The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

When did literature become an elitist game? When we started writing? Literature both reflects and influences culture, society, and the individual, but there are many things that reflect our values (what we want; not to be confused with what’s good for us) and influence our thought and action (the automobile; lawns; college), but not everything that reflects and influences our lives is literature. There appears to be an argument afoot, to wit: “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.” This from Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, “Get a Real Degree.”

All cultures experience literature, but only an elitist can afford to read purely for fun. What Elif is talking about when she says “literary tradition” is the tradition of literary criticism, which is a kind of self-consciousness about one’s literature. Part of Elif’s complaint is that the programs (code for the MFA writing programs) lack literary tradition and subscribe to an artificial fabrication called creative writing. But as Eliot said in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It [tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” One gets the feeling that Elif does not consider “creative writing” to be literature, and it may not be, in the same sense that painting by numbers is not art. D. G. Myers seems to agree. Myers values writers not on but in location. Using this rubric, Bukowski, who filled the Los Angeles Basin with alcohol, makes the grade, as would Flannery O’Connor, who filled the South with grace, and Joyce, who filled Dublin with Dubliners, giving them a chance to talk to one another unencumbered by the Church’s program. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy is another example rooted in place. But people move, and move on.

If, as Buckminster Fuller explained, specialization leads to extinction, where does literary elitism lead? Literature from the “programmes” sounds a little like the physicists’ string theories, which Robert B. Laughlin unraveled for us some time ago: criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). One problem, as described by Batuman, has to do with the program reverence for what it calls craft. Plumbing is a craft; writing is something else.

Again we find funding the antagonist: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Elif’s London Review of Books review would still be going out with the tide were it not for McGurl’s tardy response in the May 11th Los Angeles Review of Books, “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing.” But what is elite? The truly elite do not go in for literature; they go where the money is, finance, or health care, or both, which is insurance, and surely if we can agree on anything it’s that there’s no money in literature. The elite that do go in for literature we might call the mal-elite, the black sheep of the elite, for as Jerzy Kosinski said, “Reading novels—serious novels, anyhow—is an experience limited to a very small percentage of the so-called enlightened public. Increasingly, it’s going to be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the ambiguous self” (Kosinski, Paris Review Interview, 1972).

Kosinski was no elitist, nor is Elif’s example of a writer she values, Dave Eggers. His prose is characterized by practical matters; his publication efforts (The Believer, which does not publish fiction, but which has been publishing poetry of late; 826 Valencia) take the word to the street, Samizdat-style. William T. Vollman might be an even better example of the non-elitist, non-programmed writer, engaged in some cross-fertilization of fiction and non-fiction, a new prose for a new time. For the University cannot grant access to literature; it can only grant access to degrees. And the egress of disappearing readers from literature suggests that we must start to look for our literature in unexpected places.

Follow-up:

Apr 29, 2013: Seth Abramson at HuffPost: “Contemporary Poetry Reviews.” Intro. continues “Program” discussion.

May 18: Laura Miller simplifies and suggests much ado about nothing. August 22: Daniel Green reviews The Program Era, including an interesting aside: “…another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.” Yes.

15 Nov 2012: Fredric Jameson reviews The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl (Harvard, 466 pp, £14.95, November [2012], ISBN 978 0 674 06209 2) in LRB (subscribe).

The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” says Mark Twain’s duke as he prepares to take down the house with an encore of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Where’s an English major when you need one? They were no doubt in short supply in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, and their heyday from the late twentieth appears now to be in full wane. What can restore their numbers?

To take the meds, or not to take the meds; that is another question. Before you answer, read Louis Menand’s recent review, “Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?,” in the March 1 New Yorker:  “These complaints [confusion over what causes and cures depression] are not coming just from sociologists, English professors, and other troublemakers” (68). To be an English major or not to be an English major; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to go broke reading or to take arms with others in self-incarceration in a corporate complex – but alas, those late twentieth century opportunities to cause trouble too are in full wane. What’s a poor boy to do?

Work, for one: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Some did, but many seem now to have forgotten this. A past issue of Reed College’s Reed Magazine, for example, contained an article by one of their English professors selling the English major; unfortunately, it was clear that the professor had never worked outside of academia, and had not much idea what one would do with one’s English major aside from finding shelter in academia – but that’s all over. Yet no mention in the article of Kafka’s time as a claim investigator for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (where he invented the hard-hat); of Ted Kooser’s stint at Lincoln Life; of Wallace Stevens’s career at The Hartford; of Tom Clancy maintaining his Life license even after he became a best-seller.

“Questions like these [being and nothingness, as Sartre put it] are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them” (Menand, p. 74). Yet as most of today’s Hucks head out for the territory of science and technology, leaving the books to turn to dust, some professors seem to be hunkering down; how do you like this solution: “…it [solving the crisis in the Humanities] means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years, for the broadest range of talented people of all sorts and conditions whom we can educate and then employ productively and decently”? This non-profound non-market solution comes to us courtesy of Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton who seems to miss the working point that Rexroth talked about and proves Menand’s point of stubborn resistance.  In his New Republic critical reaction to The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in The American University (Menand, 2010), Grafton makes graduate school sound like joining the Jesuits; but who provides financial support for the Jesuits? For the young Ginsberg just starting out today, a job as a market researcher might be a sweet assignment.

“Oh, God,” Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” No bad dreams, no harrowing questions, no need for the philosopher or the English major. But while the meds, according to Menand’s review, might help some with some of the bad dreams, the harrowing questions persist.

*Meltzer, D. (1971). The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books.