Amato/Fleisher Too Pessimistic

Amato/Fleisher Too Pessimistic

Marjorie Perloff

In the era of English Department Cultural Studies, does the study of literature belong to the poet-professors?
Marjorie Perloff offers a view from the English Department of what CW can do.

Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher have produced an extraordinarily learned and thorough critique of what they take to be a “highly dysfunctional state of affairs” in the Academy - specifically in the Creative Writing Classroom, but also beyond that classroom in the present-day university. Creative Writing Programs, they note, “are now staffed primarily by writers who teach,” and it’s not clear how these “writers” relate to the “teachers who write,” across the hall in the English Department. Amato and Fleisher raise what are the central issues about Creative Writing: how does it and how should it relate to the theory and criticism taught, presumably, in English and Comparative Literature departments and what is its relationship to the teaching of “non-creative” writing which is the domain of the Composition program? The authors don’t claim to have answers; rather, they lay out the terrain with great finesse, their “Citation Mill” alone making it worthwhile for ebr to publish this essay – an essay that should be snapped up by a top university press for speedy publication [editor’s note: the amato/fleisher essay and responses will be the first critical e-book in the Alt-X series, to be launched in fall 2002]. At the same time, Amato and Fleisher’s is very much an inside view. Seen from my perspective as a scholar-critic, CWPs, as I shall call them for short, are doing, it seems to me, a better job than the authors claim in this report.

From their inception in the post-war era, CWPs have, of course, been suspect as somehow soft and trivial. What, hard-core scholars and theorists have repeatedly asked, do they actually teach in those infamous workshops? Can one really be taught how to write poetry or fiction? Do significant writers ever emerge from these fiction and poetry workshops? And, if not, why do we have them? At Stanford, where I teach, this is still the prevailing view. When, some years ago, Gilbert Sorrentino dared to object to the hiring of a young PhD whose specialty was James Joyce on the grounds that the candidate didn’t really know enough about his subject and had made some obvious bloopers regarding Joyce and Flaubert, the English faculty was contemptuous. “What does Gil know?” one of my colleagues asked. “He’s only a writer.”

But – and here I think the Amato/Fleisher report is too pessimistic – the situation has drastically changed in recent years. Not because the English faculty has become more welcoming but because the CWP now fills a need that English simply refuses to satisfy. I am talking about literary study, increasingly neglected as beside the point by the so-called Englit department in deference to the heady new world of Cultural Studies. Indeed, most assistant professors hired at even the top institutions like my own no longer have the slightest idea what literary analysis might entail. They’ve heard of an old-hat technique called “close-reading” – a technique they know they don’t want to use even though they have no idea what it might accomplish. The dirty word “formalism” is associated in their minds with the New Criticism even though the New Critics were not formalists at all but, by and large, moralists. I am always startled, for example, to see journal articles that refer critically to Helen Vendler’s “formalism,” evidently because Vendler actually looks at the poems she talks about. But Roman Jakobson and Juri Tynyanov, whose emphasis was always on the linguistic base of texts (literary and otherwise) – their syntax, sound structure, their generic markers and rhetorical forms - would have been amazed to see Vendler’s discussions, say, of Seamus Heaney’s representations of the Irish Troubles labeled as “formalist.” Conversely – although one would never know it in the contemporary English department - the study of rhetoric – a central study from Longinus and Horace to the present – is hardly exclusive to the bad old Englit classrooms of the now despised era of New Criticism. Indeed, in the age of Socrates, as later of Augustus, rhetoric and political study went hand in hand.

Given the abdication of literary study – forms, genres, conventions, values, and especially historical transformations and continuities – on the part of the English department, the CWP has come, inadvertently or not, to fill what is a huge vacuum. For in spite of all attempts by the Academy to stamp out literary passion and the pleasure of the text, it has not succeeded. Hence, even as Humanities Centers like Stanford’s increasingly give fellowships for projects like “AIDS Discourse in post-Apartheid South Africa” – projects whose base is in the Social Sciences rather than in the Arts – the CWP draws those students – and there are more of them all the time - who are actively engaged with actual literary texts and who want themselves to be writers. No wonder, then, that at the University of Southern California, where I formerly taught, more than 50% of the English majors are now in Creative Writing. I predict that in another decade that figure will be 75%. And so, even as the English department proper is well on its way to committing suicide (we all know those horror stories about the job market), the CWP is alive and well – and getting money from alumni and donors.

At the same time, many of the CWPs themselves have, in recent years, transformed themselves into PhD programs that are much more solid and interesting than their old MFA counterparts. The program just cited at USC is about to transform itself into a PhD program. The model here is the Buffalo Poetics Program, in which the Poetry Workshop is subordinate to courses that teach specific theoretical and poetic materials. Susan Howe, for example, teaches the literature of New England Puritanism in the early nineteenth century, and Charles Bernstein has offered a variety of theory courses as well as courses on translation and the History of the Book or on the relation of poetry to the media. Similar programs or options now exist at Brown, Bard, and the University of Denver, and I am convinced that they are the wave of the future. As a result of such restructuring, the one segment of the job applicant pool that may be said to be flourishing are, like Joe Amato himself, the poet-with-a-PhD. The Buffalo success rate, in this regard, has been nothing short of phenomenal: Yunte Huang at Harvard, Juliana Spahr at Hawaii, Jena Osman at Temple, Ben Friedlander at Maine, Steve McCaffery at York, and so on.

This is not to say that there aren’t still a lot of problems. At my own university, the CWP remains locked into its anti-intellectual and separatist paradigm, a program whose goal seems to be to train its students to publish short stories and poems in The New Yorker as well as novels with Doubleday or Simon and Shuster. The Stegner Fellows – and who, after all, wouldn’t want to be a Stegner Fellow with a large stipend? – are not only not required to take courses in the English department; they are not allowed to. Even auditing – and I have had a number of Stegner auditors – is frowned upon. Stegners (and these are the only graduate students in Stanford’s CWP) take only workshops with the CWP faculty. Accordingly, although that faculty has voting rights in English and can, by sheer numbers (6 out of 35 or so), make or break an appointment or promotion in, say, American Studies, the fact is that their graduate students have no relationship whatsoever to the English department. As for their faculty, they do offer, at the undergraduate level, lower-division courses in the Short Story or Introduction to Poetry, but their curriculum and pedadogy is such that graduate students in English do not want to TA for them.

But – as I tell myself when I despair about my inability to have effected any meaningful change in our own program – this particular CWP is, by now, an anomaly. Across the Bay, Berkeley has just hired Lyn Hejinian, one of the most theoretically-informed and critically astute poets writing today, as a full professor. The African-American poet Carl Phillips, who is also a serious classicist, teaches in the CWP at Washington University in St. Louis, where he offers courses on Greek Tragedy alongside his workshops. And Bard College has a new MacArthur-funded program run by the poet Joan Retallack who was trained as a philosopher.

Indeed, if I see any danger on the horizon at this moment it is that poetry programs will become excessively theoretical and slight literary history. Even as I admire the Amato-Fleisher “Citation Mill,” I would hate to see CWP students spend all their time reading the latest theory books rather than knowing something about Baudelaire or Césaire, Blake and Herbert, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky. The problem of the CWP, it seems to me, is less its ignorance of theory as such, than its still-frequent know-nothingness about the literature of the past or of other cultures. And since most of that literature is not in English, much more emphasis should be put on the acquisition of other languages – something Amato and Fleisher don’t talk about.

The ignorance of “foreign” literatures is thus one area that needs to be addressed much more fully. The other is the literature of the past. And here is the central paradox. In English there is little respect for contemporary “creative” writing of any stripe: indeed, this situation has worsened. When I went to college in the fifties, Faulkner, whom we did study, was still alive. Today, the Modernist literature studied remains that of Faulkner’s age and anything from the postwar (except for a few minority writers) is studiously ignored. At the same time, CWPs, even the best ones, focus on the literature of the present so that students have a very skewed notion of the “new.” I am always amazed, for example, at discussions of genres like the artist’s book that assume no one before 1910 or so tried to bring the verbal and the visual together.

To conclude, then: the basic demand of the Amato-Fleisher report is that the Creative Writing Classroom become more self-conscious, more self-aware and self-critical, and especially more knowledgeable and intellectual. I wholly applaud this idea although I would say that many of the authors’ proposals have already been implemented in universities across the U.S. The question that still confronts us – and I don’t think the authors sufficiently deal with it - is what students should be self-conscious about. Theory, yes, cultural production, yes, but not the flurry of topical books about someone else’s theory or the latest cultural model. I was recently cleaning out my bookshelves and the shelf I found most expendable was the set of books I had accumulated fifteen years or so ago on Deconstruction – very smart books by Christopher Norris and Jonathan Culler, Shoshana Felman and Vincent Leitch. What value, in 2001, do these books have? I still read Derrida and De Man, but I don’t want to read about them. The same holds true for those heavy-weight conference proceedings based on the Cultural and pedagogical symposia of the mid-eighties: I recently discarded dozens of these as already hopelessly dated. And how could it be otherwise, given the cyberrevolution of the nineties.

Meanwhile, I have sitting on my desk a book just in from Sao Paulo called (in Portugese) Blaise Cendrars’s Marvelous Adventures – a book of carnets, with fabulous illustrations, from the Brazilian years of this radical and peripatetic poet/novelist/film critic/ war journalist. Not quite a canonical work, it is nevertheless my current nominee for inclusion in the Amato-Fleisher Citation Mill.