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Mark McGurl (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

Louis Menand has written a provocative piece in this week’s New Yorker magazine that asks the question, should creative writing be taught? And perhaps even more importantly, can it be taught? His discussion wraps itself around a new book by Mark McGurl called The Program Era which is definitely the newest addition to my “to read” list.

The argument is ageless and continues to get rattled back and forth. But I still find the topic a fascinating discussion. Maybe that is because I don’t think there is an answer, and I like its indeterminateness. Certainly Menand’s piece demonstrates that some writers are enhanced by the workshop culture while others doggedly maintain a safe distance from the gravitational pull of institutionalized, academicized, legitimized, canonical, fictionalizing endeavors.

I asked my reliably cut to the chase/bottom line friend Lisa the Poet what she thought of the article. Lisa takes no prisoners on any topic, so of course she didn’t mince for words, having survived her own firsthand experience with a leading creative writing MFA program on the West Coast. Here’s how she contextualized her experience:

Menand seems to presume that people in or running programs believe that they are in the business of teaching writing. In our program at least, everyone announces up front that they aren’t teaching at all, that we are all just there to think and talk and breathe and work and read and hopefully that good stuff will come out of it. Only the shittier programs, it seems to me, announce that they’re “teaching” creative writing. Of course that can’t be done–not on any kind of level above a baseline proficiency. The benefit of any decent program is in funded time to work on what you love while being around other people who love it too.

Parallels with visual art? Of course. I’ve written here many times about art pedagogy and my discomfort with much of the way teaching art is approached. But that really isn’t where I want to go with this right now. In addition to dealing with the issue of the teachability of creativity, Menand highlights some of McGurl’s more insightful ideas. As Menand states, “McGurl’s book is not a history of creative writing programs. It’s a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass.”

In the spirit of that historical perspective, here’s a sample of how Menand interprets McGurl’s approach:

“The Program Era” is an impressive and imaginative book. It does three things unusually well. First it interprets works of fiction as what philosophers of language call illocutionary acts. The meaning of one of Raymond Carver’s stories is not only what the story says; it’s also the way the story says it. The form of a Carver short story—ostentatiously brief, emotionally hyper-defended—expresses something. McGurl thinks that the style represents the “aestheticization of shame, a mode of self retraction.” Literary minimalism like Carver’s—McGurl calls it “lower-middle-class modernism”—is a means of reducing the risk of embarrassing oneself, and is one way that students from working-class backgrounds, like Carver…deal with the highbrow world of the academy.

Rather ingeniously, McGurl reads the wok of Carver’s exact contemporary Joy Carol Oates as an expression of the same class-based self-consciousness…Oates is a prolific practitioner of what McGurl calls “maximalist” fiction: it has been said that, at one point in her career, she wrote forty pages of fiction every day, or about a quarter of what would constitute an entire book for Carver. But McGurl thinks that maximalism, too, is “a way of shielding oneself with words.” The two styles are methods of self-protection and, at the same time, forms of self-assertion: the minimalist writers puts his craft on display, the maximalist his facility.

There’s lots to say about minimalism, maximalism and methods of self-protection, but that discussion will have to wait. I’m off to Nashville for the wedding of my friends Noah and Vivian, so my weekend will be spent maximalizing with friends in a southern soigné setting.

More on this article and these issues later, I promise.

A bit more about author Mark McGurl from Casey Henry in LA Weekly:

If I want to discuss Louis Vuitton–toting fashion terrorists who hijack planes with cosmetics kits and box-cutters, I talk to Mark McGurl. If I want to talk about Britney Spears, Sidekicks or the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida, I talk to Mark McGurl. But it’s not easy: The American-lit professor’s reflections on high and low culture have achieved a sort of cult status among UCLA students, and you have to peer past the lineup outside his office to catch a glimpse of the man in flashy Nikes gesticulating wildly inside. Freshmen and returning grad students alike huddle around his open door, yet not one of them seems to mind the wait.

McGurl’s fierce knowledgeability is the product of a Harvard and Johns Hopkins education, his sense of contemporary culture a mix of People magazine and Purple, his clothing a subcategory of professorial that isn’t Chaucer’s burial shroud. And yet McGurl himself claims that the enthusiasm students feel originates primarily in his lectures.

“For better or worse — and I really mean this — my approach is to compete with all of the distractions in the lives of students by sheer spectacle of volume. It’s too loud, it’s too fast, it’s too whatever. There’s just too much enthusiasm on my part for creating an illusion that this Hemingway story is so much more important than whatever you’re texting your friend about.”

In a world of hypermediation, ultraviolence and meta-distraction, McGurl is one of the last able to read contemporary tragedy and triumph alike as the hidden language of cultural hieroglyphics.

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How heartening it is when you find a passage that captures the essence of some of your internal floaters—those inchoate, imprecise concepts that circumambulate in the mind and never quite land on two feet. I had the settling sensation of an exhale that comes when order has been brought to a previously perceived chaos when I read Louis Menand’s article about the writer/thinker Donald Barthelme in the Febrary 23rd issue of The New Yorker.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I want to share a few passages that crystallized my thinking about a whole slew of responses to modernism and postmodernism as applied to critical theory, thinking, art and culture. Writers more proficient than the rest of us in the evolution of consciousness have written about the sea change in thinking that happened during the 60’s and 70’s. But observing the flow of these ideas as a visual artist has left me with a mishmash of responses. At times this shift has been utterly euphoric, like my first encounter with the thinking in A Thousand Plateaus. At other times I have felt the white heat of an arid emptiness, one where there is a poignant absence of the salty sweat and heavy breathing of beings who are making real things that matter, to them and to others.

Menand captures some aspect of that ambivalence (and the need for definitional distinctions) in his piece on Barthelme.

Postmodernism is the Swiss Army knife of critical concepts. It’s definitionally overloaded, and it can do almost any job you need done. This is partly because, like many terms that begin with “post,” it is fundamentally ambidextrous. Postmodernism can mean, “We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.” Or it can mean, “No one can be a modernist anymore. Modernism is over.” People who use “postmodernism” in the first “mission accomplished,” sense believe that modernism—the art and literature associated with figures like Picasso and Joyce—changed the game completely, and that everyone is still working through the consequences. Modernism is the song that never ends. Being postmodernist just means that we can never be pre-modernist again. People who use it in the second sense, as the epitaph for modernism, think that, somewhere along the line, there was a break with the assumptions, practices, and ambitions of modernist art and literature, and that everyone since then is (or ought to be) on to something different. Being postmodernist means that we can never be modernist again.

How (in the first account) did people like Picasso and Joyce change the game? They did it by shifting interest from the what to the how of art, from the things represented in a painting or a novel to the business of representation itself. Modern art didn’t abandon the world, but it made art-making part of the subject matter of art. When (in the second account) did the break occur? It happened when artists and intellectuals stopped respecting a bright-line distinction between high art and commercial culture. Modernist art and literature in this version of the story, depended on that distinction to give its products critical authority…

It is sometimes said that the distinction between high and commercial culture collapsed when artists and intellectuals discovered aesthetic merit in things like jazz and movies…If you propose to admire a popular movie because it’s formally interesting or morally exigent, you aren’t changing the system of appreciation at all. There may be some new stuff above the line, but there’s still a line. What killed the distinction wasn’t defining pop art up. It was defining high art down. It was the recognition that serious art,too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace. the point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.

This calling into question, problematizing, deconstruction—whatever you want to call it—of the status of art is what makes a lot of people uncomfortable with postmodernism in the second sense. They don’t see that sort of postmodernism as demystifying; they see it as debunking. High art and literature have always been stimulated by popular sources (and have given stimulus back); and anti-art, art that thumbs its nose at aesthetic decorum, has an honored place in the modernist tradition. Duchamp and the Dadaists were making anti-art almost a hundred years ago. But you can make anti-art—Duchamp’s “Fountain”, for example—only when everyone still has some conception of authentic, stand-alone, for-its-own-sake art. Warhol’s work is not anti-art. Finding no quality on which to hang a distinction between authentic art and everything else, it simply drops the whole question.