theory and the creative writing classroom

an essay on Gordon Lish, pedagogy, and literary theory

Lish’s teaching was inseparable from his intellectual formation, including his extensive reading of philosophers and literary critics. But Lish was less an authentic philosopher than an eclectic bricoleur. Eschewing exclusive commitment to any single tradition, he combined the concepts and terminology of often dissimilar thinkers—from Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva to his close friends Harold Bloom and Denis Donoghue—while also maintaining an interest in earlier influences, including analytic philosophy and the New Criticism. Moreover, Lish’s engagement with theory was every bit as revisionary as his editing of Carver and others. As he readily admits, “if I read a philosopher, and he’s not interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll revise what he’s said… bend it and change it, to make it come out my way”. In the classroom, Lish revised theoretical concepts into provisional models for literary composition. True to the spirit of the program era, his teaching prioritized practical over propositional knowledge, converting conceptual “knowing that” into the creative know-how of craft.

read the essay in Contemporary Literature, 57:1 (Spring 2016)

simply to persist

a review of Noy Holland’s Bird

Holland’s writing accumulates a series of recurring objects, weaving an implicit order from apparent chaos. The novel is full of these tiny likenesses; symmetries and similarities that encircle Bird as she moves through the day, collapsing past and present into a timeless, miraculous pattern. “The mind’s true business,” the critic Denis Donoghue once remarked, is not so much to “think” as simply to persist; like the rest of the body, its ultimate purpose is “to keep going.” Holland belongs to a tradition of modernist writers who have tried to capture that motion; to make language move like the mind does, obeying the same unfathomable urge. Bird only describes an ordinary mind on an ordinary day, but it articulates a common truth: like Bird herself, we all hoard objects—a memory, a nickname, a bloody tissue, a tooth—which move us in ways we cannot control or explain. Holland follows that motion in all its mystery, observing the mind “moved by the fact of its moving, spinning itself out again.” Long one of our finest writers, now one of our finest novelists, she goes further than most fiction goes, but where our minds go every day, every moment. And, as she goes, she shows us the stars that guide our migration.

read the review in The Brooklyn Rail

relative danger

an interview with Gordon Lish

WINTERS: Critics of you and your ‘school’ have dismissed your interest in the sentence as trivial and superficial. But my understanding is that your aesthetic contains a strong moral component.

LISH: Yes. This sounds screwy, but that moral component—or rather, that overlay—is a result of one’s having undergone certain considerations in the course of making the sentence. The maker of the sentence is involved with all of the properties of language that exist in that sentence. And in this respect, there is no difference between the beginning and the end of the sentence. It’s all of a thing, and it is infinitely elastic. You can do anything with it you want. I taught my students to orchestrate a concatenation of sentences, each issuing out of the prior one. I know that you’ve already written about what I call ‘torsion’ and the ‘swerve’—where every sentence is in contest with what has been said. That’s what it is. The moral work occurs when the writer is confronted with all of the pathways that might be illumined by reason of what he has said, and he considers them for their relative depth of engagement; their relative danger. The way in which each one promises or fails to promise to open, deepen, reveal.

Ordinarily, quite the opposite occurs. The safest pathway is chosen. That which seems most in keeping with tradition; with what is conventionally done. But I say that you must refuse and refuse and refuse. It’s really Fiedler’s ‘No! In Thunder’—it’s about saying no always to what is prior. And by saying no to what is prior, you eventuate into a statement that you could not have conceivably arrived at otherwise. Whenever one follows the narrative arrow towards the next recognizable, feasible, sane stroke of discourse, one is captured, trapped in the trap of the trap of what has been said. I say, no! Contrarily, one should try to say what has not been said; what is sayable only by controverting what has been said. And you’re the one who has said it, so you’re controverting yourself. If you keep this behaviour up, you are brought, it seems to me, all the way around to the beginning again. You have created a nimbus, a totality which will be possessed of differences that would not otherwise have come about. All by reason of imposing upon your progress, your ‘narrative’, a refusal rather than an approval.

Now, in saying all this, I’m not calling for an end to the logic of discourse—but what kind of logic? It comes down to this: a new thing can only be done if it comes out of oneself, solely. Is this solipsism? How could it not be? What the hell is wrong with solipsism? What I want when I’m in the presence of a writer is that person’s soul. The more solipsistic the better. People say, ‘don’t you want to communicate?’ No, I don’t want to communicate. I want communion. I want mutuality. I want to enter the being of the other. I want unimprovable illumination.

read the full interview in Critical Quarterly, December 2015

a thousand miles away

a review of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Change is the only constant in West of Sunset: from Scott’s short-lived scripts to the stars’ ageing faces, the whole world seems fated to fade away. Some of O’Nan’s most suggestive passages conjure the feeling of freefall that can accompany uncontrollable change. Scott’s drunken blackouts are represented by sudden accelerations of narrative pace. In one sentence he’s ordering a double gin; in the next he’s “sprawled on someone’s wet lawn”. Like him, we’re left struggling to fill in the blanks. Later, he reflects on the “strangeness” of flying: “stepping through a door in one place, sitting still for a few hours, then stepping out a thousand miles away”. As the novel develops, O’Nan makes sure that we share this sense of disorientation – feeling, with Scott, the ground giving way beneath our feet. Consequently, when he wishes for his time with Sheilah “to last, and this new life, impossibly, to be his”, we feel the poignancy of that “impossibly”.

read the review in The Guardian

unspoken, unseen

an interview for Bomb Magazine

If I can return to the misuse of philosophy in fiction — that is, to novelists who engage in overt philosophical posturing — I suppose my disappointment stems from my feeling that great works of art only murmur their knowledge, whereas the worst ones seem to want to parade it. Back in the seventies, Gordon Lish observed of Stanley Crawford that, reading his work, “one senses the pressure of having read all that’s to be read without trying to give evidence of erudition.” That sense of pressure is what I’m after. That’s why Wittgenstein disliked Tolstoy’s more didactic works; as he wrote in a letter to Norman Malcolm, “when Tolstoy turns his back to the reader, then he seems to me most impressive. His philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.” Cora Diamond’s gloss on that letter stresses the sense in which, for Wittgenstein, philosophy should be “contained in the work, but not by being spoken of, not by being told.”

I’d say it’s the same with the question of art and knowledge. Take Gerhard Richter’s painting, Betty (1988). Or Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In each case, the composition is organized in such a way that the perspectival structure forces a deviation of the spectator’s attention. That’s what a lot of the artworks I work on are doing. That’s what, say, Jason Schwartz is doing. Like Richter’s Betty, Schwartz’s work has its back turned. Like her, his language is looking at something I can’t see; it knows something I’ll never know. Confronted with this kind of object, the task is no longer to try to uncover art’s knowledge, but rather to follow its gaze.

read the rest here

centers of gravity

a review of Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC

The basic idea behind Harbach’s essay – and of the book after which it is named – is that American fiction now has ‘two centers of gravity: “MFA”, which is dispersed throughout our university towns, and “NYC”, which hews close to Manhattan’s trade publishing industry’. The collection takes stock of this split from the standpoints of various actors – authors, teachers, and other links in writing’s supply chain. And while it sometimes slips into banal self-involvement (e.g., bourgeois Brooklynites exaggerating their money worries) it also achieves, at a composite level, both a distinctive documentary value and a degree of critical reflexivity. Nor does the book reify its ‘two cultures’ into entirely separate spheres. Instead, several essays illustrate how ‘writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds’, blurring both their cultures and their economies (note, for instance, that NYC agents routinely ‘scout’ MFA cohorts, and MFA teachers get jobs on the back of book deals). While these articles are always partial, perhaps the volume surpasses the sum of its parts: cover to cover, MFA vs NYC implicitly demonstrates the inadequacies of divisive thinking.

read the rest in Critical Quarterly, 57:1

loving literature

a review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History

book

Sometimes it’s expressed; sometimes it’s repressed: either way, emotion is deeply embedded in literary criticism. As I. A. Richards reflected in 1929, critics are constantly torn between instinctive “feelings” and standardized “doctrines” – between “deciding we are too hot or too cold” and “hanging up a thermometer”. Our thermometers have grown increasingly technical since Richards’s day, augmented both by the post-1960s “theory” boom, and by newer developments in brain science and big data. But even when we aspire to scientific dispassion, it is widely assumed that we do what we do because, at bottom, we simply “love literature”. Why else would we do it? Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature provides a fascinating history of this presupposition. Lynch begins by clearing away the old cliché that literary scholars are cold-bloodedly loveless – the image, to quote Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, of “armies of academics measuring poetry” without allowing it into their hearts. Instead, Lynch observes, an English professor’s emotional life “is supposed to slop over onto her job; it’s all in a day’s work when it does.” In this sense, literary studies is an “oddly intimate profession”, whose practitioners are routinely expected to love their work – and, indeed, to transmit that love to their students. Lynch’s book excavates this expectation, uncovering its historical origins. At the same time, she emphasizes that love isn’t always a healthy emotion. As she points out, those who love literature sometimes forget “what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities”. With novels and poems, much like with people, love can be confusing and painful.

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 2015