Schneiderman Defends the Workshop (with a sidebar on Kitsch)
Jason Schneiderman, in the March/April 2010 APR, has a lengthy article on the creative writing workshop, titled, “The Phenomenological Workshop: Notes Toward a Theory of the Workshop.”
When I started reading it, I was initially thinking it was going to be a memoir, but then it shifted to more of a general theory of how a workshop should be conducted. I say should, because this is something of a Workshop Manifesto. Agree or disagree, it’s worth your time to look it up.
Here are a few interesting moments. First, here’s Schneiderman on Kitsch (which is not central to the essay, but I’m interested in it):
“My favorite piece of writing on artistic values is Clement Greenberg’s essay in which he draws a distinction between Art and Kitsch. For Greenberg, Kitsch is a representation that makes no demand on the viewer. Like a Thomas Kinkade painting or a Steven Spielberg film [there’s a note here to specify a couple Spielberg films deemed NOT Kitsch], the meaning of Kitsch is already clear. There’s never any doubt about how to look or what to feel. Art, on the other hand, calls upon the inner resources of the viewer.” (p45)
Granting the larger point, I’m still made nervous by this definition (and all such performative [use-value] definitions of aesthetics), as it’s been my experience that most people, in regarding Art, really don’t feel much of a demand is being made of them, and they don’t seem to inhabit any space of questioning about how to look or what to feel, they just kind of wander by, not passive so much as touristic. Which is: Art makes no demands upon anyone. It is the viewer who must demand to encounter the Art. And once a viewer demands the site of encounter, it’s a slippery slope into infinite encounter (as in: Kitsch can also be encountered and questioned: i.e. theorized).
Sometimes, to attempt to be provocative, I assert that there is no such thing as Kitsch, that the whole concept is a performance of its own undoing, a kind of Performance Art that can be quite lovely, if rather pointless. Sometimes that gets people going, or at least it used to. In these Post-Flarf times people are less easily provoked by such comments.
More seriously though, I’ve found this Art/Kitsch distinction (as well as other distinctions) especially difficult to navigate in the creative writing classroom, where much that is encountered is less a problem of Art or Kitsch than a kind of generalized—unnuanceable—experience that the viewer then fills in.
After this, there is an interesting turn Schneiderman makes that I rather like. Rather than encountering the work on a primary level, one can encounter it on the secondary:
“We can say, ‘People who like this poem like it because….’ We can dispose with teaching them the right way to read, and begin to show them different modes of reading, making no secret of our own biases and preferences.” (p45)
Even as I rather like that formulation, I find myself cringing at what sorts of language acts such a situation might call forth. But still, it would be instructive as (at the very least) an exercise in empathy.
Anyway, all this dancing aside, Schneiderman presents a four-point list that (though I have a lot of little caveats and counter thoughts of my own [for example, how, inclusive as it is, this list still tends to privilege a certain type of poetry that is not the only type of poetry] that I’ll not bore you with right now) seems a good place to begin a creative writing syllabus (as he’s reacting to the old cliché that “creative writing can’t be taught”), as I’m guessing many people already do:
1. The history of poetry can be taught. The student can be made aware of the different ways that poetry has been approached in different times. The student will then have access to a history that is broader than the current moment.
2. The structure of poetry can be taught. We can look at the ways that structural devices impact the poem. I think of poetic forms (pantoums, ghazals, sonnets, etc.) as a specialized form of more general structuring devices (line, meter, rhythm, repetitions, etc.).
3. The rhetoric of poetry can be taught. We can look at metaphors, similes, metonymy, repetition, etc. If the structure of poetry is unique to poetry (lines, stanzas, etc.), the rhetoric of poetry is part of language, available in all writing and speaking.
4. The analysis of poems can be taught. We can look at poems and take them apart and analyze their component parts and learn a vocabulary to discuss the way that they achieve their effects. Here is where we can address the bigger picture of the poem—how does it work, what does it do, how do we experience it?