Can it, really?
There are so many positions one can take on education and literature—in fact, one could have a lengthy debate on which is more important, literature, or the education of literature, and that’s before we even get started.
Let’s see if we can sum up quickly the various positions regarding Creative Writing and the Academy under the umbrella: what is literature and how should we teach it?
First, the one relevant fact: The Creative Writing degree is replacing the old English degree, not only on the graduate, but on the undergraduate level.
Now, the positions:
1. First, “The Old Man” position. We quote him in full—from a recent Scarriet comment, because we don’t think anyone could say it better:
Creative Writing, along with Today’s MFA is part of the campaign to replace canonical literature as the “jewel in the crown” of English Studies. There is a tacit alliance among the supporters of Postmodern Poetics, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Womens’ Studies and Creative Writing (in all its forms and levels of instruction) to topple the traditional curriculum. Contemporary fiction and poetry overshadow the great writing of the past. Creative writng students do not have to read Milton, Pope, Keats and Yeats. Either they read their peers in the class or the “so called” free verse of the hour. As creative writing gradually eclipses literature, instructors follow suit. Soon the majority of teachers in the typical American English Department will no longer feel comfortable about grading a comprehensive literature exam in an Honors Program – – or even the typical MA English Comprehensive Exam.
This position is the Outsider, Conservative one: Creative Writing is part of a wider modern problem which sees canonical excellence swallowed up by all sorts of things which are beside the point.
2. Second, “The Seth Abramson” position, which all who are bothering to read this, are surely familiar with by now: the MFA is a beacon of democratic insurrection and radical experimentation, a thousand flowers blooming in the desert of academic dullness.
This position is the Insider, Radical one: Creative Writing, through its democratic open-ended, open-exchanged fertility, will lead us to the Promised Land of Democratized Freedom.
3. Third, “The Laura Runyan” position, and we take the liberty of excerpting her Scarriet comments:
Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.
I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.
Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.
I couldn’t stand the prospect of majoring in English because I couldn’t stomach “critical theory,” by which art is reduced to cultural studies and very bad postmodernist “philosophizing.” So much of the reasoning behind critical theory is dreck, it’s bloated with jargon, much of the writing in the “scholarship” associated with that group of sub-disciplines is dreadful, and had it been embraced by my MFA professors, I wouldn’t have survived more than a semester there. (As an undergraduate, I majored in “analytic”–Western–philosophy.by the way.) My first semester as an MFA student, I asked one of the fiction faculty members which lit professors to avoid (we were one of those so-called “academic” MFA programs). As soon as I said that I didn’t want to take a lit-crit-style literature class, this professor knew immediately what I was talking about and advised me on which classes I would probably want to avoid. In fact, not one faculty member in my MFA program was “into” the critical theory stuff. If anything, they were contemptuous of it.
Laura Runyan’s is the Insider, Conservative position: Creative Writing, at least as practiced in the best MFA programs, is an escape from the postmodern-corrupted English MA programs. Runyan is pro-MFA, but for a very different reason than Abramson.
4. Finally, that leaves the Outsider, Radical position on Creative Writing, rejecting it altogether, either from an anti-institutional stance or an anti-canonical stance even more radical than Abramson’s, a radical political position suspicious of canon and institution, anything smelling at all like the status quo. This final ‘catch-all’ category contains poor people, eccentric rich people, slam poets, the Ernest Hemingway/Jack Kerouac anti-intellectual, manly type of independent writer, or someone like Eileen Myles.
So the four main pedagogical threads are
1. Old Man: MFA is part of a radical, post-modern conspiracy
2. Laura Runyan: MFA is the new throw-back canonical MA
3. Seth Abramson: MFA is the crown of forward-looking, post-modern legitimacy
4. Eileen Myles: MFA is one more brick in the wall
As we can see, roughly speaking:
1 (Old Man) and 3 (Seth Abramson) are philosophical opposites, as are 2 (Laura Runyan) and 4 (Eileen Myles).
1 (Old Man) and 2 (Laura Runyan) are philosophically similar, as are 3 (Seth Abramson) and 4 (Eileen Myles), but these two pairs disagree on how the MFA works—or doesn’t.
Where do they all agree?
If one could afford to hang out in Left Bank cafes with interesting writers of all kinds, the Old Man, Laura, Seth, and Eileen might all be able to agree on this scenario.
We have ventured the opinion that ‘hanging out’ and writing really don’t go together at all, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.
Most of those in mainstream, institutional life, the Old Man and the Laura Runyan schools of thought, would probably see eye to eye on this:
Literature provides a necessary social glue: despite various political differences in any population, it is crucial that, intellectually and artistically, there is a place for all of us to be more or less on the same page, even as we work through various political differences based on class, race, sexual orientation, and philosophical opposition.
This point alone makes both the Old Man and the Laura Runyan positions attractive. Chucking the canonical in favor of the new is counter-productive and common sense cries out against it. Is life so radically different now that as a society we can say for certain that the best of the past should be demolished?
We can talk about political differences all day, but there is one aesthetic matter which seems to participate in these divisions more than any other: Good Storytelling. Laura Runyan captured this idea when she wrote:
A friend of mine who finished the MFA program at Iowa in the 80s, after he’d established a career as a pharmacist, told me the following about Frank Conroy, then the well-known director of the Workshop, and whom my friend had as a teacher. He said that often, Conroy–who was hardly gentle on students–would often say in workshop in response to a meandering piece of prose by a student, “Beautiful prose in the service of WHAT?” (That comment was repeated by another person I know who’s a grad of Iowa’s MFA program.)
What did he mean by that comment. Simply this–which isn’t so simple to many aspiring fiction writers: that the story, with all its musing and imagery, HAD NO STORY! No Aristotelian rise and fall, no obvious conflict, nothing that made you wonder what would happen next!
Story-telling can bring together many politics and philosophies under one roof, so much so, that this might even seal the deal for universal agreement. Let’s rally round, with all our differences, the articulate story-teller, and let every radical impulse fit in—or not—with this mandate.
All in favor, say aye.
Just as we thought: a lot of ayes.
But not so fast. “Wondering what happens next” is a primitive impulse and not necessarily one we should promote. Narrative is a slippery pedagogical subject, if we are honest about it, and take the time to look at it more closely. Scarriet recently examined this in a post titled, “Does Narrative Make Us Stupid?” (May 2013).
To truly unite literature and education, we grant narrative a high place, but not the highest place.
Our criteria, in order of importance are:
1. Philosophical Truth
It seems to us that Plato’s dialogues should be central to any advanced literary and writing education, with the Phaedrus, the Symposium, the Ion, and the Republic as must-reads. Add to that Edgar Allan Poe, who is, if truth be told, a canon all to himself. Both Plato and Poe are rigorous, accessible and free of both dogma and triviality.
In the broadest possible terms, the beautiful encompasses good taste (which is not trivial) and all we associate with the ‘well-put-together,’ and pertains to whatever is uplifting, sublime, and brings people together in passionately fused thought and feeling.
3. Undercurrent of Meaning
This hardly needs explanation. Without this, stories will be either trivial or flimsy pieces of moralizing.
These three are far more important than storytelling, per se, though Frank Conroy’s advice certainly has merit.