Friday, May 13, 2011

The paradoxical politics of creative writing

Note: Blogger went down some time on Thursday, May 12th, taking down everything posted since the previous evening along with it. To date the missing posts have not been restored. So I am republishing my little essay on the politics of creative writing. And I’ve used the occasion to add a sentence or two.

It took him eight months, but Wednesday in the Los Angeles Review of Books Mark McGurl finally replied in print to Elif Batuman’s widely read onslaught against academic creative writing, “Get a Real Degree,” which appeared in last September’s London Review of Books. As McGurl puts it, Batuman “unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words. . . .” But he isn’t particularly exercised by her critique. After all, Batuman writes from the perspective, he says, of a “cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the ‘tenured radicals’ of the university.”

I’m not at all sure that any such description of Batuman is accurate, and I am more than sure that she herself would find it off-target. One minute McGurl is criticizing her “snarky slurs” against Beloved, the very next minute he is calling her literary journalism’s Ann Coulter. Snark is, like, acceptable only when it comes from one side of the political aisle? When an academic wishes to dismiss a writer from serious consideration, he calls her a right-winger.

Over at The Suburban Ecstasies, Seth Abramson does a good job of exposing McGurl’s errors “great and small” (and says some nice things about me), but he merely hints at the political incoherence of McGurl’s critique.

The incoherence comes through most clearly when McGurl interrogates Batuman’s claim that “Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical.” In reply, McGurl repeats the word democracy several times, as if that will do the trick. Creative writing’s ambition to establish an “aesthetic democracy” can sometimes seem like a “sentimental gesture,” he allows, but it really is a noble ambition. While her elitism would confine most Americans who might otherwise prefer the writing life to “working at the register,” Batuman is not troubled by such economic conditions. According to McGurl, she feels “only contempt for those who have dared to think and act otherwise, in case a more democratic culture turns out to be possible.” (By contrast, his own contempt for commerce is so deeply embedded into his thinking that he barely notices it.) Still, the two of them have something in common:

As even Batuman concedes, creative writing represents something “wonderful about America,” though I don’t think, as she does, that it’s the idea that that “all forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch.” That sounds good, but in practice it is so often a sadistic or self-loathing desire. Rather, I think the best thing about America is the idea of democracy upon which it was imperfectly founded, and I’m happy to see any signs, however conflicted, that we can still imagine, and even facilitate, greater social access to the high pleasures of excellent writing.McGurl is a canny and profoundly learned scholar; I’m a bit embarrassed for him that he would carelessly repeat such phrases without any recognition of their historical provenance. (It also never occurs to him that the difference between them on what is most wonderful about this country may owe more to differences in personal circumstance than politics: Batuman is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, who must have reinvented themselves from scratch in America.) Nevertheless, the politics on display here derives from the same source as creative writing itself. Both are classic expressions of American progressivism.

Although he knows it very well, McGurl did not write The Elephants Teach; I did. He can’t be expected to overhear the echoes of creative writing’s progressive origins, which I detail in Chapter 5 (“The Sudden Adoption of Creative Work”), as readily as I do. Hughes Mearns, a progressive educator who founded it as a school subject, conceived of creative writing as a progressive reform along the same political lines as the enactment of child-labor laws and the uprooting of municipal corruption. His plan was to democratize literary culture—to make it more responsive to more people—because Mearns was every inch the anti-elitist. In an article written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1912, Mearns ridiculed the elitist attitude toward culture:Culture is an incommunicable communion with Nature; it is clean hands and a pure collar; it is the possession of great-grandparents—white, Christian pre­ferred; it is the achievement of tolerance; it is the proper use of “shall” and “will”; it is a knowledge of Hegelian philosophy; it is Greek; it is Latin; it is a five-foot shelf of books; it is twenty thousand a year; it is a sight of truth and a draught of wisdom; it is a frock coat and pearl gloves. . . . No one ever saw it; it cannot be measured or chemically analyzed; the fellow that claims it loudest never has had it; the chap that really has it never mentions the matter; and it can be obtained only by a studious cultivation of one kind of education—my kind!As I have pointed out before, scholars routinely get creative writing wrong through ignorance or neglect of its original conception as a progressive school reform. To treat it as an epiphenomenon of American higher education—as even Batuman does—is to grab a shovel to hammer a board.

Progressivism is encoded in creative writing’s DNA. What is more, this progressive legacy also explains what is at issue in the debate between McGurl and Batuman, and why neither has achieved a victory over the other. Both democracy and elitism belong to the progressive inheritance—their mismatch, as Peter Berkowitz wrote recently in a brilliant analysis in the Policy Review, “reflects an enduring paradox with deep roots in the progressive tradition.” On the one hand, American progressives espoused democratic reforms; on the other hand, these reforms were formulated and installed by an undemocratic elite—the progressive reformers themselves—sometimes against the will of the people. Berkowitz goes further:The paradox of American progressivism, old and new, is rooted in the gap between its professed devotion to democracy, or the idea that the people legitimately rule, and its belief that democracy consists in a set of policies independent of what the people want. The paradox may not inhere in every single progressive utterance or program, but it typifies progressivism as a whole. It certainly receives expression in the disjunction between official progressive aims. On the one hand, progressives proclaim their intention to democratize American politics by making it more responsive to the will of the people and giving the people greater say in government. On the other hand, progressives favor the steady enlargement of the national government’s responsibilities, which increases the distance between the people and government, while supporting the expansion of an educated administrative elite, which reduces government’s accountability to the people.This account will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has eavesdropped on the debates over creative writing. The positions have changed little over the years. As I described them fifteen years ago:On one side are those who blame [creative writing] for an astonishing array of ills: the collapse of literary standards; an overproduction of homogeneously bad writing, the decadence of the age. . . . On the other side are those who defend creative writing as a democratization of culture and a happy awakening of interest in literature and the literary life.If, however, creative writing is recognized as an institutional representation of the paradoxical politics of progressivism, the debates begin to seem beside the question. Suddenly metaphors like Donald Justice’s “pyramid scheme” (quoted in my book) or McGurl’s “Ponzi scheme” begin to seem shrugging guesses; the expansion of an educated administrative elite, enlarging its turf from coast to coast, accounts for the amazing boom in graduate writers workshops over the past half century. And except when they are advanced to justify what Batuman calls “writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum”—progressive aims explain the knowledge vacuum—the democratic slogans of the nationalized bureaucracy that staffs America’s creative writing programs can be seen for what they are. Namely, rhetorical cover for their own privilege.

Literary writing may or may not be inherently elitist, but the creative writing faculty sure is.


Marsupialus said...

What a lot of weight Batuman puts on us poor writers. Maybe you don't have to sit there pondering the whole socio-economic-cultural landscape, your place in it and how your fiction will fit in as well before you start or how you might best recontextualize history in this next chapter. God, talk about sucking the joy out of doing one small thing. You find an interesting phrase. You get off a good line. Those small sparks are enough to see your way another foot forward. You'd think any of us were doing something that mattered.

claves curiae said...

Maybe progressivism is losing its grip a bit?
I was surprised to see Andrew Ferguson's article in the Weekly Standard about David Mamet's speech two years ago at Stanford that (rightly) attacked the herd mentality prevalent in higher education. Mamet's talking about "The elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought… a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way… and the faculty should be ashamed in participating in the swindle.." was pretty powerful stuff two years ago. It's pretty powerful stuff now.

Naming it, "Converting Mamet" certainly gives it political overtones but I'm wondering what your opinion is about it, if reintroducing this speech now means there's an undercurrent, if not an early indication of a shift in the way universities are looking to the future?