The Creative Writing Industry and Aesthetic Criticism

Or, Maybe, a Bitch Session

The title of this entry sounds grander (well maybe not now that I’ve added the “or” and all that follows it) than the brief note here can live up to. I’m rewriting a chapter of a manuscript that includes the following:

In the 1988 article entitled, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto” published in the journal Social Text, the co-authors Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barett Watten constructed a direct response to the types of criticism lobbed at this group of writers. They write:

While we are flagrantly writing this article as a group, the perceptive reader will already have noticed that until this point neither the ‘Language School’ nor ‘Language Poetry’ have been named. This is no accident; the politics of group identity are a problem (and challenge) particularly for those alternately identified within and without it (272-273).

The authors go on to point out and criticize the fact that the machinery of public reception for poetry–its publication venues, contests, etc., is predicated on an ideology of transcendent excellence, making opaque and natural its criteria for selection and distribution. Thus, the project of these writers who read each other’s work, who are a community, is to return poetry to a locus of collectivity where there is transparency in terms of the ideologies that traverse and structure communities and writing projects and their availability in the literary market place.


I’m not evaluating here this statement vis-à-vis these writers.

I would like to connect this to one piece of student feedback (read evaluation) that I’ve recently heard about. The student writer expressed grave concern about any feedback the student got from an instructor that began with “this might just be my aesthetic but....” and it brought home to me how some students trained in the creative writing industry through participation in writing workshops have consumed the ideology of pure, unsullied critical judgement. The workshop industry tends to promulgate this view–there is good and bad writing–and the difference between the two will be crystal clear. Or rather, the illusion of excellence demands opacity. To suggest that there are different aesthetic principles for evaluating writing destroys that glittering illusion. Probably certain nodes of the creative writing industry are more responsible for this than others? I don't know. Most places would likely prefer that those who teach in such programs not talk about these complexities, discrepancies, etc.

I’m not trashing creative writing workshops here. I’ve been in them and I’ve taught them. There is value there. But, there must also be a place in them for a critical component. This means even a place from which the project itself can be self-reflexive, self-critical, self-aware. Exhibitionist even.

What’s behind that gold standard? Maybe it is not gold at all but a dark and loamy standard. Maybe beauty is a disarray, a dishevelment that reveals something else. Cacophony’s vibrato.......Does that make someone uncomfortable?

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