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.