Monthly Archives: September 2014

D.G. Myers, RIP

I did not know D.G. Myers personally, and except for a couple of twitter exchanges, I never communicated with him directly. I knew him only via his writing, which I read with steady attention for approximately the past six years. I can’t remember now what link pushed me in his direction, but after reading just a little bit of his literary criticism, I had the singular question that so much good writing throws off: who does this guy think he is?

I was in my first year as a “visiting writer,” teaching various creative writing courses to undergraduates, when I found his A Commonplace Blog, and I was immediately taken — his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the novel, his generosity toward various writers I knew nothing about, his hostility toward political correctness and fashion, his sense of literary standards in a standard-less world. One of his ideas in particular has become lodged within my own life so much that I quote it to myself almost weekly. Here is the long version:

Literature is just the writing that arouses the impulse to preserve it and pass it on. (I call that the “canonical impulse.” Canons are inseparable from literature. To call something literature is to start a canon.) “When an inability to stay interested in Sappho lasted longer than the parchment she was copied on,” Hugh Kenner says, “the poems of Sappho were lost.” There are many reasons to keep something from being lost, however.

These many reasons cannot be contained by a list of genres, no matter how long it is extended; nor by distinguishing fiction from non-fiction (because there are whole literatures, of which Jewish literature is only one, to which this distinction is an utter stranger); nor by “privileged criteria” like sublimity or irony or artistry or “stylistic range” or “bravura performance” or anything else that can be humanly imagined (because exceptions to the rule will immediately suggest themselves).

Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

I often want to emblazon that last line in my office — perhaps scrawled onto the surface of my desk with a knife. What it did when I first read it, and what it does now, is relieve me from the narcissism of minor differences that so much contemporary American literature finds itself embroiled within. Is it realism or magical realism? Is this novel thoroughly postmodern enough? Is this “experimental”? Are fairy tales de-facto bad and non-adult? Does this novel contain just the right amount of autobiographical confessionalism? Does this novel attempt to contain all of contemporary American culture? Is this novel new and different according to these obscure criteria?

Furthermore, Myers definition of literature forces me to come up with my own definition of what “good” is — articulate it, defend it, proclaim it, try to manufacture it myself.

I resolved to read Myers book, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, during my first summer break from teaching. It was a revelation. It made what I was doing — pretending to be a Writer, so that I could fund my own attempt to write — historically coherent within the broader institution of American higher ed. I had come to the book with a short, convenient notion of creative writing’s history: that it was begun after WWII and the GI Bill in order to deal with the flux of students, some of whom wanted to be poets and novelists, etc.

Myers wrote that there was an increase in creative writing as a consequence of the GI Bill but that the pedagogy had begun much earlier, at the beginning of the century at Harvard, and was a manifestation of the broader impulses of progressive education: the idea that every student had something to express and that part of education was providing the means and the context to express it. The book also taught me that poetry and fiction, sequestered at the high-art end of the hall, were above neither freshman composition nor literary scholarship. (I heard one senior professor refer to comp once as the “gutter of the profession.”) Freshman comp was the moat you had to swim through to get to the castle of courses that “counted toward the major,” and I had finally made that transition, or so I thought. But Myers showed that in the beginning the courses came out of the same philosophical impulse, and that the subsequent battles were over turf and prestige, and that I should be much less cavalier in my pose of artistic importance. All of us teaching creative writing were merely teaching comp’s kin.

Myers didn’t take away my gargantuan level of self-satisfaction at being a visiting writer, but he did build a lot of context under my feet, and he made me a better teacher. I began to tell every student who approached me about going to graduate school to read Myers’s book. It’s one of those brief, historically stuffed books that makes sense of an entire cultural phenomenon and relieves the amnesiatic MFA vs. NYC debates of most of their self-puffed importance.

If he had only written that one book, I would have reason enough to be grateful toward Myers, but I had the regular appearance of his prose to contend with as well. Lord knows I didn’t agree with all of his literary judgments (no patience for or inclination toward DFW), or agree with his politics (extremely conservative), or agree with his religious beliefs (Orthodox Judaism), or not think that at times he was just being cranky (which of course I am never), but the cumulative effect of reading his prose over several years was unambiguously inspiring. I began to read him the way I have come to read the essays of Cynthia Ozick — as a balm and a provocation. When I am feeling down, either about the literature I’m reading or the literature I am trying to write, I go to Ozick and now Myers to be reminded why I’m doing what I’m doing, and to see an eloquent encounter with literature in action.

Not only was Myers’s writing motivational and provocative in its discrete installments, he was also a model of how one might write today. As a professor who stood in opposition to almost all of the directions of contemporary academic scholarship, and as writer who had written for various publications but who was eventually fired from his blog and regular review slot at Commentary when he published “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” after the 2012 presidential election, and as someone who in his last year did not have his teaching contract renewed at Ohio State, so that he became a teacher without a classroom — as all of the institutional contextual girders that supported his regular writing fell away — Myers still continued to write. He showed what one person with a library card, a Blogger account, and an internet connection can accomplish.

And what did he accomplish? Well, he became a permanent fixture in my literary sensibility, and he did the same for several other writers out there currently working. You don’t have to do much detective work to find a wide swath of contemporary writers and academics who read Myers avidly, who not necessarily agreed with him but recognized the excellence he embodied.

Myers wrote that “the sum and substance of what it means to respect the institution of literature” was manifested in the “moral obligation to write well.” What’s so burdensome about this obligation is that it must be born every time you set down a sentence. But Myers bore that burden as if it were a blessing.

He died last Friday after living with prostate cancer for several years. He was married and a father to four children.

Mechanisms of prestige

Yesterday, I was reading this excellent post from Rohan Maitzen at her Novel Readings blog, which led me to another excellent post where she succinctly describes the predicament of literary criticism at the present time. Namely, where should a professional critic publish her criticism in the age of easy online self-publishing, aka blogs? Should one publish via the slow, vetted, and prestigious venue of professional scholarly journals? Or should one publish via their own personal blog? Or somewhere in between?

Maitzen quite calmly and intelligently says it should be a mixture and that different forms of writing are better suited to different contexts, but that each has its place. She neither traffics in blog triumphalism or in professional old-school, rear-guard defensilism. Blogs are neither the only place for literary criticism or merely a venue for networking and personal commercials. They are another avenue for writing and thought, and the practice of regular blogging can be its own valuable contribution to literary culture. What’s more, writing via a personal blog in some ways fixes the problems of professional scholarship: its slowness, its almost autistic inability to deal with a non-professional audience, its theoretical architecture and prior-scholarship throat-clearing, its restriction to printed journals located only in college libraries, etc. (Of course, many of these problems are also intentional benefits; such is life.)

What piqued me personally about Maitzen’s post is how so much of it articulates for me thoughts I’ve felt but have been unable to articulate regarding the publishing of short fiction. As someone who is not in any way a “professional literary critic” but who was, for a brief time, a teacher of creative writing, many of the mechanisms of prestige and professional publication for literary criticism are mirrored in the world of creative writing. In fact, since fiction and poetry writing became activities of instruction within the English department, the publication of those types of works (via literary journals often run by graduate students at large universities) has modeled itself off of scholarly peer-reviewed articles. The consequences are sometimes similar: extremely long publishing cycles, prestige from publication combined with a kind of sequestration from day-to-day literary life, creating a kind of slow moving museum of prose, etc. To be sure, not all literary journals are like this; many of the journals that are more lively are disconnected from university life entirely, or they are run by a permanent series of editors. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the journals with better editorial consistency aren’t changing out their student mastheads every 2-3 years. (Of course there are exceptions to my exceptions, but go with me.)

But what this means is that literary fiction and poetry are even further decontextualized from everyday literary life. They exist solely on the reservation of the campus. (And they’re extremely hard to get into! At least, I’ve found them extremely hard to get into, but perhaps I’m simply not talented or diligent enough — a distinct possibility.) It becomes a country club of staid fashion and values.

And all of this professional rigmarole is rendered even more ridiculous when you take into account the absurd ease of online publication. Why take years of submitting a 14-page story so that it will be published in a modestly respectable print journal that will (under the most wildly optimistic of circumstances) be read by 1,500 subscribers, if, in the span of one afternoon, it can be fairly nicely presented on the world of worldwide webs, where it can be read by anyone (or no one!) for as long as you’re able to effectuate the maintenance of the software? The answer, of course, is the prestige of the print publication. It means something to publish in State University Quarterly, where it means almost nothing to publish here at my blog, even though the words themselves could be the exact same. The problem here, which is I think even more acute for so-called “creative work,” as opposed to literary criticism, is one of context. To determine its value so much of art depends upon its context. A urinal in a bathroom is something you piss into, but placed sideways in an exhibit and signed, it’s a sculpture. In a realm of no context, it’s both, but there is no realm without some kind of context. But what the context of prestige provides is legitimacy. In fact these mechanisms of prestige often take the very place of having to read a story. It’s in the New Yorker; it almost doesn’t matter what it says. The container is more important than what is contained. Or take the Harper’s “readings” section which picks and chooses pieces of found text and re-contextualizes them within the well-justified columns of that magazine. What a fortuitous changing of context!

(I feel like I have said all this before, probably just to myself but also perhaps in some form on this website. Here’s hoping I can turn redundancy into a charming quirk.)

But until online self-publication is afforded the same attention to each iteration’s own self-generated context and potential worth, online writing will exist in the eyes of professionals as a type of neverending graffiti.

I think that this will end or at least develop when some kind of literary critical version of Jason Kottke comes along, who will not publish the good literary criticism but will draw attention to the worthwhile, already-published literary criticism. Publishing will come to seem less important and the drawing attention to, the congealing of attention around, what is already available will become much more valuable. The context will become being picked up by Kottke, or some such.

Of course, with all of the rapid linking going on now and the fact that many lit blogs have been running strong for ten years, we’re already in that world; it’s just that it’s not recognized as the primary distinction. Getting in print is still the primary distinction, when it should be the attention of a respected editorial attention, a Kottke of the literary world, or a Maitzen, or a James Wood, or a Dan Green, etc.