Sunday, September 19, 2010
For an outsider to become an insider isn’t ironic or paradoxical: it’s just the way things work.
Most AmPo folks have focused on Elif Batuman's essay in the LRB with regard to what she says about writing programmes, so to speak. But I haven't seen much discussion of other interesting stuff she says, viz -
Novelistic alienation – the realisation 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.
Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims.
In the greater scheme, of course, the creative writing programme is not one of the evils of the world. It’s a successful, self-sufficient economy, making teachers, students and university administrators happy. As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one. That said, the fact that the programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them.
"Get a Real Degree," Elif Batuman
Pictured: Don Q. going crazy from reading books