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