Friday, September 17, 2010

Of straw men and bureaucrats

Over at The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney registers his dissent from Elif Batuman’s essay “Get a Real Degree” in the London Review of Books. As I pointed out in a comment, it is a pretty dumb mistake to summarize Batuman as saying “Down with creative writing.”

Cheney does not make that mistake, but he accuses her—and other critics who worry about creative writing’s influence upon contemporary fiction—of arguing in bad faith. “Mostly, I'm just tired of people com­plaining about some monolithic thing called ‘MFA writers’ and their boring books/stories,” he says. “It’s a straw man argument, because to be convincing (to me, at least) a critic must show that a giant glob of the fiction being published in the U.S. today is 1.) boring; 2.) boring because of the effect of writing workshops on the writer—that, in fact, this writer would be less boring had she or he studied investment banking.”

I am among those critics who has advanced that “straw man” argument. “[F]or an entire generation of American writers,” as I put it several years ago in The Elephants Teach, “a tour of duty in graduate writers’ work­shops followed by a life of teaching creative writing has been the standard training and common experience of its time.” Just yesterday I suggested that contemporary American novelists were unlikely to revive the proletarian novel, “because they have passed almost their entire adult lives in creative-writing programs and have small interest in the lives of ordinary, ‘proletarian’ men and women.”

My complaint has never been, however, that most of “the fiction being published in the U.S. today” is “boring.” I have argued instead that the “standard training and common experience” of contemporary novelists, attaching them to a rootless profession that organizes them nationally rather than encouraging them to put down roots in a local habitation, has had the effect of bleaching region and a strong sense of place from much American fiction.

Creative writing also has class effects. One of the things that struck me about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was that the Berglunds, a former All-American basketball player (that’s the wife, naturally) and an environmentally conscious lawyer, were immediately familiar to me as class types. They differed little or not at all in their tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income from the characters in “a giant glob” of recent American fiction (to use Cheney’s phrase).

The same couple shows up with dismaying frequency—in Joshua Ferris’s novel The Unnamed, for example, Sam Lipsyte’s Ask, Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban (the parents are notable imagines of their class), and even Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men. Lawyers, academics, graduate students, government grant-holders, NGO do-gooders—the circles are very small. And just to show that I am not saying that their class homo­geneity insures that the novels are “boring,” I’d observe that this charge can also be leveled against novels that I have praised to the skies, such as Francine Prose’s Golden­grove and Zoë Heller’s Believers. Many of the best novels published in the U.S. recently have been set among the upper crust of American society, which is described by Angelo Codevilla as America’s ruling class:

Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters—speaking the “in” language—serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what busi­ness or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. . . . Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats.Again, to be fair. Franzen does not write to celebrate this class, as repre­sented by the Berglunds, but to strip bare its tastes and social habits. In his review of Freedom, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review compared the Berglunds to “the complacent upright parents in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral [who] see their world capsized by their own children. . . .” But here is the difference. Roth’s Swede Levov is a glovemaker, and American Pastoral characterizes the glovemaking process with a close and fascinating intimacy of knowledge.

Creative writing has become a bureaucratized national system for securing contemporary American writers’ place in the right class, among the right people. This is why so much of their fiction is concerned with identity and attitude and the language that expresses them, and so little is concerned with the work that ordinary men and women do. And this is why, when an immensely talented novelist like Jonathan Franzen becomes aware of the class trappings, he falls to observing them with a shrewd and candid eye rather than breaking with them altogether.


Dave Lull said...

Mark McGurl comments on Eli Batuman's review here:

Jonathan said...

Bill Morris takes a kick at the can here:

Does School Kill Writing?