17 June 2009

The minimal workshop

There's a great piece by Louis Menand in the latest New Yorker, a review of The Program Era by Mark McGurl. The Program Era examines the rise of the creative writing programme in American universities and its effect on the literature of the past few decades. It's interesting enough as it is, but I think a couple of the points made are relevant to minimal – minimal techno, microhouse etc – that it perhaps locates an anxiety buried deep in the form...

The creative writing programme, Menand explains, is premissed on the idea that the production of literary fiction can be taught, and its main tool is the workshop. In the workshop, a group of students share and discuss each other's work, led by a tutor (ie a published author), with the theoretical result being that submitting to this group-crit will improve each writer's work. (There's a longer explanatory quote at the end of the post).

Example: Raymond Carver is a product of these workshops. His career, Menand writes, 'constitutes a virtual tour d’horizon of the creative-writing scene.' (See end quote 2).

Did the workshops have an effect on Carver's writing? Yes, says Menand, and McGurl's argument in The Program Era is that Carver's writing can be understood not as something 'honed' in a generalized way by group-crit, but... as a style specifically tailored to survive the scene of the workshop. Menand:
The form of a Carver short story—ostentatiously brief, emotionally hyper-defended—expresses something. McGurl thinks that the style represents the “aestheticization of shame, a mode of self-retraction.” Literary minimalism like Carver’s—McGurl calls it “lower-middle-class modernism”—is a means of reducing the risk of embarrassing oneself, and is one way that students from working-class backgrounds, like Carver (he was from Oregon, where his father was a sawmill worker), deal with the highbrow world of the academy.
So Carver's minimalism was an evasion strategy as much as anything. As a response to the workshop experience and its pack of benign pedants, misreaders, projectionists, Carver develops a style which offers the smallest possible target for his fellow workshoppers. (Of course what looks like an absence of style or an 'anti-'style is no less a style itself, but this is something people often find hard to grasp... the idea that style and content are separable has a limpet-like tenacity, 'style' continues to be characterized as excess and so Carver, by stealth, could slip through the net of nitpicking methodological critique).

This is a long set-up.

So if that's one way of understanding Carver's minimalism, isn't it possible that minimal techno and microhouse might not reflect a similar pressure... Filesharing, MP3 blogs, blog aggregators, a subgenre called 'bloghouse'... I listen to this stuff as a refuge from the 21C sensory overload of signs, sounds, texts, images, but given the intensity, speed and bandwidth at which critical response and feedback can be exchanged in the utopian uplands of Web 2.0, is someone like Villalobos (or whoever), even if only subconsciously, producing tracks engineered, like a car in a windtunnel, to be streamlined enough to slide past the critical listener?

end quote 1:
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.
end quote 2:
[Carver's] career constitutes a virtual tour d’horizon of the creative-writing scene. Carver started as a correspondence student in an outfit known as the Palmer Institute of Authorship. He took classes at Chico State, in California, with the novelist John Gardner; at Humboldt State College, with the short-story writer Richard Cortez Day; at Sacramento State College, with the poet Dennis Schmitz; and at Stanford, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow; and he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with John Cheever. His second marriage was to another creative-writing professional, the poet Tess Gallagher, and he ended up as a professor at Oates’s alma mater, Syracuse, where Jay McInerney was his student.


Bruce said...

Great post. You could extrapolate your observations on techno/house to independent music as well. With the wealth of recorded music available to musicians, critics and listeners via the web there seems to be a pressure on musicians to avoid embarrassment and emphasize their background knowledge. Everybody knows a little about a lot of forms of music and musicians appear to need to demonstrate how much they know about the "right" type of influences.

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Thanks Bruce. The problem I have with the post on reflection is that of course the minimal dance milieu is hardly unique in being exposed to the hyper-exchange of ideas via blogs, filesharing, rolling news sites etc. And while you can detect that crippling fear/anxiety of not looking informed enough in other scenes, they don't necessarily end up producing music that's so obviously minimalist.

The other thing I didn't make much of was McGurl's assertion that Carver's response was to do with insecurity about class. Wondering if the likes of k-punk or Owen at Sit Down Man have something to say about that...

promqueen said...

I think there's a slight backwardness to the bit about writing workshops here, especially with the assumption that they promote some kind of restraint or retraction -- for instance, this idea that if workshops affected Carver's style, it was as a way of "evading" pedants or misreaders, or minimizing itself as a target.

It needn't be negative like that, and the Menand article you're talking about follows the Carver example with another one (I think it was Oates) about maximalism coming from the same situations.

In other words, it's not necessarily a matter of evasion or restraint -- it's more a matter of people developing a style that relates in a certain way to their position in a field ... usually by finding ways to foreground what's different about them, or put focus on the skills they're best with. If the thing that sets you apart from the other writers in your workshop is your unrestrained wild-man energy, there's a good chance you'll start grooming and cultivating your own image as the wild one; it's the obvious way to place yourself. Which is basically the same kind of self-construction we do in any kind of social group -- not much different from taking up a role among your buddies as the smart one or the fun one.

When this becomes problematic is when the circle you're defining yourself in doesn't connect very well with the rest of the world -- e.g., if you're cultivating a sense of yourself as "the smart one" among a bunch of idiots. This isn't a huge issue with writing workshops, because the people in them are not that bad of a representation for the actual readership of literary fiction. With minimal it's a slightly different story...

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Are you a programme graduate promqueen, just out of interest?

The point about workshops fostering defensive practices isn't mine so much as Menand and McGurl's. Yes, Oates takes the opposite tack, but McGurl describes that too as a self-protective strategy I think.

I was getting ready to take issue with your line about workshops as a process of self-definition, because it will always be skewed, a difference 'from the other writers in your workshop' rather than a wider context, but then you moved on to that problem in your last para.

I know that I speak in a way that's different to my writing style, and I can feel my tone of voice adjusting when I write for print, and again when I write for this blog. I think McGurl is on to something: the prevalence of workshopping means works-in-progress are critiqued in progress, where before perhaps the author would have toiled alone towards completion and submission. Good or bad, that's a serious paradigm shift in literary creation: it programmes in a certain defensiveness, a kind of critical anticipation, to the work.

Mark R Hancock said...

Glad I've found someone who has commented on that article in New Yorker. I read it after attending a talk at Hay Lit festival where they discussed the Creative Writing programs, both here and in the States. Damningly, I forget the participants' names. One thing that stuck in my mind was when one speaker said that good writers couldn't be 'created' by the workshop system, but good ones could be improved. Personally, I sway between imagining that the workshop system is a good idea and a total bore (surrounded by all those people who 'have a story to tell' eugh!).
Do you reckon this idea of fine-tuning a good musician applies to musicians?

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

I'm sure it can, but I also think a lot of the best music comes out of a kind of isolation, a deliberate narrowmindedness if you like. Simon Reynolds wrote a good piece about the massive quantities of music available post-downloading, and the way the resulting saturation of influences on musicians sort of flattens out differences, with everything existing in the same cosmopolitan, hyper-informed haze. It was in The Wire, and probably also on Blissblog.

Mark R Hancock said...

That saturation of influences is an interesting idea. I'll try to hunt the article down, thanks. I like to imagine that the ability to easily access so much varied music for free or cheaply, would put an end to homogeneity. But I'm not sure how much that is happening, and instead seems to be breeding hyper-nostalgia, as people almost flee from anything different or new, and leads to the re-emergence of Blur et al (cold shiver). I struggled enough to come to terms with Throbbing Gristle re-forming, and I loved them... Sorry, going off post-topic here.