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The Perils and Aspirations of Institutionalized Art

By: | April 16, 2014

Vol. 1 Issue 2
Spring 2014

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Eric Bennett explores the dangers of institutionalizing creativity in university degree programs. In this case, he recounts his own experiences at University of Iowa’s creative writing program, the model and social hub of all such programs throughout North America.

Bennett’s article promotes his forthcoming book, Workshops of Empire, which investigates the founding of University of Iowa’s creative writing MFA program in Eisenhower’s America. It also documents founder Paul Engle’s alliance with the CIA and wealthy American businessmen to promote the program’s work around the world to compete with the cultural advocacy of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Bennett also argues that the Iowan model of literary production pumps out boring, unambitious work, short stories focusing on intensely detailed and emotionally evocative depictions of generic, unremarkable moments.

Of course, the real program, and the state of creative writing programs across the continent, are more nuanced, and produce more diverse writers than Bennett alleges. But he points to a once vibrant field’s growing tendency to stagnate.

Teaching to the middle

Bennett decries how the educational methods of these programs drive people away from philosophical literature, or literature that deals with ideas. To illustrate, Bennett describes one of his teachers drawing a pyramid on the classroom chalkboard. The bottom, foundational layer was grammar and syntax, the basic skills of written expression that people need to write coherently at all. The following layer up is sensorily descriptive language: smells, sounds, and visions, the composition of imagery.

After imagery came the crafting of character, and resting on the development of characters was metaphor: imagery or events with multiple interpretive meanings instead of just evocation. The apex of the pyramid was symbolism, the deeper meanings of a text taken as a whole. Bennett doesn’t claim this exact model was universally used, but that it represented a general framework of how people were taught to write in the MFA context.

Because as a guide to how a good piece of writing works, taking this model is an excellent idea. The best works of literature include these five priorities in composition. But the techniques of such writing programs as institutions, he says, don’t encourage you to incorporate all five priorities — basic skills, imagery, character, metaphor, and ideas — into a work. Instead, Bennett describes programs as encouraging students to treat each priority as a mode of writing itself.

In other words, the message is that it’s very difficult to write a good story with a lot of complex symbolic content, but it’s much easier to write a story whose purpose is evocative imagery. So a student who writes a simple story with minimal character development, but good use of the simpler techniques of imagery will get a better grade on their story than the ambitious student who tried to craft a more complex story yet wasn’t quite up to the task. In other words, the message is that aiming low will make your work more successful, because low ambitions are more easily achieved.

As far as Bennett’s analysis goes, this is the result of institutionalizing the creation of art. When artistic creation becomes a university program open to mass enrollment, people who may not have the most potential in fiction writing take the courses. All teachers, myself included, are familiar with these: the B and C level students who understand the basics of the material, but never quite apply themselves to mastering the implicit elements of a text.

Here’s how I see it play out in my own discipline of philosophy. A C-level reader can understand the accounts of a text that they receive in lecture or through reading secondary material. A B-level reader will understand how the text generates those interpretations. An A-level reader will understand how the text can generate multiple interpretations. The people who can continue to practice philosophy, if they so choose, are those A-level writers. And I don’t just mean write secondary material, but develop new primary material, writing the new works that progress the discipline itself.

So it goes with creative writing programs, the academic institutions that have incorporated the profession of fiction and poetry writing into a system of majors. Because if there’s one thing teachers know about B and C students, it’s that they probably wouldn’t be best at doing this task for a living.

Yet this is precisely what Bennett accuses the professors of creative writing programs of doing. If we put contemporary fiction writers in competition with Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Elfriede Jelinek, Roberto Bolaño, and so on, they must strive to equal geniuses. At heart, all artists worth reading strive for this. But the professors reward students not for ambition, but for craft alone. The simple story written well receives more praise than the flawed work of ambition.

Fighting ideology with the singular

Yet there is more to the Iowa school’s rejection of erudite writing styles than simply distrust of ambition and the humiliation accompanying failure to reach lofty goals. Literary ambition is never for the sake of ambition alone, but to make a statement about human nature itself, where literature becomes an ideological tool.

Bennett describes the Iowa style of short story writing emerging from an ideological battle. Ideology, as Karl Marx originally conceived, is a framework of thought that distorted one’s view of reality. There was reality according to ideology, and opposed to this was reality itself. But contemporary analysis of ideological phenomena has discovered that all thinking and practical action occurs within a framework of ideas about how the world is that helps constitute our partisan place as political and social actors.

Bennett describes the Iowa style as avoiding abstraction. Frameworks like the pyramidal schema lead most students of the program to focus on evocative imagery and simple character development. It’s easy to achieve your ambitions when you set those ambitions low. If you try to write another Invisible Man, or Ulysses, or Lolita, you’ll probably fail, so don’t try.

But the culture that developed in the wake of Iowa wasn’t just tainted by that sad attitude of academics curving their evaluations to their low expectations. Bennett also describes a disdainful and dismissive attitude in the Iowa program regarding stylistically, formally, and philosophically ambitious authors: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace, all treated with derision. What is striking is not so much that students were discouraged from emulating these challenging writers, but that the writers themselves were denigrated.

Your Iowa man sneers at books and stories that aim for the strange, ambitious, philosophical, and symbolic, while loving and fostering depictions of particular, contingent, specific places. There is a veneration of the microscopic over the macroscopic. I think, and Bennett suggests, that the foundation of this attitude lies in how Paul Engle developed the Iowa program to oppose the Marxist ideology of the Soviet Union.

In a very simple sense, Marxism is itself an ideology, a universal framework for understanding the world that can explain any phenomenon according to its terms. No matter what activity is under discussion, a dedicated Marxist (at least one of Cold War vintage, little brighter than a human parrot) will interpret it as an expression of the class struggle against capitalist exploitation. Now, you might think that the best way to fight such a universalizing ideology is to create one of your own, about the inherent superiority of market forces. That’s one way the old American Cold Warriors fought the Soviets, and you can see this ideology kicking into overdrive today when you talk to a doctrinaire young libertarian.

But ultimately, fighting one theory with another theory doesn’t work. You’ll end up with a stalemate of opposed rationalizations, neither ever able to throw up a scenario that another can’t explain. No, the real way to oppose a universalizing ideology is to find exceptions: an exception to a universal ideology invalidates its claim to universality. You’ve found a place where an idea that supposedly applies everywhere doesn’t apply.

So we now have, at least in a philosophical reconstruction, a goal for why creative writing programs in the Iowa style focus so much on intensely detailed descriptions of contingent, specific images, places, times, and characters. These stories constitute moments and objects that can’t be generalized. Any attempt to interpret them according to a universalizing ideological world-narrative or philosophy always leaves some remainder, showing the inadequacy of the ideology to the real world. This is a brilliant idea.

Yet the idea still encounters the problem of triteness. Yes, you have a singular moment where the uniqueness of a place, moment, or character is so vividly rendered that it strikes a reader dumb. I found this structure almost inevitably in the works of Alice Munro, even though she grew outside the Iowa system. She depicts powerful moments, revelations of twisted pasts, and characters about whom I found my mouth dropping in shock. But beyond these portraits, there is little else. They’re stories of great beauty, but they have no majesty.

Whither Canada?

The conundrum speaks to where I find myself as a writer in Canada today, and the relationship of my own work with that tired old concept of Canadiana. Canadiana is one of those words that every Canadian understands when they hear it, and can actually give a pretty reasonable definition if you ask them. Such literature would be a paradigm for the Iowa model, as Canadiana short stories and books would be composed almost entirely of vivid evocations of a time and place: usually an isolated, rural place, and a time before the intense connectivity of modern technology. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, in part about the protagonist’s difficult task of tracking down a former childhood friend. Set today, this sequence would last no more than a moment of searching for a Facebook page.

Canadiana has virtually no positive connotations to a contemporary audience. It’s dull, boring, and about a country that doesn’t really exist anymore, the all-white anglo-British wasteland carved out of wilderness where nothing changes and nothing even really thrives. Atwood didn’t call her book of literary theory defining Canadiana Survival for nothing. So not only is Canadiana boring, but it’s implicitly racist too, often overwriting and invalidating the presence of francophone Canadians, as well as the existence of indigenous peoples and non-British immigrants. The Canadiana model whitewashes this land.

But Canadiana’s form is the linguistic evocation of the place with such vividness that each individual description becomes a singularity, each story and novel a unique point on this continuum of desolation. The literature of Canadiana is the apex of what the Iowan approach demands of creative expression. And the exhausted emptiness of Canadiana today demonstrates the emptiness of the Iowan approach to literature.

Under the Trees

Yet we don’t live in a world that has robbed new literature of philosophical and political ambition. For one thing, even the typical Iowan model produces political relevance: crafting a literary singularity that defies any reduction to an ideological position politicizes the apolitical itself. Paul Engle the cultural Cold Warrior achieved all he wanted in this regard. The question is whether there is a way forward from the model, and Bennett’s central critique (aside from the usual questions of whether any politically radical notion or action can survive CIA sponsorship) is that the Iowa style has stagnated. Institutionalizing creative writing within a university degree system requiring a continual influx of majors tailors writing education to the less-talented participants. The most frequently taught techniques are the easiest to master, and the more talented who could handle ambitious approaches must fend for themselves.

My own forthcoming novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, has been called a twisted revitalization of Canadiana, overcoming a stagnating field of fiction. The story, in part, injects life into a field at a different risk of stagnation, genre fiction. Current alternative literature is seeing a boom in works dealing with the ideas and iconography of H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not an innovator in using obviously Lovecraft-inspired iconography for my original work. The comic series Fatale is the best example of this trend that I can think of because it combines Lovecraftian imagery with a protagonist that would never have fit in Lovecraft’s world: a femme fatale with psychic powers of the sort found in more futuristic science-fiction genres.

August Derleth was the first to extend Lovecraft’s genre after his death. While popular at the time, Derleth’s stories are today considered retrograde. Lovecraft created the legendary iconography of Cthulhu, but Derleth synthesized the disparate images of the Lovecraftian mythos into an internally consistent canon. Most people now understand that this is a terrible thing to do, because it shackles future Lovecraftian stories into consistency with the mythology’s details. Thankfully, writers have since learned how to overcome this creative limitation. We ignore it.

So Under the Trees, Eaten introduced a realistic contemporary woman into a Lovecraftian horror story featuring a smattering of Canadiana tropes and my own gleefully pessimistic approach to human drama. It’s the story of a woman coming to grips with her parents’ deaths in the context of a Lovecraftian contract with otherworldly aliens, through scenes describing imagery and events with the meticulous and evocative detail of the Iowa style. Pulp meets feminism meets literary singularity.

Singularity’s unspoken ambitions

Yet literary singularity remains paradoxical. The perfect literary singularity is a description so precise and detailed that no general description or summary could be fully adequate to it. There is always some remainder.

Literature of the evocative image actually strives for a remarkably ambitious goal, which the Derrida-influenced streams of literary theory would consider impossible. One intriguing concept in Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of language is that any linguistic expression is inherently inadequate to reality itself. The words of language can apply to more than one unique situation, so there is always in any description some remainder, some facet of reality that escapes any account. Even the institutionalized middling of which Bennett accuses University of Iowa’s creative writing program strives for a genuine impossibility.

The puzzle of language has consumed the last hundred or so years of analytic and continental philosophy. For examples, see any of the following list: Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Derrida, Bertrand Russell (though his work is often misunderstood by ignoring his dual focus on language and mathematics), Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Beaudrillard, Saul Kripke, Willard van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anscombe, David Lewis, John Searle. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of people.

That century’s literature was even more inventive in its forms, techniques, and subjects. Compared to the innovations of the last century, ours seems bland. Bennett’s article not only advertises his own book on the Iowa program, but is also part of a collection exploring the tensions between the MFA program establishment and the major New York publishing houses. The 21st century seems dominated by corporate priorities instead of artistic ones. In such an atmosphere, authors no longer innovate quite so wildly. When they do, those experiments do not receive the same popular enthusiasm as the inventive works of, for example, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon.

Yet the literature of evocation quietly hides its glory. Writing a wildly ambitious novel is openly and obviously a grand gesture. I sympathize with artists who strive to create works that serve for the cultures of this century what Joyce, Marcel Proust, Beckett, Pablo Picasso, the Beatles, or F. W. Murnau supplied for the last one. And what Paul Cézanne, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herman Melville did for the 19th century. Perhaps we’ll remember David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Death Grips that way in decades to come. Writing the Great American Novel (or even the Great Canadian or Kenyan novel) is an ambition that requires all the skills of literary, narrative, and philosophical creation in a single, enormous project. Its writer becomes a bonfire that can be seen from a long way away.

But here is the calm, sedate, humble style of evocative literature strolling out of Iowa with an ambition to do what some of the great thinkers of the last century have called impossible: craft language that is ontologically adequate to reality and life itself. The genre mashups that characterize my own Under the Trees, Eaten and some of the other ideas for short novels that I’m mulling over, have a different focus, which is less ambitious in this regard.

My own literary works are philosophically informed art, but don’t strive for singularity alone. I’m too comfortable in the pulpy world of science-fiction to fit into the culture of Iowa as I understand it. My work in this realm, like the works of philosophy that I most admire and value, aims to provoke a reader to think differently about life, and perhaps even change it, even in the relatively minor details of one’s own thought and ethics.

When some brilliant writer of the Iowan model finally accomplishes the impossible and crafts language completely adequate to the singularity of reality, I’m not sure what can happen after that, how the form can move on. Literature whose motive is to change the world will always be vibrant because the world will always have problems to solve, and those solutions will constitute further, different problems in the future. Evocative literature seeks to reflect the world perfectly. But philosophical literature seeks to change it.

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