Elif Batuman, from “Get
a real degree” (9.23.2010)
London Review of Books
The law of “find your voice” and “write what you know” [in creative writing programs] originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, “Being an Expert on Your Culture,” and #116, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.” Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.
The situation is summed up in [Mark] McGurl’s construct of the “World Pluribus of Letters” (a play on the critic Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters”):
While the citizen of the Republic of Letters disaffiliates from the nation in order to affiliate with art, the citizen of the World Pluribus of Letters disaffiliates from…the super-nation, in order to reaffiliate with a utopian sub-nation, whether that be African or Asian or Mexican or…Native American…The expression of formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous populations, these subnational cultural interventions…forge symbolic links to an international literary space which is not, however, the space of universal literary values but a pluralized…space of decolonized global cultural difference.
The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of “universal literary value” with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemized as “difference.” It seems strange to me that McGurl, who sees the situation so clearly, seems not to view it as a problem. Perhaps his status as a White Person prevents him from objecting to the ideals of the Pluribus. But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.
This really is the message that some young people take from the [creative writing] program, as we learn in a quotation from the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, 1984):
Until Iowa I had never felt my home, family and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about. I took for granted…the strange speech of my neighbors, the extraordinary lives of my family and relatives which was nothing like the family in Father Knows Best…What could I write about that my classmates, cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids, could not? …What did I know that they didn’t? …What did I know except third-floor flats…that’s precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands throwing rocks through windows…anything as far from the poetic as possible.
There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material. It isn’t even a huge problem that poor people have been a “poetic” subject since at least Romanticism. But I was deeply depressed to learn from McGurl that Cisneros here is making “canny use of an operational paradox involved in…the ‘wound culture’ of the contemporary US: a paradoxically enabling disablement.” Continue reading