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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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I’ve given it a week to settle or to slink off. But it just won’t. The profile of David Foster Wallace in last week’s The New Yorker has taken a front row seat, kind of like a big and slightly smelly guy, and will not move to the back. Hats off to D. T. Max, to the deft hand with which David Foster Wallace’s story was laid out. It was respectful but clear-eyed about the tragedy of his suicide. It portrayed an exceptional talent who still had to deal with the same every day issues all the rest of us have to deal with too.

But more than anything I am haunted by one word: Relentlessness. I can still taste that bitter edge of the essential tension DFW lived with, having been given an effulgent gift to write but a mental/physical vessel too vulnerable to sustain it. I may be overidentifying with his struggles right now given my own creative deadline woes and difficulties. But it isn’t often that an article sticks in the caw as fiercely as this one has.

I’m still not a DFW literary fan. His agility I get but it’s the decibel level of his voicing that makes it hard for me to stay with it too long (if it’s too loud, you’re too old…ouch.) But the story about him, the maker. That’s one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Thank you also to Janet Ellingson for posting a link to DFW’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in a comment on this blog. The transcript of that speech is posted on Go Ahead. See If I Care. It’s worth the read. Here are a few excerpts from that speech:

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

And this:

The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

It keeps happening. I keep finding parallels in visual art with the way poets and writers talk about their process. While most art makers have their own “narrative” of what is going on and how their work comes into being that could be questioned as a kind of handy fiction all its own, I still find sparks of recognition when I read or hear those “behind the curtain” confessions.

Here are two cases in point just from today’s reading. First, a 3 minute video of Sharon Olds discussing the fact that she is often referred to as an autobiographical poet. Here is a quick discussion of similes, metaphors and her claim that she does not have an imagination, but an “image-ination”:

Sharon Olds

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Second is from an article about David Foster Wallace in the latest issue of The New Yorker. While I am not particularly drawn to DFW’s work (his prose feels like walking into a pub that’s too noisy to carry on a conversation and one guy with a booming voice has completely taken over) but D. T. Max highlights some memorable comments made by Wallace about his work:

The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”

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I love this guy.

Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.

Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.

Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.

The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.

Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:

In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.

And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:

It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.

–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus