Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl

According to the Internet, Elif Batuman's review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era (or, rather, since the review is published in the London Review of Books, The Programme Era) is a hit. Although I think it is actually an extremely valuable addition to the theorization of the significance and value of writing programs, let me register a dissent. In fact, a sequence of dissents.

Let's start with some basic stuff. How about this:
I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.
I think everyone will probably have some trouble finding these sentences palatable, if only for reasons of political correctness. That's not so much what bothers me, though: what irks and rather surprises me is that, for someone who appears to be so worldly, Batuman thinks she can find a culture that has "no literary tradition" from which to draw. What she means to say, patently, is no indigenous literary tradition from which to draw, because as we know from reading any of a very, very large number of novels from "developing nations," the legacy of imperialism has left quite an ample literary tradition in all parts of the world from which a writer could draw. And, it goes without saying, that Batuman is assuming that oral or other narrative traditions are inadequate for inspiring Literature—a claim I'm skeptical about, but which I suppose one might let pass if for no other reason than that I want to make a different point. What really bugs me about this comment is that, despite her distaste for the literature of "developing nations," she holds up Don Quixote as a great beacon of literature when, if there is any single work of literature which justifies a belief that an extraordinarily talented writer can invent a new fully-fleshed form almost ex nihilo, it is Cervantes's novel.

Batuman is also under the impression that workshop writers are intent on maintaining a pose of being "tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition." She attributes the notion that this babe-in-the-woods attitude is a staple of workshop culture to McGurl, although the citation she gives directs the reader toward a different conclusion about just what is meant by a "a commitment to innocence" (his phrase); McGurl's exemplar for what Batuman calls "this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum" is Vladimir Nabokov (10), who certainly did not give many people the impression that he "seldom refer[red] to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years… rarely refer[red] to other books at all," which is how Batuman sums up the workshop's attitude toward its literary forebears. Much later in the piece, she says, "The value placed on creativity and originality [in the workshop] causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether." This has genuinely not been my impression of how the products of workshops portray themselves. The sense of a lineage is often invoked by Iowa graduates (Nam Le is the example most familiar to me), and I find much program fiction to be plagued rather by the opposite problem: so eager are young writers to prove that they've learned their lessons from past masters that their influences—Chekhov, Lahiri, Flannery O'Connor, Carver—are crudely displayed. How can read something like American Salvage or Knockemstiff and not think, "I'm in Carver Country?" How many multicultural sagas of the past ten years chatter loudly of White Teeth?

Even if Batuman apparently doesn't pay attention to the products of workshop fiction, she knows who likes it: White People. As a running gag, she notes when things which are associated or tangentially connected to writing programs appear in the coffee-table book Stuff White People Like: "Stuff White People Like #44: ‘Public Radio’… #116: ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.’"She makes some excellent points about the racial dimensions of the authority to speak through an Other, but her reliance on the Stuff White People Like line to drive her point home is more than a little lazy and actually undercuts any serious examination of why "white people" find things like "Being an Expert on Your Culture" so appealing and why program fiction is so successful at supplying it. Batuman shorthands it by saying that it's due to "the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures," but it should be quite obvious that not liking workshop fiction—or any of the things which appear in the Stuff White People Like book—makes no one any the less "white," even in the very limited sense of 'bourgie-quasi-hipster.' Preferring Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks or James Patterson to Toni Morrison makes no white person any the less part of the system of reproducing white privilege. The reasons why William Styron could write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ventriloquizing a black man go well beyond the coffee table.

(Additionally, Batuman's essay reveals more than a little deficit in self-consciousness about who the "white people" in the book are; surely a comment like, "I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction" could feature as a highlighted exhibit in the kind of taste that the Stuff White People Like book skewers.)

Batuman snarks at McGurl's claim that the post-G.I. Bill university created a writing environment in which shame became an intrinsic aspect of the writer's formation:
In his fascination with the GI Bill, McGurl occasionally conveys the impression that writers didn’t go to college before 1945… The GI Bill dramatically increased the percentage of college-educated Americans, but did it really affect the percentage of college-educated American writers? According to the internet, writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years. The claim that the GI Bill produced a generation of unprecedentedly shameful young people, meanwhile, is weakened by the fact that outsiders, from Balzac’s parvenus to Proletkult, have been joining the intelligentsia for nearly as long as there has been an intelligentsia to join.
In what was a consistent theme for my frustrations with Batuman's piece, I find this reading to be so uncharitable as to be genuinely distortive of McGurl's basic point about the effects of the G.I. Bill on American fiction. (It also, for the purposes of being able to stick in that "according to the internet" barb, neatly ignores the rather substantial material in McGurl's book about pre-WWII writing programs, the discussions of the educational backgrounds of the founders of the programs--who were obviously educated before WWII, etc.) A careful and attentive reading of even just the passage that Batuman cites as evidence of McGurl's muddleheadedness about the Big G.I. Bill Divide allows us to understand that the point McGurl is making is not that no or few writers went to college before WWII, but that few if any thought of college or higher education in general as preparation for a writing career. Journalism was very much the type of career choice that aspiring writers made before the start of writing programs, or in some cases (Sinclair Lewis, for example), publishing. At best, a literary or humor magazine at college would be joined to establish connections with other aspiring writers, but again, very few of these men or women went to college for the express purpose of joining a magazine.

Batuman's rebuttal to McGurl's claim about the importance of "shame" as newly constitutive of the writer's experience after the G.I. Bill is very similarly constructed scrupulously to remove the parts of McGurl's argument that give it coherence and cogency. Batuman ignores (this too is a repeated problem throughout her essay) the brute fact of the collegiate or university workshop experience as the actual site of McGurl's argument: in introducing the application of various theories of shame to this literature, McGurl says, "What I am calling lower-middle-class modernism is the meeting of all these phenomena—social dislocation, affect, narrative, and the individual—in and around the scene of creative writing instruction in the postwar period…" (286, emphasis added). Batuman just extends this specificity to higher education in general and literary practice in general, but McGurl is not saying that shame was absent from literature or from higher education before the G.I. Bill; he's saying that having the workshop experience as part of one's writerly formation at an institution of higher education produces a historically unique form of shame (and pride—McGurl mentions pride as part of a dialectic with shame, but Batuman almost completely erases it). It is the specific confluence of these factors—and not their separate existences—which is genuinely new after the G.I. Bill.

Batuman's indifference to this specificity leads me to a more general frustration—her adamantine feeling that there is nothing new under the sun, and if someone's telling you differently, he's an idiot. When Ken Kesey thought he had put a new spin on the ancient problem of point-of-view, well, he deserves this kind of censure:
Although he recognises that Kesey is reinventing the wheel – a technology apparently pioneered by Henry James – McGurl treats this reinvention as the sign of a bright student. So it would be, in a schoolboy, or someone who grew up in a preliterate tribe. But there is something disturbing in the idea of a Stanford creative writing student – a college graduate pursuing an advanced degree in ‘fiction’ at a world-class university – who appears to believe that he invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration.
(Again with the sneers toward preliterate tribes!) But seriously, what kind of sin did Kesey really commit in convincing himself that he was "revolutionary" when he wasn't? Intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration isn't copyrighted, and surely the proof is in the pudding, not in the theory: if his book convinced his readers that it was revolutionary, it would be, regardless of whether Batuman could point to a precursor we all should have known about. That's the power of literature (or music, for that matter), that it can convince us at least momentarily that it has rearranged its limited number of possible elements into a configuration we've never encountered before, even if we've encountered it many times? Or even if we are too experienced to believe it is "revolutionary," we at least experience it as fresh, as new-in-this-moment.

I don't dissent from Batuman's debunking because I resent the application of scholarship to literature or worry that it can impede enjoyment (anyone who has read this blog before should surely know I hold the diametrically opposite views in both cases). I dissent because the logic of Batuman's formalism—if it's been done before, it's no longer revolutionary—doesn't admit of the fact that literary texts interact with the times in which they are written and read, and their revolutionary quality or their hackneyedness isn't a formal problem but a social one. We can only assess the "newness" of a technique within its social context because "newness" itself is produced by and through the society of any given moment. To fantasize otherwise is to abdicate any responsibility for accounting for why literature matters to people—something I would think the author of a book subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" might be concerned about.

Edit [10/2]: Mark McGurl has responded in the LRB's letters section here, and has a lengthier rejoinder here.

3 comments:

Adam Kelly said...

I could say much more about the middle sections of the essay, but this is only a comment, not a blogpost, so I want to get to the most crucial point, which is that Batuman completely misses the challenging irony of McGurl’s extraordinary final line:

“Laying aside our anachronistic prejudices for the One over the Many Ones, moving our minds from the Pound Era into the Programme Era, do we not bear daily witness to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches? Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read?

What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?”

The brilliance of this is that throughout the book McGurl has been asking a massive socio-political question in the guise of a literary one (or alongside a literary one), and at this moment he exposes this with a deliciously direct challenge to the reader. Mass higher education is a liberal cornerstone, and liberals are likely to be the readers of his book. Yet if these people, like Batuman, reject the “excellence” of contemporary fiction, then they cannot avoid wondering about the “mission of mass higher education” too. In other words, Batuman’s taste in the canonical works of “literature” might well be inseparable from socio-political conservativism, even if she doesn’t recognise the connection. And of course she teaches in a university, and is the self-confessed product of one: “But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is.” Damaging, indeed.

As someone who also loves “literature” (although I also admire innovative contemporary fiction far more than Batuman) but who thinks of themselves as firmly on the left, I feel McGurl’s challenge. It’s a tough one, and the fact that it can be asked in a book primarily filled with delights and insights for lovers of literature, only goes to show how important literary criticism can be when it’s done well.

To be clear, what McGurl’s final line does is show the difficulty of deingrating Program Era fiction without also questioning the goals of mass education. McGurl is showing how his argument for “excellence” can really only be made within the strict terms of the assumptions encoded in mass education. It’s Batuman who tries to see McGurl as transcendentalising his aesthetic criteria – she, of course, is the one guilty of that.

Adam Kelly said...

Whoops, my comments somehow got reversed - the comment above was meant to come after the following, which began as follows:

As always, spot on Andrew. This piece really got on my wick too, almost as much as Batuman's excoriation of virtually all contemporary American fiction in that 2006 piece she wrote for n+1, which firmly marked her out as the female James Wood we didn't know we needed.

Anyway, I just want to add a couple more points about the weaknesses of Batuman's argument. Firstly, her wholly unwarranted claim that McGurl is ignorant of literary history:

“It’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years.”

What McGurl is actually arguing – which you can easily see from The Program Era but is even more obvious from a glance at his first book – is that the idea of the art novel that underlies both modernism and the Program Era begins with James (in American literature at least). Batuman acknowledges that James did indeed theorise the art novel through his prefaces, but nonetheless claims that “point of view” was considered by lots of previous authors. Of course it was. Nobody in their right mind thinks otherwise. But the concentration – even fetishisation – of craft and technique is a later phenomenon, and McGurl is right to see it as the central factor in the Program Era. So when Batuman offers the insight that “Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos,” she is only repeating what is already in McGurl’s book.

Shelley said...

What? As a writer, am I to believe that a professional writer used "according to the Internet" as a reference??