Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Program Era/Translation

I'm reading Mark McGurl's "The Program Era," which traces the historical development of fiction writing program (and by association poetry writing programs). It's a very well-researched book and a much needed one if we're going to have an at all useful discussion about "the academy."

Seems like most discussions about the role of the academization of literature in America takes one of two routes: 1) It's bad, all academy is evil etc (often ignoring the fact that the person making this argument, including at times me, has been educated in literature and is thus part of the academization of poetry) or 2) it has no effect, I'm just a poet who happens to teach for a dayjob. Both of those attitudes are totally insufficient and simplistic.

But what I was of course thinking about when I was reading the book was translation. In an early section, McGurl notes that "creative writing" was an invention of progressive education, based on the idea of "self-expression" and helping the student find themselves. In this it was explicitly opposed to former methods, such as reading aloud and *translating*. The Creative Writing Program was conceived as the opposite of translation.

I tend to blame the New Critics and their autonomous, perfect urn for America's discomfort with/dislike of/indifference to translated texts, but reading this book makes me think a lot of it comes from the ideology of the creative writing workshop.

There's something about "the voice" as the metaphor for creative writing in the 1960s that is relevant but the more I think about it the more this seems like a complex issue.

There's also an interesting and relevant chapter in which the regionalism of the New Critics and its authors (for example Flannery O'Connor) came up against Iowa Writers Workshop leader Paul Engle, who establish the International Writers Workshop (where I'm going to read/talk this December, it's still going) with a globalist/peace-y/cold war notion of internationalism.

This book actually gives good insights into a whole host of issues that are discussed in the blogosphere. I'll try to write some more at a later date.

15 Comments:

Blogger Max said...

I don't think it's that the academicization of literature is absolutely bad, per se, but that it's a broad contemporary shift in orientation whose ramifications aren't seriously considered, but rather just adopted and supported outright. I understand that people have dialogues about it, but they're usually already having those dialogues from within the academic system, the system which, to a large extent, already supports their basic needs (i.e. professors and grad students). I'm not sure the critique, which forces us to at least consider a world without university patronage, can ever be as sharp as it needs to be, when the people making the critique have jobs and paychecks and university degrees and reputations riding on it.

I think the university patronage system is unique in that it ties people to contractual labor, and all or most of the sources of reputation become centralized within that structure as well. It appears that this system is designed to perpetuate and centralize its own power, as opposed to other forms of patronage, which have traditionally been more decentralized and allowed artists freer rein to accrue cultural capital in different ways.

Sorry for the tangent. I know it's not precisely on-topic for your thoughts on translation.

6:49 PM  
OpenID michaelleong said...

Hi Johannes,

Louis Menand wrote an interesting review of the book for the New Yorker(http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand). While the New Yorker is not, in general, my kind of publication, I appreciated a few things about Menand's take. I particularly liked how he treated writing as not an activity of "self-expression" or "finding one's voice" but more like a WCW-style activity of making:

"I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make."

This is a vision of the poem as a "machine made of words" and a vision that is much more amenable to matters of translation.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max,

There have been tons of critiques that imagined a life without the college system. But there have been few that have treated it as a historical fact. Always this urge to imagine a different world than the one we're in.

And in fact the critique that imagines another world is a hallmark of the program era.

And I don't believe in some kind of magical neutral observer. I think people such as the two of us are very well equipped to analyze the program system precisely because we are part of it.

But, yes, people do get overwhelmed by institutional dynamic. That should be part of the analysis.

Johannes

1:33 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I recognize that MFA programs are "historical fact," but my problem is that I don't really see this as an "era" so much as a terminus. This isn't just another in a long line of patronage systems to come. Program culture has consolidated not only the financial resources available to writers, but the means for building audiences, reputation, and credibility, in a way that is absolutely without precedent.

In other words, I'm trying to imagine "another world" precisely because the world we have promises to be so unchangeable going into the future.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max,

I think you should imagine other possibilities, and I don't think just because you're "part of the system" (with your MFA) precludes you from doing a good job.

J

8:01 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I'm working about as far outside of the MFA system as you can get. I have a degree, but I'm no longer contributing to the system.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

This is the typical BS people like to imagine. You got the degree, you're part of the system. You studied literature in collge, you're in the system. That's all it takes. Everybody would like to imagine themselves outsiders.

Johannes

5:14 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

One would assume that, in order to be in this particular system, you'd have to be actively contributing to it. I got college degrees. I was in the system. Can you please explain to me how I continue to contribute to the MFA system in America, when my day job is teaching English to high school students in Korea? This isn't like the mafia, Johannes. You aren't "in it for life." There are certain things that you pretty much can't ever be "outside of" (the world of capital comes to mind), but I don't think the MFA system is one of those things.

Would you care to explain how I'm still trapped in this web?

5:07 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max,

I think actually I was reading you too skimmily.

What I mean is that you are part of the Program Era/MFA culture because you went through it, you exhibit a lot of views common to people who have graduated from the MFA system and you seem obsessed with the hiring practices of the MFA system. In fact the idea that you need to be outside of "it" to critique it seems to be a convention of discussions coming out of the MFA system.

However, you are right that by not searching for a job or being enrolled in a program, you are not part of the system any longer in a more direct sense. And perhaps this gives you some kind of relief from some kind of perceived pressure.

It is true that a lot of people seem to perceive hiring etc as a pressure to conform. Most people have an exagerated idea of this in their minds, mostly because they think they're going to get a job in the first place. I always knew most program would never give me the time of day anyway, so I never felt hindered by that pressure.

But I'd like to go back to the myth of the freedom of the outside, that only the neutral observes can be truthful. We might see an example of that in Foetry.com where the anonymity created an obscene superego monster that was highly repressive of any thinking or any interesting ideas that weren't bitterly accusatory. So the illusion of "total freedom" is maybe not all it's cracked up to be.

McGurl analyzes a lot of such anti-MFA rhetoric (and sadly I fall into some conventions, of the "ethnic writer" for example); he also brings out the point that we tend to think of institutions only as repressive, when they are in Foucault's terminology also productive.

It might be interesting to see the writer that has to navigate the system as strangely not more compromised but more accurate in a different way because he/she has to take into account the obscure rules of the system. Well, I don't really believe that, but it's worth thinking about.

Johannes

7:08 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

And perhaps this gives you some kind of relief from some kind of perceived pressure.

No, it doesn't give me any relief. If arguing that one is "outside" of something has become a cliche, what's even more cliche is somebody coming along and saying "well, you're part of it, but that doesn't mean you can't still do a good job," whatever that's even supposed to mean. All I'm doing here is exposing a raw fact, that I'm no longer benefiting from, or seeking out any of the benefits of the MFA system. It doesn't put me in some superior position. But at the same time, it's kind of hard for a person who seeks a university position, or who currently works toward these its degrees, to argue for anything other than a reformist alternative to the current situation, isn't it? Unless they don't particularly care about finding that work or getting those degrees. If your conclusion is always already limited to the reformist one at best, then it's not worth much.

I would agree with you, however, that having gotten an MFA puts me in a position to know the structure of these programs a bit better. The workings of the system itself are pretty much invisible to lay individuals.

My problem with hiring isn't the pressure on the hiree to "conform." My problem is that we've developed a system whereby younger writers now supply the material basis for the older writers' income. Those who can often least afford it are clearly given illusions about this world that they can enter, and really, the university system has been made the only real way to enter that world. That's the problem I have. Too much of the support for writers is now locked up in a pay-to-play system that purports to assign resources in a meritocratic way, but is actually rife with incestuous power relationships based on schmoozing, sucking up, and back-scratching.

we tend to think of institutions only as repressive, when they are in Foucault's terminology also productive.

Everything is productive. The question is: what does it produce?

It might be interesting to see the writer that has to navigate the system as strangely not more compromised but more accurate in a different way because he/she has to take into account the obscure rules of the system. Well, I don't really believe that, but it's worth thinking about.

It's worth thinking about, for like a nanosecond, before one realizes that it's complete hogwash. Johannes, you know as well as I that that statement is the equivalent of the punk rock revolutionary couple who nevertheless end up settling down in the 'burbs just like everybody else, discussing their storied past around the kitchen island with the kids before soccer practice. Yeah, I'm sure the people who make such an argument with have their little "revolution from within." Because that's what always happens at the end of this story, right?

4:17 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

And I always say: Max offer your grand proposal!

Of course there's backscratching and ass-kissing etc. But do you really think that there was no back-scratching and ass-kissing in your glorious days of capitalist patronage?

That's not really the worst part about literature.

I've scratched people's backs (I think) because I liked their work (suddenly I'm not sure what this metaphor means).

There are much worse parts that needs to be addressed.

Johannes

6:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Of course there's backscratching and ass-kissing etc. But do you really think that there was no back-scratching and ass-kissing in your glorious days of capitalist patronage?

Of course there was, but you didn't have to pay tuition or teach English Comp. and kiss ass in order to get somewhere. So much of the publishing end is tied up with universities now that somebody without an MFA (or who isn't working toward one) is an outsider, clearly at a disadvantage from the outset.

Again, I couldn't care less about the quality or the ideological, stylistic, etc. bent of the work produced by people in MFA programs. That seems completely unimportant to me. What I object to is the institution itself, which turns writers into students who must pay tribute to their betters (i.e. people with books) in order to even have a shot at receiving the fruits of their work, such as publication, a modicum of recognition, etc. And the even bigger problem, I think, is how all of these resources, and all of this power, are just becoming more and more concentrated in universities. The MFA is quickly becoming the badge by which writers "serious" enough to publish are granted basic entrance. If I didn't have an MFA and wanted to be published in your garden variety university lit mag (Such-and-Such Review), the first thing I would do is write a cover letter lying about having or working toward an MFA, because there is no easier way to be turned down for publication than for neither of those things to be the case.

My "grand proposal" is that we should find this shift in patronage alarming not only for how it centralizes and institutionalizes resources and influence, but for how it promises such a consolidation of power that it won't just be an "era" as you seem to believe, but will endure long into the future as a result.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max,

Basically all your argument comes down to just an anger at what you perceive as a back-scratching system. Your analysis does not provide much in the way of analysis, nor does it propose any ways out of your perceived morass.

Your sense of unfairness of this system seems not to push you towards making any proposals or move towards making any changes; instead it renders you impotent with rage.

So perhaps being "outside" the system isn't all it's cracked up to be...

I'll write more about this later.

Johannes

9:26 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Why do you think I'm not aspiring to a "successful" position within this system? My response, if that's what you're looking for, was to reject it and get out of it. I got my piece of paper, because honestly, I wasn't going to throw away the time I'd already labored teaching courses and writing silly papers, but after that, I got out of it altogether. What else can my response be? What else can I advocate? No, Johannes, I'm not going to be the architect of a "new system." But expecting that as the benchmark of a valid response is absolutely silly, and you know it. Just because I can't create the world in seven days, which is essentially what you're asking me to do, to either exert a Jesus-like ability to scrap and rebuild patronage for writers or shut my mouth, doesn't mean my criticisms are without value.

Also, the "backscratching," if you'll politely go back and actually read my posts instead of just skimming them, was only a tiny part of the overall argument. I guess you missed all of that stuff about the problematic economy of writing programs, that instead of people who actually have money giving it to artists, the patronage system has been rerouted so those beneath--those with aspirations of becoming published, becoming recognized, becoming professors, etc--are lured into giving what little money they have (of their own, or from loans) or working as wage slaves in order to pay the salaries of their betters. That "backscratching" rules this system, behind the scenes, only makes that previous fact all the most dastardly, because the university system lends it all an air of meritocracy, when in fact no such thing can really be said to exist.

And of course, writing isn't a meritocracy, or at least not one with clear sets of widely agreed-upon frameworks or "best practices." But the institution which houses it dresses it up in all the garb of what we would consider academic meritocracy. All of the university's legitimizing components (peer review, research, etc) are clumsily molded to it, but within the MFA programs themselves, this is very openly considered a sham, to varying degrees, by the professors themselves. Of course, you don't know that this is all treated as a sham until you're already there and knee-deep in a degree.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I put up an addendum on my blog.

http://soslow.tumblr.com/post/207903755/on-mfa-programs

4:19 PM  

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