Thursday, May 11, 2017

Agreeing with Nguyen's view of the "hostile" writing workshop, even while disagreeing with it

Viet Thanh Nguyen, he of the 2016 Pulitzer-Prize winning The Sympathizer, wrote recently for the Times about how writers' workshops can be hostile. I agree with a lot of what he says, even though I have nearly opposite impressions of some aspects of the workshop system from him. Someone who has never been to a workshop would probably have been surprised by some of the assertions Nguyen made.

Show don't tell

Nguyen scores some points early by accusing the workshop of being rife with unquestioned assumptions. One assumption he correctly takes the workshop to task for is the mantra of all writing workshops: "Show, don't tell." He rightly claims this is ahistorical. Most of literary history is full of examples of stories that show and tell. This is one of the central tenets of contemporary commercial aesthetics in literary fiction I struggle to cope with. I feel like I often have to hide the reason why I've written what I've written. This "hiding" isn't new, of course. ("Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Or, 1800 years closer to the present, "Tell all the truth/but tell it slant.") But I can't help feeling that a lot of fiction/poetry out there that gets the establishment seal of approval has hidden its thematic core so well, it's effectively encrypted beyond breaking.  Jesus may have said that he hid his meaning in parables, but I don't think we find them terribly hard to crack.

Nguyen also calls out a related malady, the depreciated value of plot, which is seen as the province of genre writers. I've suggested before that literary fiction could be defined as "literature in which plot is not very important." Which probably has something to do with why I have pondered that maybe I do not really write literary fiction, although I don't know what other genre I might fit. 

Craftsmanship + workshop=manly aesthetic?

Nguyen, drawing on the connotations of "workshop" and the oft-emphasized notion of "craftsmanship," sees these notions as emphasizing masculinity and physical labor over mental labor. He claims this masculine aesthetic can make the workshop a threatening place for women and minorities. 

I'm tempted to blow this off, because as a former jock and Marine, I've met actual masculine people, and the folks I knew in graduate school did not fit the description. Furthermore, the very aesthetic he critiques, the "show, don't tell" approach, seems to me like a feminine one. At least, it seems like something that came into play when feminism and other isms that challenged white, male hegemony of the university were gaining influence. Nguyen himself claims the rise of the workshop aesthetic coincided with the post-war era, and this is precisely why it is apolitical--because strongly held political feelings were associated with communism. I accept his timeline, but question the outcome. Rather than result in hyper-masculine literature that preached a certain way of living, it resulted in hyper-detailed, ethereal writing that avoided politics. 

Of course, this is based on my own white, male perspective. I don't say that sarcastically. My race and gender come with limitations and blind spots. I'm equating "feminine" with a type of writing I don't like, one I find a little bit frivolous. (Not unlike Hawthorne, who complained of the tribe of "scribbling women" writers.) If women and minorities find the workshop hostile, I do not discount their feelings. They perceive it that way, and that means something. 

Masculine or feminine, the current aesthetic itself isn't all bad: I don't want to read a bunch of allegory all the time. It's nice to give characters the semblance of real agency. I just don't want that agency to get beyond the plan of the creating intelligence. Watch your kids. 

Can any part of college be apolitical?

I'd guess most people who haven't been in a writing program would be surprised to hear a complaint that they are apolitical. If anything, most people would suspect they are lousy with politics. After all, aren't agitating professors turning every campus in America into a political training ground?

But Nguyen is actually only too dead-on. Another Asian-American critic of the literary establishment I quote a lot, Anis Shivani, has explained the apolitical nature of the current American fictional aesthetic:

Contemporary literary fiction has chosen to marginalize itself from mainstream culture. It has its own niche, like specialized Foucauldian sociology or Derridean philosophy, catering to the sensibilities of other experts in the field. The writer adopts a politics-neutral stance, excluding any sense that characters' lives are influenced by politics. The fear is of being branded politicized, in which case no serious reviewer will want to deal with the writer anymore, and of being called preachy or moralistic or sermonizing by the reviewing community.

The typical fiction writer tends to be vaguely liberal about womens' or gays' or minorities' rights. He is ultra-sensitive about not writing anything offensive to any constituency, and mortally fearful of painting with broad brushstrokes. He takes care to mark down any budding writer who might want to speak truthfully about minority or majority groups (it's open season, however, on white males, in the teacher's own writing). Beyond that, he doesn't have a grasp of politics. 

Nguyen sees a lack of seriousness in literature, an unwillingness to talk about the things that matter most to him, that matter most to all of us: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology. (I'd add religion and science.) American literature has, in fact, gotten to a place where only outsiders, it seems, can talk seriously about anything. I recently wrote a story that attempted to respond to the reality of the Trump era, and I know it will never get published. I didn't hide what it was about enough.

That being the case, although I am heartily sorry that minorities and women feel like outcasts in the workshop, I hope they will take heart in knowing that being treated with hostility is a sign you are onto something. If they coddle you, it means you lack talent and they just want you to stay in the program and pay your tuition. But actual opposition is a positive sign.


  1. You might find it interesting to note that scholars often derided Livy or classed him as not intellectually serious because his history is primarily moral in nature. The preface is quite explicit: he tells his audience that he his providing moral exempla, although he fears that his contemporaries are too far gone to be rescued from their decay. I find it curious that this approach is viewed as naive or simplistic. But in a world where morality is up for grabs (a la horkheimer) perhaps it's the only approach.

    I wonder the extent to which the writing workshop derives really from the art school. Maybe that's a project: to write a history of the writing workshop. Maybe they exploded thanks to the boon of the WWII GI Bill.

    I dare you to put your Trump piece out there. The only problem with something so tied to the here and now is that it gets quickly dated: perhaps one has to interweave some greater connection with general human concerns to succeed. Otherwise, one only appears trendy and of the moment. And that's never serious, unless some later generation finds out that you were an unappreciated Casssandra.

    1. "The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these - the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies."

      That almost sounds like something a Trump reactionary would write, but maybe they are just reacting to something that really is missing. If modernity has abandoned the notion of moral instruction, then we can't really complain if someone else takes over the area we gave them by default.

  2. I see you got Livy after all.... That's the critical bit: "we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies." Is that not where we are? It only sounds reactionary because we bristle at the very notion of moralizing, and yet the left is packed chockablock with moralizing, albeit in secularized form: moralizing about race, moralizing about class, moralizing about environment, moralizing about gender....