Monday, February 8, 2010

Between Art & Criticism: Confessions of an Accidental Literary Scholar

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a thought-provoking piece up on its site from Stanford professor Elif Batuman on striving to find a world in which both writing and literary criticism can co-exist. "Confessions of a Literary Scholar" is her fascinating tale of graduate school, told from the perspective of someone looking back on their struggle to create meaningful new works of art, without having to cut herself off from the theoretical and critical dimensions of study. As the blurb out-lining the article notes, "Writers live on one side of the tracks. Lit scholars live on the other. One crazed grad student dared to walk the rails."

Full Article Here // Excerpt Below

My plan for after graduation was still to write a novel—but writing novels takes time, and time is expensive. I took the precaution of applying to some Ph.D. literature programs. I did not consider getting a creative-writing M.F.A. because I knew they made you pay tuition and go to workshops. Whatever reservations I had about the usefulness of reading and analyzing great novels went double for reading and analyzing the writings of a bunch of kids like me. I did, however, send an application to an artists' colony on Cape Cod. To my surprise, they offered me a fiction-writing fellowship, on the basis of a 75-page first-person narrative I had written from the perspective of a dog.

One extremely windy and rainy day that March, I rented a car and drove to Cape Cod, to see just what kind of outfit these people were running. The colony was located on the grounds of a prerevolutionary lumber mill. I made my way over a muddy wooden footpath to a boatlike building, where a man was making a video recording of a machine apparently designed to pour concrete onto the floor out of a vat. When I asked him where the writers were, the artist waved his hand at the window, at the teeming rain.

I located the writers in a trailer, huddled around a space heater, wearing plaid shirts and plastic-rimmed glasses. The program director, a windswept, gray-eyed local writer of romantic appearance, treated me with remarkable kindness, especially considering my status as the 21-year-old author of a first-person dog novella. Nonetheless, we weren't on the same page. Our priorities and our worldviews were not synchronized.

"What will you do if you don't come here?" he asked. I told him I had applied to some graduate schools. There was a long pause. "Well, if you want to be an academic, go to graduate school," he said. "If you want to be a writer, come here."

I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?

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