Not Pessimistic Enough

Not Pessimistic Enough

R. M. Berry

Reflections on Creative Writing as potentially part of the tradition of the avant garde.

I find that several of my responses to Joe Amato and H. Kassia Fleisher’s challenging essay are preempted by Marjorie Perloff. I would underscore Perloff’s point that the current popularity of Creative Writing Programs (CWPs) needs to be seen against the backdrop of the abandonment of literary study by English departments, along with the institutional loss of the skills of formal analysis and close reading. And I like very much Perloff’s idea that CWPs, with their expansion into Ph. D. programs with their own courses in (e.g.) poetics, linguistic philosophy, and literary history, could themselves be trying to fill this vacated space. I also applaud and second Perloff’s applauding and seconding of Amato/Fleisher’s remarks on the marginalization of avant garde practice in most CWPs and express my appreciation for her appreciation of the remarkable seriousness and urgency of their writing. Perhaps the greatest achievement of “Reforming Creative Writing Pedagogy” is its pitching of discussion at a sufficiently daunting height to make disagreeing with it seem worthwhile. This is no small feat. If anything has stunted Creative Writing’s intellectual development, it has been that arguing over it has so often seemed silly.

Where I depart from Marjorie Perloff is with her remark that “the Amato/Fleisher report is too pessimistic.” I find myself feeling, on the contrary, that it is not pessimistic enough, or perhaps not pessimistic in ways I’d like. My reservation is rooted in a feature of the essay noted by Perloff: viz., that in its impressive catalogue of citations, works of poetry and fiction don’t make much of an appearance. This seems to me worrisome on two fronts. The first is that it tends to blur over the fact that, like poems and novels, the theories which Amato and Fleisher recommend - e.g., composition theories, reception theories, theories of cultural production - are themselves texts. That is, if the issue under discussion is not cast as the relation of a theory to a practice but as the relation of two kinds of texts, then mediating the production of one kind of text with a training provided by the other looks, not so much critical, as hegemonic. All the problems of reading, authorship, engendering, and class position, remain as pressing for the texts of theory as they do for Tender Buttons or How It Is or Mumbo Jumbo or Lyn Heijinian’s My Life - or for that matter, The Waste Land. The fact that theoretical texts habitually and ritualistically acknowledge their dependence on the cultural systems they explicate, represents for me, not their height of self-awareness, but their most suspect feature. If there’s one thing we should know, over half a century after Wittgenstein’s death, it is that the conditions controlling representation do not themselves readily submit to representation, not without being repressed. Where theoretical discourse claims to represent its own productive matrix, you can be sure it’s misrepresenting it, hence misrepresenting the real obstacles to its own reception.

None of which invalidates any text (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish comes to mind), but it certainly suggests that the teaching or reading of theory presents as fundamental a problem as the teaching or reading of poetry and fiction. There is such a thing as an uncritical relation to critical discourse. We must learn these pedagogical praxes together or we won’t learn them, but there’s no justification for making either the gateway to the other.

It may be the case that Amato/Fleisher would agree with this sentiment. It is hardly original. As so often, I am far from sure against whom, if anyone, I’m arguing. If engaging with theoretical texts of a particular stripe has the desired effect - i.e., results in a more politically engaged and productively challenging classroom - then the use of these texts requires no further justification. For myself, studying Gadamer’s Truth and Method as a grad student had a profound effect on my own classroom practice, as did my later absorption in Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? I do not expect others to find this recognizable as a version of pedagogical training. Anyway, I would expect to be able to arrive at various degrees of accommodation on these issues with Joe Amato and Kassia Fleisher.

However, their provocation has occasioned in me the following trauma:

What it’s probably too late in the game to get clear about is that the present possibility of poetry and fiction cannot be rooted in any critical consciousness deeper than the critical consciousness already at work in our most challenging poetry, novels, fiction. This is the second front on which my worries amass. Amato/Fleisher state that their aims are to identify “a creative writing mystique” and to explain why creative writers, laboring under this mystique, seem so consistently “to acknowledge only an attenuated range of writing practices.” The solution they offer is for teachers of CW to engage in “critical thought,” not primarily about poetry and fiction, but about their teaching. Their plea is, in part, a plea for the study of composition. At one point they paraphrase composition theorist Ann E. Berthoff, remarking that CW teachers seem unaware that “what is being taught in their classrooms, alongside textual study or writing genres, is a theory, or something approaching a theory, of learning (which in writing classes generally includes a theory of language)” [emphasis theirs]. The implication of this remark is that “textual study” and “writing genres” (= poetry and fiction?) are intelligibly distinct from “a theory of learning” and “a theory of language,” that people can teach the first two “alongside” the second, unconscious they’re teaching language and learning. The question that forces itself at this point is: What for crying out loud do Amato/Fleisher think teaching “textual study” and “writing genres” is? I apologize to them both for my animus, which is, of course, not directed at them, who fully share my wish to overcome this problematic distinction. However, my tantrum arises from the cloud of self-defeat appearing on the horizon. What must be insisted on is that teaching “textual study” and “writing genres” without consciousness that one is teaching language and learning is just not what we call teaching “textual study” and “writing genres.” Or not unless we’re imagining “textual study” and teaching “writing genres” as shallower activities than “critical thought.” To allow that the writing of poetry and fiction can still be taught - not just badly, but at all - oblivious of language, is to give away the game at the start.

My complaint turns on trivialities, but like the grammatical slippages and linguistic malapropisms Wittgenstein investigates in The Philosophical Investigations, I find that Amato/Fleisher’s word choice here reveals to me why their second aim cannot bear fruit. Or as they finally concede on p.17: “(I)n truth, there is no irrevocable, or for that matter empirically verifiable, correlation between the (unconventional) writing we ourselves are on the verge of advocating in the foregoing, and one’s teaching….” [emphasis theirs]. The reason that pedagogical theory finally acquiesces in this unsatisfying way before CW’s “attenuated range of writing practices” seems patent: If teaching is not itself grounded in the critical activity which gives rise to experimental and avant garde writing, then there is no way theoretically coherent teaching can itself foster, or even reveal any significant affinity with, experimental and avant garde writing. The most such teaching can coherently do is treat dominant practice and alternative practice equally, which means dominance will probably stay dominant. For me, this defeat is made inevitable the moment that Amato and Fleisher locate the study of “learning” and “language” in texts and fields of inquiry independent of those in which one learns, practices, teaches “textual study” and “writing genres.” What’s repressed in this move is a knowledge formerly widespread among theorists: that post WWII theoretical reflection on language and critical practice did not give rise to the avant garde, but vice versa, arose from it. As soon as one undoes critical theory’s bond with writing’s own self-critical activity - i.e., avant garde practice - there’s just no re-connecting the two.

Some years ago, in an article mentioned by Amato/Fleisher, I argued that the (then virulent) clash between creative writers and critical theorists should be understood as the clash between two mutually exclusive theories of literature, roughly a pre-modernist or romantic one and a modernist or postmodern one, each of which had undergone institutionalization and, so, been abstracted from its informing context. I still think this is about right. By two theories of literature, I implied or thought I implied two pictures of language, of textual production, of communication, of expression, of understanding, of reading, and, of course, of teaching. My guiding assumption was that there just could be no real threat to CWP from post-structuralism unless the model of teaching in the former - i.e., the writer’s workshop - already implied a concept of literature antithetical to the latter. If I have since that time remained unenthusiastic about CW’s reform efforts - with important exceptions such as the programs at Buffalo, Temple, and Brown - that’s because reforms have seldom imagined the depth of the problem. As long as students are expected to learn what poetry and fiction are by writing under the tutelage of a poet or novelist, we will not have progressed. Progress begins only when, without nostalgia and in full acknowledgment of our altered situation, we find ways to say and mean words like “literature” again, and that will require, in addition to formidable critical thinking, an ethical integrity and political seriousness no one is authorized to teach. That pedagogical democracy is not institutional. It is grammatical.