Not long ago,this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.
I’ve just finished Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and all I can think of is the eulogy that Owl Eyes offers for Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a bitch.”
Robert Boynton: “And then there’s this crazed paparazzi, investigative-reporter approach” (qtd. in Chapter 14 of Salinger, “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”)
This “official book of the acclaimed documentary film,” presents enough contradictions to keep us busy until the publication of those new Salinger works promised in the final chapter. The title of that last chapter is “Secrets,” which sums up the tawdry tabloid-like endeavor of book and film combined. If Shields and Salerno had stopped with two-thirds of the material on World War II, they might have produced a slim book of value. Meanwhile, this quasi-oral-biography — it’s closer to a pastiche — just goes on and on; it’s a fine example of what Joyce Carol Oates, who is quoted here, along with other critics, actors, nursemaids, and lovers, would call pathography.
J. D. Salinger: “I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me . . .”
But not, apparently, Salerno, whose writing credits include "Armageddon," "Alien vs. Predator," and "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," or Shields, who is probably best-known for his 2010 book, Reality Hunger, a collage “built from scraps” about what people really want from literature.
Michael Clarkson: “I started thinking. . . . He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.”
Who, you may ask, is Michael Clarkson? The introduction promises 12 “conversations with Salinger,” — “revealing encounters” that will “place the reader on increasingly intimate terms with an author who had been adamantly inaccessible for more than half a century.” The first conversation features Michael Clarkson, who wrote a 4,000 word-essay about his hounding of Salinger and whose previous 15 minutes of fame involved a People magazine story about his “encounters with Salinger.” The second and last encounter started with the uninvited Clarkson staring in through the glass doors of Salinger’s home and inventorying the contents.
As he told Salinger, “Jerry, I wouldn’t have bothered you — I wouldn’t have barged in like this — if you’d answered my letters.” Clarkson feels perfectly justified: “He’s never given [his fans], really, two cents.” Really? What about those four books?
This book is riddled by these sorts of unquestioned contradictions. First there is the form and nature of the book itself, a companion to a film that was based largely on another book (Paul Alexander’s Salinger: A Biography; Alexander’s voice is just one in the chorus here). So we have a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in scraps.
Salerno and Shields point out that Salinger would have hated this book; they assert, repeatedly, that Salinger’s absorption in Vedanta Hinduism destroyed his writing (also variously referred to as “work” or “art”) and then they — or at least Salerno — list a series of forthcoming manuscripts. (Salerno’s absurdly wordy “Acknowledgments” section ends with “I look forward with great anticipation to reading the work Salinger diligently produced from 1965 until his death in 2010"; Shields isn’t as excited — the work may be “genius” or it may be “inchoate” (Chapter 20, “A Million Miles Away in His Tower”). In this book, Salinger can’t get a break. First he’s slammed for “writing for the slicks” and for wanting to publish in The New Yorker; then he’s slammed for not publishing. (And Shields calls Salinger “completely contradictory” and “hypocritical”! See Chapter 19, “A Private Citizen.”)
Billy Collins: “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone. . . I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”
Wait, that’s Collins talking about Jean Shepherd on the back cover of Eugene B. Bergman’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. It’s Edward Norton and John Cusack who say similar praiseworthy things about Salinger and Holden Caulfield. Playwright John Guare, however, thinks that there is cause to be “very, very troubled” by the fact that “three people used [Catcher] “as the justification for killing somebody” (see his entries in the print companion and his featured scene in the sensationalistic trailer). That’s three readers of a book “that has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide,” according to Salerno in an earlier chapter. Salerno continues: “And if 65 million people have bought the book, that means that hundreds of millions are likely to have read it” (Chapter 10, “Is the Kid in this Book Crazy?”). You can, however, read all about those three people here in a lengthy chapter called “Assassins,” and in which you’ll learn that Mark David Chapman also liked "The Wizard of Oz" and the Bible.
Holden Caulfield; “I hate the movies like poison.... The movies can ruin you.”
Shields and Salerno note several times that Holden Caulfield (named for two movie stars -- just one of a number of connections they miss) says he hates the movies but is in fact drawn to them. The movies, of course, aren’t real. Have you seen the trailer for Salinger? It looks like the sequel to "Armageddon."
Shields and Salerno: “What he wanted was privacy” (Introduction, Salinger, “The Official Book, etc.)
But really, according to Shields and Salerno, echoing Paul Alexander, Salinger wasn’t a “true recluse”; it was just a ploy to get attention. And so on the book goes, rehashing not only news stories and faux news stories but the stories of Joyce Maynard, Margaret Salinger, and Ian Hamilton, along with accounts of legal proceedings, speculations about Salinger’s first wife, and detailed accounts of snacks (popcorn), meals (“Birds Eye frozen Tiny Tender Peas, not cooked, but with warm water poured over them,” for breakfast and the $12 roast beef plate at dinners at the First Congregational Church), and beverages (hot chocolate and urine). The tone of the book veers from gleefulness to somber proselytizing; it exhorts and chastises; it often seems angry.
Buddy Glass: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet”
In contrast to Salinger’s style, the writing here is over the top: The “main impulse” of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “is to protect [Salinger’s] death-dealing soul” (Introduction to Chapter 14: “A Terrible, Terrible Fall”). Other examples of overwriting include describing Catcher as “an assassination manual”(Introduction to Chapter 18) and Salinger’s life as “a slow-motion suicide mission” (Shields and Salerno, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion”). We’re told that “Salinger walked into a concentration camp and never walked out” (Salerno’s line: one he likes so much that he repeated it on "The Colbert Report"), and that “The cure never took, because he was the disease” (Chapter 21). And then there is Shield’s exegesis of Nine Stories, “Follow the Bullet” (Chapter 12), which is just too depressing to revisit.
Holden Caulfield: “You mean to go a psychoanalyst and all?... What would he do to me?”
Much of the limited information is repeated several times, culminating in the penultimate chapter, Chapter 21, “Jerome David Salinger: A Conclusion,” which offers a précis of the preceding 590 pages, a sort of guide to the guide. Taking a quote from one of Salinger’s letters, “I’m a condition, not a man,” Salerno and Shields list “10 conditions”, beginning with “Anatomy” and “Oona” and ending with “Detachment” (“War” comes in at third place, “Girls” at eighth). One condition that seems overlooked is generational: men and women of Salinger’s generation just didn’t talk about “it.”
Shane Salerno: “There is no question that the manuscripts exist. The question is, What are they?”
An informal survey of the breakfast crowd at the Seaview Restaurant in Wickford, R.I., where I finished reading Salinger: The Book, revealed some interesting alternate predictions for the contents of the vault:
Thousands of blank pages beneath a single cover sheet that reads: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Silence.”
Copies of hundreds of pulp fiction stories and crime-noir novels published between 1965 and 2008 under pseudonyms that include Elmore Leonard and Stephen King.
Thousands of pages filled with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Thousands of pages filled with “Praises to the Buddha, or something like that.”
30 pristine typed copies of The Catcher in the Rye.
“Just [a] cigar, in a small nice box. Possibly with a blank sheet of paper enclosed, by way of explanation.”
Shane Salerno: “Finally, I want to thank Jerome David Salinger for living such an extraordinary life and one that I devoted nearly a decade to telling honestly” (“Acknowledgments”).
Holden Caulfield: “I felt like I was disappearing.”
The title alone of D. T. Max’s new book on David Foster Wallace -- a phrase that Wallace liked so much he used it several times -- seems more insightful about Salinger than do the 500-plus pages between the covers of Salinger: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”
I mean, Jesus H. Christ, enough already.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.
I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
Creative writing has its share of detractors, those who believe that the study of and teaching of creative writing produces deleterious effects for students and for literature. For example, in "Poetry Vs. Ambition," Donald Hall worries that invention exercises (writing warm-ups which help writers find their subject) in writing classrooms "reduce poetry to a parlor game," producing "McPoems" on assembly lines. "Abolish the M.F.A.!" states Hall with an exclamation point, and then, in Latin, he cries, "The Iowa Writers Workshop must be destroyed."
Hall’s essay reflects a particularly unproductive strand of criticism aimed at creative writing that has arisen of late. Anis Shivani is perhaps its most recent practitioner, with a soapbox on which to stand, but certainly not the only detractor. Indeed, when Shivani’s critiques of creative writing programs emerged, preceding the publication of his book Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) many of us were approached by creative writing colleagues wanting to know what we thought of this brash new critique of the workshop. What they didn’t understand was that his assertions weren’t new at all, but by boldly ignoring the scholarly conversations that had been going on about this subject for many years — a fact made plain by what is missing in the book, specifically in the works cited — Shivani was able to create a scholarly stance that acted as if they were.
In fact, what Shivani, Hall and others practice is better termed a "new old criticism" — new because it proliferates in electronic social media, old because it rehashes simplistic assertions that have been around for decades. This argument has three major problems: First, its rhetorical stance is far more appropriate for talk radio than for a serious scholarly or public debate; its practitioners refuse to engage with the actual arguments of those with whom they disagree. Second, this new old criticism is rooted in dated and limited assumptions about what creative writing is and can be.
In reading this criticism, one can see that it is aimed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops as they are said to have existed in the 1950s; there is no admission of the diversification and complexity of creative writing that has flourished in the decades since then. Third, this new old criticism is stuck within a narcissistic worldview. It perceives an age-old challenge — the difficulty of writers finding readers in a world where print technology proliferates — as a personal affront. The new old criticism drapes itself in a narrow banner of great art, adopting the hubristic stance that a writer can actually know with certainty that he or she is producing such great art in the moment of creating it.
So should everyone associated with creative writing programs pack up and shut our doors? This isn’t going to happen. The horse is out of the barn. Creative writing classes are more popular than ever, in part because they offer not just a means of expression but an alternative to theory-laden literary analysis.
The real questions are: How can we best design our curriculums and our classes to best serve the needs of our students? What can we do to ensure that creative writing — the teachers, the students, the courses, the programs — has a positive impact on contemporary literature? Which aspects of creative writing — the writing itself as a process and as a product of our efforts — can be taught, and what are the best practices for such teaching? How does creative writing fit into English departments, into the liberal arts generally, and into the colleges and universities where it is housed? Finally, in our breathtakingly tight economy, what kinds of careers and lives are creative writing students being prepared for?
Given the scope of its critical mass, creative writing stands as a knowledge-based discipline. Rather than associate knowledge with certainty as traditional academic models often do, the knowledge in creative writing is in the discovery that takes the writer beyond the routines and in the questions that arise and that are answered through the writing process. Study of writing through reading and writing is the methodology we use; this mode of knowledge acquisition leads to new conclusions. Knowledge through practice, through doing, through thinking about and talking about what we’re doing. To wit, we have observed that the "flipped" classroom, in which students absorb lectures online outside of class and come to class to work hands-on with the material, has become the latest trend in college teaching.
By engaging students in hands-on work on their own writing and that of others, the oft-maligned "workshop," which has evolved over the years to suit varying constituents, undergraduates, graduate students, general education students and majors, has modeled a "flipped" classroom almost since its inception. This conversation about creative writing also speaks to what has become recently known as the crisis in the humanities. Helene Moglen, in the latest issue of the Modern Language Association's Profession, gives a convincing overview of a crisis that goes back to the 1980s, with the report called "A Nation at Risk." Among the few causes of the crisis in the humanities that Moglen defines are "internal disagreements about the appropriate development of our disciplines" and "prevalent social attitudes toward education that assume irrelevance of humanistic study."
David Fenza, of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, points out, in his history of creative writing in higher education, that "creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities." To meet demand, creative writing programs have at least tripled in number in the last 30 years, and many of us are housed in English departments. If the humanities are in crisis, creative writing is not. In fact, creative writing is not only healthy within the academy but has relevance beyond it. Contemporary literature, after all, is written by creative writers, whether or not they have earned an M.F.A. This relevance offers an example for other disciplines, a way to resist prevalent social attitudes that overlook the value and contributions of the arts and humanities to our culture and our daily lives.
Finally, many creative writing programs have recognized that while most students won’t necessarily go on to become the next Jonathan Franzen (just like most violin students won’t play with the National Symphony, or sculpture students exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn), they do want to work in creative industries. A survey of the curriculums of many of these programs, which usually offer courses not only in creativity and craft but also in new media, editing and publishing, reveals that they prepare students to do just that.
The sniping about what’s appropriate for our discipline or whether creative writing should even be an academic discipline emerges, however, from within our ranks. Hall has taught workshops and visited creative writing programs to read his work, and Shivani is a creative writer as well as a critic. Airing our internal disagreements and pitting writers against each other — outside or within the academy — does few of us any good and invites a sense of crisis in creative writing when there isn’t one. Let’s do our research. Let’s have productive conversations.
People who shoot the occasional salvo at creative writing aren’t really interested in taking part in a conversation, but we are, and we invite others in our midst to join us in this ongoing conversation about our discipline. This discussion can shape the healthy development of creative writing, position us positively within academe, and shift social attitudes toward a better future for literature and learning.
Tim Mayers is author of (Re) Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Dianne Donnelly is the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing.
Tom Hunley is an associate professor at Western Kentucky university. His books include The Poetry Gymnasium, Teaching Poetry Writing and Octopus.
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. She teaches at Chapman University.
Stephanie Vanderslice is professor of writing and director of the Arkansas Writer's M.F.A. Workshop, at the University of Central Arkansas.
“A poem,” wrote William Carlos Williams toward the end of World War II, “is a small (or large) machine of words.” I’ve long wondered if the good doctor -- Williams was a general practitioner in New Jersey who did much of his writing between appointments – might have come up with this definition out of weariness with the flesh and all its frailties. Traditional metaphors about “organic” literary form usually imply a healthy and developing organism, not one infirm and prone to messes. The poetic mechanism is, in Williams’s vision, “pruned to a perfect economy,” and there is “nothing sentimental about a machine.”
Built for efficiency, built to last. The image this evoked 70 years ago was probably that of an engine, clock, or typewriter. Today it’s more likely to be something with printed circuits. And a lot of poems in literary magazines now seem true to form in that respect: The reader has little idea how they work or what they do, but the circuitry looks intricate, and one assumes it is to some purpose.
I had much the same response to the literary scholarship Matthew L. Jockers describes and practices in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (University of Illinois Press). Jockers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The literary material he handles is prose fiction -- mostly British, Irish, and American novels of the 18th and 19th centuries -- rather than poetry, although some critics apply the word “poem” to any literary artifact. In the approach Jockers calls “macroanalysis,” the anti-sentimental and technophile attitude toward literature defines how scholars understand the literary field, rather than how authors imagine it. The effect, in either case, is both tough-minded and enigmatic.
FollowingFranco Moretti’s program for extending literary history beyond the terrain defined by the relatively small number of works that remain in print over the decades and centuries, Macroanalysis describes “how a new method of studying large collections of digital material can help us to understand and contextualize the individual works within those collections.”
Instead of using computer-based tools to annotate or otherwise explore a single work or author, Jockers looks for verbal patterns across very large reservoirs of text, including novels that have long since been forgotten. The author notes that only “2.3 percent of the books published in the U.S. between 1927 and 1946 are still in print” (even that figure sounds high, and may be inflated by the recent efforts of shady print-on-demand “publishers” playing fast and loose with copyright) while the most expansive list of canonical 19th-century British novels would represent well under 1 percent of those published.
Collections such as the Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library available for analysis. Add to this the capacity to analyze the metadata about when and where the books were published, as well as available information on the authors, and you have a new, turbocharged sort of philology – one covering wider swaths of literature than even the most diligent and asocial researcher could ever read.
Or would ever want to, for that matter. Whole careers have been built on rescuing “unjustly neglected” authors, of course, but oblivion is sometimes the rightful outcome of history and a mercy for everyone involved. At the same time, the accumulation of long-unread books is something like a literary equivalent of the kitchen middens that archeologists occasionally dig up – the communal dumps, full of leftovers and garbage and broken or outdated household items. The composition of what’s been discarded and the various strata of it reveal aspects of everyday life of long ago.
Jockers uses his digital tools to analyze novels by, essentially, crunching them -- determining what words appear in each book, tabulating the frequency with which they are used, likewise quantifying the punctuation marks, and working out patterns among the results according to the novel’s subgenre or publication date, or biographical data about the author such as gender, nationality, and regional origin.
The findings that the author reports tend to be of a very precise and delimited sort. The words like, young, and little “are overrepresented in Bildungsroman novels compared to the other genres in the test data.” There is a “high incidence of locative prepositions” (over, under, within, etc.) in Gothic fiction, which may be “a direct result of the genre’s being ‘place oriented.’” That sounds credible, since Gothic characters tend to find themselves moving around in dark rooms within ruined castles with secret passageways and whatnot.
After about 1900, Irish-American authors west of the Mississippi began writing more fiction than their relations on the other side of the river, despite their numbers being fewer and thinner on the ground. Irish-American literature is Jockers’s specialty, and so this statistically demonstrable trend proves of interest given that “the history of Irish-American literature has had a decidedly eastern bias…. Such neglect is surprising given the critical attention that the Irish in the West have received from American and Irish historians.”
As the familiar refrain goes: More research is needed.
Macroanalysis is really a showcase for the range and the potential of what the author calls “big data” literary study, more than it is a report on its discoveries. And his larger claim for this broad-sweep combination of lexometric and demographic correlation-hunting – what Moretti calls “distant reading” -- is that it can help frame new questions about style, thematics, and influence that can be pursued through more traditional varieties of close reading.
And he’s probably right about that, particularly if the toolkit includes methods for identifying and comparing semantic and narrative elements across huge quantities of text. (Or rather, when it includes them, since that’s undoubtedly a matter of time.)
Text-crunching methodologies offer the possibility of establishing verifiable, quantifiable, exact results in a field where, otherwise, everything is interpretive, hence interminably disputable. This sounds either promising or menacing. What will be more interesting, if we ever get it, is technology that can recognize and understand a metaphor and follow its implications beyond the simplest level of analogy. A device capable of, say, reading Williams’s line about the poem as machine and then suggesting something interesting about it – or formulating a question about what it means.