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.
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