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.
The dialectical problems come in the reversals of class coding I have already mentioned. Whatever we think of Wolfe today, he not only invented an influential solution to the dilemmas McGurl lays out, but was once (by Faulkner, for example) considered the greatest American writer of his time, and there are reasons for that evaluation which have considerable historical and structural interest for us still. As for the theoretical problems the book poses for the reader, they result from what I will call the practice of transcoding implicit in McGurl’s remarkably capacious topic. Transcoding presupposes an allegorical structure, a system of levels, in which we find ourselves obliged to translate from one to the other, inasmuch as each of these levels speaks a different language and is decipherable only in terms of a specific code. So it is that even in these opening paragraphs we have found ourselves moving from the economic situation of the writer to his or her aesthetic, from the status of the university – enormously enlarged since the Second World War and the very symbol of a new and enlarged democratic populace – to its class meaning for the immigrants and racial and gender underclasses who find themselves excluded from it, or on the contrary obliged to use it as a class ladder. We have had to invoke anti-intellectualism (and even to suggest the issue of the difference between America and Europe, and perhaps even, in globalisation, between America and the rest of the world).
McGurl’s argument makes its way sinuously among a number of different discourses: the history of writing programmes and the mentality of their teachers, the way in which these professional developments are related to the evolution of late capitalism, the meaning of multiculturalism, the re-evaluation of the central role of the New Criticism after the war, the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and the meaning and function of the Jamesian ‘point of view’ (now rebaptised ‘focalisation’) and so on. The text is itself experimental writing, and we have to learn how to shift gears and yet keep the thread, how to remain equal to its demands and to appreciate the originality of its historical judgments and the new system of American literature it proposes, as well as the originality of its method and form.
The book sets out a system in which two triads are co-ordinated (it will be their interrelationship which poses the most interesting problems for theory). The first of these tripartite systems is that of the teachings and doctrine of the creative writing programmes introduced after the war. It can naturally enough be assumed that these literary and formal injunctions reflect significant changes in American subjectivity as well as modifications in the class relationships which it reflects. They are quickly summarised: write what you know, show don’t tell, find your voice.
In their form, these injunctions constitute an attempt to resolve a dilemma, or better still a contradiction: how can that very personal and individual practice that is writing, and in particular the writing of the novel, be taught? Remember that the novel, for Bakhtin and Lukács and so many others, is the very expression of modernity as such, and thereby transcends and annuls all the older fixed forms which presumably in one way or another could be taught: epic, drama, the various forms of the lyric etc. The novel is in that sense always ‘lawless’, as Gide liked to say, and we may have to raise some questions when someone like Henry James comes along and offers to codify its new ‘laws’ in doctrines like ‘point of view’. Even though he is virtually absent from this book, for reasons I will come to, Faulkner offered his own useful tripartite formula for what the novelist’s practice presupposed: experience, imagination, observation – any two of which will suffice in a pinch (only Wolfe had all three). Maybe observation can be taught, as Flaubert tried to do with Maupassant; unfortunately, the other two are not available in the classroom.
McGurl’s three injunctions try to address this difficult problem in a historically new way. 1. Write what you know. This emphasises experience, in a way that tends to bracket ‘imagination’ and to turn the writer’s attention to the autobiographical, if not the confessional. It will be focused and intensified by the next injunction: 2. Find your voice, which perhaps begins with the premium placed by modernism on the invention of a personal ‘style’, and develops into a virtuoso practice of the first person as performance. This seems at odds with the final injunction: 3. Show don’t tell, which is the obvious legacy of James’s theorisation of point of view, and most directly reintroduces ‘craft’ or technique, a set of rules (drawn from drama) that would seem to be more teachable in the context of a writing programme than the other two (negative and positive) recommendations.
The attention to craft is thus the trickiest of these formulas, as its ultimate tendency is the despised return to genre and subgenre (and the loss of any claim to genuinely ‘literary’ prestige, unless the genre is handled reflexively, as pastiche). But it is clearly also the disciplinary component, without which all the excesses of narcissism and verbiage are potentially released. Thus, in a way, ‘craft’ tends to connote not merely discipline and self-discipline, but a kind of restraint that will eventually be identified as minimalism, in another thematic opposition, never theorised directly, which runs centrally through McGurl’s book. From this perspective, maximalism is rhetoric and self-expression, and its most distressingly monumental prophet is Thomas Wolfe, while in the contemporary moment the extraordinary productivity of Joyce Carol Oates will come to embody a different but no less troubling and potentially non-canonisable excess. The maximalist impulse will then tend to find its confirming ideology in the (relatively modern) notion of genius, which Kant saw as the eruption of the natural into the human, while its most congenial plot formation will be the novel of the artist.
This is not to suggest that minimalism finds its realisation in the repudiation of the category of expression as such. On the contrary, the inaugural model of minimalism, Ernest Hemingway, simply opened up another alternative path to expression, one characterised by the radical exclusion of rhetoric and theatricality, for which, however, that very exclusion and its tense silences and omissions were precisely the technique for conveying heightened emotional intensity (particularly in the marital situation). Hemingway’s avatar, Raymond Carver, then learned to mobilise the minimalist technique of ‘leaving out’ in the service of a rather different and more specifically American sense of desolation and depression – of emotional unemployment, so to speak.
This is the point at which Faulkner’s near-absence may be illuminated, for Faulkner is the very locus, one would think, of a maximalism that runs from the full-throated deployment of an expressive outpouring of language to the overweening ambition of the creation of a world extending from a tragic Southern past to a degraded commercial present. The Faulknerian long sentence is then the paradigm of a maximalism that remains high art, but it certainly cannot offer the craft and the tools for pedagogy available in minimalist discipline. I think that leaving Faulkner out of the picture (it is true that, virtually alone among modern American writers, he never had anything to do with writing programmes) allows McGurl to avoid embarrassing questions of value that risk disrupting the magnificent and unique theoretical construction he has achieved in The Programme Era.
I have been emphasising the subjective turn in postwar American aesthetics which the writing programme’s theory and practice symptomatises and reinforces, at the same time as it reveals and satisfies profound changes in the American psyche after the Second World War. The three injunctions are thus a precious clue for exploration both of the new postwar society and economy, and of the evolution of that subjectivity so often loosely identified as individualism. McGurl offers a few sociological references (Wright Mills, Pine and Gilmore, Thomas Frank), and even a few socio-economic ones (Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens). The point is, however, not necessarily to endorse these (many are standard culture critiques), but rather to indicate the direction in which literary theory opens onto other disciplines. Class analysis is meanwhile omnipresent, and plagued as usual by the sometimes involuntary, sometimes intentional and strategic American habit of calling everything ‘middle class’, so that what might once have been called the working class is now some form of lower middle class along with the others. But perhaps it is characteristic of American society today in late capitalism, and of the literature that expresses its realities and its ideologies alike, that working-class realities somehow reach classification only via stories told in terms of race and gender, rather than in terms of work, outsourced and famously transformed into so many ‘service industries’. Still, the transformations of subjectivity in this postwar period are necessarily dependent for their inspection on the kinds of narrative available, which McGurl codifies according to class terms.
There is one further observation to be made here: the increasingly self-centred and obsessively reflexive cast of this literary production, which seems to be implied in McGurl’s injunctions (write what you know, find your voice), is not to be understood in an exclusively negative or critical way. ‘Write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’ can also be understood as the exploration and opening up of wholly new areas of experience: a naming of new findings, as with the model of the body so influentially pioneered by Foucault, which can now, for good or ill, be adapted to a kind of generalised colonisation of subjectivity, its transformation into new experience(s). This process is radically different from the psychic ‘discoveries’ and inventions we associate with the late 19th century, with Dostoevsky and James, George Eliot and Pontoppidan; those drew on the openings and possibilities of a competitive capitalism, in which robber barons and monopolies signified an expansion of individual and collective power. This American version, in the late 20th century, signifies instead the constricted spaces and constraints of an already bureaucratised society, in which the ‘individualism’ of the now lower middle classes is increasingly, as in Carver, the experience of impotence and vulnerability.
In fact, one of the more productive developments of the ‘post-individual’ lies in its gradual allegorical transformation into group identities. This begins with the dialectic of the outsider and the rebel, who gradually – as McGurl demonstrates, relying on a notion of Walter Ong’s – become the insiders of new collectivities, the small groups and new ethnicities of multicultural late capitalism. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the individual voice now slowly develops into militant ideologies of difference (something which, as McGurl remarks, moves an otherwise distant High Theory such as Derrida’s back into closer contact with, and usefulness for, literature and creative writing).
So it is that what initially looked like a ‘culture of narcissism’ now unexpectedly begins to generate new social formations and a new kind of non-introspective literature to express them. Thus McGurl’s other tripartite system, which maps the literary forms of the novel into which contemporary production falls. Once again, it is important to remember that while arising as responses to a common situation and a common dilemma, the three tendencies or modes are also antithetical to each other, aesthetically, experientially and in their class connotations: it is here, indeed, that the antagonisms of high and low literature, of the realism/modernism opposition, of art versus life, are played out. But our deeper theoretical question has to do with the relationship between this second tripartite schema and the three writing programme injunctions I have laid out. Here it is better to quote McGurl himself:
Venturing to map the totality of postwar American fiction, I will describe it as breaking down into three relatively discrete but in practice overlapping aesthetic formations. The first, ‘technomodernism’, is best understood as a tweaking of the term ‘postmodernism’ in that it emphasises the all-important engagement of postmodern literature with information technology; the second, ‘high cultural pluralism’, will describe a body of fiction that joins the high literary values of modernism with a fascination with the experience of cultural difference and the authenticity of the ethnic voice; the third, ‘lower-middle-class modernism’, will be used to describe the large body of work – some would say it is the most characteristic product of the writing programme – that most often takes the form of the minimalist short story, and is preoccupied more than anything else with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.
In the first triad, it was easier to see what united the three injunctions than what divided them; here it is the reverse, and unless we somehow identify the aesthetic of production all three classifications share (their ‘autopoiesis’), the system, however useful or satisfying it may be, will risk breaking down into a series of empirical traits and characteristics.
One has to begin with their differences. Thus so-called ‘high cultural pluralism’ turns out to comprise various kinds of ethnic literature, which unite the particularity of their races, genders and ethnicities with the universality of a literary modernism which has come in our time to stand for Literature itself (Toni Morrison becomes the exhibit here, whose Beloved McGurl ingeniously converts into a kind of schoolroom drama). But now the universalism of these multicultures is rather startlingly contrasted to a ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ (I would have preferred the word ‘realism’), which is white and thus in this case not only unmarked but also particular rather than universal. This is the textuality and the world of Carver’s loners and losers, and it is also the place in which regionalism is suddenly activated as a term: the presumably north-west regionalism of Carver Country, marked by subalternity and economic marginality, is confronted with the transcendental regionalism of a now truly universal South (indeed, a fascinating part of McGurl’s research details the struggle for form and universality between Midwest and South in the early University of Iowa workshops).
There is therefore a struggle for literary status or universality or class prestige involved in these antagonisms (I have already identified such struggles as symbolic class struggle), but in this case what seems to be excluded is ‘techno-modernism’. One can once again quibble about the terminology, but much as I would like to I will limit myself to its translation into the single popular term ‘reflexivity’, in particular as it concerns communication, information theory and language, along with its cybernetic extensions and protensions. At stake here, perhaps, is the distinction between modernism and postmodernism, insofar as the reflexivity of the modern tends to turn merely on writing as such (as in Pale Fire), while the postmodern kind (as in the expression ‘postmodern novel’, which seems by now to have become a genre) involves informational technologies that lie beyond old-fashioned language.
Indeed, this distinction can clarify the presence of the idea of the modern in the adjacent category, ‘high cultural pluralism’, where ‘high cultural’ can be supposed to mean not a periodisation but simply an ensemble of now codified and socially accepted techniques that did not exist in the realist era. These techniques can now be used for a range of materials, such as race, which used to be class-marked and thereby automatically registered in the realist category (where they scarcely fitted, as with Jean Toomer or Zora Neale Hurston); and now are transmogrified into Literature as such (another sign of this process being the authorisation from High Theory to translate race and ethnicity into the concept of ‘difference’).
If we then assume that the two sets of circles are ‘the same’ in the sense of forming a homology, and that it is the implementation of the three writing injunctions which, according to emphasis, projects each of the respective literary areas or categories, we would presumably be reasoning as follows. Writing what you know becomes, reflexively, writing itself, in its multiple and reflexive technologies and communicational manifestations. It probably also means emitting a scent of origins (much like Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy), in this case the university, making the campus novel (beginning with Nabokov) a favoured vehicle. But by now the campus has become the world:
John Barth began to write Giles Goat-Boy at Pennsylvania State University, a land-grant institution where, as he later explained, ‘in an English department of nearly one hundred members’ he taught his classes ‘not far from an experimental nuclear reactor, a water tunnel for testing the hull forms of missile submarines, laboratories for ice-cream research and mushroom development, a lavishly produced football programme … a barn-size computer with elaborate cooling systems … and the literal and splendid barns of the animal husbandry departments’. Massively infused with federal funding for the support of Cold War weapons technology and other scientific research, but still catering to a regional and state economy (and its large football fan base), the secular university has become, for Barth, comically expanded and diversified in its worldly pursuits, nothing like the pious gentleman’s college of yore.
As for high cultural pluralism (sometimes called multiculturalism), it too has acquired the status of universality or of Literature (technomodernism already had that, by definition) by way of a category henceforth excluded by the technology of writing or of High Communication: namely, the humble voice, establishing itself in the no-man’s-land between ‘show don’t tell’, where telling is bad, and ‘find your voice’, where the voice now stands not only for difference but also and above all for storytelling, and for a new modernist first person, perhaps harkening back to Mark Twain but now authorising new kinds of transformation, such as the one that lifts Philip Roth’s voice out of a narrow ethnic or Jewish literary category into Literature.
I have neglected until now the supplementary complication resulting from yet a third framework of McGurl’s presentation, a chronology authorised more by the history of writing programmes than the history – yet to be constructed – of American literature itself. The three historical periods are 1890-1960, covering the founding of the programmes, especially the 47 Workshop, Iowa and Stanford; their institutionalisation (1960-75); and their omnipresence today in what remains our contemporary scene of literary production (1975 onwards). Fair enough, and there is rich material here, particularly on the anecdotal and biographical level (Wallace Stegner and Paul Engle being particularly significant figures). But the consequence of this necessary and even indispensable supplementary framework (which endows a structural system prone to static and ahistorical cross-sections with a dynamic of metamorphosis and continuity/change which it was not, according to the critiques of structuralism, supposed to have) is the illusion that what we have here is a literary history, and in a sense we do have a literary history, or at least a mapping bound to modify traditional literary histories. For we do move from Wolfe to Carver, we take in Barth and Kesey, Oates and Morrison along the way, and a host of minor writers from yesterday and today. Unfortunately, this quickly and unconsciously translates back into a canon and questions of value; and at this point, quite apart from the absence of the poets, sets off all kinds of idiotic questions about inclusion, principally the one I have asked throughout: where is Faulkner?
But now we approach a momentous problem, and it lies in McGurl’s tripartite schema. For it is the fate of any third term to linger precariously on the margins, disabused of any ambition to become the synthesis between the two already in place, and thus condemned to struggle to displace one or other of its opposite numbers to find its own proper place in the binary system. What McGurl has called ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ is always on the edge of proletarianisation, slipping back down into mass culture and the genres still available as Literature to the nobler modes of technomodernism and high cultural pluralism in the form of pastiche.
The lower-middle-class mode cannot hope for that distinction, and so in it the two great tendencies of minimalism and maximalism fight it out to exhaustion, the former producing Carver, the latter Oates. Of the two, it may be said that minimalism carries the palm by way of a genuine high-literary invention – the rebirth of that quintessential writing-programme form, the short story.
Meanwhile, both continue to exude the American misery, and more authentically than any of the competition convey the shame and pride of the human condition as lived by white America. It is a case of winner loses: the closer it is to real life in America, the less it can aspire to the distinction of Literature. At this point, the shame of the writing programme joins the shame of America itself, which the other two modes have so successfully disguised.
Unfortunately, every triadic structure tends to fall into a pseudo-Hegelian pattern, and labours mightily to produce a synthesis. McGurl’s triad cannot really do that, and so the burden of the operation falls back on the opposition between maximalism and minimalism. McGurl here produces, in the guise of Bharati Mukherjee’s concept of ‘miniaturism’, a seemingly satisfying place to stop. Probably the most famous deployment of this term, however, appears in that perverse and dramatic moment when Nietzsche, attacking the Wagnerian ‘sickness’, pronounced Wagner to be a great miniaturist. That startling event should give us pause. Indeed, I want to suggest, following Nietzsche, that only a great maximalist can be a miniaturist (think of Mahler, Proust, even Faulkner); minimalism has no place for the obsessive perfectionism of the miniaturist. So the synthesis won’t work (I hesitate before adding my own idiosyncratic feeling that four is better than three, and that we are missing a fourth term, which I would locate beyond the boundaries of the Programme Era somewhere in poetry and in individual words).
Is The Programme Era limited to the US? It’s true that Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters is evoked, but only so as to adapt it to the ‘inner globalisation’ of the multiplicity of literary modes and forms of distinction surveyed throughout this complex history. But American literature and the English language can scarcely be assumed to stop at our borders: for Casanova, consecration by Paris was a crucial stage in the world reception of non-French writers (to that we must also add translation into English, for world recognition today consists in securing this particular green card). Meanwhile, some of our literary positions have also been outsourced; much of what takes place outside can probably be assigned to the lower-middle-class waiting room, and peremptorily classified as mere ‘realism’. Reflexive experimentation has probably long since been played out abroad, but there is one category in which Americans have begun to flag, and that is Faulknerian maximalism, whose interminable voices no longer seem tolerable without their Southern framework. Now, translated into something called ‘magic realism’, this American speciality – whether adopted by Günter Grass or Salman Rushdie or the authors of the Latin American boom – has been promoted into a genuinely global genre, and we glimpse, outside the confines of an American Programme Era, the outlines of some wholly different world system of letters coming into being.