February 26, 2014
This week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.
15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?
Alas, discussion of the ultimate goals of literature will not be part of the official record at AWP, since out of the hundreds of panels none seem to be devoted to asking such worrisome questions. Instead, the panels repeat a few characteristic anxieties: how to convert autobiographical experience within particular identity niches into saleable memoir, how to get funding and recognition for one’s writing program at different levels, how to reach into new constituencies like prisoners and high-school students and mental patients, how to exploit social media from Facebook to Twitter to promote one’s press or individual work, and how to write exactly the kinds of books that win contests or awards leading to secure jobs.
The titles of some of the panels testify to the obsession with professional success within extremely narrow boundaries, rather than any transcendent concerns about literature:
-Put Your Shit on Paper: Two Chicago-Based Writing Programs on Running Trauma-Informed High School Workshops
-The Author’s Children: The Intersection of Art, Advocacy, and Ethics in Writing About Your Kids
-Beef Jerky, Bras, and Car Parts: What We Write About When We Write for Money
-Taking Literature Off the Page: How to Be a More Attractive Job Candidate
-Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family
-Poetry and the Online Community: Using Digital Media to Build Audience
-Independent Bookselling: Opportunities for Authors
-Verses Versus Verses: Perspectives on Poetry Contests
-Writing Inside Out: Authors’ Day Jobs
-Full Disclosure: How to Spill Your Guts without Making a Mess
-Applying for a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship
-All Publishers Great and Small: Reexamining the Book Business in the 21st Century
-How Twitter Works (And Doesn’t Work) For Writers
-#interaction: How Social Media Changed the Conversation Between Audience and Author
-From Thesis to Book: The Stretch Run
-Gaming Social Media
-A Family Affair: Family Structure as Narrative Structure
-Calling all Poets! You’ve Found Your Voice; Now Find Your Audience
-To Wear Every Color of the Heart: Going Beyond Craft to Teach Youth in Hospital Settings
-The Parent-Writer: Can We Really Have It All?
-Crossing the Veil: Engaging the Editor who Rejects Your Work
-Beg, Borrow, Steal: Twenty-five Best Teaching Practices from Teachers Who Write for Writers Who Teach
-From Finding Your Muse to Finding Your Readers: Book Promotion in the 21st Century
-MFA Students as TAs at Community College: Two Models
-Lead from the Front: Best Practices for Working With Veterans in the Writing Classroom
-News from Nowhere: Writing Through Difficulty with Marginalized Middle and High School Populations
-The Business of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century
-What’s a Creative Writing PhD Worth?
-The Irony of the Internet: Reevaluating & Redefining Business & Creativity in the Digital Age
-Advice to Nonprofit Organizations Seeking Funding from the NEA
-Amazon for Authors
-Brave New Media: The Promises and Pitfalls of Teaching Creative Writing for Digital Environments
and last but not least…
-Best Practices for Submitting an AWP Panel Proposal (hint: read the above panel titles!)
Is your head spinning yet? Notice that the profession presents itself as so totally victorious over literature that it need not ask any questions beyond process and mechanics: every panel seems preoccupied with “best practices.” It also becomes clear that autobiographical/therapeutic/memoiristic writing—the foundation of workshop pedagogy—is essentially what all literary writing boils down to today.
The defenders of creative writing programs have a lot of explaining to do. Their rationales for the mind-boggling proliferation of MFA programs at American universities over the last three decades reveal a self-serving vocational bias, immune to criticisms with legitimate historical and philosophical grounding.
As a result, critics like myself—or in earlier periods, Donald Hall, Greg Kuzma, Vernon Shetley, Joseph Epstein, John Aldridge, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others—are dismissed as motivated by sour grapes if they’re writers themselves or lacking practical knowledge of the profession if they’re primarily scholars. Rarely is the substance of our criticisms addressed in the increasingly desperate apologias mounted on behalf of a bureaucracy that has exceeded all expectations since the AWP was founded with modest aims in the late 1960s. Today one goes to AWP not for criticism but for self-validation.
A recent defensive screed, appearing in Inside Higher Ed on July 5, 2013, reveals the usual problems of deflection and subterfuge. A phenomenon cannot be justified as morally sound because of its prevalence. Just because hundreds of writing programs have recently cropped up in American universities, and just because they are financially successful for institutions, does not mean that they are good for writing. The false promise held out by a gathering of AWP’s magnitude has real consequences for how genuine writing is received in the world.
In Against the Workshop (2011), as well as in my new books Literature in an Age of Globalization and Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in New American Fiction, I describe creative writing programs as primarily therapeutic rather than motivated by traditional notions of creativity and inspiration. I would add that therapy in these programs functions within a narrow range of white middle-class norms, so it is not surprising that the typical MFA student also comes from a narrow background. Sheer numbers cannot hide this fact.
Certainly, minorities are increasingly found in writing programs, but any observer of the scene will note the tremendous pressure to conform. When so-called “silenced voices” find expression within this mode of organized creativity, what often results is an apolitical product that leaves the institutional bases of oppression and tyranny untouched because of the writing workshop’s false—neoliberal—credo that all psychological problems are self-created and subject to individual and not collective responses. This is why there is so much interest in memoir as originating from the self’s redeemable conundrums, in essence a privatization of social instinct.
The workshop is a great model for teaching economic citizenship within a narrow spectrum, so the apparently diverse student recruitment in writing programs doesn’t really reflect the constraints put upon voice and discovery.
Criticism in this vein, the defenders of creative writing should note, is not new, going back to Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s critique of the ideology of the workshop, while any number of other critics over the decades have taken the Iowa Writers Workshop model to task for the banality and programmatic lack of innovation it engenders. The idea that workshop pedagogy leads to conservative outcomes should not sound surprising to anyone with knowledge of literary theory, but the profession acts in shock when any such proposition is advanced.
It’s not coincidental that defenders of the system leap most aggressively to defense of the workshop itself, because the present hegemony in writing instruction is inconceivable without this centerpiece of faux democracy which is actually a cover for ideological conformity. Without workshop, one starts allowing literary criticism and literary history—that is to say the institutional context of writing both past and present—into the classroom, but this is verboten because it would make the current model collapse.
Despite what the “5 Creative Writing Professors” I mentioned earlier would have you believe, my books are in conversation with three preceding important evaluations of the workshop system—namely, D. G. Myers’s The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (1996), Paul Dawson’s Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2005), and Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009)—which show a progressive degree of acceptance of workshop from the earliest to the latest book. This fatalism—for example toward the behemoth known as AWP—seems most unfortunate to me.
In Against the Workshop, I specifically question McGurl for his functionalist endorsement of workshop as the pedagogy we must accept simply because it dominates. It is the apologists, in fact, who act as if workshop persists in an ideological vacuum, as though there can be no other method to train writers.
Similarly, a vast literature exists to show the parallels between therapy and writing workshops, a body of work I explicitly recognize and assess, whereas this particular set of defenders of workshop makes no recognition of this internal critique from within the profession. The charge is often made simultaneously that my ideas are so well-known as to be unoriginal and that they are so radical as to be unsubstantiable; both cannot be true. Furthermore, being able to reach a broad audience does not make one a talk show host. The interest of the designated apologists is to silence dissenting voices at all costs.
There is the larger question of the crisis in the humanities, of which scholarly skepticism toward the humanities’ function and worth because of theory’s assault is one aspect, and the loss of direction of students exposed to the humanities in their current state of self-doubt is another. Does the atmosphere at AWP speak of the humanities as a live phenomenon, able to speak to issues of concern to the public at large, or does it speak of a radical diminishment of ideas liable to be dangerous if they get out?
After all, who wants to undergo the rigors of studying history or philosophy when the very idea of liberal education under humanistic premises has been shown to be a sham? Doesn’t expressing one’s purely subjective concerns become a valid alternative under such conditions, especially if great numbers of people are seen as following the same path? And furthermore, isn’t it something that everyone can potentially do, because after all everyone has a life story to tell, rather than get into the weeds of fussy scholarship?
But if large numbers of those who used to pursue traditional humanistic disciplines as valid creative endeavors choose to become “creative writers,” then there is an oversupply of creativity, or what substitutes for creativity, and therefore a debasement of the whole creative venture. Art is served poorly when it is made a fetish outside time and space, outside the history which always makes it real and pertinent. The severance of literature and criticism is a reality with terrible consequences the defenders of workshop are at pains to ignore.
All is not well in writing and publishing, the claims of the AWP hierarchy notwithstanding. I would pose the following questions as starters toward a productive conversation which looks beyond the knee-jerk defense of a system that has assumed all the airs of a sacred theology:
-What is the ideological dimension of the MFA system when it comes to the class interests it protects and serves?
-If the system is predicated on replication and uniformity—as must be the case when the numbers involved are so great—then is there anything teachers can do to provoke genuine inspiration and innovation?
-How can the chasm between creative writing and literary criticism be bridged, assuming that this is a destructive tendency making both sides hunker down in further isolation?
-If workshop presents itself as the exclusive path to glory, then how can it be truly democratic? Are the boosters willing to recognize the new means of exclusion and delegitimation that have been put in place to counter those not inclined to follow the favored professional track?
-At what point is anarchic breakdown within the hegemonic system actually a service rather than a disservice to writing? What would be the conditions inviting such a breakdown?
In short, is it fair to see writing as a commodity, a business, or a credential? If the answer is no, then how can writing teachers—i.e., writers—justify spending all their energies on the validation of these inevitable outcomes of workshop?
If writing today is homogenous, it is because the teaching method has become homogenous. Almost the totality of young American writers are encouraged to approach their vocation now through the institutional system firmly in place. Even if they’re not naturally inclined to pursue the favored path, they clearly see the disadvantages of not allying with the methodology producing nearly all literary writers, so they don’t see a choice. Debt and disappointment are often the results, except perhaps for those lucky enough to find spots in the most prestigious schools and thereafter find jobs teaching writing to others.
Literary writing has become almost completely assimilated inside academia. Nearly all writers are professors first and writers second. Is this a healthy situation, especially if one narrow pedagogy—the peer-oriented workshop—dominates teaching? What effects does this have on the forward advancement of literature? This, it seems to me, is the question to answer, rather than carping at critics who point out the obvious. And it seems strange indeed that not a single panel out of hundreds at AWP is devoted to addressing this ultimate question.
The bunker mentality of the defenders of creative writing prevents them from seeing that their profession has evolved as a result of the long-maturing crisis in the humanities. Creative writing is a curious apparition, having split off from the traditional humanities to permit self-expression without depth of knowledge; in effect, it is a pastiche of the humanities, the credential without the foundation. It happens to produce outsized financial rewards for universities because of the elastic supply of substitutable instructors, providing a model of low-stakes instruction that avoids the scrutiny of measurement otherwise obsessing academia only because it wears a fuzzy cloak of outcomes.
The humanities have taken a body blow in recent decades because of accusations of lack of utilitarian value in a technocracy, and part of the response has been for creative writing to step into the breach to produce a culture that makes virtues out of the original flaws, doubling down on all that is perceived to be wrong with the humanities.
The economic grievances of endless surplus academic labor in the new corporate university have become redirected toward harmless memoirist expression within identity niches, an arrangement quite satisfactory to those in control of the purse strings. Increasingly, the justifications offered for creative writing are the ones that used to be offered for liberal education in general, except in watered-down form and without any specific promises.
For the defenders of workshop, there is no crisis in the humanities (because previously suppressed voices are supposedly finding self-expression), there is no crisis in writing, there is no crisis of any kind. But the truth is that serious fiction and poetry have hardly any audience outside academia today, a result that came about deliberately rather than coincidentally.
One can imagine the degree of professional competitiveness—for the few lucrative spots on publisher’s lists or for plum teaching positions—that must rage at AWP, whereas the official presentation of the conference is as a mediator of the networks of mutual recognition that lead to advancement within the parameters of the profession. Each year, as this year’s 61-page schedule in fine print testifies, these parameters get elaborated to more and more absurd levels, and are articulated in increasingly obsessive detail. Deviation from these standards then becomes an impossibility, because the sheer weight of opposition grows too large to be countered by any individual.
It has become an amazingly collectivist enterprise, which seems the whole point of the official conference as well as the parallel off-site networking that only confirms the formal tendencies. There was a big fuss among exhibitors this year when it looked like the bookfair wasn’t going to be open to the public on Saturday as in previous years; eventually the conference relented, but the ruckus only emphasized the incestuous nature of the whole event: it’s all about writers branding one other within a self-contained guild, not reaching out to the public anyway. The public (even if allowed into the bookfair for a look-see on a single day) is quite beside the point and is not why writers become writers these days; they do it so they can teach and get funded.
One notices too that despite the hundreds of panels, the same limited number of individuals seems repetitively prominent, and that the count stays more or less stable from year to year. Growth is rampant and obscene, but in the end peripheral, since opportunity for any real literary success simply cannot be accommodated in such volume; this leads to the inevitable paradox of writing being deflected from its true goals and becoming obsessed with justifying the reach of existing practice.
Serious writing has become like a magic art with secret practitioners and overlords with mystical powers: meanwhile, it is hard to convince scholars outside the creative writing vocation (not to mention the public) that the profession serves any humanistic function, when the writing is so class-bound, therapeutic, mediocre, and self-serving. To assert this is not to air dirty laundry, exposing the profession to an unnecessary hostile gaze; it is to ask the profession to look closely at the ways economic constraints and class biases blind us to the more utopian dimensions of writing.
Or one can just go to AWP and get with the program.