Why Do Some People Twist Themselves All Up About Creative Writing Programs?
OK, I had to. Just after I posted that thing yesterday, I came across another anti-creative writing program essay. So here I am. There’s a person writing about poetry and fiction at the Huffington Post. This person writes things that are, at the very least, inflammatory. I’m continually surprised that journals such as Huffington Post and Boulevard will print essays from this person, as they seem, to me, to be meandering and filled with willful misreadings.
But they are getting lots of hits and comments, which makes these essays difficult to ignore. This person says that the point of writing these essays is to get a conversation going, but the tone of the essays themselves seems that it’s more of a flame war that is the goal.
So here’s the major point from the last salvo. What I want to know is am I wrong in thinking that this, even if you kind of agree with the stance (that creative writing programs are bad things [which he calls literary writing guilds]), which I don’t, is flat wrong?
“Again, the most important thing about this discussion is the socially conservative writing that results from the socially conservative organization of the literary writing guild.”
Question: Do you think that poetry and fiction written by everyone who graduates from any creative writing program is socially conservative? It seems an absurd generalization to me. But even if you agree that literary writing in general is socially conservative these days, can you separate out those who graduated from creative writing programs and those who didn’t? And then there’s the time issue. This is an argument that this is a new development that started in earnest in the 1980s. So do you agree that writing now is more socially conservative that it was, say, before 1980?
The point goes on, continuing what I think is an absurd analogy between creative writing programs and the medieval guild system:
“In thinking of an analogy for the medieval guildmen as they related to the Counter-Reformation, we might think of the rise of the creative writing programs at precisely the time of the Reagan ascendancy, when liberalism with a commitment to even the mildest redistributionist philosophy went into permanent retreat. A new kind of conservative writing—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hemphill, Mary Robison—became ascendant at the time. “
It’s quite a statement to think of Raymond Carver as a major figure in a socially conservative movement. But if these writers are socially conservative, and they somehow became that way through some sort of creative writing guild, who were the ones before them who were, by analogy, not socially conservative? I don’t know the history of fiction writers well enough to track this, but I do know the history of poets, and I’m having difficulty in tracking 1980 (or even 1960, as is also mentioned in this essay) as some key point in some conservative turn in literature. For every Allen Ginsburg there’s an Archibald MacLeish. These days we have someone like Dana Gioia, who seems pretty socially conservative to me (though I could be wrong), and then we have someone like Rae Armantrout, whose poetry seems to me a critique of social conservative positions. Dana Gioia doesn’t teach in an MFA program and Rae Armantrout does. This just doesn’t seem a very helpful way of thinking of contemporary literature. Not only that, but it actually seems harmful, as it posits a whole host of dissimilar things (creative writing programs are wildly different places from each other, depending on the philosophy behind their administration) as one thing. That kind of reductive thinking smears over the real problems that one might investigate when thinking of the avenues to literary awards and prestige. Here’s the rest of the paragraph:
“A continuous Inquisition has been in place in American cultural life, and certainly in the writing guild, ever since then, and the writing product is shaped by that. In essence, the writing guild makes it possible for apprentices to internalize the principles of the Inquisition. One is made to feel guilty and ashamed if writing compels one to move toward areas forbidden by the Inquisition. Workshop humiliation is very much part of this enforcement of Inquisition rules; it is astonishing to notice—even at the undergraduate, non-guild level—how quickly students acquire these principles of writerly conduct, and rake their fellows over the coals for the minutest transgressions (“You switched point of view in the story, you're not allowed to do that!”). One quickly becomes invested in the Inquisition; the advice manuals written by the masters convey these gently, in the guise of techniques of writing, but the social principle behind them is manifest.”
Is this what happens in creative writing classes? And if so, is something like the example above of a point of view shift indicative of a socially conservative point of view? It reminds me T.S. Eliot. How he was quite adept at all sorts of shifts and point of view changes . . . and how he was, without dispute, socially conservative.
I feel like I’m wasting my time this morning, reading this piece and writing about it. And I know if Jordan sees it, he’ll say what he’s said before, that I’m just feeding a troll . . . but you know, people do read this stuff. A lot of people, apparently. And when I see a sentence like this:
“Talent, in the modern writing guild, has been discounted; it is craft that counts.”
It astounds me. Wasn’t I just reading a condemnation of creative writing programs a few weeks ago that was saying the thing wrong with them is not enough attention to craft, and too much talk of inspiration and genius?