Emily Dickinson, Madonna, Boomers, Busters, the Old Criterion, & the Next Millennium—
Deconstructing the Guardians of Nostalgia: A defense of the 'Young Writer'
Martin Schecter | September 1993
When the new vegetarian restaurant opened near our campus last spring, I was there two days later, meeting the owner—a twenty-something who had just moved back to Des Moines from San Francisco—and getting into a discussion about the "new youth culture." For those of you who don't keep up with such things, the "pop" culture we were talking about involves the unlikely combination of earth-consciousness, MTV, deconstruction theory, rap and "rave" music, international culture, queer fashion, cyberpunk science fiction, computer networks, avant-garde performance art, smart drugs, and William Burroughs. The young entrepreneur was surprised that I, a professor at a university, would be conscious of such things as rave parties, vegan dietary restrictions, or William Gibson (the science fiction writer who coined the term "cyberspace"). I was equally unprepared for a twenty-six-year-old restaurant owner versed in William Burroughs, signification theory, or the science fiction writer William Gibson. But we had an instant connection: even if we didn't know everything the other did, there seemed to be a common culture that we shared.
That's why I was rather mystified by the symposium about deconstruction conducted last year in this journal. When David Lehman wrote, "as the fortunes of deconstruction as an academic phalanx have declined ... the chief sign of deconstruction—the word deconstruction itself—continues to proliferate in American culture at large."(1) I was bewildered that he used such an observation to declaim the death of deconstruction, rather than its triumphant victory. Why, even writers in Time magazine are discussing the "funny autodeconstruction" of such pop phenomena as MTV's self-reflective parody Beavis and Butt-head.(2) Yet despite (or perhaps even because of) deconstruction's perfusion into the larger culture, it seems that those creative writers who came of age twenty or thirty years ago, and who are now teaching in MFA programs across the country, shy away from such "autodeconstructions," or deconstruction in general. "In the past decade especially, creative writing programs have provided a refuge (not always unbroken) from the babble of literary specialists,"(3) says D. W. Fenza. Scott Russell Sanders gave perhaps the most objective description of the situation:
The university has become a still more hazardous home for writers because of the Great Awakening now spreading from campus to campus under the banner of Theory.... Rightly or wrongly, many of us who make stories and poems feel that the net effect of recent theorizing has been to turn the writer into a puppet, one whose strings are jerked by some higher power—by ideology or the unconscious, by genetics, by ethnic allegiance, by sexual proclivities, by gender, by language itself.(4)
Granted that quite a bit of babbling will go on amongst any group of intellectuals under the auspices of any set of ideas, what, really, is so intrinsically frightening about "theory" (that catch-all word encompassing all manner of recent antifoundationalisms, postmodernisms, deconstructions, feminism, cultural studies, Mamisms, and multiculturalisms)? Perhaps it stems from the old creative-writing superstition that one should not know too much about what one does. Pretty paradoxical, huh, for people professing that they have something to "teach"? But read any book on writing by Nabokov, Calvino, Henry Miller, or Simone de Beauvoir, and you'll see that despite the protestations to the contrary, great writers have always known a lot about language, perception, and philosophy—the components of today's "theory." Both Fenza and Sanders make reasonable, well-researched arguments defending the writer's territory against incursion from the "critics." But what I hear in this debate is an argument over territory—the sort of officiousness one expects from bureaucrats, not artists. I think these people have been isolated from a common culture for too long.
Although Fenza is undeniably correct when he says that "art is not ours; it is seldom of the Right or Left. It is both; it is ambiguous—of us, others, and the strangeness of creation"(5)—a position any artist would be wise to cling to—it seems that ultimately, this "theory" stuff (which, like art, is claimed by both denizens of the Right and the Left to be a decadent symptom of the other) merely depresses most academically ensconced writers, rather than inspires. Even more troubling is that one often notices, underneath the impassioned debate over "theory," a much more virulent animosity, one directed at the whole of the youth culture, and especially at young writers themselves, those "kids" brought up in these new theory-laden and media-laden environments. Those "older" established writers, those whose word processors plug directly into the Big Board, never miss a chance to slip in a slur against the "young people," the "young infidels" taking over writing departments and flooding into their classrooms. Listening to the oldsters, one hears troubling reports about waves of know-nothing, skate-boarding, TV-watching hoards of illiterates mysteriously descending upon them from suburbia.
My students often want to achieve instant success and gratification without benefit of a craft. As a rule, these new writers are more ambitious, competitive, and entrepreneurial than their predecessors; they are also less patient and less experienced both in artistic sensitivity and sensibility.(6)
The typical aspiring poet one tends to meet in post-Reagan America, usually on campus, is a wiener from Planet Mall, someone who should be teaching junior-high civics or merchandising wholesale linoleum.(7)
All those heads in the audience are full of visions of a Mort Janklow super-package deal involving the sale of movie rights, a big paperback reprint sale, and translations into seven foreign languages. I would guess that it is this legend (not the dream of publishing in The Paris Review and winning the Aga Khan Prize) that inspires most people to enroll in creative writing courses.(8)
Weaned on MTV and video games, moreover, these young people have grown up with minimal attention spans and hardly any intellectual self-discipline, and thus simply don't have the patience to read a novel... And yet one sign of the narcissism of the age is that while fewer young people are reading literature, more of them than ever want to be writers?(9)
I could go on and on. Edward Hoagland's tirade, unleashed in his introduction to The Pushcart Prize XVI, illustrates the attitude against this "new generation" perhaps the most succinctly: "There is a feeling of entitlement among many new writers: budding novelists who want lifetime job tenure at a college somewhere and a Volvo in the garage. The particular angst, anguish, poverty or precarious circumstances they describe in their minimalist fiction should never be visited upon them."(10) This from people who can't even figure out where the "Start" button is on their PC, let alone how to "read post-structural jargon" or "upload" a computer file. See, I can generalize too. All right, so let's agree up front—every generation produces its fair share of incompetence, artifice, and sycophantic babbling. But the way these established writers characterize their younger colleagues and wannabes, reaching automatically for such limp stereotypes as "instant gratification," "minimal attention spans," "entitlement," and "entrepreneurial"—besides being neurotically defensive and antiquely Romantic—also reminds me of the current ongoing media construction of Generation X, a.k.a. "Busters," "Post-Boomers," and the "13th Generation".(11)
While Boomers romanticize their formative years from their comfortable positions on college faculties and New York editorial lists, they admonish the kids for not imitating their Morrisonesque journeys of "dropping out" to be "real writers" so they could later come back and take over the Establishment they once railed against. Busters, in comparison, have little to romanticize; facing the unorderable, expensive, and obsolescent world that is their inheritance, the Busters at least yearn to create a more timely—a really contemporary—intellectual community. The Busters take no solace in the hypocritical admonishments of their elders. Seeing themselves with a realistic clarity, the so-called Busters are struggling to survive in a world of increasing competition and diminishing prospects.
They have been entering the work force at a time of prolonged downsizing and downturn, so they're likelier than the previous generation to be unemployed, underemployed, and living at home with Mom and Dad. They're alienated by a culture that has been dominated by boomers for as long as they can remember. They're angry as they look down a career path that's corded with thirty and forty-somethings who are in no hurry to clear the way. (12)
It's hard to be sanguine about the Romantic notion of giving up something when there's not much chance of achieving it in the first place. Busters—whoever they are—have little access to the media that are controlling their image (although a few of them ... George Stephanopoulos, say ... are just beginning to crawl up onto the screen). Yet the young writers I know are attuned to cultural differences, identity-construction, and economic constraints on artistic form in a way that totally escapes their elders. Since I'm thirty-one years old (the same age as Douglas Coupland, Generation X author), and now teaching groups of 20-year-olds myself, I'm somewhat in the hiatus of these generational constructions. Yet every time I hear one if those generational invectives being launched at us from corporately controlled cyberspace, it makes me want to reach for my Nintendo zapper.
While "English" professors are excitedly embracing the contemporary world, including theory, it's come to seem that creative writing professors are the last people holding onto the myth of a Romantically "pure" literary "artiste," whose work, language, and narrative convention remains uncontaminated by concerns of economics, class, or cultural positioning. Writing their little stories of small, unthought heartbreak published in little college journals that nobody reads, fiercely holding the guns on The Best of This or That and National Endowment grants, most established creative writing teachers automatically assume the philistinism of pop, minority, computer, and contemporary culture. In-bred, old, and institutionalized before their time, they snub "new-fangled" work and insist on the "irrelevance" of theory, while they fondly recall the same old stories (usually about themselves). And then these same professors complain that they see the same bland, insipid, white-washed stories over and over from their students. No wonder, to them, creative writing appears to be dying, and the barbarians are at the gate.
With such condescension dripping from pens of these Guardians of Nostalgia, it isn't surprising that some of the disillusioned students and ex-students, as well as those "outside the writing-academic circle," have taken to firing back.
Last year when Tom Wolfe kicked up a storm with his self-serving essay about the malaise in American fiction, he failed to find any smoking gun that would explain the death of the social novel. But there is one: a vast industry devoted to imaginative writing whose participants are holding one another hostage to mediocrity... the malaise in American fiction comes factory—direct from those very MFA writing mills.(13)
As more people want to write, the programs become financially beneficial to the universities; and as less people want to read what these people write, the authors increasingly depend on academia for their livelihood.... This process produces a distinctive type of fiction. Reacting against academic English departments, it is vigorously anti-intellectual.... Because of the workshop format, it tends heavily toward the short story, and in keeping with America's tidal wave of literary and artistic egalitarianism, it is the sort of fiction that anyone can, or ought to be able to produce.(14)
Universities and colleges provide havens for writers who can't make a living at their chosen occupation and give them an opportunity to help others become more skilled at writing poems and stories that, to say the least, are not in demand.... Whether in anthologies or in literary quarterlies, today's "chosen" fiction, more often than not created with the support and security of grants, is tightly circumscribed by the pitifully limited experiences of the writers... they all learned from each other, and what they learned is how to adopt a winning pose, how to, in effect, write the same story. It's a story meant for the circle and not one I want to read, no matter what individual touches might be added for its latest incarnation.(15)
The accusation that writing programs are producing underwhelming, nice, anemic New Yorker filler, or what Donald Hall has called "McPoems" and "McStories" (the sort of fiction that in the hands of a few originators—Ray Carver, say—had True Stuff, but when programatized, becomes deathly boring, an "Academy Style") has an undeniable ring of truth. I'm not the first to point out this predicament, nor to imply that the intellectual Ludditism of the official Creative Writing culture may be causing more harm than good, not just to individual students, but also to American letters as a whole. But maybe the problem lies more in the beholder than the beheld. Thankfully, there seem to be enough young writers who know that programs, workshops, and degrees do not an artist make, and who have enough sense to blissfully ignore all the admonishments to "correct their language" and "wait their turn in the small-press line." For all that this criticism of the Buster's TV/computer/minority/theory culture serves to do is cut an entire generation off from their muse—which is why whining, pining elders should never be listened to.
Despite all the brouhaha, I think Blanchot's assessment of the writer's dilemma applies just as well in America today as it did a generation ago. Like Orpheus, the writer must explore the underworld to extend his or her imaginative powers, but ultimately, a writer's place is in this world, in the glare of the everyday. If you try only to retrieve a perished spirit as your sole objective, you will fail, as Orpheus failed in trying to bring back his dead wife from Hades. As Blanchot puts it:
The Greek myth says: one cannot create a work unless the enormous experience of the depths—an experience which the Greeks recognized as necessary to the work, an experience in which the work is put to the test by that enormousness—is not pursued for its own sake....(16) (italics mine)
Freshmen in the academy, in general, have not experienced enough of the Orphean depths to create a work. But some have, as have quite a few 26-year-olds, despite all the claims to the contrary, and they've seen aspects of this world that their professors, apparently, can't imagine. And Blanchot reminds us that for the sake of the Lark, the depths must not be pursued exclusively the artist must still, somehow, exist in the 'world and earn a living.
There's the rub. For it's in their attempt to avoid being swallowed by the enormity of the depths that second-generation MFA grads and culture crazies, computer hackers and amateur social theorists and self-promoting 'zine editors and youngsters of all sorts, are constantly getting accused of "selling out." Of not having the "proper mental ascetic writing attitude" or the especially flavorful method of social (read Socialist) activism and "personal poverty." Of wanting to—gasp—make money. (No... no... not the M-word... anything but that.) Especially by their NEA-funded, Institutionalized, MacArthur granted, O'Henry-Award collected, unionized, medically insured elders. This is another fine example of the hypocrisy being laid on the doorstep of "young writers." "I was living on the Lower East Side of New York ... on $2,500 a year, as was commonly the case among writers thirty years ago, before big book contracts and university writing programs had been invented to boost their incomes," brags Edward Hoagland, who recently appeared telling quaint Christmas stories in the New York Times Magazine.(17) Allowing for inflation, that's just about how much a graduate student earns while working her way through MFA school; so where's the difference, Mr. Hoagland?
I admit it: I'm a perfect example of one of Messud's MFA-bred writers, now called upon to perpetuate the institutionalization process. I've written one novel in my "trained" way, applying what I had learned; and I'm finishing another that's more connected to my sense of the writer I'm trying to become. And though I teach, I'm not afraid to admit that there's still more I hope to learn. Is the academy such an awful place to do that? I guess it's hard for me to see a teaching position in the '90s as a writer's "refuge from the world" when it's easier these days for a young writer to win the lottery or find a cure for cancer than secure a position in the academy—and when conscientious teaching requires as much of a commitment as would a career in medicine. What with more 'zines, books, information streams, articles, and photocopy—art being published than ever before, a whole new realm of creative aesthetics being accepted by the "other side" of the academy, and the whole idea of the "writer" vanishing beneath the winking cursor of computer communication, I simply wonder how anyone these days can conceive of a zero-degree writing, and a zero-degree teaching to go with it, untouched by culture and quaintly bequeathed to our uncomplicatedly, unpolitically "best" writers—especially since that zero-degree reaction is the most culturally contaminated, the most uncomplicated, of all. I'm just not interested in it. That doesn't mean that only "theory" is interesting. Dale Peck's simple, shocking statements of loss can be just as powerful as Mark Leyner's hyperbolic rants. It just means that all writing operates out of some theory or other. Some economy or other. I just want people to be up-front about theirs.
But in general, older writers continue to displace their guilt and paranoia by characterizing younger writers as obsessed with TV, Pop-Tarts, and money. If you ask me, they are the ones with the delusional fantasies. These former drop-outs have had twenty years in the catbird seat, being the dominant culture, paying off overinflated mortgages while recreating a nostalgic Big Bad Military-Industrial Complex they're still trying to find a way to rail against while they have its checks automatically deposited to their IRA accounts; and they expect us to line up for their hand-me-down "originality." And with a straight face, yet. (At least if they admitted it was all a scam, we'd have something in common with them.) Meanwhile, the latest "avant-garde movement" gets written up as a new marketing segment in Business Week two weeks after it's invented; and the Newest Fashion Wave, as we all know, travels from SoHo to Midtown in a matter of a few seconds, usually over one of their faxes. You can't even create a neologism without it being out of date before your coffee gets cold. As Mark Amerika writes in The Kafka Chronicles, "we can put out your story faster than you can dream up a new name sister."(18) Today, in the instantaneous world of e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, and fax machines, there simply isn't any "real writing" that takes place outside the system (poetry has its own mini-economy of teaching positions, conferences, and AIDS benefits). One is either hooked up or one is written off. For a writer, we're not talking "success"—we're talking survival. I suspect that older writers must sense these increasing economic constraints, this change in the game; yet most can't seem to see beyond their own cushy twenty-year-old windfalls. These days, one is treated constantly to the spectacle of established writers such as Philip Roth decrying the lack of readers for "literary" fiction—without bothering to wonder whether mega-phenomena such as Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, Art Spiegelman, or even something as outlandish as one of The WELL's(19) special-interest discussion groups, called simply "WEIRD," might not be considered "literary." Perhaps what's on the wane is the interest for an outdated sensibility. (Although I personally wouldn't say this about Roth, whose sensibility, I would say, is still quite alive. It's just that he's got, for a change, a little competition in the market, something that young writers are quite used to, but that the older generation can't seem to deal with very well.)
You see, I have nothing against making money, or doing what it takes to survive. What I wish, however, is that the village elders would stop acting so guilty about it, and projecting all that guilt and derision on us younger folks. What these Guardians of Nostalgia need most is to come down from their Romantic-Modernist high horse. What's so special about the activity of writing that you have to be poor to do it?
I suppose it's all that projection of unwarranted guilt that makes me so upset about such ill-disguised condescension as from the well-intentioned Mr. Hoagland and his many cohorts. Sure, $300,000 advances can be outrageous. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is outrageous. We all need to keep our sense of outrage, and our sense of proportion. We're writers. But have a little sense of humor about life. Have enough faith that you can be content with your accomplishments, your goals, and yet not be afraid to admit that $300,000 will buy a goddamn lot of floppy disks as well as the time to finish the next book. And who's going to give that money back?
Why can't these writers just pocket their $5,000 fees and their corporate paychecks and be happy about it? Enjoy themselves. Yet we never stop hearing, from all these people who've "made it," just how aesthetically "pure" and "uninfluenced" their aesthetic is, and how "competitive" and "entrepreneurial" the youngsters are. Bullshit. Let them write a language poem or a surreal dissociative escapade and see how fast they fall off the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Just for once, I would like these guys to come clean, wake up, and look at what they're doing. Just what quaint, Romantic space do they want us all to hole up in? The one inside our PC's? The one inside the one inside the one inside the one inside our over-bombarded, desensitized heads????? If it hasn't been reached yet by the latest advertising jingle? And what language should we speak there? The "not-commercial-little-press" language of easy-to-teach and easy-to-do staged sighs and epiphanies, or the "commercially viable" language of Ha-Ha and Big Plot? Or maybe the "self-interrogating self-actualized deconstructions" of the New Canon? Maybe all of it, if you want to, if you know how to make it spin. And that's the secret, isn't it? William Gibson or rapper Eazy-E could beat the pants off of nine-tenths of the stuff jetting around on the "creative writing reading circuit" with their eyes closed. I admit that it isn't easy to invent a new language amongst the constantly deteriorating cliches and jargon of our over-manipulated reality, a constantly shifting language of Life, and then to advocate that language as a remedy to mechanization and inhumanism. But it's the writer's job to try.
Maybe books aren't in our future. Maybe writing as we knew it a generation ago isn't in our future either. So what? Something is; it's our job as artists to find out what.
But I can hear them out there now, the Guardians of Nostalgia, telling us all no... no... don't give in to the Siren call of that veil of illusions around you. Stick to tradition. Preserve standards. Beware of those who extol technological and conscious thinking, especially computer nerds and literary theorists. Arrange deeply intuitive and visionary seances instead. Focus on the dim campus of the underworld with all its great spirits of yesteryear. Speak the language of your "true self." Listen for the "quiet moment." Purify away your "non-literary" influences. Seek the "universal." And just what does this "literary universal" look like? It looks suspiciously a lot like them. And of course, for their small entry fee, they'll smile and hand out a million form-printed rejections from a universe-full of nearly identical "true selves," copied scrupulously from their models. And they don't even stop to question the contradictions.
Their "universal" also, of course, constructs a convenient history for itself (paging Chekhov! paging O'Henry!), while ignoring writers from Mallarme to Stein, who have had, arguably, an even stronger influence on our general culture. In that introduction of his, Mr. Hoagland talks about wanting to find today's future Emily Dickinson (another familiar Icon) writing in her atelier, stuffing poems in her drawers to be discovered by some future English professor one hundred years from now reviewing methods for the New New New Old Criticism. Yeah, sure. As if we'd even recognize tomorrow's canon, when we're overwhelmed already in 1993 with millions of Emilies and Emiles writing...goddamn it...graffiti on the street, yet, and it's getting taught to college students as poetry! And what will all us thousands of MFA-er's be doing as we all talk eternally self-expressively to ourselves, leaving millions of bits and bleeps of unerased binary code on our computer disks? Who'll ever bother to read them? (As Al Gore says, "vast amounts of unused information ultimately become a kind of pollution."(20)) At least rap music, science fiction, Virtual Reality, computer instruction manuals, telephone books, soap operas, advertising jingles, MTV, anarchist fantasies, Detective Comics, resurrected Beat journals, Queer Theory—these things create a community, beyond the creators... and therefore communication. Hell—the one thing we can say for sure is that things change, including literature. Why think it's going to stop changing for us? Why fight it? What sort of self-satisfaction does that get you? Why not join them? Throw away your mannered meter and MFA'd mint of view and find yourself a booth at the carnival to set up shop. Hell, don't have to have been born between 1961 and 1981 to consider yourself one of Strauss and Howe's recessive reactive "13th Generation," growing up as an underprotected and criticized youth and maturing into risk-taking alienated rising adulthood. So why not join us? Join us and have fun and make money and not worry about it. What more can a writer ask? Economy, economies—supply and demand—are as good a sorter of priorities as any. "Economy," in the sense of saving space, clearing off the desk, and knowing what to salvage. Of course economies sometimes clear off the wrong things, or get taken over by spiritually deprived people with malignant agendas. But how will we ever keep them on track if we don't study how they work? If we don't interrogate our own spirits? If we don't participate? It's a startling thought to some, but maybe pop culture is literary. Occasionally. The old guard thinks such radical ideas are signs of a cynical careerism rather than a vigorous rejection of self-complacency, but look how miserable they are ("I can't recall ever meeting a middle-aged writer who isn't somewhat bitter" says Hoagland(21)), and look how much fun we young people are having, and tell me who's messed up.
I think a call to theoretical and economic arms, blazoned by young writers, would be good—not bad—for literature. If there is a death of "social novel," at least among the MFA crowd, maybe it's because not enough people in writing programs are receiving an education about the world they live in. The one thing that a "writer" in a degree-granting program might have over her rapper counterpart is access to an intellectual education—which is the very thing that writers in MFA programs aren't getting, unless they scrape it together for themselves. Whether on their own or with the help of their friends, they should be learning about philosophy, religion, sociology, history—aesthetic and literary as well as political—art, and most of all, science, that realm of activity that most controls our modem world. And why can't TV, movies, science fiction, computers, nuclear physics, shopping malls, rap music, and college campuses be just as much a part of the contemporary muse as childhood, divorce, and the well-placed mini-epiphany? What separates the insipid "use" of such stuff from "good" fiction is when these things are understood, or rather, "digested." Not easy to do, but there are plenty of good guidelines available. They're called "theory." Today, young people tend to exist in all of these worlds, both high culture and low, the worlds of "theory" and the worlds of "pop," without having to wonder why. Mr. Fenza, in launching his call to address theory on campus, inadvertently made the connection, comparing the lure of theory to the empty jingle of Madonna.
Like Madonna, academic critics are self-involved with their own fabulousness, gratifying themselves with their own inter-textual prowess, their etymological riffing, their eclectic thievery of fashionable styles. The resulting style, however, is really the awful antithesis of style, like Madonna's: practiced manipulation and self-advertisement. (22)
I wouldn't be so quick to write off either theory or Madonna. Who knows—maybe she's the one who's today's tomorrow's Emily Dickinson. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it'll be Cathy Schwichtenberg, editor of The Madonna Connection (a sort of theoretical elegy to Madonna, in which several critics attempt an explanation of what E. Ann Kaplan calls "the Madonna phenomena"(23)). Now, tell me that a book explaining "the Madonna phenomena" is an irrelevant undertaking for "writers." What else are writers supposed to be doing, if not explaining our culture to us—or at least providing a way for us to re-experience it? It strikes me as odd that those anti-theory writers in their rush to defend their territory "empirically," would seem to be abandoning the very things ("writing," "reading," "textuality," playful subversion, and willful inconsistency) that the "critic" writers are taking up in spades. As Benjamin Woolley describes in a recent book on Virtual Reality (in which he implicates "theory" as a major contributor to the postmodem social situation), "theory" seems to have become another type of story telling—
What, then, is 'theory'?... The strength of theory... lies in what empiricists regard as its fundamental weakness; its dependence on a 'reading' of the world we live in .... Everything, even itself, is a story, and its validity rests on how good a story it is.(24)
And sure—I would agree that, although exciting to temporarily deconstruct, an ultimate distinction between rhetorical and poetical modes of writing, two entirely different stances vis-a-vis experience, needs to be preserved. I don't believe all discourse is theoretical discourse. And I'd be the first to defend a writer's right—nay, her obligation—to violate the precepts of whatever perceived reigning orthodoxy. But for those who simply argue that the language of "theory" is dull and trite and cliquish and bad, I'd say—open up any one of hundreds of institutionally funded "literary journals." Everything suffers equally from institutionalization.
To someone of my generation, the focus of the recent AWP debate—to theorize or not to theorize—simply misses the point. Like it or not, theory and praxis are intertwined, and as one changes, so will the other. The question for us isn't whether you read the stuff, but what to make of it. Or out of it. Most of the seniors graduating from our undergraduate English department this year will never get the "standard interpretations" of Fielding or Trollope. But they all have their own ideas about Michel Foucault, John Wideman, and Min T. Trin-ha. That creates quite a cultural rif; between the current establishment and the up-and-coming turks.
Maybe the Guardians of Nostalgia are bitter because they fear young writers and critics alike have "sacrificed their ideals" or "haven't lived up to their potential" or "lost something once great." But to me, it's the young writers who are doing all the hard, exciting work. Sure—all this post-this-and-that stuff is fast becoming the newest Old News. That's what makes it so interesting: the platitudes are always shifting. But how can you be getting off the bandwagon when you never got on it in the first place? Time never marches backward, deciding, like a changing political administration, to rescind the edicts of its unfolding history, but builds on the periods preceding it. Those refusing to catch up to the revolutions of the '70s and '80s, wanting only to relive the movements of the '60s, will be destined to become quaint dinosaurs in the '90s. And they call us pathetic.
In the meantime, despite what critics, culture-watchers, and disillusioned MFA graduates say, students continue to pour into our courses. Why are creative writing courses so popular? Maybe it's because, for the first time in their lives, people are given a taste of what it might be like to be hooked up, plugged in, listened to. They're allowed to explore the creation of a self they've never been given the authority to own before. What kid, growing up in America, watching 50 hours of television a week, ever gets a chance to script her own story, create her own version of self, create it and impose it on 21 other captive people three times a semester with the authority of a Hollywood media mogul? Even if the stories are often more insipid than the ones we have to watch on the Big Screen, creative writing is a course in illusion, in safety, a lesson in the terroristic power of a nostalgic self... as well as, when done right, a glimpse into the fantastic liberating possibilities of the created self, what E. Ann Kaplan calls "the antiquity, mode of liberation from fixed salves... the mask as mastery."(25) Kids are terrorized so much by the culture around them, why not a course where they can seize the reigns—especially since make believe is at the center of this country's politics as well as its economy? "Years ago," writes Don DeLillo, "I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness."(26) Or is it that the terrorists and politicians have become novelists, writing the texts of world-wide reality—and vice versa? Or one should wish. And the important question we should be considering is not "Should a creative writer teach?" but "What should a creative writer teach (or exemplify)?" The intuitive workshop mumbo-jumbo of "learning to express yourself'? or the really dangerous project of terrorizing reality?
Outside of creative writing programs, in big cities and small towns alike, young people are doing it—they're immersed in theory, technology, and art, and they're creating a vibrant intellectual culture, a culture that has larger implications for society as a whole. Of course, advocates of theory can often find themselves launching into heavy platitudes of their own, which is why someone such as Camille Paglia can be a wonderful, if glibly provocative (Ha!), corrective. And why that old maxim—that a creative writer should never write from what she knows but only toward it—never seems to apply more firmly than when taking the first chilly steps into the bracing waters of poststructural- nay, any technical, jargon. For however wonderful ideas can be, even ideas about post-Cartesian demise, creative writing comes first from the body. But then, this is something postmodemists should "know." It's just that they sometime—me would say often—seem to forget. Or rather, "lose touch with." But that happens to all of us, especially here at the twilight of the millennium. It's hard to "keep in touch" when there are so many ways to find yourself being disconnected.
All this is simply to say that what matters—as it always has, I suspect—-is the writer's ability to pierce through the numbing veils of platitudinous existence that are constantly being laid upon us, from the Right, Left, and Center, from intellectuals and anti-intellectuals both. It seems to me that the mint at hand—as Ben Satterfield suggests—is that a lot of what fails at that task is hyped, institutionalized, and rewarded (the very definition of "platitude," I suppose), while a lot of what succeeds is kept out of the media and out of the academy (except, perhaps, where theory and capital let it back in)—the perfectly paradoxical postmodem movement. Yet the powers-that-be continue to market a nostalgic "literary" formation for contemporary writing, packaging work that is simultaneously "classic" (and institutionally acceptable) and yet also "new, hip, and relevant." And then they blame the younger generations for failing to buy into that idealized nostalgic vision with all its hypocrisy and self-defeating contradictions. It seems not only preposterous, but at least subconsciously sadistic. And deceptive. And somehow, quaintly Protestant, white, academic, and middleclass. Or is that being too unfair?
I'm not saying that one can't have standards. I'm just saying that in this democratic, multifaceted culture, the idea that the Old Standard is somehow naturally selecting Today's Art is misleading hogwash—something that Time, thankfully, will correct. In the meantime, those of us teaching writing must seriously ask the same old question again and again: how do you seriously teach creativity? I think Wendy Bishop began an important shift in paradigms by suggesting that a lot of the problem with contemporary writing may in fact be inherent in the workshop format itself, which privileges a "mentor model," one in which the instructor's individual tastes are hidden through attention to classroom discussion of student work, but in which those tastes inevitably shape and direct the discussion. Whether the instructor's take is traditional or avant-garde, there are always important arguments that are being inadvertently silenced. For beginning students, as well as serious writers, such a method may be more intimidating than it is inspiring.
The problem I have with Bishop's revision of the classroom is her immediate dismissal of any larger artistic intent on the part of the student-writer. "Today a great number of students enroll in creative writing classes not because they expect to make a living as a writer, but more simply to explore the world of writers and to practice creative writing, much as they might investigate any of the arts during their time in school"(27). The problem here is that Ms. Bishop leaves the Romantic notions about writing intact—the graduate students are the "professionals," who will study a craft, while the undergraduates are the dabblers, learning their own, individual "relationship to language" much as the children of the upper-middle-class are told by their parents, out of some vague, outdated notion of class-consciousness, that they should learn to play the piano. Writing here isn't so much a means of exploring the Orphic darkness as it is a process of cultural indoctrination, "humanizing," if you will, undertaken under the democratizing auspices of the liberal university. Getting rid of the idea of "greatness" and "art" along with the mentor-model ultimately gets rid of great, artistic writing. Is that what we really want? Then slit my throat now and get it over with—I couldn't live in a world where everything that everyone wrote qualified as "art." A world of total and complete equality, where every Beth and Bob was a mini-Solzhenitsyn, writing in her own little gulag, with no possibility at all of creating original speech. That, I think, is the social equivalent of autism, a vision straight out of Orwell.
So how does one press for standards without creating a "single standard?" I haven't been doing this for long, but I hazard the following program: talk about aesthetics; talk about how to restructure the imaginative process; provide a broad horizon of "challenging" work, from all sorts of writing communities. And most of all, solicit the writer's intentions, and help to make those intentions themselves more sophisticated. That's why I was excited to read Eve Shelnutt's article "Macro-Minimalist Fiction: The Trickle-Down Effect" (AWP Chronicle, May, 1993). Her suggestion of a "portfolio model," if you will, seems to me a preferable alternative to both the workshop and Bishop's "processes" models. The pivotal point here is whether one is going to focus on "proper forms," which the workshop seems to do, or on creative strategies and content. If we agree there is no "right form" of creative writing—that satire, parody, pastiche, and irresolution are just as interesting as unity, rising action, and resolution-then it seems to me that the only criteria left for evaluating student work is its "writerly stance." That is, the sophistication, complexity, and voice of the writer. Not only does a portfolio approach "take seriously students' stated desire to become published artists,"(28) it seems to me that it also places the always contested and vexed question—What is art?—at the forefront of the class.
Changing pedagogies isn't easy—I've just spent a year changing my pedagogy for freshman composition. It seems I spent every waking hour inventing assignments, revising assignments, talking with other instructors, going over texts, reading student writing, planning classes. But in the end. it was worth it. Not only was I amazed at the quality of the writing, I was gratified at how a "theory" about writing corresponded so well with the real world: the class originates from a conception, a philosophy about meaning and writing—one that I believe allows for a variety of writing "values" while at the same time demanding excellence. This fall, my fiction writing class gets "the treatment." But I think it's worth the time. If we've closed off and answered the question "what is good writing" before we've begun, it's no wonder that everything we're teaching the students to do is so boring.
Look—I make no bones about pretending to teach 18-year-olds how to be the next shining lights of a lost generation. That's just the point. Greatness won't be achieved by everyone. A lot of people don't have the time, patience, or perseverance for it. But I must say that giving sixty sheltered adolescents an appreciation for the possibilities inherent in language and narrative, no matter how awful (and occasionally wonderful) their stories and poems, seems to me a rather fulfilling, rewarding, and demanding job. So maybe I am doing the world a small, unappreciated favor, keeping language and experience alive just a little bit. That's all that I ask to do. To me, that's what makes "greatness"—not "universals," and not capital L "Literature," especially in a world that has already destroyed the whole category. Some say, "good riddance." Some say, "Oh dear." I just say, "That's life." Get used to it.
Bruce Bawer, writing in The New Criterion, has something to say about the demise of this term, Literature, when applied as a universalizing signifier.
Even smaller than the literary world, these days, is the number of people in it to whom literature itself is a cherished—indeed, an indispensable-concept.... People ...profess not to like the word "literary," which they claim to find elitist, exclusionary, fascistic.... Such writers... frown at the word "discrimination," whose political connotations make it unacceptable even when prefixed with "aesthetic"; and they shake their heads at any reference to critical standards, for "standards" is a reactionary code word.... (29)
I agree, really, with Bawer, in that standards are important. The problem with Bawer's argument, however, is the same problem with the magazine from which he writes: The New Criterion is notably singular. There are, indeed, a multitude of criteria; a multitude of "literature," something that only a theoretical postmodernist, I think, can fully appreciate.
And maybe it's another generalization, but I really do think young people intuit these "multiple worlds" more easily than people over 35. They just seem to naturally understand, whereas some of my older colleagues can stare at it for years, much as they stare at their computer screens, and still, they just don't get it. How can we debate "multiculturalism" when, in five years, everyone will have their own pre-selected, individualized culture coming in over their TVs! If anything, it's this lack of common culture that has become our common culture. The effects of that on the academy have to be profound. Houston Baker is right when he asks, "aren't 'our' students bonded more in their postmodernity than in an ahistorical holiness of the Western past stored in Great Books?"(30) I think we're doing a disservice to "literature," with a small l, if we don't constantly interrogate along with our students, the very idea of "greatness," a task that's difficult to do when we mistake the classroom for a writer's colony, something that disappeared long ago, and that we only have now as various strained, economically motivated simulacrums. But classrooms can be exciting laboratories, for teachers as well as students if we start thinking about what we really want from student writing— maturity, creativity, voice, sophistication—the ability to incorporate all aspects of our world and yet still avoid becoming overwhelmed, dissipated, or disconnected. After all, who says we always have to be grasping our investments and defending the status quo... that we can't, along with Madonna. Michel Foucault, and Al Gore, "reinvent" our institutions? And who knows—maybe it will help our fiction, too.
Martin Schecter teaches at Drake University in Des Moines. Iowa. He'd like to use this space, shamelessly, to plug his second novel, High Concept (forthcoming, Crown Publishers), a fantasia whose major characters include-not big-time movie director, an unemployed sociologist, a couple of English professors, a cartoon coyote, the voice of Jean Baudrillard, lesbian computer hacker, the CEO of a company, and Madonna.
- Lehman, David. "Deconstruction After the Fall." AWP Chronicle. Vol. 25, No. 3. December 1992. p. 2.
- Anderson, Kurt. "Are Beavis and Butt-head Arty?" Time. Vol. 141, No. 25. June 21, 1993. p. 75.
- Fenza, D.W. "Tradition and the Institutionalized Talent." AWP Chronicle. Vol. 24, No. 4. February 1992. p. 20.
- Sanders, Scott Russell. "The Writer in the University." AWP Chronicle. Vol. 25, No. 1. September 1992. pp. 10–11.
- p. 19.
- Ragan, James. "The Academy and the 'You Know!' Generation." The American Writer and the University. Newark: University of Delaware Press; 1989. p. 163.
- Kleinzahler, August. "Poetry's Decay." Harper's Magazine. May 1992. p. 35.
- Macauley, Robie. "The Writer's Rainbow." Boston Review. June/August 1991.
- Bawer, Bruce. "Literary Life in the 1990's." The New Criterion. September 1991.
- Hoagland, Edward. Introduction to the Pushcart Prize, XVI. Bill Henderson, editor. Simon & Schuster, 1991.
- See William Strauss and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America's Future: 1584 w 2069. Morrow, 1992. The book that, along with Douglas Coupland's Generation X and Richard Linklater's movie, Slackers, started all the hype.
- "Move Over, Boomers." Business Week. December 14, 1992. p. 74.
- Altacruise, Chris. "Stepford Writers." Lingua Franca p. 18.
- Messud, Claire. "Creative Writing Program Guns Go Off." Times Literary Supplement. May 31,1991. p. 14.
- Sanerfield, Ben. "Break the Circle." Poets & Writers Magazine. Vol. 20, Issue 2. March/April 1992. pp. 32–35.
- Blanchot, Maurice. The Game of Orpheus. Lydia Davis, trans. Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, (1943) 1981. pp. 99–100.
- December 20, 1992.
- Amerika, Mark. The Kafka Chronicles. Fiction Collective Two, 1993. p. 16.
- The WELL is a bulletin board operating out of the San Francisco Bay area. It can be reached via well.sf.ca.us over telnet or direct via modem by dialing 415-332-6106.
- Earth in the Balance. p. 201.
- Introduction to the Pushcart Prize, XVI.
- Fenza, D.W. "Tradition & the Institutionalized Talent."
- Kaplan, E. Ann. "Madonna Politica: Perversion, Repression, or Subversion? Or Masks and as Master-y." The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory. Cathy Schwichtenberg, editor. Boulder, Colorado; Westview Press, 1993. p. 159.
- Woolley, Benjamin. Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. Blackwell Publishers, 1992. p. 179.
- "Madonna Politics." p. 159.
- DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Viking, 1991.
- Bishop, Wendy. Working Words: The Process of Creative Writing. Instructor's Manual. Mayfield Publishing Co. Mountain View, CA. 1992. p. 1.
- Shelnua. p. 15.
- Bawer, Bruce. "Literary Life in the 1990's." The New Criterion. September 1991. p.54
- "Handling Crisis: Great Books, Rap Music, and the End of Western Homogeneity." Wild Orchids and Trotsky. Penguin Books, 1993. p. 284.