On Reading Literature and a Random Ten

Those of you who aren't a part of the poetry biz or culture industry or fiction conglomerate or big essay may not realize this, but this weekend is the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held in New York City this year. The AWP conference is a big deal-- lots of writers (famous and not-so-famous), an exhibitor room for publishers and literary magazines, lots of panels devoted to issues of concern to creative writers, and readings, readings, readings (last year, one of the high points for me was hearing Ann Beattie read).

It's also often a time for getting drunk with old friends, and getting drunk with new friends. And infidelity. As Emily knows-- and frequently enjoys teasing me about-- last year I was propositioned for a threeway for the very... third time, actually. First time for an AWP threeway proposition. I declined, even though the woman told me my eyes were "soulful" and the guy gave me a very nice-- though creepy and unsolicited and thankfully brief-- backrub in the middle of a crowded bar.

So I didn't go this year, and I'm kinda glad. The conference has been sold out for weeks; I didn't know academic conferences even could sell out, but apparently they can. While I'm sorry I won't get to see some old friends, I saw enough of them at NonfictioNow and MLA that I feel like I've done my part to keep in touch with people.

Even though I'm not in New York, news from the AWP is still reaching me. For example, right now, as I type this, I know for a fact that three poets are throwing up, one fiction writer is saying goodbye to last night's one-night-stand, and 1,322 writers of various genres are sitting at tables by themselves in a hotel restaurant or cafe, laptops open, conspicuously working on "the manuscript," hoping an agent or publisher will walk by and ask, "What's that you're working on?" Also, perhaps more importantly, the AWP is putting the finishing touches on its new guidelines for teaching literature to creative writing students, to be presented to members next month.

If you have a subscription, you can read about these new guidelines in this Chronicle of Higher Education article-- I'm afraid I couldn't find the story anywhere else. It basically boils down to the AWP's understandable concern over recent reports of a decline in reading in America. "An expert writer must first become an expert reader," the new guidelines state. "Whereas the general goal for a graduate program in creative writing is to nurture and expedite the development of a literary artist, the goal for an undergraduate program is mainly to develop a well-rounded student in the liberal arts and humanities, a student who develops a general expertise in literature, in critical reading, and in persuasive writing." That makes sense to me. Writers should be good readers. There's really no argument there. But surely our colleagues in the English Department who don't teach creative writing play a similar role in combating aliteracy?

Apparently not. Or at least, not all of them.

"Many teachers of literature feel that the study of literature has to be saved from the cultural critics and the literary theorists," AWP Executive Director David W. Fenza said. "I think it is safe to say that some classrooms are devoted to the systematic humiliation of literature, and that, of course, is very offensive to writers."

Well... I guess it's "safe" to say that this is true in "some" classrooms. I guess. I've only worked in five English Departments across the country, and have never, ever heard of "systematic humiliation of literature" being a pedagogical goal, but that doesn't mean that it isn't happening somewhere. But is it such a problem that the executive director of a professional organization needs to insult hard-working peers working with literary theory? Sure, there may be a crazy person here or there arguing that books are phallocentric tools of white hegemony, used to oppress the indigenous flora of Antarctica. But are they so common that they're really able to effect a "systematic humiliation" of anything other than their own families?

I've known plenty of people who focused their scholarly attention on cultural criticism and literary theory. Many of them had a different approach to a given text than I have-- hell, Emily and I approach texts differently. But that doesn't mean that Emily is looking to "humiliate literature" and it doesn't mean that my approach is superior, either. And perhaps most importantly, it doesn't mean there's a significant difference in the way we teach literature in our undergraduate classes. This notion that somehow theorists are "ruining" literature with their focus on Lacan and Derrida and Foucault and Butler is a lot of paranoia left over from twenty-five years ago, and says more about writers' insecurities, I think, than it does about our colleagues' teaching or scholarly interests.

All that said, though, I do think that most of the AWP's new guidelines are across-the-board good ideas, because they leave out all the petty sniping about how others teach and focus instead on how literature should be approached in the creative writing classroom. Frankly, I think some of these ideas are going to be real eye-openers for some members of the AWP, as these new guidelines call for a renewed commitment to history and multiculturalism-- reading material should cover "at least three centuries, three continents, and a variety of cultural viewpoints." So those of you teaching fiction and focusing on Hemingway, Carver, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and "Sonny's Blues" for diversity's-sake? You might want to rethink your syllabus. So good call there. I could do without the calls to force students to memorize poems or "discern authorial intentions," but for purposes of teaching creative writing-- not literature-- I can see their potential value. As a teacher of creative writing, I think I already put most of these guidelines into practice; as a teacher of literature, Emily doesn't always. Nor should she be regarded as less of a professor or more agenda-driven than I am. We have the same agenda-- we want to get our students to think critically about literature, writing, and the larger world that they inhabit. We simply have different methods sometimes.

Remember, theorists and critics didn't ruin literature; Raymond Carver did.*

Anyway, here's today's Random Ten. By now you probably know the drill, but for those of you who are new to the Internet, what you do is you put your music player on random or shuffle, then record the first ten songs that come up. Don't cheat, either, just because "We Didn't Start the Fire" comes up. We all have the occasional lame song that we still kinda like. Mine is "Look Away," by Chicago. But that's a story for another post.

1) "Mesmerizing"-- Liz Phair
2) "Düsseldorf (Bonus Version)"-- Regina Spektor
3) "When the Ship Comes In"-- Robbie O'Connell
4) "You Have Killed Me"-- Morrissey
5) "Slow Worm"-- Archers of Loaf
6) "Drinkin'"-- Reel Big Fish
7) "The Never Played Symphonies"-- Morrissey
8) "Pink Cashmere"-- Prince
9) "Escape"-- Prince
10) "Mr. Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont's This White Duke Mix)"-- The Killers

*That's a joke, and a reference to some previous discussions we've had on this blog, in case this is your first visit here. I actually really, really like Carver.

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