13 May 2011

The Program Strikes Back

I remember a period leading up to three years ago when I would think "why is Dickinson College organizing readings that are relevant?," that surprise and bewilderment being its own phenomenon, not feeling the need to investigate the matter further. Then the fluke was eliminated: I found out that a psychology professor with literary taste, Richard Abrams, had been organizing the readings, that no member of the English department attended them, and that Abrams, despite a top score on RateMyProfessor.com, had been denied tenure - as a psych professor - at the insistence of a coterie of English professors who were in opposition to the readings. Though Dickinson doesn't have an MFA program, both the unusual nature of the readings and the actions taken against the professor of good taste provide a window into to what, precisely, is the source of the "mediocrity" that could "make all writers sound alike" which Mark McGurl finds alleged in the "numerous.." "broadsides" on the subject of MFAs.

That's the first thing I think about when McGurl starts to speculate about how the intervention of the workshop could have improved modernism, citing the example of Thomas Wolfe, who was actually the only modernist of his caliber to get a graduate degree, but despite the Harvard MA, his being critically slammed coincidentally the same year the Iowa workshop opened suggests for McGurl what could have been. I had a rebellious, suburban-dwelling writer tell me one evening that Thomas Wolfe was his favorite writer, and my conditioned response was something along the lines of "he's out of style, his form has its problems," causing him to be annoyed and discouraged at my reflex to affect adapted cultivation. I'm not going to contemplate what effect hanging around school and that era's publishing world had on Wolfe's narrative form, but McGurl's tactic of cherry picking Wolfe as one example of the workshop potentially "improving" a modernist begs the question: what if the MFA programs told him he has to soften or hybridize his view of Asheville, or else!, and his status as a junior functionary in a bureaucracy caused him to squelch what courage he could muster to ruffle the feathers he ruffled in his novels? Who would read him then?

But of course the cadre of post-WW2 writers that did or didn't officially Master their Fine Art, listed by McGurl in his recent interview, perhaps out of a perceived need to improve upon the New Yorker list, is compared to that sole practitioner Wolfe, representing Modernism, out of McGurl's desire to game the contest. Comparing the merit of modernism in fiction to workshop post-modernism is too one-sided to occupy my time or yours, as well as the question of whether Joyce, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Stein, Beckett, Woolf, Faulkner, etc. (this being a Program discussion, we consider only the Anglo-Americans) would have been "improved" upon if they had to get permission for their literary impulses from those that upheld the prevailing fashions of the local literary bureaucracy. Nor is it worthwhile to discuss in depth how McGurl ignores all of Elif Batuman's useful points, including her citation of some of the aspects of "novelistic alienation" that Cervantes' formed for what "hasn’t yet been fully described," and focuses instead on attacking her perceived privilege and "elitism," then affecting a socio-economic-political hybridization by playing off straw men such as the "Deranged" and that prefabricated and discredited spokesman for a majority of the global population "Comrade Dour the Maoist," to whom he reports that this isn't "after the revolution" when "tuition will only be 95 cents".. "literary production cannot realistically be shared with the masses in any world we are ever likely to see... We need them working at the register." Considering the increasing numbers of non-Harvard grads (and some Harvard grads) falling below the poverty level as he writes these words, more African-Americans behind bars than were slaves at the onset of the Civil War, maybe we've reached the point where McGurl has outlived his use as apologist for the Program Era, as the extent to which he truly reflects the Era, which is, in fact, only the Program Era to the self-important, jingoistic myopia of some within the program, would inspire a tedious and nebulous debate. My own internet discussions on this topic have not so much centered around the logistics of providing everyone with an MFA, but of the practice of some in the Program culture actively attempting to devalue the literary merit of the people who haven't, over the years, bought in to the program and submitted their work to those "with the requisite leisure to cultivate themselves," including the work of many authors who couldn't afford to get a BA.

Joyce appropriated many aspects of Rabelais in especially his later works, but perhaps the most important borrowing was the dismissal of the assumptions of genre, which Rabelais was free to do because, as Bakhtin indicated "his place in the hierarchy of genres.. was the lowest of all... the appraisal of Rabelais as a merely amusing and gay author was already beginning to take shape. Such was also, as we know, the fate of Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was listed for a long time amongst the amusing books of light literature," citing the slightly younger Montaigne's characterization of Rabelais' and Boccaccio's "amusing works.. worthy to divert us." We see repeatedly in national traditions the invention that occurs before the perceived laws of the novel are a known entity: Lermontov, from whom Tolstoy borrowed and refined, both Sterne and as Batuman cites, Austin, occurring at the beginnings of the British novel. When Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote their plays, they had no idea what the laws governing their genre were, but now we know clearly what a play is and isn't because the drama schools tell us. Dante and the troubadours, Homer, etc etc. We in The Program Era now know what a novel is and isn't, what a poem is and isn't, and if a psych professor in Pennsylvania has a less fixed view of what makes a poem, he may have to start looking for other employment.

Cheers to all from here, where I know less about genre every day!

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