Dirty Little Secret
- The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl
Harvard, 466 pp, £14.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06209 2
The secret Mark McGurl discloses is the degree to which the richness of postwar American culture (we will here stick to the novel, for reasons to be explained) is the product of the university system, and worse than that, of the creative writing programme as an institutional and institutionalised part of that system.[*] This is not simply a matter of historical research and documentation, although one finds a solid dose of that in The Programme Era: it is a matter of shame, and modern American writers have always wanted to think of themselves as being innocent of that artificial supplement to real life which is college education, to begin with, but above all the creative writing course. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Think of the encomia of European intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir to the great American writers who didn’t teach, didn’t go to school, but worked as truck drivers, bartenders, nightwatchmen, stevedores, anything but intellectuals, as they recorded ‘the constant flow of men across a whole continent, the exodus of an entire village to the orchards of California’, and so on.
There is the real, and then there is the university; and of course in one sense (the best sense) the university is that great vacation which precedes the real life of earning your living, having a family, finding yourself inextricably fixed in society and its institutions. The campus is somehow extraterritorial (McGurl identifies that relatively new genre, the ‘campus novel’, and he also compares the enclave experience of the university to that now ubiquitous cultural activity, which has itself become an economic industry, called tourism); and the life of the student, when he or she does not have to sacrifice it in finding the tuition fees (the cost of living that life), is one of freedom, freedom from ideology (class interests have not yet come down like an iron cage), the freedom of discovery – sexuality, culture, ideas – and in a more subtle sense, perhaps, the freedom from nationality, from the guilt of class and of being an American. What the ‘real’ writer wants to write about is not that kind of free-floating freedom, but rather the realities of constraint (the campus novel has the vocation of reintroducing that constraint back into the apparent freedoms of university life). So somehow the shame of being ‘taught to be a writer’ (itself a kind of insult) is bound up with the guilt of a freedom your subjects (the ‘real people’ in your novels) are not able to share.
There is more. Those European writers envying earlier American writers who, like Hemingway, were not university students and very far from any thought of writing courses and learning technique – those writers were citizens of societies in which universities were part of the state, and in which attending school was a social activity, sanctioned by society and classified among the official social roles it distributed. But of course in those systems there were no creative- writing classes, an invention with which McGurl credits the United States. What the European university produced were not writers but intellectuals, and here we hit on the deeper reason for the American’s shame at the country’s institutional dirty little secret: American anti-intellectualism.
It is a very old tradition here, which is however not to be explained by some cultural characteristic or peculiarity, since in fact it expresses that most permanent dynamic of all societies – namely, class consciousness. Left intellectuals have the most trouble understanding this, insofar as they expect the content of their ideologies to shield them from the resentment of those with whom they identify. But anti-intellectualism is a form of populism, and it is the privileged position of intellectuals that is targeted and not their thoughts. Universities are part of that target as well, and the writers who feel guilt about their academic associations are also at least symbolically attempting to pass over to the other side, to dissociate themselves from idealism as well as privilege. Indeed, so omnipresent is symbolic class struggle in these matters that we find it at work in all the binary systems that run through McGurl’s magisterial book, even though the class identifications shift position according to the concrete national situation. Thus the ubiquitous realism/modernism debate is coded and recoded perpetually, depending on whether realism is identified with bourgeois positions (as in Europe) or with the European coloniser (as in African and many other postcolonial societies). Gender itself is recoded over and over again, depending on whether it stamps literature as feminised and passive (as for the first modernists) or identifies feminism as a militant and oppressed position (as tends to be more the case in many countries today):
Like the high/low binary to which it is often attached, but even more pervasive and various in its uses, the male/female binary floats throughout the system of higher education, the creative writing programme and postwar fiction alike: one can point to the division between the (hard) sciences and the (soft) humanities, or to the division between the low-status ‘schoolmarm’ and the high-status ‘professor’, or, perhaps most interestingly, to the distinction between feminised ‘caring’ institutions (e.g. the hospital) and masculinised ‘disciplinary’ ones (e.g. the army). The school is neither a ‘feminine’ nor a ‘masculine’ institution per se but is rather the scene of countless micro-struggles between ‘maternal’ love and punitive ‘paternal’ judgment as two different forms of institutional authority. This reflects at long distance the advent of large-scale coeducation in the postwar period, and the related entry of (some) women into the professional-managerial stratum of the corporate workforce.
The unavoidable class opposition even recurs within the university: thus McGurl lets us understand that his restriction of the topic of American writing to the novel is itself a vehicle of class meaning. The poets have a nobler calling, and tend to look down on their lowly storytelling cousins; even theatre dissociates itself from this humbler and more proletarianised vocation, while yet a fourth alternative – journalism – offers the would-be writer an escape from literature and its connotations altogether. The judgments of each of these ‘specialisations’ on each other are no less harsh than that of ‘ordinary Americans’ on the university system in general. (To which we must add the stifling presence of the university itself as an institutional actor, within an already ominously bureaucratised and institutionalised society.)
The point is not so much to argue the ‘pros and cons’ of these social connotations (which McGurl would like to avoid as much as possible), but rather to see how for the writers, in their new postwar situation as inevitable dependants of the university’s largesse, the problem of escaping such coding and such identification is a profoundly formal one, which offers several alternative and seemingly contradictory solutions. It is these solutions and their systemic relationship to each other which The Programme Era proposes to explore and triumphantly does so. It is a complex and dialectical book that practises what McGurl himself identifies as historical materialism and that makes unique demands on the reader, demands which are neither those of traditional literary history (even though the story wends its way from Thomas Wolfe through Nabokov and John Barth, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, all the way to Raymond Carver), nor those of traditional aesthetics and literary criticism, which raise issues of value and try to define true art as this rather than that.