“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, September 23, 2010

Literary Links: (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Creative Writing Programs

First thing’s first: there is nothing even remotely controversial in critiquing Creative Writing programs. Virtually everyone thinks there is something suspicious about them, except for the few people who actually have MFAs/MAs in Creative Writing (and even then, you’ll find a surprising amount of discontent). At the heart of this general suspicion, which has also historically applied to art schools as well, lies the notion that creativity is an inherent property that cannot be ‘taught’. This notion of innate creativity has been known variously as ‘genius’ and ‘originality’ at least since Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759).
            Geniuses, under Young’s conception are born and not made (in fact, as Young points out, the greatest geniuses are those who produce great art without the benefit of great erudition and formal scholarship); in attempting to formalise the process of shaping creative artists within institutions like universities, Creative Writing programs defy all of our cultural notions about creativity that have developed since Goethe. It’s easy to read such programs as merely an attempt to rationalise ‘creativity’ according to the logic of bourgeois professionalism: if you want to be a writer, you need a degree from an accredited institution to verify that you are one.
            But the notion of genius—if not a complete fiction—is inherently contradictory. Geniuses are not just born, nor are their works completely original; if they were completely original, then we would have no frame of reference at all for them, and such art would suffer the fate described by Honoré de Balzac in his wonderful short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’. The very ‘originality’ of a work can only be determined in relation to what has come before; in this sense, originality cannot exist in a vacuum, but rather absolutely depends upon tradition as an oppositional notion. Originality and genius are, in fact, relational rather than inherent qualities. (For a much more scholarly approach to this read the brilliant chapter ‘Genius and the Wounded Subject of Modernity’ in David Wellbery’s The Specular Moment).
            In this sense, we need to view the burgeoning semi-genre of what I’m calling ‘the Creative Writing exposé’ with a great deal of suspicion, since anti-Creative Writing screeds actually reinforce our notions of creativity rather than critically investigating them. Two more have appeared in the last week or so (and thus constitute this week’s links), being Elif Batuman’s ‘Get a Real Degree’ in The London Review of Books and Rjurik Davidson’s unfortunately titled ‘Liberated Zone or Pure Commodification?’ in Overland. Davidson’s piece is ultimately interesting and even-handed, although it runs what currently seems to be Overland’s party line on what literature should be, which is ‘a literature that takes us back into the world – that thinks about the issues that surround and affect us – rather than away from it: a culture of engagement rather than escapism, of reflection rather than consolation’. As I’ve noted elsewhere, an extremely problematic set of assumptions underpins this notion of literature (and more on this below).
            Batuman’s piece is extremely well-written, but this only serves to make it seem far less problematic than it actually is. Ultimately, including the constant references to Stuff White People Like is unnecessary, and Batuman also commits the cardinal sin of slipping in the fact that she went to Harvard (Ah, she must know what she’s talking about if she’s an Ivy Leaguer!).
But the real problem exists within the assumptions that Batuman makes, such as noting that ‘I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction…I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.’ So, right off the, uh, bat, Batuman is critiquing a kind of writing that she admittedly does not read. Right. And tomorrow I will present an argument on the failures of contemporary Romance novels. The problem with this is that so many contemporary authors have gone to creative writing programs that I am deeply suspicious of the notion that there is even a coherent ‘program style’ or that all authors who go through programs betray such a style, which Batuman might know if she, um, you know, read novels.
Which she doesn’t, by the way: ‘I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.’ I like to think of myself as an astronaut, but the fact that I‘ve never been into space ultimately convinces me that I am not one. Batuman is a non-fiction writer who reads non-fiction; she’d like to think of herself as someone who would read novels (probably for the cultural assumptions I discussed above in relation to originality, genius etc.), but she isn’t. Moreover, the point that non-fiction is, like, interesting and artful is totally banal, and to call Shield’s book brilliant is intellectually insulting. What Batuman wants is for fiction to be more like nonfiction, which is, you know, her problem. What she calls ‘the real work of the novel’ is actually a deeply conservative nostalgia for the 19th Century social novel (not surprising given that she wrote a book about 19th Century Russian novelists).
[Warning, unfounded emotional rant approaching]: Look, if you hate art, why not just come out and say it? Everyone who is currently holding the position that art needs to take on the real world, engage with real issues, adhere to standard notions of plot and characertisation, or think more about content, repeat after me: ‘I am a complete and total philistine. I have rejected completely the innovations of modernism and have a deep, profound and aesthetically conservative nostalgia for the classics of literature (as I have chosen to define them in my own personal cannon).’ [Rage subsiding, rant ending…]
There are so many more things I could say here, like how Batuman blames the problems of contemporary literature on writers, not publishers; while I agree that the majority of contemporary literature is bland, this is a result of the fact that books are a commodity that must be sold, and are therefore marketed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, while any novel seen as too ‘difficult’ will usually either be ignored or else edited into something that’s more in line with a saleable good (this seems to be more prevalent in the Anglophone world, as the overwhelming mediocrity of Booker and Pulitzer prize shortlists suggests). Totalitarian societies censor great art, but capitalist societies just ignore it. I’ll simply end my critique by noting this: there is no crisis within contemporary literature as such, but there is a crisis in how literature is produced, disseminated and advertised within the marketplace. The failures are systemic failures that cannot be separated from larger economic structures.
And this ultimately speaks to the value of Creative Writing programs [In a telling Freudian slip, I initially wrote ‘Creative Writing problems’ here]. It’s an ambiguous value (which Davidson registers much more accurately), but a value nonetheless. In a world in which literature seems increasingly marginal, both young and emerging writers often feel completely at sea. What Creative Writing programs provide is precisely a space in which such writers can feel that their writing (and literature more generally) matters, which is pretty useful if you’re going to devote an enormous amount of time to writing your first 60,000- to 100,000-word manuscript. I suspect that the rise of Creative Writing programs is as much a response to the increasingly monolithic, corporate, ‘superstar’ model of publishing as anything else. For this reason, I actually think that Creative Writing students would be best served by learning about the contemporary publishing industry, but in a critical and analytical, rather than purely descriptive, fashion.
As Davidson accurately notes (via one of his ‘anonymous’ interviewees), most Creative Writing teachers are engaged in larger intellectual issues and literary traditions, but most Creative Writing students are not. I don’t see how putting more ‘content’ in the curriculum will help typical Creative Writing students, who are, by and large, basically not intellectuals. This is simply a limit of these programs; while it’s a frustrating one that should be resisted, I don’t think it will go away despite the best efforts of institutions. [Added later: Also, it's incorrect to think that teaching content will result in better books. There are many very smart people who can't write for the simple reason that they have a tin ear for prose; simply put, there's more to being a good writer than just having content--or better yet, for good writers, content doesn't matter at all. The story is in the telling (note that I did not say 'showing', since language is fundamentally incapable of showing anything)].
            I, too, have written about my frustration with Creative Writing degrees, but, my point wasn’t to question Creative Writing programs as such. They indubitably are valuable, but the value they produce is as much a product of the institutional space they create for individuals as anything else (and it is for this reason that the experience of individual students is usually dependent on the way they approach this space). Yes, Creative Writing programs are not perfect. Yes, most creative writing students are more focused on a naïve ‘Romanticism’ of self-expression than any intellectual commitments. And yes, most people who graduate with such degrees will ultimately not produce particularly good writing. But there are also a great number of people coming through these programs who are nothing like this, and, for these students, the discursive space created by Creative Writing programs can be an invaluable resource.


Daniel Wood said...

An incisive, passionate, and -- most importantly -- persuasive post. I actually opened up Batuman's article and read the first few paragraphs very much in sympathy with her. I have been antipathetic towards Creative Writing programs for a long time on the basis of the problems you yourself bring up -- "most creative writing students are more focused on a naïve 'Romanticism' of self-expression than any intellectual commitments" and "most people who graduate with such degrees will ultimately not produce particularly good writing" -- but, as I read on, I felt a burgeoning disquiet with what I was reading. I couldn't quite put my finger on its source at the time, but in only eleven words you managed to strike at the heart of it: "What Batuman wants is for fiction to be more like nonfiction." Exactly. I'm glad you said it; I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders!

Emmett Stinson said...

Thanks, Daniel. I, too, found the piece simultaneously seductive and disquieting, which is because Batuman's piece is both eloquent and erudite, but there's something deeply reactionary and even irrational at the heart of it. It took me about a week of reflecting on it to work out what I thought the problem was; I'm glad you agree!

Joshua Mostafa said...

There's no need to misrepresent Batuman's article to make your points. She's a comparative literature graduate, so _of course_ she enjoys literature - which is precisely why she's picky. Why it take it so personally? Get a thicker skin! I'm a creative writing student, and I enjoyed Batuman's article - after reading it, it prompted me to pick up some the classics I've been meaning to read for ages and haven't got around to. Her main point about literature being in a conversation with earlier books, progressing by dialectic, is an excellent one.

Emmett Stinson said...

How have I misrepresented her article? You don't say so clearly. As to your comment that 'She's a comparative literature graduate, so _of course_ she enjoys literature'--well that's a total non sequitur (i.e. do all accounting graduates like accounting?). You also speak as if we all already know literature is, when my point is the opposite--and indeed my complaint is with Batuman's very definition of literature (as I understand it): I think that's she's got a basically conservative aesthetics, which to me is frustrating because its a sort of philistinism that seems common even among well-educated people at the moment.

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