Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Possessed, or: Creative Writing and Curiosity

Elif Batuman's new memoir is compulsively readable and entertaining. But this is not a review, any more than my assessment of the book's physical properties was a review. Instead, it's a personal response to something from the book's beginning, and something close to its ending.

In her introduction (which you can read a version of here) Batuman writes of wanting to write a novel after graduating from college, and the choice she faced between the disciplines of creative writing and scholarship (specifically, comparative literature). She dismisses MFA programs "because I knew they made you pay tuition, and go to workshops. Whatever reservations I had about the usefulness of reading and analyzing great novels went double for reading and analyzing the writings of a bunch of kids like me" (17). But she does apply to go to an unnamed "artists' colony on Cape Cod," which I imagine was probably the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and is accepted. When she visits, she has the following conversation with the program's director:

"What will you do if you don't come here?" he asked. I told him I had applied to some graduate schools. There was a long pause. "Well, if you want to be an academic, go to graduate school," he said. "If you want to be a writer, come here."

An invidious choice if ever I heard one (for more on reflexive anti-academic sentiment see my colleague Bob Archambeau's recent post on his appropriately-named-for-the-purposes-of-this discussion Samizdat Blog). But it's Batuman's response to that logic that fascinates:

I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?

The blindingly accurate phrase "transcendentalist New England culture of 'creative writing'" transported me instantly back to the summer of 2000 and the weeks I spent as a "scholar" at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where it indeed seemed that breathing the self-consciously rarefied air breathed by a klatsch of more famous writers we all crowded around with plastic cups of wine in our sweaty hands was the acme of all imaginable felicity. Zing! Of course Transcendentalism has its roots in Puritanism, as Batuman intimates in an account of her investigation into the series Best American Short Stories, referring to "the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of 'craft.' She continues:

I realized that I would greatly refer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: "Show, don't tell"; "Murder your darlings"; "Omit needless words." As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

This explains far better than I've ever done my own visceral dislike of craft-speak, even though it often finds its way into my own mouth, since undergraduate writing students do start out with "bad habits" that they need to overcome (but needless words, et al, tend to be symptomatic of a single bad habit: the failure to acknowledge the absent presence of the reader, whose imagination must be imaginatively and imaginairily engaged by the writer). I would have liked to see Batuman explore what seems the logical extension of this critique of "creative writing": that literary criticism embraces "telling" and "darlings" and "words," that it gets drunk on them, that it articulates a vision of literature as pleasure.

She doesn't quite do that—and how could she, given how literary study is taught and practiced today? But she does show the backdoor into a theory of literature as intellectual pleasure. Because lit crit is not only fundamentally collaborative—with every scholar's work self-consciously built upon the edifice of hundreds of others—but the heart of its project can be described not just as writing but as research. More fundamentally, what's behind research is curiosity, which I believe to be the single most fundamental attribute writerly attribute after a basic intoxication or preoccupation with words. And as her survey of a couple of numbers of Best American Short Stories reveals, curiosity is the pleasure most foreign to creative writing as Puritan practice: "Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or a hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things." Zing again.

The Puritan prejudice against curiosity rigorously conceived—that is, as research, as intellectual practice, is an attitude I've encountered frequently. While an MFA student at the University of Montana, I had the same conversation again and again with fellow students in bars and coffee shops. "I don't care about any of this academic shit," they'd say, peering deeply into an amber glass. "I just want to write." A few of these rugged individualists, those not too deeply sunk in primary narcissism, might then ask me, "So what's with the Derrida? Do you really understand that bullshit?" Or naming Professor X, whose lecture that afternoon had taken in a broad swath of the history of literary Romanticism in the English and German traditions, "I just can't understand what the hell he's talking about or why I should care. I mean, he's brilliant and all, but what's it got to with writing?" Which was my cue to look down into my own glass and mumble something.

"I don't know," I might say. "It's interesting."

No zing for me, but double-zing for Batuman. And then triple- or quadruple-zing: "reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students"? If the palpable scorn in this line doesn't wither the die-hard fiction writers out there, who have things like agents and movie options now and again, how is a poet supposed to feel?

Which takes me to the bookend. Batuman's book consists of essays interlaced with a longish memoir, "Summer in Samarkand," that's cannily broken into three parts so that we can take a break from a long fish-out-of-water story—an account of the author's quixotic attempts to study the Uzbek language and literature in the titular city while enduring innumerable misunderstandings and cultural enigmas. The essays it's interlaced with are highly entertaining: one on an Isaac Babel conference at Stanford (an institution where I've done time, so those scenes are especially vivid to me); one that purports to investigate the murder of Leo Tolstoy; on a bizarre "House of Ice" built in St. Petersburg in 2006 as a replica erected in 1740 on the orders of the grotesque Empress Anna. But "Summer in Samarkand," along with the final essay, "The Possessed," holds the key to the book's thesis, which is that the study of literature can be as generative of good writing as the "study" of life so long romantically prescribed by New England transcendentalists and Hemingways manqués. This is an idea that I've long-embraced, though I've rarely found it as well articulated and defended as here, and without the sense of apology that flavored my responses to my macho MFA-mates. I recognize Batuman as a member of the tribe: creatures of literature and our own unquenchable curiosity about it, down to our very bones.

But we don't agree about poetry, or at least not any more. After her summer in Samarkand, surrounded by mysteries of personality and behavior that poor translation cannot fully account for, Batuman writes that "I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half-understanding." She goes on to quote an observation of Tolstoy's on reading poetry in translation:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind—unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

What Tolstoy describes in such dreamy fashion is, I believe, really a skill. Poetry demands of its readers a version of literacy that's the near-neighbor of illiteracy: its obscurities (which might be as minimal as the artifice of meter and line breaks; as we know, the obscurities of poetry have no known upper limit) license the reader or demand of the reader that she give up, at least for a time, "deciphering" the words in front of her in favor of the "different meaning" or "invented" poem that spontaneously arises. You have to be either an expert or—it nearly amounts to the same thing—lack all the expectations that ordinary educated literacy installs in readers. A good poem offers not communication but communion and imagination. It asks the reader to become, at least for a moment, the writer or the breather of the poem. It inspires.

Batuman's experience of the Caucasus "cures" her of this knack for poetry, so close in its way to an illness—aphasia maybe, or maybe just another form of narcissism. She turns away from "poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words—the beauty of things that don't appear on the page" toward "huge novels." And not just any novels—in "The Possessed," in spite of that essay's title, she declares herself a Tolstoyan and not a Dostoyevskyan. She explains this distinction rather charmingly after a reading, as reported by Cynthia Haven: "Dostoyevsky is the literary equivalent to theater, with 'allegory intensified 10,000 times.' Tolstoy is the stuff of movies, with costumes, elaborate scenery, and orchestral score. She falls for Tolstoy. 'Tolstoy is girlie—he wouldn't like my saying that, but he's not here anymore, any more than the Uzbeks are.'"

My takeaway is that she values Tolstoy for his explicitness—for the way in which he puts everything on the page, questing to make himself understood by the reader as completely as possible, while providing lushly lived in details, characters, and scenes for the reader to romp among. Tolstoy is the opposite of poetry, since so much of the action for poetry is conceptual—it happens in the reader's head, an action taken, and communication of anything whatsoever is a secondary or tertiary goal. Dostoyevsky offers a sort of middle ground, maybe, given the hyperallegorical character she ascribes to him. It's interesting that her book and its final essay take their titles not from Tolstoy but from Dostoyevsky's most enigmatic novel, which she explains rather brilliantly as being about the empty center that holds/fails to hold its characters and their increasingly demented actions together, the enigmatic Stavrogin.

I won't repeat her argument here. But as a poet who's taken up with the project of fiction, I certainly feel that Dostoyevsky offers a more conducive writerly terrain than Tolstoy does. Certainly, more than Tolstoy, he breaks all the Puritanical creative writing rules: he tells and tells, he uses five words where one would do, he's acutely interested in psychology and uninterested in the tenets of realism, and he's curious. His novels are intensively researched investigations into human character, thought experiments in the highest sense of the word. They're messy, they don't always make sense, the rhythms of their plots are mysterious and sometimes uncomfortable for the reader whose first question of any novel is always And then what happened? They're nothing like poetry if we think dichten = condensare. They're everything like poetry if poetry is the patterning in language of the half-grasped, the half-understood, which the reader must grapple with and experience and never quite complete. The act of reading such texts stimulates and exalts one's own curiosity.

The pleasure of finding things out. That's my creative writing program. I am still working to construct a pedagogy, as well as a practice, based upon that. I'm grateful to Elif Batuman for helping me come a step closer to that.


emily said...

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C. Dale said...

Wonderful post.

Ray Davis said...

Leaving Dryden and Pope and Chaucer aside, her and Tolstoy's concept of poetry don't allow much room for "Eugene Onegin" or "Don Juan," both of which celebrate restless intellect with delighted clarity....

hbl said...

Thanks for the wonderful I article. I read The Possessed very recently, and I too found her assessment of the MFA culture compelling. As a young person who has writerly aspirations, I feel like it is almost expected of me to go for the MFA if I'm serious about this writing thing. Thanks in large part to Batuman's book, I now just read as much as I can, take it all in, enjoy it, and learn from it.

Art Durkee said...

Fascinating and timely. You articulate several things that have been percolating in my mind for years. I have a bad reaction to craft-speak, and I've been on the receiving end of craft-speak critiques that often completely missed what a poem of mine was trying to do. (The grammar police are the worst: as if poems must always be written in full sentences.)

You said: "A good poem offers not communication but communion and imagination. It asks the reader to become, at least for a moment, the writer or the breather of the poem. It inspires." This is exactly the sort of experience of reading a poem that I've been trying to get across to many poets in workshops settings, that always seems to drift through their fingers. It's what I want to make happen in one of my own poems; it's how I read poetry. I've phrased it as being taken inside the poem, into the poem's own world. It's the place past the artifice where the experience lives.

As someone who likes to write but doesn't consider himself A Writer, I have mostly sided with the "life experience" school of writerly education. But you make the point well, and I am rephrasing in my own words, that the writer needs to have a compelling subject to write ABOUT. Whether that subject comes from reading and research, or life lived, or both (which is my own case), all the craft in the world will do you no good if you have nothing to say. One of the things I see coming out of MFA programs is very polished writing that really has nothing to say. You used the word narcissism, which I think accurately describes the dominant climate of most of the literary world these days.

Thanks for some good thought-provoking.

Morgan Myers said...


Peli Grietzer said...

Ray -- Don't they call 'Onegin' a novel-in-verse, though?

Ray Davis said...

(I apologize for the digression, Josh -- my kneejerk remark wasn't at all relevant to your main points.)

Peli: I'd say that's just another way of calling "Onegin" narrative poetry. But yeah, people who restrict a genre to one particular niche can always protest "That isn't really [genre]!" Real poetry is mildly obscure and melancholic lyric verse; real science fiction is talking squid in spaceships; real hip-hop is misogynous trash-talk; real men drink six-packs and real women shave their armpits. Me, I figure if it got shipped as a duck, got consumed as a duck, and was raised by one of the world's great duck farmers, then maybe my idea of "duck" is flawed.

Henry Gould said...

Puritans & Transcendentalists... let's not get them confused. Puritans founded Boston, basically the intellectual/literary/scholarly capital for about 200 yrs. at least. Not really very anti-intellectual. & Transcendentalism... kind of a jump from that to MFA workshops, seems to me. Yes, you could say it started in New England, with Robert Frost... but I'd say that had less to do with Transcendentalism than with Frost's need for a day job.

fairest said...

Trying to imagine a more New England conversation than "Tolstoy or Dostoyvesky."

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