A number of years ago when I briefly considered pursuing a Phd after completing the MFA, I presented a paper called “A Canon of One’s Own” about the way we pick and choose books that add up to our personal reading lists. I was takin a break from writing workshops and enjoying a semester of contemporary lit when the professor handed out a call for papers he’d received in the mail (remember mail? This was maybe 1992). The conference at St. Louis University was called “Firing the Canon.”
As you would expect from that title--especially if you’ve read the Curtis White 1996 essay “Writing the Life Postmodern” David sent us--the general attitude was revolutionary and deconstructive. It was great fun listening to speaker after speaker advocate for various alternatives to the traditional, Tweed Era (as White calls it) linear realism dominating most of the 20th Century. I particularly enjoyed a Robert Coover devotee declaring that hypertext would be the common widespread form of creative writing in a matter of years. (Coover’s pet project may not appear to have changed the publishing industry if you look only in bookstores. But the fact that I bent this essay to respond in part to comments by Lisa et al, is actually an example of the interactive author/reader platform that hypertext predicted.)
Aside from the great keynote speaker, Gerald Graff, what I remember most about going there to present my paper was the fact that I was the only writing student, the only MFA seeker in all the cocktails and crudites receptions filled with doctoral candidates. The only person there intending to write something resembling literature, not to become adept at dismantling it. As White points out, there was (maybe still is) a distinct view that artists and theorists are not intended to mingle, especially inside the head of a writer. I can’t complain. Even the scary feminist critics were nice to me; it was like being a harmless, not-too-bright cousin at a family reunion of geniuses. Still, it was a little unnerving to imagine them sinking their incisors into something I might write one day.
Reading the Curtis White essay took me back to the early nineties when I was taking literary criticism classes over the vehement objections of my writing mentor, who drew a line in the sand between artists and theorists in creative writing. “Criticism will kill your work,” my mentor argued. Basically he said theory doesn’t produce anything but more theory, not art. That was true: it was tough enough having my own incompetent internal critic second guessing me; having everyone from Aristotle to Leslie Fiedler weighing in was murder on productivity. But that was only half of it. What he should have said was, “You’re just not smart enough to do both.”
I eventually discovered that for myself, the slow way--several History of Lit Crit, Modern Lit Crit, and Aesthetics classes later.
You might note when you read White’s essay that even the most well known, more or less mainstream writers he names who are capable of handling both the philosophy of fiction and the writing of it as well are monster talents. Barth, Gass, DFW are the only ones I’ve read (except for bits of Kathy Acker’s wonderfully raunchy erotica). Those are tough acts to follow, and finding yourself constantly falling a little short of those guys can be as disheartening as the day you look in the mirror and admit you are never going to be Franz Kafka.
So when you finally realize you that Derrida is having a little fun at times but mostly you can’t understand him, and that Barth can be very entertaining when he’s not boring, and that In The Heart of the Heart of the Country was correctly declared “an almost perfect novella” by John Gardner but you are never going to write anything like that (and maybe nobody else is either) it comes down to one of two choices: You either “capitulate to the flow of signs” as White quotes Baudrillard saying, and get ecstatic about it when you are able, OR you go back to your writing stripped of all the pretensions--that is if you don’t just quit. A couple years of lit crit can do that to you. It’s like working in a four star restaurant and then going home and trying to cook to those standards. I’m not a bad cook. But the typical weekday dinner slammed together in a half hour last night was a sausage and calamari in fresh tomato sauce dish I made up some years ago; it remains a favorite with both me and my wife, but nobody is going to mistake it for haute cuisine.
I’m never going to cook like Thomas Keller. And I’m never going to be a monster intellect like Gass and Barth and David Foster Wallace and Curtis White. But I have to eat, and I find cooking meals far more rewarding than eating somebody else’s food. Same with stories. I like them, always will. And I still like to write them--even if I understand that they are simple, home-cooked, more or less realistic, linear narratives and fail to comment on themselves or on art in general in a sufficiently postmodern way.
We are fifteen years beyond the date of Curtis White’s essay. How much has writing changed in that time? How noticeably postmodern has it become? Well, I started this blog wondering out loud how open-minded our writing program can become before the diversity of individual reading materials creates a kind of paralyzing entropy. I loved White’s metaphor of all of us driving fast cars on superhighways only to find out there is “nowhere to go that isn’t the same place.” Maybe the postmodern fact of life is that the question is no longer whether we are going to study vampire/werewolf detective romance novels or not. The question is which ones, and who is going to pick them.
Following my confession about my general ignorance of High Literature and my crush on Jane Eyre, I’d like to argue why the baggy old capital “C” Canon, while no longer venerated as widely as it once was, might still be useful to us here in the program.
Even if you set aside the equally baggy old and rather vague notion that a writer should be well rounded (meaning well read) and familiar with the world of literature and its history, there is a simple pragmatic reason to read the capital “G” Great Books: to avoid a Tower of Babel when we attempt to discuss the craft of writing in classrooms or workshops. Because, just as the larger culture is becoming less homogeneous and more diverse all the time, each new class of writing students brings a myriad of new literary influences and inclinations along with it.
It’s no news that at one time, maybe a hundred years ago, every English major leaving an American college would have read many of the same books as every other student of that time, from Homer to the Bible to Samuel Johnson and Keats and so forth. A conversation then, at the graduate level would assume a certain common base of referents. Today, our national religion being individualism, it seems that we can’t gather together ten students (or maybe even ten faculty) who’ve all read the same one book. In the mentorship mode of our program it’s not a problem: a teacher can assign books, or negotiate and find books the two parties have coincidentally read. But in larger classroom situations, it’s not easy.
Like everyone else, readers across the board seem to be more and more specialized today. Some read voluminously, but sometimes narrowly: say, almost nothing but detective novels, for example, or only nature essays, or whatever. In the day to day world, it’s not a problem. But the rise in respectability (or maybe it’s simply the grudging acceptance) of genre writing is beginning to raise questions about how to discuss writing when a smaller and smaller percentage of each class has read the same books. And if there’s any question that genre writing is becoming more acceptable, consider this.
Last week, an issue of the Missouri Review landed in my mailbox, as respectable a literary magazine as you could ask for. This issue includes a review and commentary on four novels; it is titled “Books With Bite.” Four vampire novels. Just imagine how the many “literary” novelists who sent their books to TMR to be reviewed feel about being overlooked in favor of the tooth-in-neck genre. I’m not complaining; it was a fascinating piece--and I’ve never read a vampire novel. I enjoyed it very much. But, then again, I don’t have a novel floating around out there trying to get attention in serious literary magazines.
However you feel about genre writing, there is no turning back the tide now. We will continue to get more and more genre writers in the program. And this is not entirely new. One of my best friends in Alaska is the science fiction writer, Michael Armstong. He received his MFA here at UAA in 1986; his thesis project was his first published sci-fi novel, After the Zap.
The argument for salvaging some part of the traditional Canon, for insisting that students are familiar with some of the old Greats, is that it provides us with some common referents. One of the most durable ways to teach the unteachable subject of creative writing has always been to show by example. The question is (for our purposes): which example? Even the Great Books add up pretty quickly. And, unless a student happens to have a BA in English Literature, the odds are still slim that a whole room full of people will have read the same long, dense novels.
However, anthologies of short works offer a possible solution. In fiction, one simple way to provide a wide range of good examples of good writing is to assign a big fat anthology of great short stories for all fiction writers--even if they want to write a dwarf and elf novel. Then, every aspect of craft can be easily pointed to in a classroom discussion. We can say, “Look at how Flannery O’Connor used dialogue to create tension between Julian and his mother.” Or, “Look at the way Chekov shows Guruov’s heartlessness when he sits there eating that slice of watermelon as Anna weeps for her lost honor.” Or, “Look how Fitzgerald first shows us his main character’s good intentions in 'Babylon Revisited,' and then shows how his weakness crushes him.” Elves and dwarves need to do all that stuff, too. So do cowboys and detectives and space aliens and fly fishermen.
The same goes for poetry and essay anthologies.
I’ll argue again and again that it is more important how you read than what you read. There is plenty to be learned from every successful work, regardless of genre. Those authors are doing something right. If it were really simple to write a successful wizard or western or sci-fi or detective novel, everyone would be home making millions doing that, instead of going to graduate school to learn how. Some of you have had to listen to me go on about reading like a writer, so I’ll spare you that here. And I’m not arguing that everyone has to read the old masters because they are good for you and will make you a better person.
I’m here to give writing advice, and I find that it’s a lot easier to do when a roomful of students have read some of the same writings as I have. The truth is, nobody can be widely read in every genre. But the building blocks of narrative are used in every story regardless of genre: conflict, character development, setting, action, summary, scene, dialogue and so forth. What I’m asking for is a way to talk about those things using examples students will recognize.
The Great Books are great because their authors knew how to do some of those things very, very well. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that.
P.S. I’m almost done with Blathering Heights. Some time, let’s talk about whether it was wise for Emily Bronte to use a first person narrator to tell us what is almost all told to 'him (inside quote marks) by Ellen Dean the servant, including lengthy (apparently memorized) passages of dialogue that she recounts verbatim (quotes within her quotes) between herself and other characters, and even including some overheard dialogue that another character recites to Ellen (quotes within quotes within quotes). Somebody should have said, “Emily, babe, I have two words for you: ‘third person.’”
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