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What does it take to become a writer? A good writer? Can good writing be taught, or learned, at all?

Two recent works – one a collection of essays, the other a Broadway play -- address this same set of questions. Each comes from an author known for generating buzz and controversy, and each focuses on the creative writing workshop, that staple of writing programs and authors’ groups everywhere.

While book and play share a surprising amount of thematic ground, they arrive at very different conclusions, for the world that one author skewers with resigned affection, the other would entirely dismantle.

'Gleeful Cruelty'

Theresa Rebeck's résumé runs the gamut: fiction, nonfiction, film, television. (If you've seen her name in the news lately, it was likely attached to the media blitz for NBC's new musical drama "Smash," of which she is creator and executive producer.) She is also the author of the new play "Seminar," which opened on Broadway late last year.

"Seminar" is a comedic look at one writing workshop – this one a private group led by Leonard, a successful novelist of such renown that aspiring writers will pay $5,000 for the privilege of 10 weekly sessions with him. And the financial toll is just the beginning: as a critic, Leonard is not just blunt but vitriolic, telling one aghast student that the story on which she’s labored for years is "a soul-sucking waste of words," and another that his work is "perfect – in a whorish way."

Schadenfreude is the play's predominant emotion: "I thought it might be funny to watch an accomplished actor in his 50s beating up on a bunch of young actors in their 20s,” Rebeck told Inside Higher Ed.

Funny it is, even mesmerizing – Leonard is played by the incomparable British actor Alan Rickman, who manages to make (roughly) credible not only the existence of a character like Leonard, but also the notion that anyone would pay to put up with him. (“See you next week, cowards,” Leonard remarks at the end of one less-than-successful session; “I’ve got to go to Somalia tomorrow so I’ll see you pussies in two weeks,” he concludes another.)

His students are Doug (Jerry O’Connell), a name-dropping, jargon-spewing, Top-Siders-sporting literary social climber; Izzy (Hettienne Park), who hopes her brash sexuality will prove the key to fame and fortune; Kate (Lily Rabe), a privileged, diffidently feminist Bennington alumna still stuck on her no-longer-recent college years – and the story she’s been working on ever since; and Martin (Hamish Linklater), hipsterish, talented, and broke, envious of Doug’s relative success but unwilling to show his own work to anyone. They are all familiar types, their flaws exaggerated for comic effect; fish in a barrel for their teacher’s caustic critiques.

While Leonard’s quips were written to draw laughter from the audience, his character represents a very real phenomenon, Rebeck said. "Over the years I’ve worked with and been taught by a lot of writers who I thought were not generous," she explained. "As many times as I’ve been helped by someone, I’ve been knocked down with a sort of gleeful cruelty that I think is unwarranted."

While many writers have experienced that sort of treatment, she said, “no one really talks about it.” "Seminar" is thus, in part, an exploration of “what kind of darkness of spirit” would lead a talented writer to become the sort of teacher who eviscerates his students for sport.

In Leonard’s case, the answer turns out to be his own largely self-inflicted career slide, which began when credit card debt drove him to take a university job teaching writing to "hyperprivileged droning children," many of whom, of course, he slept with: "Even the freshmen -- especially the freshmen." Somewhere between the ensuing scandal and, more devastatingly, an accusation of plagiarism, he lost his faculty position, stopped publishing novels, and ultimately, resentfully, reinvented himself as a journalist and a teacher of private writing seminars.

In the end, Leonard’s character is not exactly redeemed, but the audience does come to understand, at least in part, how he got to be the way he is. In Rebeck’s view, in fact, "the play is more uniformly in sympathy with the teacher’s position" than the student’s.

"I’m terrified of facing writing students," said Rebeck – who has taught at Brandeis University (where she earned her B.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D.) and Columbia University --  "because of how careless some of them are with the idea of being a writer…. I think young writers set very callow goals for themselves: 'Oh, I’ll have a novel published, I’ll have a play on Broadway.' "

But if Leonard knocks his students down a peg or three, he also, in the end, helps them each get a chance to move forward in their careers – though not always in the ways they’d originally envisioned. While the play ends on a lady-or-the-tiger note, the viewer is left with the sense that, one way or another, everyone is better off than they were at the start.

"Seminar" pokes fun at writers and their world, and it offers some food for thought, but all Rebeck really asks of her audience is that they laugh and nod their heads in recognition – perhaps most of all when Kate exclaims, "We are the soul of the culture, and people can just fucking be nice to us once in a while!"

A Real-Life Leonard?

Anis Shivani was assuredly not the inspiration for the character of Leonard, but at times he sounds like he could have been. Shivani is a successful writer of fiction and poetry, but has tended to attract attention for his criticism, which is rife with judgments Leonard-like in their ruthlessness and finality. The essays collected in his new book, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (Texas Review Press), are no exception.

Leonard: “There’s a level of competence here that is thrilling in its thoroughness…. You’re talented, but you’re never going to be great…. It’s hollow.”

Shivani: “Competence without genius has killed the American short story. These meet every last requirement of the well-made story, but there is no soul, no emotion worth speaking of.”

Leonard:  “[The narrator of this story is] an overeducated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who’s got rich parents who give her everything. She’s got nothing to say so she sits around and thinks about Jane Austen all the time. I don’t give a shit about that person.”

Shivani: “The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt … and on the same banal moral plane as the ‘average reader’…."

But Shivani is no writing workshop instructor doling out excessively harsh truths for the nominal purpose of helping aspiring writers improve. Rather – as the title of Against the Workshop suggests – he is a polemicist, a self-styled gadfly taking on the whole idea of writing workshops and the university programs that often house them.

The essays contained in Against the Workshop represent a wide variety of styles and subject matters – one asks, “Why Is It So Difficult to Write About the Working Class?”; others review (usually harshly) various annual collections of poems and stories – but they are connected by the two distinct but interrelated arguments that form the book’s unifying theme:

1) Writing workshops result in insipid, formulaic writing, and their predominance has caused a steep decline in the quality of American fiction and poetry.

2) The M.F.A./creative writing system is a personal and cultural disaster with negative consequences for all writers, whether or not they participate.

One might well ask how Shivani arrived at these views, given that he doesn’t have an M.F.A. (or other graduate degree) himself, and he presumably did not take many writing workshops while earning his undergraduate degree in economics at Harvard University.

As Shivani explained to Inside Higher Ed, at the beginning of his career, he submitted his work to a variety of literary journals, and often met with rejection. Comparing his own work to what he read in the journals, he found that the published pieces were, in his opinion, “very mediocre.”

“I realized I was coming up against this vast glut of mediocrity. I wasn’t trained in workshop, I wasn’t taught their ‘rules’ for writing a poem, a story … and so my writing was very different, and it was hard, at first, to get published. And I really started to wonder, what is this writing? Where is this coming from?… It was so mediocre, and so uniform.”

Much of Against the Workshop is devoted to Shivani’s philippics against the "mediocre" work he despises; he has praise for authors he admires, but the relish evident in his harshest criticism leaves a far stronger impression. Dave Eggers is “the embodiment of a director’s lifetime banishments on the cutting room floor”;  Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glück are “poet[s] of modest talents reaching for more than what [they are] capable of”; Billy Collins is “like a happy adult solving the Sunday paper’s crossword puzzle, having skipped the front-page headlines”; Jhumpa Lahiri “resists risk-taking to an uncanny extent”; and New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani is “the Alan Greenspan of the literary establishment” (that’s not a compliment).

In fact, the majority of Shivani’s complaints might be boiled down to the accusation that an author avoids risks; avoids addressing large, significant, difficult issues.

The conservatism and navel-gazing that Shivani sees as the dominant paradigm in American literature can be traced back to a twinned source: the writing workshop and academe (in Shivani’s narrative, the former is a microcosm of the latter). Each excludes or represses what is original or daring; each forms a bubble willfully impervious to outside realities and outside criticism.

The etiology goes something like this: over the past several decades, creative writing has been assimilated into academe. University work provides the writer with a job and a livelihood while promoting overspecialization and discouraging real creativity and public engagement.

At the same time, "the hegemony of theory in literature departments" has pushed out many who are put off by its difficulty and obscurity, leaving creative writing as the “safe haven for discussion of literature,” Shivani said. The divorce between the two approaches – one “fetishizing the author,” the other refusing “even [to] admit that there is an author” – has exacerbated the present-day system wherein writing is taught with “no basis of comparison,” and the norm is “validation of the individual experience, regardless of what it is.”

The flip side of all this validation, Shivani argues in Against the Workshop (and elsewhere), is that personal experience has become the only acceptable topic for literature.  “In workshop, the process is of subtraction (just as in focus groups run by dumb politicians appealing to the dumbest among the electorate): let’s take away everything that can’t be agreed on as ruffling no feathers, daring into no unpredictable verbal territory.”

“Workshop’s main problem,” he added to Inside Higher Ed, “seems to be to dilute ambition, to produce works not of ambition.” (Over the course of the interview, he compared workshop creative writing to "Portlandia" – “Fred Armisen could do a segment on writing workshops” – the blog "Stuff White People Like"; and Whole Foods – “It’s very wholesome, it’s very politically correct, it’s very safe.”)

Shivani also objects to M.F.A. programs from a pragmatic standpoint. While the programs themselves proliferate, the teaching jobs for which they prepare their students dwindle with each passing year. Like law students or Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, M.F.A. students (outside the top, funded programs) often go into massive debt to finance their tuition and living expenses, and their employment outcomes tend to be even worse: “What can you really do with that [degree] except try to pay off your debts and get a real job?”

And MFA programs, Shivani said, haven’t yet drawn the public outcry and scrutiny that law schools, in particular, have received of late. “I think there’s an issue of false promise here,” he said. “I think that’s causing a lot of misery for a lot of graduates.”  

Capitalism vs. Art

One of the fundamental themes of "Seminar," Rebeck said, is “What does it mean to be an artist in this world we live in now?… What does it mean to be an artist in a capitalist society?”

“I’m not so sure that having the critics endorse you is a sign that you’re a terrific writer,” she added. “It is a sign that you’ll make a lot of money.”  Writers and other artists, she said, have, of necessity, come to terms with “how irrational it all is.”

The characters in "Seminar" have all done that in their own way, Rebeck said. Izzy, for example, “is about knowing what she has to offer and exploiting it. … That’s an authentic character out there: people who don’t think, ‘I’m gonna change literature,’ [but rather,] ‘I’m gonna make a lot of money.’ “

While the same issues lie at the heart of Shivani’s work, his response is less accommodating. “How is the writer, in our hypercapitalist culture, to survive [without entering academe?]” he writes in Against the Workshop.

“Marry a rich (or at least a self-sufficient) woman; it’s a time-honored custom. Steal, cheat, borrow, lie, move to rural Vermont and live in a shack and grow your own food, do anything but sell your soul to the academy.”

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