IowaLit: The Perils of Institutionalized Art, Research Time, 15/02/2014

I have some friends who have gotten creative writing degrees and diplomas, and the whole institution of academic creative writing programs fascinate me. They are literally degrees in creative expression; not just the technical aspects of writing fiction and poetry, but the expression itself. And my friend A posted an article from Chronicle of Higher Education by Eric Bennett, an English professor and alumnus of University of Iowa, about the history of the pivotal creative writing program that generated the contemporary explosion of them across North America: Iowa City.

I linked the article, so you can read it yourselves when you want to. But here are his basic points that I considered most intriguing. 1) University of Iowa’s MFA program in creative writing secured the funding and international cultural influence that it did through a strategic alliance of the program’s director during the Eisenhower years with the CIA and various prominent businessmen of the United States to promote their literary cultural products in competition with the Soviet Union. 2) University of Iowa’s program was so successful that its model spawned proliferating creative writing programs around North America. 3) Many of these creative writing programs produce boring, unambitious work, short stories focussing on intensely detailed and emotionally evocative depictions of generic, unremarkable moments.

Recently, I finally started reading Invisible Man, a
masterpiece of 20th century literature which combines
beautifully evocative language, vivid characters, strong
metaphors, and trafficking in ideas that challenged the
entire society of the United States.
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 how one of his teachers would draw 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 meaning of a text taken as a whole. Bennett doesn’t claim this exact model was universally used, but that it represented a fairly universal 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.

* My personal favourite exception to this is the work of Jorge Luis Borges, although in many of the conversations and interpretive writings about him that I’ve read, he doesn’t get the credit he does for creating vivid characters inside his ideas and plots. 

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 sensory 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.

And as far as Bennett’s analysis goes, this is the result of institutionalizing the creation of art. Making artistic creation a university program open to mass enrollment results in people who may not have the most potential in fiction writing taking the courses. All teachers are familiar with these, just as I am from teaching philosophy: they’re 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. 

A C-level reader of philosophy 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 of philosophy 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. 

And 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 the B and C students of a class, 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 have to strive to the same level as 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. To be continued . . . 

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