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The View from Nowhere

June 2, 2009

A good and often funny article in the New Yorker this week by Louis Menand on creative writing as an academic discipline.  The subtitle is “Should creative writing be taught,” and the “should” is the point of the article, which centers around a new book called The Program Era by Mark McGurl, about the conversion of fiction writing into a credentialed “profession."  The book

[treats] the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling…

Changes in creative-writing programs are influenced by changes in two related bodies of thought, both of which try to answer the question “How can we make people more productive and more creative?” These are the philosophy of education and management theory. Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the “learning by doing” theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning. And, as McGurl suggests, presenting a story in a writing workshop is a little like making a business presentation in a corporate workplace. Such a presentation is, on some level, what he calls “a presentation of individual excellence,” a means by which we observe and test ourselves. It helps us measure how we’re doing in the human race…university creative-writing programs don’t isolate writers from the world. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.

Menand also covers the identitization of literature, that wave of cultural revolution in the 90s that forced anyone in a classroom (myself included, for a very brief time in San Francisco) to stand up and preface their sentences with “As a queer woman of color, I feel that…” (Because, after all, as a queer woman of color there was only one way you were allowed to feel; to feel otherwise was to have given in to Oppression.)  Menand gives two examples of typical absurdities: a Native American is denounced for writing a novel about Native Americans, because a novel is “an Anglo-American literary structure that must prohibit any authentically Indian imaginative form.”  A professor at Brown University, asked by a student about what her own writing was like, answered “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.” 

Both book and article agree that “the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War.”  Well, if by serious you mean those who are most studied in university, indeed.  Especially now, where ethnic studies departments reinforce students’ minority identities which leads to their developing “voices” about minority life which are then turned into reading material for the next generation of minority students, making these departments into what Menaud calls “restaurants that bake their own bread.”  (Personally, I fell for the identity thing for a long time, believing my gayness was what I was and what I had to write about – now, I think it’s criminal to teach young people that identity should be segmented like an orange, and to squeeze them until the sweet juice of “liberation” flows onto the page, as if self-acceptance was the final triumph of life instead of what it is, only the first step to getting a full human identity replete with various interests and fewer grudges against the world.)

Menand notes a couple of postwar literary writers who didn’t come out of the system or go back as teachers (Salinger, Nabokov, Pynchon – two out of three of whom are famous recluses, which would undoubtedly interfere with giving lectures), but fails to mention some of the greatest writers who didn’t even go to university – George Orwell, Doris Lessing, and Gore Vidal for instance.  Vidal even wrote his own memoirs out of fear and loathing of seeing what he called the “scholar-squirrels” write his life for him.

In fact, most creative writing lectures can be replaced with a single paragraph from Orwell, from his essay “Why I Write”:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Orwell’s (and Lessing’s and Vidal’s) political purposes were human and universal, not narrow critiques, identity crises or self-referential “cult of the sentence” style “luminous prose” (a phrase wearily overused by book reviewers to describe most anything out of MFA Land). 

In the end, Menand looks back on his own education and decides that these programs are worthwhile, if not for their stated purposes:

Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

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