June/July/Aug 2009

Shop Talk

Is the writing workshop a crucible for an aesthetic based on shame?

Mark Greif


Some of the big questions about US fiction since World War II are obvious. Why did the enormous novel of technical, scientific, or historical knowledge become the highest credential for male writers (Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Wallace)—and why have its authors been mostly elite and white? Did fiction truly split up after the ’60s on lines of identity, as many think, so that female authors had to decide whether they were creating “women’s writing,” and the minimalists of the ’80s (Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips) became representatives of marginalized whiteness?

And there’s perhaps the most complex question of all: What has the movement of postwar writing into the university done to our literature? Few professional writers in the second half of the twentieth century escaped attending college. Many wound up in MFA programs. Still more acquired university patronage as teachers or paid visitors. And the most esteemed, “high literary” books have sustained their sales and prestige in large part through assignments to undergraduates.

The obvious nature of this last question only places the decades-long lack of a proper answer in higher relief. It is proportionately exhilarating to find, in Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a brilliant and comprehensive mind developing one at last. McGurl trains his gaze on the university writing programs and some of the masterful novelists they have incubated. But he makes his most compelling arguments at the level of the writer’s practical place in the academy, examining the distorting (and enabling) effects of university discipline on individual artists, and considering the wider role of “creative writing” within a chain of notions of creativity (lasting from high school to the service-economy workplace) that inculcate skills for late-capitalist life.

Once, at a cocktail party, the famous former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Paul Engle described a recurring nightmare:

He was a prisoner, he said, in a concentration camp where he’d been singled out for a specially degrading punishment. Along the camp’s outer rock wall, about six feet off the ground, was a series of holes or depressions. Brought out naked before the massed prisoners, he had to bend over and grasp his ankles, then hoisted by the guards, put his feet in two of those depressions . . . proceeding around the wall like a fly. But, he said, after a while he found he could do this . . . better . . . than anyone had ever done it. In time, he was simply whizzing around the wall while guards and prisoners, no longer jeering, looked on with amazement and admiration.

The dream allegorizes Engle’s path as a promising poet who had become a teacher and administrator: The sort of jobholding that any Romantic poet would have held in contempt proved to be Engle’s métier. Just this kind of exposure and humiliation, and the transformation of shameful discipline into a mode of genius, reflects the writing-program experience as McGurl identifies it. Within the workshop structure, each student introduces private writing for public scrutiny, critique, and correction by competitor-collaborators and an instructor-judge. The risk of embarrassment is curbed only by the cult of revision, which leaves no work subject to final judgment; all writing is in progress, and a fetish is made of the expertise that moves a comma or does fifteen drafts; while the exposed self can be redeemed by a mature perspective (of dissociation or wistful regret) woven into the telling.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the greatest aesthetic triumphs associated with the programs were built on themes of humiliation and narrative styles that “manage” it. Flannery O’Connor, the first major American writer to be associated with a writing program (at Iowa), wrote stories that shamed her prideful, autobiographical characters with an exquisite mastery of Flaubertian narration: “the author simultaneously commits a ‘sin’ of individual pride (as autobiographical projection, as character) and punishes herself for it (as impersonal narrator).” Her odd genius had less to do with her Catholicism than with what McGurl punningly calls a “limitation theology” shaped by Engle’s school, an identification with a godlike editor reining in the fleshly first-draft writer. McGurl gives the best account I have seen of O’Connor’s cruel maximization of “ironic distance”; in her third-person narration, she aspires, as he puts it, almost “to the unimaginable condition of ‘fourth person’ narration—narration from a higher dimension.”

His pages on Raymond Carver and ’80s minimalism, a mode that “came to be seen, oversimplifing the case drastically, as the ‘house style’ of the creative writing program,” are similarly unrivaled. Carver came from the lowest-class rungs of those who could benefit from postwar higher mass education, and came late to it, moving through the ranks of community colleges and, later, writing programs as a working adult with children. Hemingway may have inspired him, but Papa, as McGurl reminds us, was upper-middle-class, the son of a doctor and an opera singer; those outdoorsy stories of Michigan came from visits to the Hemingways’ vacation home. Unable to compete with the cultural capital of richer recipients of the program gospel, Carver and his peers turned shame at exposure into the mark of depth, made unwillingness to speak and selective revelation the signs of mastery, and aestheticized their class displacement:

Minimalism was in any case founded on a skepticism of the idea that fiction is emotionally rich when it is emotionally ‘articulate.’ . . . Minimalism had very little to say about emotion. That’s because it was engineered as a way, not of explaining, but of beautifying shame. . . . The excisions and understatements that are the hallmark of minimalism . . . can be understood as analogous to the self-protective concealments, like shielding the eyes, triggered before, during, and after the fact of shameful exposure.

Elsewhere, the workshop generated aesthetics of apparent desublimation that depended on classroom practices in subtler ways. McGurl’s case study disenchants the mythology that grew up around one of America’s great “antiestablishment” writers, Ken Kesey. An extraordinary section on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its composition for the Stanford University writing program directed by Wallace Stegner (“as the novel’s chapters were drafted, they were submitted for credit to the creative writing workshop classes Kesey was attending while he worked at the [mental] hospital”) suggests that elements of this ivied institution were mixed into Nurse Ratched’s psycho-gulag. The “group” parodied in the novel was simple group therapy, but it also travestied the workshop seminar with Stegner at its head. When Kesey left off writing entirely to decorate a bus for the travels of his Merry Pranksters, McGurl notes that it was a school bus. Equipped with recording equipment (and Tom Wolfe, as willing scribe), the “Furthur” bus became yet another incarnation of the writing project as university workshop. The ’60s were not always about individualism, but also about the desire to live in new collectivities, which put the writing seminar curiously in tune with the times. The exemplary dropout, Kesey, emerged from institutions and reproduced and renovated them in turn. Even his published product became a valued gift from the creative writer to the school: “The depth of [One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest]’s anti-institutionality has made it a favorite choice for high school and college syllabi, where it has helped reel untold thousands of unsuspecting ‘disaffected youth’ back into the educational groove.”

A principal theme of The Program Era is the stabilizing function of the creative writer in bringing the “exterior” into the interior of the institution. Does the research agenda of the university stifle the student with facts and procedures? “For students, the charismatic presence of the artist in the quadrangle or classroom is ‘inspiring,’ an occasion for emulative desire”; the writer is hired as “a charismatic model of creative being.” Do the regular professors seem too in loco parentis and square? Then the creative-writing instructor will be fantasized as the guardian of Eros within the post-sexual-harassment-code “academic workplace” (or so the run of novels and movies about affairs with visiting writers would seem to indicate—whether from the writer’s perspective or the student’s, it is hard to say). If the modern English department enshrines the quasi-scientific progress of scholarship and critique, subjecting fiction to hostile scrutiny, the writer loves— craft, stories, students, whatever: “This is not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but it does entail a commitment to innocence: The aura of literature must be protected at all costs, and the mysteries of the creative process must be explored without being dispelled.”

But as anyone who has taken (or taught) a college writing course knows, the creative writer is also the emissary of the market into the privileged uncommercial space of the tenured faculty. Famous novelists carry the glamour of success in brutal “real-world” competition, from which childish “ivory-tower” professors are protected. Students glom on to writing teachers as much to find out how to “market” their work and themselves as for guidance on craft. The writers, who indeed suffer in one of the most unstable, underpaid, and economically risky strata of white-collar work, accidentally become sentimental paragons of a freelance economy in which “creative” students must learn not to anticipate job security after graduation, whatever career they choose.

At no time is McGurl for or against writing programs. He does ridicule the decline narrative of postwar American fiction, in which individual genius has been undermined by collective labor and improvement (a form of literary collaboration that the programs themselves dissemble, romanticizing individual authorship). By focusing on social class and the demands of the postindustrial economy, he gives more familiar literary histories of race, gender, and ethnicity an added depth and a more complex dignity. His is an ironist’s mode of criticism, in which the meaning of events changes with perspective. McGurl’s clear-sighted exposure of the hidden institutional background of postwar literary production is one of the first reliable signs that we will finally see that era thoroughly anatomized in a new generation of scholarship.

Mark Greif is coeditor of n+1 and teaches at the New School.

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