[-empyre-] Creative writing programs and elit, and thanks

Scott Rettberg scott at retts.net
Sun Aug 1 00:32:20 EST 2010

Hello everyone,

On this last list day, I wanted to thank Simon and everyone for the  
opportunity to contribute to this discussion of creativity as a social  
ontology. I think the general approach to the cluster of issues is a  
very useful one, as we frame our approaches to contemporary creative  
practice and creative communities. I'm also grateful for the fact that  
this discussion has resulted in so many threads and angles of approach  
that we will be following further in the ELMCIP research project.

I'd also like to finish my thought on the place of digital writing in  
contemporary creative writing programs. About six months back, I read  
Mark McGurl's "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and Rise of Creative  
Writing." The book is wide-ranging study of American fiction since  
1945. McGurl claims that "postwar American literature can profitably  
be described as the product of a system." McGurl's studies American  
fiction through the specific lens of the reality that the vast  
majority of contemporary "literary" American writers have some  
relationship to university writing programs, either as students,  
faculty or both, and that their relationship to that system and the  
roles they play within it has aesthetic effects on the writing that  
they produce. That is not to say that McGurl is arguing that those  
effects are necessarily negative. McGurl posits the writers within the  
university as "inside outsiders" and examines the somewhat  
carnivalesque role of the institutionalized creativity of creative  
writing programs with an increasingly corporatized and instrumentalist  
university. McGurl observes fairly complex relationships between  
writers who are both critiquing the sort of system the contemporary  
university represents, while living and producing within that system  
in a completely complicit way. He examines some common writing  
workshop dictums: "Show, don't tell" and "Find your voice," for  
instance through the positioning of the writer as the excluded other  
within the system. McGurl's study I think quite fairly and usefully  
tracks the work of writers within their social and economic contexts  
within the American university. To assert that creative writers and  
their published output are products of a system is not to deny the  
writer's individuality or to systematically context the quality of  
their work. Indeed, McGurl seems to argue, the "pursuit of excellence"  
that purportedly frames the enterprise of the late American university  
in general has resulted in a bountiful harvest of diverse American  
literature during the era he examines.

Of course the graduate writing program also produces a number of  
casualties as well. Thousands of individuals are trained (insofar as a  
workshop constitutes training) as fiction writers and poets in  
graduate writing programs every year. Only a handful of them will  
become well known published authors, though many of them will publish.  
Some of them will become midlist authors, and teach in creative  
writing programs. Some will follow other paths and do other things  
(painting, wallpapering, technical writing). Many will spend many  
years as adjunct faculty in other creative writing programs or  
rhetoric and composition programs built around low-cost disposable  
teaching resources.

McGurl also maps some relationships between particular writers and  
schools of writing as belong to specific nodes of the workshop system.  
I nearly laughed when he identified "technomodernism" as one of the  
threads of creative writing workshop, indentifying the Brown  
University literary arts program, with its MFA fellows in digital  
writing as a prime example of this node. I laughed not because I would  
deny the connections between the school of American writers formerly  
known as postmodernists and the practices of contemporary digital  
writing, but because Brown is the only example I can think of in the  
MFA creative writing ecosystem where digital writing is taught and  
practice in a sustained systematic way. There are a number of courses  
in digital writing taught in university's of course, and a great deal  
more courses taught in literature programs and other types of hybrid  
progams, such the digital culture program I teach in at the University  
of Bergen, but creative writing has largely shrugged off digital  
writing. I think this is a great loss, to some extent for electronic  
literature, but to an even greater extent to the creative writing  
system itself.

I should explain that I spent a number of years in creative writing  
workshops myself. I think there are positive and negative apsects to  
learning and writing in these environments, but overall I value the  
approach a great deal. What I prized most about my experiences in  
undergraduate writing workshops at Coe College and graduate writing  
workshops at Illinois State University and the University of  
Cincinnati were not necessarily or primarily the experience of working  
with particular well-known published authors, but the experience of  
working with peer students in a subculture generated by our  
participation in the creative writing environment. The habit of  
sharing and critiquing each other's work, and beyond that playing at  
ways of writing with each other, or at least playing games together  
which resulted in new angles on writing ideas, and the habit of  
seriously engaging with each other's language in a focused, serious  
way, resulted in a sort of temporary creative community that at its  
best was extremely generative.

The workshop model has its problems. Becuase workshops are built  
around group critique (in some programs this is the only curriculum),  
writing workshops can tend to be normative. This may be where familar  
critiques of writing programs producing constrant strems of "another  
would be Raymond Carver / another Joyce Carol Oates wannabee" come  
from. Younger writers often also tend to be inspired by and to emulate  
their teachers at a level of style (with typically mixed results),  
further narrowing the aesthetic range of workshop production.

But to get back to Johanne's question and my response to it. I think  
that there are a number of reasons why the creative writing system has  
not yet warmed to digital writing. The first is systemic. Because  
creative writing programs result in a large number of credentialed  
creative writers who will professionally compete for a very limited  
number of creative writing teachign positions, I think there is a  
strong, natural incentive for creative writing faculty to want to  
protect their own (print) writing methodology, and when faculty  
positions are available, to hire within their own frame. Every  
employed poet has twenty or thirty unemployed poet friends, all of  
whom write well and would be exemplary teachers. It would take a brave  
poet to hire a digtital writer to replace whatever literary lion is  
retiring. The second is the widely help misconception that digital  
writing is some sort of concentrated assualt on literature as we know  
it with an intent to destroy the book and very culture in which the  
poet resides. It is not that, of course, but something else. The third  
barrier, I think, is that to produce a serious "digital writing"  
graduate program on the scale of comparable MFA programs in print  
fiction and poetry, the university couldn't hire just one person  
easily pigeonholed as "electronic writer" as perhaps fiction writers,  
poets, and memoirists, but would need to bring in multiple faculty  
with differing skills and backgrounds, not only in writing but also in  
programming, design, etc. representing a variety of approaches to  
digital culture practice. It would be a complex undertaking.

Finally, I think the circumstances that I mentioned in my last post --  
that the primary economic model for contemporary electronic writing is  
to give it away for free on the global network, understandably gives  
the architects of contemporary MFA programs some pause. The fiction  
writing program can at least dangle the budding writer the example of  
JK Rowlings, or Stephen King, or any number of other writers who lead  
comfortable, even glamourous lives on the riches of their royalties.  
And there is the path of the university for the most promising  
students. What future can you offer writers working in a form that has  
not yet resolved or even really seriously presented its relationship  
to the market economy?

Of course, this last argument is the straw man. Writers who, during  
the course of their aesthetic training, learn fundamental skills of  
coding and design, and think in sustained ways about the emerging  
cultural forms of the network, are, in comparison to their cousins who  
have confined themselves to the cloisters of the unadulturated print  
culture writing workshop, eminently employable beyond the walls of the  
university. I don't mean to sound like an instrumentalist, but permit  
me that one indulgence of market logic. Creative writing programs  
should make some room for digital writing not least because even their  
least sucessful students might eat a better table than is laid for  
them as fry cook novelists and adjunct faculty poets. In the case of  
the digital writing program, the most successful students may have  
difficulty selling their work on the commercial market for the  
foreseeable future, while the least successful will find lucrative  
positions in the commercial sector.

Having said all of that, I think that digital writing will continue to  
happen, and will continue to develop and become a more important part  
of our culture, regardless of what happens in the creative writing  
program. Within the university, it might make more sense for digital  
writing to be practiced in other environments, third spaces that share  
characteristics of literary studies, creative writing, design,  
computer programming, and visual and conceptual art. Hopefully that  
third space will evolve, and will learn lessons from the example of  
the creative writing workshop system as it does so. Given our present  
cultural circumstances, digital culture is unlikely to lose its  
fascination as a useful and engaging topic of study anytime soon.

Thanks again for the invitation and opportunity to contribute to the  
discussion, and see you online.

All the Best,


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