Sunday, 3 October 2010

You're Writing What You Know

Elif Batuman’s polemic on Creative Writing courses in the last LRB was good fun, especially the sketch she attempts of the ideology at work in the talk around ‘programme fiction.’

I’m not so interested in that seemingly endless debate about whether the programmes are for the good or not (see the sensible responses from several interested parties, and try finding similarities in Carl Shuker and Tusiata Avia the next time someone tells you writing courses produce a homogenized literary voice). The programmes, and the expansion of higher education more generally, are part of new post-war social-institutional formations, like the salon or the coffee shop in centuries past, so – no surprises here, either – historicizing is in order. What’s the general ideology and authorial ideology within this literary mode of production? Batuman’s much too elegant a critic to use terms of that sort, but an aside of hers points in those directions:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique take as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American dream of perfect self-expression.’ Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

This way of talking about talking about literature and literature in higher education – historicizing all that vital chatter and self-publicising as well as the self-consciously ‘critical’ statements – presents an opportunity to consider the relations between schools, book markets and ideologies of writing, a more interesting matter, if nothing more, than forever pondering whether writing can be taught or not (after all, as Robert Crawford’s The Modern Poet demonstrates, there’s been anxiety on these scores since the 1750s).

It’s not just the question of writing, either, but of reading too. Batuman, in an aside after quoting a writer’s description of their material, notes that "literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest.” That the well-to-do have always loved exotic tales of others’ misery is part of the point here, to be sure; another ought to be that diversifying the range of experiences fed into the contemporary novel, perhaps a useful step, leaves only part of the process explored or expanded. The other question is who’s reading, and how. Now, none of that feels so far away from Brecht’s questions, or some of his answers.

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