Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I'm Hopping Mad,

about this essay by Margaret Soltan and JKW's discussion of it over at Pistols in the Pulpit. I've posted on this over at University Diaries. Somebody calm me down. Seriously.


Anonymous said...

Eileen Joy,
I have posted here once before, about the connections between my becoming a medievalist and my being a poet. Like you, I am a medievalist with an MFA (in my case in poetry).

And I agree with you that Soltan and JKW's essays are totally beside the point. They are also pretty...snarky, to use Heidi Julavits' critical phrase.

Both Soltan and JKW's essays reflect the common (mis)perception in English that creative writing is somehow not "real" work. Which may say more about how English and the study of literature are ALSO socially perceived as not "real" work, than it does about the actual utility of creative writing as a discipline.

The fact that many/most professors of English spend long days analyzing and criticizing literature, but have only rarely attempted to create literature of their own is unfortunate. Once you give over 18 months trying to write a crown of sonnets, you indisputably understand how the sonnet functions. Which is a definite critical asset, no? (Alas, it so often seems that sestina-making pales in the intellectual comparison to footnoting Deleuze and Guattari.)

That said, I do think that creative writing programs could spend more time on curriculum--i.e., determining what "craft" actually is and how to teach it; what texts to read and how to go about reading them; what it means to steal from other writers; how to utilize form.

This is a different argument than Soltan or JKW's, however. It is tiresome that the hard split between creative writing and "real" literature has to be perpetuated. Wouldn't it be more interesting and productive to examine the links between these 2 incredibly close fields? To write further about what it means to BE a writer and to make literature; how writing creates an identity; what writing can do and not do in the world; what the uses of poetry once were and no longer are (or maybe are now just again coming into being); how writers form communities and what and how those communities mean; how writing creates the human...

At any rate, my dissertation is about poetics, verse-making and medieval identity. I'm TRYING to bridge the gap between the 2 fields.

anonymous, please.

Anonymous said...


I think the criticism of students writing about themselves is kind of a dubious one. Academic writers write about themselves all the time, this blog being a good case in point. If the professionals do it, why can't the students? We have to come up with a better rhetorical reason for forbidding "writing about the self." Is it a reason of genre? Form? Style? Audience? Specifying THOSE aspects would go a long way toward explaining to students how to become better writers.

remaining anonymous, please

Karl Steel said...

Once you give over 18 months trying to write a crown of sonnets, you indisputably understand how the sonnet functions.

As a formal artifact, sure, but not as a social phenomenon that is shaped by, and in turn shapes, its worlds.

I'm dubious of the presumed access that 'doing something' gives to understanding, since that active engagement, by letting us imagine that we're "really doing something," might impede the irony and suspicion that I think--and here I mean "this is only my opinion, right now"--is essential to scholarship. Moreover, I'm inclined to think that the formal elements of verse are, at least for the kinds of analysis I do, only a surface feature. I think I could get productive readings--at least for me--from figuring out, say, the distinction between doing Christian doctrine in octosyllabic couplets versus doing it in prose in 13th-century England or France, but that analysis has everything to do with what these two options meant for the genre, for the time, for the producer, and very little to do with formal elements that could just easily have been limericks and haiku. What interests me, in other words, isn't the formal elements, but what they (try to) stand for.

Eileen Joy said...

And how could I have missed the connection, too, between my sudden loss of cabin pressure and the post by JJ Cohen [the artist formerly known as JJC] just below mine? By which I mean: JJC has been experimenting for a while now with the somewhat permeable membrane that exists between history and fiction, and yet, he is always lopping [or being forced to lop] his exercises in fictionalization out of his published scholarship. There is a kind of queasy, uneasy, love-hate, discomfiting, and frankly neurotic relationship between those who practice the art of literary criticism and literary artists that has always kind of baffled and amazed me. It's almost like if Shakespeare and Pynchon were teaching in my department and they were run out because what they were teaching [their craft] was determined to be not "serious" or "substantial" enough to be deemed worthy of being included within the English literature/writing curriculum. There's some deep psychology here, I think, having to do with jealousy, fear, desire, and god knows what else. There are some boundary issues as well, having to do with the ways in which those of us who ply "criticism" believe that only "we," with our finely honed disciplinary and supposedly positivist methodologies, can really do the necessary "serious" work of talking and writing about literature [with a capital "L"], and god help us if the authors in question were to actually show up and work alongside us. After all, they're crazy and unstable [i.e., "artists"].

Okay, all hyperbole aside, I want to respond to anonymous's and Karl's very thoughtful remarks, but I also want to dwell for a moment on JJC's scholarship which, in certain instances, has veered, I believe, into what some might call "highly artistic" and "wildly speculative" realms, and in ways that I think have discomfited some in our field, for almost the exact same reasons Prof. Soltan [and many others, frankly] are discomfited by the reality of "creative writing" as a discipline that exists alongside more traditional "literature" programs: if even subconsciously, we are concerned to not let "art" and "criticism" engage in acts of profane coupling. But what we often overlook is that, often, the best criticism is itself an art form, of a highly creative bent, and with a serious attention to beauty [wrought by language and its many felicities]. I have always admired JJC's scholarship for the creative risks it has taken--I'm somewhat thrilled by it on occasion. I'm not saying it's perfect in all respects, but then, I don't want perfection, and I don't even know what that means. I admire a scholar, like JJC [and of course there are others], who [I think] is as intent on creating something of beauty as he or she is of saying something that might be authentic and true. I also admire JJC's willingness to be playful. Just my opinion, admittedly.

To anonymous [whose anonymity I would never wish to disturb], I really appreciate your "fellow-feeling," as it were, and your very smart observations. Of course, creative writing is just as much "real work" as literary scholarship, although as you point out: sure, creative writing programs should likely spend more time on curriculum, but then again, so should literature programs. I would hope that, on both sides of the supposed divide, continual reinvention and self-examination would be the name of the game. I mentioned "pleasure" in my post over at University Diaries, by which I meant this: I think one of the hidden sub-texts that drives the wedge between literature and creative writing programs/professors is the assumption that, somehow, they're having more "fun" on the creative writing side, and getting away with it to boot, whereas the literature folks have the hard work of convincing undergraduates of the "seriousness" of Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc., and how can they do this when their students are drinking whiskey and having sex with the creative writing professors who have promised them fame and fortune for their navel-gazing memoirs? Okay, all kidding and hyperbole aside: it's about pleasure, and the fact that, somehow, we've decided that what we do on the literature side is not supposed to be "pleasurable," but rather this thing called "hard work." Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why, why, why? Literary criticism is, in fact, a very rare and serious pleasure [much more so than it is a social good], and we need to talk about that more; otherwise we're going to kill off our profession and good riddance to us. Seriously.

Anonymous says it better than I could when she writes,

"It is tiresome that the hard split between creative writing and "real" literature has to be perpetuated. Wouldn't it be more interesting and productive to examine the links between these 2 incredibly close fields? To write further about what it means to BE a writer and to make literature; how writing creates an identity; what writing can do and not do in the world; what the uses of poetry once were and no longer are (or maybe are now just again coming into being); how writers form communities and what and how those communities mean; how writing creates the human . . ."

Exactly. In exploring the boundaries that exist between literary criticism and creative writing, we could pursue and found some really interesting [and exciting] alliances between art and scholarship that, frankly, could invigorate our often moribund field. Ideas and art were always a great marriage, in my mind--how did we forget that?

To Karl, I can only say, for now, don't try to consider "formal" elements of composition as being separate from their supposedly more broad cultural contexts. You cannot separate the two. Ever ever ever.

Karl Steel said...

Oh, I don't think formal elements are divorced from social contexts. Shaped and are shaped by at once, &c. Clearly octosyllabic couplets--my particular interest, if I have one, because of the materials that tend to be my focus--"meant" something (or were meant to mean something) in 13th-c. Northern France and England relative to prose (which shouldn't be thought of as just one kind of prose). I'm interested, for example, why the 7th-century Prognosticon of Julien of Toledo, when it's translated into (Anglo-Norman) French in the 13th century, gets translated into octosyllabic couplets, so this:

lupum [that has eaten a person] leo devoravit, leo moriens ad pulverem rediit: cum pulvis ille suscitatur, quomodo caro hominis a lupi et leonis carne dividitur?

becomes this:

Un leoun vint quere sa proie
E ne trova nul autre beste,
Il prist le lou par la teste,
Si li estrangla, a la mort li mist,
Tot le manga, reen ne remist.
Ly leon tost apr├ęs morust;
La charoine del leoun jut
E porri tote, e devint terre:
Ou porreit l'en cest homme querre?

The question of the choice of meter for vernacularizations of doctrine, the choice to put certain kinds of doctrine into verse (no one, for instance, does a Sentences commentary in verse, so far as I know), &c., are all fascinating to me. I think the standard answer is that verse 'dumbs things down' for the laity: but because that's been the standard answer, I just don't trust it.

That said, I'm dubious about the 'promise of presence' that 'actually doing' verse seems to promise. There are formal elements that we would understand better, and certainly we would know more about, say, making sonnets in the second millennium, but I'm not sure what else we would get. Since what I'm saying here might only be the product of an unexamined prejudice, I'm happy to change my mind.

I love the discussions of pleasure, by the way, EJ. I think you're absolutely right, on that. More to say later??

Karl Steel said...

I think you're absolutely right, on that

Oops! That's what I get for writing a comment too quickly! Strike the comma!!

Anonymous said...

anonymous speaks again!


when making poems one must really consider HOW a poem is formed--what words are chosen, what sounds, what patterns. My own doing so sparked a question as to how other poets, in other times, made their own kinds of prosodic choices. For me, making my own poems made me wonder how medieval poets made their prosodic and diction choices, in vernacular English, for instance, instead of French or Latin. I also found myself thinking about the political and social context in which those choices were made, and about identity, and about writing as a kind of strange "not-work."

As for the promise of presence, Robert Pinsky has argued that because poetry is a time-bound, bodily medium, intended to be performed aloud, poems are a direct connection in some ways to the actual body of the poet. (see his recent The Sounds of Poetry.) And I agree with him.

So perhaps by reading verse aloud we touch, imperceptibly, the breath patterns and idiom of the one who made it. Some other human's mouth formed these words, these lines, in a specific way--and when we read aloud those words, we are implicitly recognizing the presence of an Other. I concur with Eileen Joy here, that this kind of "touch" is a real pleasure--and it is not exactly the same kind of pleasure as the "hard work" of presumably more objective literary analysis.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what has been said here regarding the need for curricular integration of creative writing and literary studies. I have watched recently a growing resistance amongst our creative writing graduate students against taking literature courses that we require. Some of them have told me that they think that reading all of this old stuff is wasting time that they could be spending writing in their journals.

That said, I'm trying a new course next year in which I teach the Icelandic Sagas to a mixed class of literture and creative writing students. The sagas, it seems to me, provide strong examples of much that students need to learn: understatement, economy, and a focus on action over interiority.

I haven't figured out my approach completely (suggestions are welcome), but I plan on requiring both critical and creative work that will integrate saga aesthetics. My colleagues in creative writing will assist me in both the teaching and the evaluation of the creative work.

Anonymous said...

Edit the above: I mispelled "literature." How did I get three degrees in the subject?

Anonymous said...

To anonymous and Karl: I think you're getting tangled up because you're trying to make absolute statements about something that varies enormously according to the writer. Anonymous is stating (I believe) that doing must lead to knowledge of the thing done and the processes by which it's done. Karl says that he doubts this. Can we maybe agree that doing can lead to this kind of knowledge, if done in the way that Anonymous did it, but that this kind of critical consideration of how to string words together and how it's been done before neither is inevitable, nor can be performed by everybody who's ever written a sonnet (or novel or story)?

I too object to plenty of things in Soltan's and JKW's essays. What particularly caught my attention, which I don't think anybody else has mentioned here or there, is the conflation of autobiography and memoir with callow undergraduate "reality." It is silly to think that there is any such thing as an unmediated autobiographical narrative--that autobiographical writing, good or bad, doesn't represent artistic choices (for good or bad).

And isn't it terribly dangerous to reduce all literature--the good or the bad--to the parameters of the author's experience? To what extent is wide reading meant to obviate the need for personal experience, or vice versa? I have more to say on the relationship between literary study and creative writing, and on silly undergraduate memoirs, but I have to read the canons of western literature before lunch.

Eileen Joy said...

Laudine writes:

"To what extent is wide reading meant to obviate the need for personal experience, or vice versa?"

Very well put, Laudine, and thank you for bringing this question to our attention. One would hope that neither necessarily obviates the other--as I've said again and again, here and elsewhere [perhaps too much so], expansiveness of experience/practice will always be a vitue to me [over the narrowing of possible options, in whatever direction]. Reading, of whichever author, can itself [possibly] be a stifling experience that shuts out the real world. At the same time, the real world can itself be too stifling and ordinary. And vice versa. And vice versa. And vice versa. By which I mean: it's not about the particular texts we're reading and/or writing: it's ultimately about the way we look out at the world, with wonder, or with pinched cynicism.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One small thing to add.

Not too long ago I gave a paper at nearby American University. The event was enjoyable for many reasons, but one thing that struck me was the satisfaction of the graduate students there with the fact that MA and MFA students often found themselves in the same classes. I don't know how challenging this arrangment proves when you're the faculty member grading seminar papers, but the students lauded the fact that craft and form were a greater and more productive part of the discussion in these mixed classes.

Karl Steel said...

Anon2: I'd be very interested in hearing how your saga/creative writing course goes. If it's possible to keep us posted in some way, I think we'd all be interested. Would you require your creative writing students to do a different kind of work from the 'regular' students?

Anon1, EJ, JJC, and Laudine: thanks so much for your comments. I've been moved by them. I think, in part (largely?) due to the self-conceptions I describe in the post above, I've been, er, grouchy about creative writing programs. I'm beginning to come round, now, to a new way of thinking. It's funny, isn't it, that we scorn creative writing so readily when creative writing constitutes a pretty high proportion of what we study. I suppose we want our material of study to stay put, not to trouble us too much, to remain safely other, inert. There's that, and there's also the ready scorn--in which I've participated (mea maxima culpa)--of the personal, as if we scholars are transcendent, outside the temporary nature of things down in the muck of this world. Pretty dubious.

Anonymous said...

Karl: This is anon2. (Didn't mean to be in the closet, but I accidentally effaced myself.) I'm still working out requirements for the saga/creative course. It's not for the spring, so I have some time (and, as I said, suggestions are welcome and solicited). I'm thinking of giving students a choice of assignments, but creative-writing students will have to do some critical work to count it as a "lit" course (per departmental expectations). I run a blog for my classes, so I will post the link here when the time comes.


Karl Steel said...

John, please do keep me (us) posted. In the meantime, perhaps we--Eileen? JJC?--should consider putting up a post that invites some discussion on putting together such an atypical, interesting syllabus. I presume there's probably not a lot out there to guide you!

Anonymous said...

Karl: I'm sailing without a map, my friend.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Just read the Pistols in the Pulpit post, and I have to say that I found it appalling. The entire thing just seemed to be dripping with contempt for students. I'll be the first to admit that many undergraduates can be astonishingly immature, and I've had my share of frustrations on that score. It's not, however, fair to tar all undergrads all with the same brush, and it's neither fair nor just to fault them for not having a broader frame of reference.

As educators, it's our job to, you know educate people. If they're wet behind the ears when they come to us, well, isn't that the way it's supposed to be? It would certainly be much easier for us if our students came to us already knowlegeable and savvy men and women of the world. But it's precisely our job to help shape immature undergrads into mature and thoughtful people.

So yeah, we may have to suffer through some TMI moments and ill-considered statements while we help our students learn, but folks, it's just plain part of the job.

Frankly, I think it's precisely this disdainful attitude toward the process of learning that causes so many people to loathe academics.