Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Burning Typewriter, or, Elif Batuman Strikes Again

Elif Batuman has amplified her criticism of the discipline of creative writing (which I've written about before) in a review-essay that she, or more likely her editors, snarkily titles "Get a Real Degree" (elsewhere on the LRB site the piece is given another polemical label: "Down with Creative Writing"). The book under review is Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (though because Batuman is writing in the London Review of Books she reviews the British edition, which means she gets to use the effete yet somehow sinister Anglicism "programme"). McGurl, one gathers from the review, has come to praise rather than to bury the creative writing programs that are now at the center of what used to be called "American literature"; Batuman, however, sharpens the critique more or less implicit in her wonderful memoir of book-induced delirium, The Possessed. The review's title says it all: the MFA in creative writing (she and McGurl focus myopically on fiction, sigh) is implicitly less "real" than the PhD in literature that Batuman herself holds. I, of course, a perennial student, hold both; and I often scrutinize the two, wondering which has done more to illuminate, form, and deform my life.

Batuman's piece gets to the heart of the tension between the two modes of approaching literature and the literary: a literary scholar comes to value historicization and contextualization above all else, and when reading a novel tends to focus on the ways it was influenced and generated by other novels. Self-expression is ancillary to the task of scholarly writing, and there's also the assumption that literature, and the criticism of literature, is a collective enterprise, an ongoing conversation. Lit begets lit, as crit begets crit.

Creative writing students, on the other hand, value self-expression, originality, and "creativity" itself, displaying what McGurl calls "not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence." PhD's are sentimental, in Friedrich Schiller's parlance, and MFA's are naive (an idea pithily expressed in the title of D.G. Myers' book on the history of creative writing programs in the U.S.: The Elephants Teach. That's another bit of snark, expressing the notion that having actual writers teach writing is like having elephants teach zoology).

Batuman's problem with this, aside from the anti-intellectualism and puritanism of the position she ascribes to creative writing, is that it leads to mediocre fiction. There are fascinating observations in her piece classifying the major strains of contemporary American fiction, and the ways in which suffering and being an outsider have been made paradoxically central to the task of writing for the "authenticity" they bestow - McGurl is brilliant on this, apparently, turning the workshop bromide "find your voice" into an imperative to "find someone else's voice," with William Styron's ventriloquism of Nat Turner as the paradigmatic example. There's some meaty stuff in the middle of the essay, and no doubt in McGurl's book, that make both worth reading.

But what I found most compelling about her argument is the claim that workshop culture has produced a remarkable improvement in literary technique (which McGurl compares to the strides made in the 20th century by athletes and technology), and yet the books that contain so many brilliant, limpid, and evocative sentences aren't any good. This isn't McGurl's claim: he thinks that fiction-writing in America is now at an unprecedentedly high level, and the problem is the combination of overproduction and a deficit of readerly attention. But I find Batuman's claim much more convincing: there's a void at the center of the MFA program that we might call "content"; its absence turns technique ("craft") into an end in itself, and does nothing to challenge the solipsism that every American takes as his birthright, but which is fatal to the task of producing literature (the term Batuman the PhD emphatically prefers to "fiction"): a profound imaginative investigation into the real conditions of human existence, always historicized (i.e., possessed of the means of tracking origins, changes, and consequences over time) if not necessarily "historical" (c.f. James Wood's attack on "hysterical realism").

This "content" needs other sources than "experience" (with the most "authentic" of such experience being the suffering of the marginalized): it means the disciplined study of history, geography, and other social studies, and it means the full-hearted embrace of great books. There's a keenness, voracity, or desperation in that last which I'm not sure can be taught, but I did find my PhD studies facilitated my overpowering curiosity about books rather more than my MFA workshops did.

Still, I'd like to say at least one word on behalf of the innocence that Batuman so eloquently criticizes. I do think creative writing needs to be taught differently; my own experience has shown me that a creative writing class that incorporates substantial quantities of reading, and which engages specific content (as my Environmental Writing class does) is richer than a course devoted to a particular genre and its techniques. But practicing writers, especially the important group (a minority, surely) who don't teach, ought to have the right to renounce the task of being village explainers. You do need to study, or devour, literature in order to make your own. But you owe it to no one to make articulating your particular practice any sort of priority, though the rewards for doing so are as ample as they are superficial.

I've spent so much energy, much of it on this blog, on sorting and classification, to the point where I can't read a poem without sorting it into its particular literary-historical bin: this is post-Language, this is post-Confessional, that's nth-generation New York School (like Cypher says about the Matrix: "all I see blonde, brunette, redhead"). I'm addicted to tables and graphemes and other means of placing and locating texts. And I've painstakingly acquired the habits of scholarly writing, which insist that you not write on a given poem or author without familiarizing yourself with "the literature" on that subject - "literature" here losing its sublime qualities and taking on nearly the dead sound with which corporations and salesmen employ that word.

On the cusp of forty, I'm losing interest in this mode of approaching literature, though it's become an ingrained and necessary professional habit (I am, after all, a teacher). There's no pathway back to "innocence" for me, and I'm not sure I'd take it if there were. But I do think it's possible for there to be a dialectic between innocence and experience (Blake surely believed this, and there's also Paul Ricoeur's notion of "second naivete" - thanks to Bobby Baird for mentioning him). I must believe that the mediated historico-literary experience I acquired as a PhD student can be overcome and sublated and integrated into that original, word-drunk voracity that no one taught me (my mother taught me), and that it might be possible to say or make something that I can't explain - so deeply rooted must it be in the most comprehensive modes of experience - but which magnetically attracts, above and behind and beside the hard-won tricks of technique, a content imbuing truth, humor, and wisdom.


Aidan Semmens said...

'All that great writing trapped in mediocre books' seems to me a glorious summation of the current state of 'literature', certainly here in the UK. There can be no art without craft, but craft alone doesn't make art - all style and no worthwhile content makes for a rather pointless exchange. How far the cosying up of publishers with creative writing programmes (nothing effete or sinister in the proper spelling of that word) is responsible for this I'm in no proper position to judge, but it seems a likely culprit.

Johannes said...

The McGurl is interesting - particularly his readings of school into famous novels. But he's not pro-workshop. he says: arguments pro and against are beside the point. The workshop is part of our literary landscape, so critics have to grappel with it. The book is worth reading. (And he's married to Sianne Ngai, a critic-poet).

But he's actually quite patronizing against workshops. And in teh conclusion he comes out of his shell and complains that students are more likely to want to take creative writing classes than his classes, which would teach them to be good critical readers etc.

I see no reason why workshops can't involve theory and poetry and criticism and art and whatever. In fact the workshop I'm teaching right now includes those things. However, I am tired of the PhD side believing in their own "substantiveness" - I jsut do'nt see that. So much of PhD academy work on contemporary poetry is so dull, repetitive and conventional.


Aidan Semmens said...

If Batuman is right - I haven't read the book, so I'll have to take her word for it - that McGurl's sense of literary history goes back no further than James, then I think it'd be hard to take his analysis too seriously.

Johannes said...

He does have a very James-based perspective.


Nathan said...

This is an extremely thoughtful response.

And yes, there is a dialectic between innocence and experience. Where would we be without it?

Meg said...

Guess you are damned if you do and damned if you don't then.

Better not be damned then.

Peace and all.

Dodie Bellamy said...

Thanks for writing this, and your previous article on Batuman, and for (somewhere) posting the link to a version of her intro. Following that link, I was surprised how she got slammed in the comments, but, the commentors do have a point re: her entitlement. Still, the overall emptiness of MFA-fueled writing at its worst is well captured here--and I say that as someone who makes a living teaching in such programs--and teaching as an adjunct, in some situations, makes you more complicit, as you sometimes lack the power to inject an alternate aesthetics into the mix. Though now I'm in a situation that does allow more radical interjections. As I wrote in my book critiquing this whole arena, Academonia, it sometimes breaks my heart to be in such systems of literary hegemony.

I recently took part in a group reading of conventional fiction writers, all of them successful, though I'd not heard of any of them. The thought that kept coming to me: it all feels so random: the plots felt random, the images felt random: vivid dead little machines that nobody would care about.

anti-t-shirt-sentiment said...

Batuman makes the same mistake she criticizes in her comment about growing up in a pre-literate society. Would a member of such a society be innocent of fiction, of the innovations of storytelling, in the manner of a child? Haven't pre-literate societies harbored powerfully sophisticated oral traditions, the pressures of which upon the participant would be toward extraordinary memory, ancestral invocation, eloquence, and innovation, not "innocence"? All of which might add up to rather more, not less, facility with the concept of viewpoint.

I would strengthen her argument, and suggest that the oral traditions which preceded all literary traditions have evidenced themselves in literature as embodiments of a good deal of careful work, much of which has simply been lost in stopping to write it down . . .

I think your "dialectic between innocence and experience" and Ricoeur's "full responsibility of autonomous thought" are more apt. I can't see any experience, even "cultivating innocence", as more or less valid than any other. Run walk or crawl, you traverse the sietch. But the choice of (responsibility for) what to cultivate affects the results. Not what the program did to the writer, but whether the writer chose responsibility after all. In participating, or in not participating.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Joshua Corey,

You write, "There's no pathway back to "innocence" for me . . . " and certainly there isn't for anybody.

But as you discussed William Blake, I recalled, "Exuberance is beauty." That ain't a sure-fire de-taxonomizer, but it may help lessen that weight....

Best wish and good reading!

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