reader to put in some work – are twofold: 1) some readers, usually those with the strongest ideas of what they think literature should be rather than what it is, will completely miss the point altogether, and 2) understatement results in an ambiguity that can enable multiple readings of a text (although this is basically the point of understatement).
Not surprisingly, a few people in my class found my stories confusing, and often wanted them to be more pronounced, more ‘clear’. And to be fair, many of my stories are also about relatively unlikable people, and – although I think such notions are problematic – I do realise that most readers prefer sympathetic characters (and I often received complaints about the fact that my characters weren’t sympathetic enough). Even though I am an incredibly stubborn person in my own way, as anyone who knows me well will attest, I think that I did compromise some of my aesthetic ideals under the weight of the workshop, and, in worrying about whether or not readers would ‘get it’, I reshaped some of my work to be more overt than I would have preferred – much to its detriment. Part of the reason for this, I think, was that, in my particular course, there was too much reliance on the U.S. model, in which workshops were the only pedagogical method.
Thankfully, when it came to reworking the stories into my book, Known Unknowns, my editor did a great job of encouraging me to get rid of this more didactic material, and I’m very happy with the way the stories ended up, largely because of her work and keen critical eye. The irony of this, of course, is that I did have two book reviews that basically replicated comments that I had received from those few students in the workshop who didn't 'get' my stories – that the endings weren’t decisive enough (which was, of course, my intent), that they couldn’t see the ‘point’ of the story (because, of course, they had preformed ideas about what a story arc should be and how a story should end) – but there’s no point in worrying about these critiques. Such responses are simply going to result from the particular style I have chosen. And this, ultimately, is the limit of the workshop: writers aren’t writing for every reader, and not even every intelligent reader – sometimes the best thing you can do with workshop critiques is ignore them.
I am not, in any way trying to attack either the institutions I went to, my teachers, or my fellow classmates. For all my qualms above, they also did make some really useful suggestions about my work, but, even more importantly, they offered encouragement and provided a community of like-minded individuals with whom I could discuss writing and literature; in many ways, these functions of Creative Writing programs are possibly more important, at the postgraduate level, than the instruction itself.
At this point in time, I have no interest in workshops, and, aside from an informal meeting of friends, I couldn’t imagine wanting to take part in one again. At some point as a writer, you have to decide to go with what you think works, and not what a committee of writers around you think is best when surveyed by a show of hands. But I only got to this point through my participation in workshops.
What I like about Australian Creative Writing institutions in general is their openness, both in terms of accepting broader demographics of students and in eschewing a one-size-fits-all model. And it is only through those other kinds of knowledge transmission, those other pedagogies – both informal and formal – that writers can ultimately see the limitations of the workshop itself.


patrick boniface said...

Is this the epilogue?

Emmett Stinson said...

Hey Patrick:

No, not an epilogue -- but it almost could be; clearly narrative structure isn't my strength...

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