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[MAY 2011.]

A Hobby-Horse on the King's Highway

I.

Granted, we can only measure literary excellence on our own terms, and the task of elevating individual authors high above their numerous accomplished peers has become increasingly difficult. This may have produced, as with the disappearance of the .400 hitter in professional baseball, a kind of optical illusion of encroaching mediocrity; being the dominant figure in Shakespeare's or even Pound's time was, by comparison to today, as easy as cake. But seriously, laying aside our anachronistic prejudices for the One over the Many Ones, moving our minds from the Pound Era into the Program Era, do we not bear daily witness to a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches? Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone (especially considering the excellence of television) has time to read?

What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?

—Mark McGurl, “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction,” Critical Inquiry 52 (Autumn 2005)

I first read McGurl's salvo a year or two after it came out, and it had the intended effect of making me scratch my head and wonder whether he was serious. To describe art as an economic engine whose productivity might be pushed ever upward isn't a new idea, but it's certainly an unpopular one; so McGurl has some good academic fun embracing its unpopularity and daring the reader to rebut him. Would a rebuttal not be nostalgic, and reactionary, and Romantic, and other such childish things we should put away? I don't begrudge him his fun, and I'm happy to think that his provocation, expanded as it is to book length, has things to tell us about American writing since 1930. My MFA and my Ph.D. both are well-pedigreed, and following Groucho Marx's sociology of clubs, I can't claim much allegiance to either institution. But McGurl's latest conversation has turned a touch nasty, and I dislike nastiness, and find myself wanting to back the other team.

Start with “excellence.” As anyone knows who's lately spent time near a public university, that word is the administrator’s cliché, and in selling things to other administrators, or to the public, its uses are endless. It has no denotation (in my mind it vaguely calls up a laureled athlete or some such), but it seems necessary that the excellent person or thing be singular. To excel is to be skimmed out from the massed unsung. That this performance word, which organizations use to justify themselves, looks like a noun and so seems to denote a quality or state that can be pursued and achieved, leads to rich idiocies. Creative writing programs are forever being asked to explain how creative writing can be taught, how anyone entering such a program can expect to emerge after two years as a writer, that is a hero and exemplar. A field of impartially distributed excellence is a conceptual problem. McGurl, requiring distinction in his own field, takes it as an opportunity.

II.

ART. Leads to the workhouse. What use is it since machines can make things better and quicker?

—Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas

McGurl believes in Bourdieu's sociology without pity. He must believe in Flaubert as well, since studies of cultural production in the aggregate are also dictionaries of reigning cliché. It’s understood in English departments that the excavation of cliché is not necessarily an attack: there isn't any standpoint outside cliché, one age’s cliché is another’s Lebensform, these are the rails on which thought runs, and if they cramp its movement they are also the only way any movement is possible. This is meant to cure us of a vestigial Romanticism in our aesthetics. Still it smells like a scorched-earth project. Once McGurl has turned our reigning clichés into chapter titles (“Write What You Know,” “Show Don't Tell,” “Find Your Voice”), to garner any aesthetic pleasure from books founded on these principles starts to seem a grim task.

A lot of academics, especially Bourdieuvian ones, like to skirt or obviate the question of aesthetic pleasure. McGurl's book was cagey about whether he actually enjoyed the stuff he was studying, but his latest article lays down the cards. He does like postwar American authors. He names 53 of them. That's helpful; it brings some specificity to a chronically vague conversation. In the same breath he says a lot of off-putting things: that his years of study have given him an authority denied to “literary journalists” like Elif Batuman, who apparently hasn't read his list of 53 and doesn't know what she's talking about; that dissatisfaction with the idiom of contemporary fiction comes out of an opportunistic, Oedipal need to mark one's own place in the world; or else it equates to cultural conservatism, undemocratic leanings and sociopolitical regressiveness—this although (I know it's an easy arrow to sling) his list of 53 still seems heavy on white guys. I've read, I think, 41 of them, so if I still don't know what I'm talking about, I have no excuse. Anyway let's begin with multiculturalism, as long as the flag has been waved.

McGurl correctly identifies “voice” as the reigning cliché of recent decades, and further links it to the right conceptual clusters: the belief that speaking is always good in itself, that it is always the self which is spoken, that any kind of imaginative writing must comprehensibly reduce to speaking the self. The civil rights era spins these clusters into the category of multicultural literature: a big tent of differently colored booths whose representatives, in speaking themselves, serve as metonyms for fractions of America. Yet this category, as should be apparent to anyone who has read more than three "multicultural" books, doesn't come with much conceptual architecture. The Woman Warrior is not much like Love Medicine in its treatment of the cultural margin, and is nothing at all like Sula or Beloved. As novelists, Kingston and Erdrich and Morrison are ambivalent at best about the cliché of the voice; that is one strength of their novels. The people who do unreservedly subscribe to these clichés, and also seem to think these three are all the same writer, are the people who write their jacket copy. They know that multiculturalism sells as exoticism, as the opportunity to tour foreign subjectivities without taking on the work of dialogue outside one’s book club. Thus the spectacle, perhaps more common ten years ago, of the successful minority writer being attacked as a panderer and traitor, exploiting the people her book was supposed to advocate for. It's not the writer who should be taken to task.

The jacket copy, and the author photo, and the book tour, and the obligatory blog post and Facebook page, and the bizarre new development by which authors are encouraged to participate by phone in reading-group discussions of their work, all partake of the cliché of the voice, and do so for plain economic reasons. Nonfiction sells much better than fiction, and the best way for a publisher to make fiction attractive is to prop up the author behind the book; it's not an invented narrative on sale, but a real person! This logic, and other logics of the publishing industry, get left out of McGurl's analysis, though they certainly have more impact on contemporary fiction than anything that gets said in a writing workshop. Indeed sales have been pretty good, so far as we can tell. Production and consumption of fiction is copious and steady. This might have something to do with the imparting of craft that takes place in a writing workshop, but I wouldn't overstate it. All anyone wants in an MFA program is to get a book deal, and there are always more books being written than anyone will print. So if one were to look for homogenizing factors in our literature, one might consider that the Euro-American gatekeepers are now six: Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, Bertelsmann AG, CBS Corporation (formerly Viacom), Hachette Livre (formerly Time Warner), Pearson PLC (mostly Penguin), and News Corporation (Murdoch). These companies are not in business to take chances. They are interested in repeatable results with proven techniques. Agents decline what they can't sell to editors; editors decline what they can't sell to their bosses; bosses spit back what they don't think they can sell to the public. Efficiency and productivity, under certain metrics, are served by this system. It is not conducive to (to use another technocratic watchword) innovation.

III.

SORIN: We can't do without the theater.

TREPLEV: We need new forms. New forms are wanted, and if we can't have them, we might as well have nothing at all. I'm fond of my mother, very fond of her, but she leads such a fatuous life.

—Chekhov, The Seagull

McGurl has a little parable about poor old Thomas Wolfe, whose unglamorous posterity is meant to illustrate the perils of romantic genius without tempering craft. It's an odd moral to draw. I'd say that Wolfe was a perfectly competent writer, and that his problem was the simple bad luck of being contemporary with literary modernism without partaking of it. New forms were being built and saying things for which the nineteenth-century form lacked the equipment. To understand how form speaks, one needs to know some history of form, and to understand how conventions have changed; the lack of this historical sense in MFA fiction was one of Batuman's main complaints, and I think a reasonable one. Without that sense form doesn't get adopted strategically, to deliver a message. It gets adopted because it's the only tool in the box.

As long as McGurl is bringing up The Wire, one could look there for a current analogue. David Simon pitched the show to HBO as something qualitatively new:

It would, I will argue, be a more profound victory for HBO to take the essence of network fare and smartly turn it on its head, so that no one who sees HBO’s take on the culture of crime and crime fighting can watch anything like “C.S.I.” or “N.Y.P.D. Blue” or “Law & Order” again without knowing that every punch was pulled on those shows. For HBO to step toe-to-toe with NBC or ABC and create a cop show that seizes the highest qualitative ground through realism, good writing, and a more brutal assessment of police, police work, and the drug culture.

HBO had already decided to make innovation part of its brand, so they picked the show up and kept it going for five seasons. Its numbers were never extraordinary. Four million weekly viewers was a third of what The Sopranos got, and any other network would probably have canceled it after the first season. Certainly the six gatekeeping publishers would never have bit. To build up its rhetoric of realism, the show had to dump the traditional connective tissue between subplots and scenes, and it had to finish off its plot arcs at rock bottom. It did feel like a new form to me. It was a great ride.

Our fiction, lacking any functional equivalent to Simon's HBO, doesn't do this. What gets through the filters are McGurl's 53 names and their epigones. Because jeremiads are dull, I won't spend time whumping on these 53. I don't buy the claim that they form an especially diverse group, “from the richly flowing realism of Franzen or Russo or Eugenides on the one hand, to the compact strangeness of Saunders or Lydia Davis on the other.” I'd say the realism is flowing through century-old pipes, and the strangeness isn't strange enough. Our forms are still the forms of mainstreamed modernism, and after all this time it's no wonder that “find your voice” is all they have left to say.

This isn't about kicking people in the shins for their success. It's a lament for what gets left out. I'm glad to see small presses getting more traction; I hope the reaction against corporate publishing is sustainable. Being a bad businessman, I don't know whether business models are possible that won't smooth too many rough edges. It might end up not a business at all, but an affair of patronage and obstinacy, as in other eras.

Batuman gets McGurl's goat by suggesting that literature is inherently elitist. That's not the term I would pick, but I imagine I concur with her in saying that literature doesn't have much to do with labor or utility; that if it impacts material conditions by changing people's lives, that is not a very quantifiable effect; and that more great books than not are fated by their novelty or strangeness to address themselves to a relative few. These few are not an elite because income and education are not their prime selectors. László Krasznahorkai, whose books appear in the American trade press only because someone at New Directions decided to ignore the market, said a few years ago: “I had no message for readers who were not kind, not lonely, not weary nor sensitive, and I never will have.”

If I were pressed to define my few, I would say something like that.

On understanding form, Josh sends a link on teaching, which I wish I'd read back when I was plying that trade.

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