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.” “Almost all artistically ambitious authors in the postwar period ‘self-commodify’ in this sense,” McGurl continues, inviting us to “think of Tim O’Brien and his lifelong use of nine months in Vietnam.” Indeed, think of Tim O’Brien. As a White Person, he couldn’t write about most of his life experience, which was probably just like Father Knows Best. Instead, in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and the several novels that followed, he had to write about the period of his life when he — like the conscripted Native Americans, like the napalmed Vietnamese — was the victim of the murderous policy of the White Man.
Defending Cisneros and O’Brien against charges of cynicism, McGurl suggests that both authors are really concerned not with “market value but aesthetic value: how does one write good fiction? What interesting stories do I have to tell?” To argue that the writers of victimhood aren’t out to make a quick buck is beside the point, since what’s at stake here is literary, not financial, capital. But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances? If you spend any time living in a ghetto or fighting in a war, might this be objectively the most narrative-worthy period of your life? As Tolstoy put it, “All happy families are alike”: isn’t literature all about wounds, otherness, trauma, alienation and persecution? It is. But it’s equally true that all unhappy families — not just “formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous” families — are unhappy after their own fashion. Tolstoy wrote equally compellingly about war and peace. Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, “cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids,” is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best.
This danger is inherent to “high cultural pluralism,” which tends to assign novelistic alienation to the domain of “the alienated ethnic outsider.” Novelistic alienation — the realization that lived experience doesn’t resemble literature — was invented in Don Quixote. And, ever since Don Quixote, the novel has been concerned with social inequality. Class and religious difference are, after all, two major reasons why certain forms of human experience don’t get documented. Hence Cervantes writes not only about windmills mistaken for giants, but also about prostitutes mistaken for noble ladies, and Moriscos who carry ham under their arms as a badge of racial purity. But, in Don Quixote, race and class have no higher an order of significance than, say, a hidalgo’s typical weekly diet, or the noise produced by a textile mill: aspects of an undocumented historical present. What was missing from the older literary forms, in other words, wasn’t social justice, but the passage of time — a dimension the novel was specifically engineered to capture. The novelistic hero is by definition someone whose life experience hasn’t yet been fully described, possibly because of his race or class, but more broadly because he didn’t exist before, and neither did the technology for describing him. The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of pre-existing literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against. In this dialectic, the categories of outsider and insider are in constant flux. For an outsider to become an insider isn’t ironic or paradoxical: it’s just the way things work.
The danger of ethnicizing novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, “high cultural pluralism” simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant. The basic novelistic claim – “my early writing imitated the conventions of earlier literature, and wasn’t about my comically mundane and eternally surprising life” — is politicized and dehistoricized: “my early writing imitated the conventions of privileged literature, and wasn’t about my people, whose sufferings have rendered them more raucous and hilariously alive than the uptight sons and daughters of privilege.” We have heard this credo from Cisneros, and we hear it, via McGurl, from Philip Roth:
It “did not dawn on” [Roth] that the “anecdotes and observations” of his boyhood in lower-middle-class Newark with which he entertained his highbrow friends “might be made into literature.” Instead, the “stories I wrote, set absolutely nowhere, were mournful little things about sensitive children, sensitive adolescents and sensitive young men crushed by the coarse life…The Jew was nowhere to be seen; there were no Jews in the stories, no Newark, and not a sign of comedy.”
There is no implication that those “highbrow friends” were ever themselves outsiders or made jokes. How could their stories be funny, with “no Jews” and “no Newark”? Eventually Roth’s outsider becomes an insider and Zuckerman’s literary celebrity becomes a subject for later novels. (This isn’t really, as McGurl claims, a sign of Roth’s “vertiginously ‘postmodern’ reflexivity”; Cervantes does the same thing in Book Two of Don Quixote, in which Sancho and Quixote have already been made famous by Book One.) There was nothing postmodern about such mobility. Pushkin was initially an outsider because he used colloquial Russian and had an Abyssinian great-grandfather; Dante was an outcast wandering Italy in penury and exile. It’s jarring, then, when McGurl characterizes the success and assimilation of Roth and Cisneros as a “phenomenon of American culture,” originating in the 1960s university scene, and marked by a “vertiginously dialectical mobilization of the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.” In literary terms, the effect of these cultural changes was not so much mobilizing as politicizing, even ossifying.
Historically, this ossification probably originates less in the 20th century’s social advancements than in its worst atrocities. As an example, consider the changing treatment of the Jew in the European novel. At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way — the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbor — revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money. This identification perhaps goes some way to explain the theory of Cervantes’s Jewish converso ancestry, proposed by Américo Castro in 1966. In the wake of the Second World War, the aesthetic imperative to “keep it real” had also acquired an ethical dimension; in 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote “Daddy”: “I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew.” If you had to write imaginative literature about your overbearing father, you now had to make him an engine chuffing you off “to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen,” at risk of falling into the “barbarism” famously decreed by Adorno (who, somewhat less famously, amended this decree in later years: in light of the continuing diversity of human unhappiness and its inalienable “right to expression,” he wrote, “it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz”). To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed.
Ironically, a preoccupation with historic catastrophe actually ends up depriving the novel of the kind of historical consciousness it was best suited to capture. The effect is particularly clear in the “maximalist” school of recent fiction, which strives, as McGurl puts it, to link “the individual experience of authors and characters to the kinds of things one finds in history textbooks”: “war, slavery, the social displacements of immigration, or any other large-scale trauma”; historical traumas, McGurl explains, confer on the novel “an aura of ‘seriousness’ even when, as in Pynchon or Vonnegut, the work is comic. Personal experience so framed is not merely personal experience,” a fact which “no amount of postmodern skepticism…is allowed to undermine.” The implication is that “personal experience” is insufficient grounds for a novel, unless it is entangled in a “large-scale trauma” — or, worse yet, that an uncompelling (or absent) storyline can be redeemed by a setting full of disasters.