Against the Workshop
Provocations, Polemics, Controversies
Huntsville, Texas: Texas Review Press, 2011
Paperback. 300 pages. ISBN 9781-933896724. $24.95
Reviewed by John W. Presley
Illinois State University
Invariably, it’s the Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate’s mediocre, if not outright pathetic, first book of stories or poetry that gets the contract via the semi-literate visiting agent’s link with the New York publisher, while more talented writers, not affiliated with the writing programs, keep slaving away in the anonymity of the little magazines .
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Against the Workshop is his explanation for the sorry state of much current American poetry and prose. The book is bitter and accusatory, harsh, forthright, ignoring the usual dogma and in fact written to shatter that dogma. Shivani names names. His book is “not nice.”
Shivani places the responsibility for all the bad creative writing we see now directly at the foot of the university tower:
... today fiction writers are really academics, in thrall to heavy teaching work loads, enamored of conferences and colonies, committed to correcting grammar in composition classes and putting up with undergraduate writing, in love with distractions, domesticity, family values, self-restraint, and linearity. They are university employees who happen to have a slight talent for writing. Tens of thousands of well-meaning middle class individuals believe they can be writers [but] there is too much writing .
The universities’ expansion of writing workshops (they are very strong status markers) over-produces bad writing, and thus creates a surprising artificial demand:
... obscure literary journals that even graduate writing students don’t read but use as credits to land jobs teaching other illiterates how to become writing teachers... The MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programs are killing writing in this country .
Forgive, please, my long quotations—but Shivani’s tone is as important as his argument, and equally enjoyable.
These university creative writing workshops and their status are relatively new on the scene. As recently as 1980, in Showdown Semester: Advice from a Writing Professor, Martin Ross (an author in 1980 of six novels) describes how he was fired from his post teaching in an early version of the writing workshop by “English professors, who should understand writers better than anyone [but] seem to understand them least” . Ross’s shortcoming that led to his being fired was that his novels with military settings were too popular. Pages 47-53 of Showdown Semester offer some of the most insightful—read cynical—and specific descriptions of the activities in creative writing workshops—until Shivani.
Nearly a decade later, in 1989, Ben Siegel’s The American Writer and the University explored the “bittersweet mix” of the university and great novelists such as Bellow, Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates. Even as these novelists drew characters based on professors (the central character of Oates’ latest novel, Mudwoman, is a university president) and set their novels in academe, there existed great tension and mutual distrust between writers and English professors. As James Ragan says in his essay in Siegel’s collection, “A Personal View: The Academy and the ‘You Know’ Generation,” creative writers encountered in the university an “order imposed by a bureaucratic overlay of workshops and curricula, formal lectures and faculty committees ... amid students in a classroom where limitations are placed on their Dionysian impulses.” Ragan says that the result of this rush to job security by creative artists, this “hustle-hype,” is that now American readers are simply expecting “less quality in the art ... and a falling out of love with language” [161-170].
So why have so many writers now fled to university campuses? Shivani concludes that “contemporary literary fiction has chosen to marginalize itself from mainstream culture” . This fiction is written in a language like “silly putty, shaped and reshaped at the will of the writing instructor, or the ghost hovering over the writer” . All since these new artists are “used to monitoring and being monitored, inhabiting a world where health insurance is a given and a steady paycheck expected, and where indices and measurement of success proliferate” .
Poets and Writers Magazine exemplifies and illustrates the new demand for writing from academic workshops, their teachers, students, alumni and “wannabees.” The March/April 2011 issue was headlined by the article “65 Writing Vacations: Where Will You Go This Year?” July/August was the Literary Agents issue (May/June had been the Writing Contests issue), but the biggest issue of the year was September/October 2011, which featured rankings of the top 115 MFA programs in the United States, and had twice the pages of any other issue and featured more than twice as many advertisements (mainly from the 115 listed writing workshops, of course).
Note that this proliferation and valuing of the writing workshop and all its ramifications is not without controversy, sometimes both sides being argued in the same journal. While at some points Poets and Writers Magazine has gone to pains to explain to its readers that “reading fees” charged by little magazines for submitted manuscripts are not immoral, it has on occasion printed letters and articles critical of the workshop approach, even as the magazine began in 2010 to rank the programs. Nonetheless at least one anonymous blogger originally commenting on the rankings at the Poets and Writers website was quite grateful: “I am an undergrad, a sophomore, and I want to get an MFA ... And, as someone who lives below the poverty level, I appreciate the rankings ... poor folks like myself [sic] rely on such thoroughness” .
Poets and Writers published the blogger’s declaration of gratitude, but no one noted the irony of the claim that the MFA degree can relieve poverty with other features of the magazine: on page 85 of that same issue, in a regular feature called “The Practical Writer,” the reader is instructed on the precise way in which to submit fiction, poetry, or criticism to the highly-regarded Agriculture Reader. This literary journal has a circulation of 500, no distributor, and is published annually. An average of 250 submissions per year (this time, no reading fee was mentioned) jostle for a home on one of its 120 pages. A published piece earns its author one copy of the issue. (Of course, this is rather the economy of academic scholarship elsewhere in the English Department, even for most professors: publish an article, get a free copy. Period.)
Shivani includes a very accurate description of Poets and Writers and its real functions in the literary marketplace that has arisen to feed on the literature and on the writers themselves who have been so overproduced by academic writing workshops [292-295]. But even though his Against the Workshop contains a devastating review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Shivani is not so concerned with the standards of living for workshop graduates, even if these standards have resulted in a debate about the advisability of enrolling students in such curricula, a debate that has spread to higher education forums such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd.com. No, Shivani’s focus is on the effects the workshop approach has on American literature. In fact he illustrates in his book reviews scattered through his text that “the most interesting writing today comes from writers born in the developing world, or with a close orientation to it.” These authors are “still playing out the clash of classes in their thrilling narratives.” Does any other country’s higher education so train, coddle, and finally profit from its writers as does the huge university industry in the United States? And much of American literature shrinks in comparison .
And Shivani forcefully illustrates this point of view in his reviews. Jorie Graham is, he says, “the leading poet of the age who aspires more than anyone else to trigger no sensation whatsoever.” Using Graham’s “A Feather for Voltaire” Shivani sees Graham “lost in clouds of pseudo-philosophical confusion in the random emptiness of her private world,” her “true project” being “to strip language of all significance, all resonance” [34-37].
Shivani accuses Sharon Olds of “extreme biological determinism,” writing poems in which “the body’s functions are elevated to the level of cosmic event.” But the “experience is hers only” with “nothing of a connection” because “striving for universalism, after all, is the great bugaboo of the academic establishment” [39-41]. His harsh summing-up: “When Olds is not observing body parts, she seems at a loss” .
A long essay in which Shivani surveys Louis Gluck’s work from 1968 to 2001 all depends from his first sentence in the review: “Like Graham and Olds, Louise Gluck is a poet of modest talents reaching for more than what she is capable of.” Shivani continues this tone, marking Gluck as “eventually taking herself too seriously until she sputters out in pseudo-profundity.” While her first book “engaged well with the outer world, keeping the narcissism of the perplexed self,” since that first attempt “her thematics” have become “a sort of Plath for the moderately depressed” .
Shivani’s victims are not all female. Even Philip Levine, “who professes a working class background and disattachment to academia ... has settled into making a revelation of non-revelatory moments” [53-54]. Levine’s “To a Child Trapped in a Barbershop” is offered as an example of the poet’s “humorless plea for the poet to be heard by the powers that be.” Levine is accused of “not leaving anything unsaid” . In his work ... “mundane events are glorified, raised to the level of transcendence, before mockery takes over” .
Perhaps the most vitriolic is Shivani’s review of Billy Collins, sometimes called America’s favorite poet. Collins, Shivani says, is a poet of “banal preoccupations” whose “risk-averseness” has made him “America’s biggest-selling poet of serious intent. Having had a taste of celebrity, Collins has stepped easily into the myth prepared for him by the literary circuit” . In a very memorable image, Shivani sees Collins as “a smiling grown-up solving the Sunday crossword puzzle in his poetry’s single mindedly predictable imaginative exercises” .
Now, Shivani is hardly alone in these views. In an interview with Serena Golden, Professor John Timberman Newcomb says “some recent verse I’ve read seems primarily or entirely concerned with the inner life of the poet—his or her responses to the natural world, to works of art, to somewhat rarefied emotional states ... but poetry can and must also speak to the mundane, to the political, the technological—to every aspect of 21st century experience,” an observation reflected in his first book on the subject Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity. In his second book on the subject, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse, Newcomb argues that American poetry has been “segregated ... from modern social experience,” with the effect that poetry is barely considered now to be “literature” [quoted in Golden]. This new view of the place of poetry may be demonstrated by noting that Newcomb and his publisher felt it necessary to create a website offering the complete text of every poem to which he refers in his book—as though no one could find copies of the poems elsewhere!
And other critics decry the state of modern American poetry as well, and then attempt to offer solutions, or to find hope in a few poets. Marjory Perloff, for example, argues that “the culture of prizes, professorships, and political correctness” has become “the dominant poetry culture of our time . Rather like Shivani, Perloff describes the paradigmatic structure of nearly all current poems in America’s most prestigious journals:
1) Irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian formalists called “the word as such;”
2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of poeticity);
3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain [1-2].
While Perloff is most interested in predicting a new poetry that will repair and replace (and rescue) all this (she offers a rather bizarre “mesostic” form , a sort of allusive, mechanical “mash up”), Shivani, it must be remembered, is interested in the origins cited by Perloff and enabling mechanisms that make such a rescue necessary.
What rescue does Perloff offer? Well, just as a rapper like Snoop Dog (Snoop Lion, as he now prefers) might “cover” another song by, say, using a well-known bass line from Vanilla Ice, or even by adding full verses to a video of a Katy Perry song, so in Perloff’s examples of “Conceptualist” poems: John Cage’s “Writing for the First Time through Howl,” in which Cage sets up the letters of Allen Ginsberg’s name in one-word lines. Or in “Frolic Architecture” by Susan Howe, in which “There is not an original word ... it is all recycled text, the poet functioning as arranger, framer, reconstructor, visual and sound artist and, above all, as the maker of pivotal choices” . The poet has become a stringer of quotes, an acrostic or crossword puzzle builder.
Shivani’s main points are these: workshops produce insipid, formulaic writing; the workshop system is bad for all writers, a cultural disaster; the workshop approach produces writers who avoid all risks, especially significant current issues, so that only personal experience is appropriate as a topic or even narrative. Most serious of all these effects is that the workshop stifles or dilutes ambition, substituting “wholesome … very politically correct work ... very safe” work instead. “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 feathers, daring into no unpredictable verbal territory” .
The MFA programs are killing writing in this country ... Fiction writers, bred through the democratic process, are told that their every insight is valid (no, it’s not); that there can be no judgment banishing them to the ghetto of the failed and uninspired .
So the real failure of modern fiction is its political failure:
... writing for peers, removed from the insecurity of the market ... or land[ing] $50,000 or $100,000 awards, but these are contingent on their own good standing in the academy; to preserve their status, they must always write for their peers, not the common reader. Academia makes a lot of show of being in touch with the times, but as its utter inability to respond to the last few years of fascism suggests, reality of an intractable kind cannot be allowed to penetrate the temples . . . .
Writers in the academy are freed for these exercises by “having skipped the front-page headlines, the mayhem and chaos on the planet” . Perhaps they are busy with the crossword puzzles and the acrostics, but it is these writers’ inattention to the headlines that creates the very worst result of the writing workshop.
Shivani may be at his most entertaining (and damning) when discussing the very specific techniques that he says are frequently overused in the context of the writing workshop. A perfect example is the subject of his essay “Voice in Fiction: A Favorite MFA/Writing Program Shibboleth” included in Against the Workshop. Here he argues bluntly “What the hell does ‘voice’ mean?” comparing the concept of voice with “talking about tonality in poetry. It has the same kind of meaninglessness” . The emptiness of “voice” is demonstrated by asking if James Joyce’s voice is different in Dubliners and Ulysses. Shivani’s conclusion: “he didn’t find his voice until after he died, I guess. Maybe after Finnegans Wake he’d have found his voice” .
Style is a different issue, “much less conducive to hyperventilation”  than is voice:
Talking about style is different—and much more difficult and off-putting. Style suggests endless experiments with technique, rigorous effort, deep training in the canon, elaboration and enhancement rather than sanguine discovery by subtraction, the possibility of change over time, crossover (positive and negative) effects within genres (Rushdie’s essays versus his fiction) the linkages connecting one to the important developments in the reign of the language. The language itself changes—locally, globally—even in one’s own lifetime, and that has everything to do with style .
The very complexity of style is a primary reason why workshop professors stick with voice as a descriptor and as a goal. But “to think that you possess a voice of your own is delusional” . And how does this delusion at the center of the workshop classroom function? “How does one critique voice anyway? What does one say, except utter inanities?” In the end, the workshops’ central purpose is pointless: “It has the same philosophical value as the equally bullshit ‘Show don’t tell’ or ‘Write what you know’” . All this places voice “beyond critique. You either have it or don’t have it” .
By now, the MFA guild demonstrates all the rituals of medieval guilds. Even “the annual bacchanal, the AWP [Association of Writing Programs] gathering with almost 10,000 assembled practitioners ... celebrates pedagogy and publication and prestige” . Those of us who have attended academic conferences will recognize the distinctions among “ubermasters, ordinary masters, preferred journeymen, struggling journeymen, and apprentices” .
Journeymen conduct panels where they are duly modest, democratic, and multiculturally astute. Readings accommodate every apprentice, of however modest talent—this is one of the inborn rights of apprenticeship, to be able to read to an appreciative audience .
But the “high performance art” of a Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg is absent. Instead, the modern reading “is an endorsement of the democracy of talent, and that alone.” I think of the sometimes-talented writers whom I have seen in readings when I read Shivani describing “writers as stand-up comedians, seeking desperately to hold the audience’s attention, to get its love and approval ... not a pretty sight” .
These 10,000 or so apprentices, and all those many who have preceded them and are now workshop alumni, are beginning to infiltrate major publishing houses, Shivani points out, and the “MFA house style” is finding increased acceptance . Will the quality of American writing continue its decline? In Shivani’s view, the answer, very unfortunately, is yes.
Abramson, Seth. “The MFA Revolution: Ranking the Nation’s Best Programs.” Poets and Writers Magazine. September/October, 2010.
Carvingcarver [pseudonym]. “Helpful Rankings.” Poets and Writers Magazine, January/February 2011 : 11.
Golden, Serena. “How did Poetry Survive?” InsideHigherEd.com.July 16, 2012. Online access
Perloff, Marjory. “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric.” Boston Review. May/June, 2012. Online access
Ragan, James. “A Personal View: The Academy and the ‘You Know?’ Generation.” In Siegel infra : 161-178.
Ross, Martin. Showdown Semester: Advice from a Writing Professor. New York: Crown, 1980.
Siegel, Ben (ed.) The American Writer and the University. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
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