Wishes and Whips

Elizabeth Ames Staudt
September 21, 2010
Comments 3

what is wrong with books screencap

What is wrong with books? What is wrong with me that I so love reading about what’s wrong with the stuff I love?

When I see links cropping up on the various lit-blogs I frequent (Google Reader remains my preferred method/poison for staying up to date on all the stuff wrong with stuff) referencing a new entry in the “what’s wrong with The Workshop/creative writing MFA programs” category of complaint, I can’t even fool myself into thinking I will resist clicking. Obviously I must dig this kind of criticism if I feel the need to discuss it over with friends over coffee, via e-mail, and now here. I’m just so weary of this beef! I claim, while talking about it yet again. If we all agree, as Elif Batuman points out in her essay, that “In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world” then why must we spend so much time talking about its failures and shortcomings and the ways in which, while not evil, it sucks?

Batuman’s essay, a review of Mark McGurl’s 2009 book, The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, titled, beef-stokingly enough, “Get a Real Degree,” gives a girl with phony-workshop-debate-fatigue plenty to think about. I was most intrigued by her discussion of shame:

To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ???disciplined’ by the programme ??? as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ???surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras ??? ???Murder your darlings,’ ???Omit needless words,’ ???Show, don’t tell’ ??? also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ???craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ???Writers’ Workshops’).

Emily Gould, on her blog Things I Ate that I Love, paired the very next line of the article with this clip from 30 Rock:

We’re not the worst people. Like mothers endlessly adjusting their daughters’ hair, we nitpick because we love, and we have the biggest wishes and expectations–and accordingly, disappointments–for those people, things, institutions, and ideas we love best. Take America (Batuman, again):

The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch.

Reading this line, I was reminded of a line from the video below (which the post-topping hot-pink screencap is taken from):

!!!!!!! [BESTIE x BESTIE 1] !!!!!!! from Dean Fleischer-Camp on Vimeo.

Just be an American. Everybody can do everything now! Jenny Slate (please don’t tell me you missed her magical voice in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) implores the writer.

All this, then, as an excuse to post that Besties video. Watching two friends–strangers to most of us, but clearly dear to one another–goofy, giddy, tipsy–give in to laughter is something I can’t think of a single reason not to love.

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