3 jun. 2011

Bullshit Fields (8)

Creative Writing

Academia is very good at reproducing forms of writing, standard modes that will acceptable to other academics. It is desirable to have a standard form for an academic article in a certain field and to judge the article by how well it manages its evidence, presents its conclusions, etc... So it is understandable that creative writing as an academic field is also very good at the self-reproduction of forms and styles. This happens anyway, without the aid of academia. Writers are pretty mimetic of other writers because not that many people are very original. What Creative Writing does is to magnify this clone-like effect by using a workshop format in which groupthink is bound to emerge. Think of whatever the standard New Yorker story of any decade looks like, whether it's Cheever or Carver, Barthelme Sr or Barthelme Jr. Creative writing tends to sand down the rebelliousness of the avant-garde, making it safe for consumption, co-opting it in tepid "third-stream" alternatives. It offers a professionally worthless degree, the MFA, in vastly greater numbers than academia can re-absorb, but that doesn't guarantee competence in writing either. Should being poet be a credential?

Please don't rehearse the standard defenses here that I've heard a thousand times before. How diverse these programs are, how you can in fact, teach writing, how my description corresponds to these programs 20 years ago. How poets I admire have taught creative writing. The historical damage of the Iowaization of American poetry has still not been repaired.

13 comentarios:

Vance Maverick dijo...

FWIW, Barthelme the Greater was the brother of Barthelme the Less. Not that I won't admit there's a sameness to the lesser stories of the better brother. And looking at Wikipedia (the article is unusually clumsy, even by Wiki standards) I see that, while he didn't study "creative writing" himself, he helped perpetrate it, even founding a program.

Jonathan dijo...

There are three brothers, actually. I guess I had assumed that Fred and Steve were sons, rather than brothers, of Donald.

Andrew Shields dijo...

I have a friend who did an MFA so that she could have two years of intensive writing with a community of other writers. She didn't really care about the credential at all, but only about the intensity of the situation.

Sure, she could have gotten into a community of writers and artists somewhere, but would she have gotten paid for it?

That doesn't counter your critique of CW, I know. It's just an anecdote about how CW can be like any other degree: something you do that has to do with your interest in the subject, not your pursuit of a credential.

Vance Maverick dijo...

The "credential" critique is separate from the "groupthink" critique. I'm inclined to think that artists need some community, but not too much -- and the workshop is too much. Are there counterexamples from the aesthetic point of view -- good books or poems that emerged from those hothouse environments?

Clarissa dijo...

Here I agree completely. The idea that you can teach somebody to be a writer has always seemed very funny to me. I believe that people are less likely to create any art of their own after they go through such programs.

They only kind of CW programs that do make sense, I think, are the ones where super-bestselling mystery and romance writers teach people their basic formula of how to produce these kinds of fast-selling books. Elizabeth George, a popular mystery writer, does this somewhere in California. I leafed through a textbook she has written for the purpose and it is a very structured "How to. . ." manual

Elisa dijo...

I agree with Andrew, the degree is incidental to the experience. You are buying (or getting paid for, depending on the program) an immersive writing experience. The most valuable thing I got from my MFA was not the degree itself but the people I met -- the community is good because knowing writers keeps me in touch with writing, makes me want to write, and it also helped me start to get published. Without all that I might have given up, felt that I was writing into the void. The degree has little to nothing to do with my career trajectory in terms of what I do day to day to get paid.

Professor Zero dijo...

I'm with Andrew and Elisa. It's an art degree and there are cloning problems with all of those, whether you're doing them in painting or wherever. It's great if you can find a way to meet other writers like you and have time to write in some other way. But remember, Lorca lived in the Residencia de Estudiantes all that time and it offered certain things. Not everyone has that institution available to them and the closest thing they can get to it might be called an MFA program.

This isn't to say I don't agree with the post in a general way. And our MFA students, of course, no longer put me on their committees because I keep failing them for egregiously poor skills in close reading, terrible misconceptions about literary history, utterly misguided and superficial interpretations of "theory," etc.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Two other things this set of remarks has reminded me of:

-- I have a friend who did a BS in Physics and then began to get more and more involved in one of his other passions: painting. He was really good at it. After a while, he got into an MFA program in Art. By the end of his first year there, he had stopped painting and turned to installations and video. As far as I know, he has never painted again. (Anecdoate, but perhaps interesting.)

-- Singers get workshopped by coaches, and they just suck it up and keep trying to sing better:

http://andrewjshields.blogspot.com/2007/03/thrill-me.html

Professor Zero dijo...

Yes, that's an anecdote. There's a lot of concrete material you learn in art programs, like how to make your paint and glazes and so on, and a lot of technique, and so on, and so forth. Sure there are problems and lots of people with PhDs in literature don't read literature for pleasure any more, etc.

Vance Maverick dijo...

Andrew, I have no doubt that opera singers are subjected to indignities more intensive and oppressive than any workshop poet experiences. But would you argue this is a good thing? Isn't the consensus that since the second world war, classical performance is more conformist and less creative than ever before?

Professor Zero dijo...

...and/but the point about Iowazation is well taken.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Vance, I have to pass on that one, as I am not an expert on opera at all!

Maryrose Larkin dijo...

For me, going through the MFA program at Bard was a life changing experience which enriched my writing practice and my life. Do I teach? No. Am I an academic? No. But I'm thinking a lot about bullshit fields vs.life changing experiences.