"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, January 23, 2012

State of Mind: A Response to Anis Shivani

It would be very easy to dismiss Anis Shivani and his latest rant “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy for the Disaffected Masses” in language my amazing mother would disapprove of (she was very insistent at “no body parts, no body functions,” especially at the dinner table) and it was my instinct to employ silence as a rhetorical device and not even engage him, because it really seems like his purpose is to incite, not provoke legitimate dialogue—but then once I realized that not saying anything was part of his goal in silencing, that put my back up, and here we are. It seems that I always come away enraged when I read anything he's written, yet I can't help clicking on links when they come up to see what he's done now. I could write a lot more than this on this topic, adding references to all kinds of writers, but then we’d also be here forever. So, as you read this, know that there is always more to add to the conversation.

Shivani asks the age-old question, can creative writing be taught?, and such a question will never find an answer among writers. As a teacher, I believe it can, though there is a line between talent and skill, but Shivani intends to take the question in a different direction, which in itself is well within his rights to do. Extending and complicating a question like this is important for the writing community, but the main problem with Shivani’s rehashing this old question is the gendered way in which he does it, destroying the female perspective and contributions and highlighting only that which is male. He writes in the second paragraph that “Creative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities… More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop.” Whether Shivani has taken any courses that might have introduced him to the history of rhetoric or the craft of writing is unclear. But the rhetorical canon aside, the main issue that Shivani overlooks—whether intentional or not, in his purpose to incite as much reaction as possible in his readers—is the difference between creative writing and literature: literature is artifact. As my fiction students identified last week, artifact brings to mind archaeology, digging, brushing away, interpreting this long-dead item for what it can tell us. Creative writing, on the other hand, considers a text as a living, breathing thing, something that puts my students in a chair next to Raymond Carver, because “Cathedral” did not spring, fully-formed, from the mind of Carver. He was once a beginning writer too. He wasn’t always Raymond Carver.

What is clear, however, that Shivani has equated creative writing with the feminine, and “real” writing with the masculine, for the purpose of silencing voices other than his own. Calling creative writing “Oprahfied” certainly genders the creative writing in terms that call to mind powerful women, mass appeal, and to him, little substance. From this argument, only women go to therapy; men do not. But what is particularly interesting about this phrasing is that it is a female mindset that phallically penetrates the workshop. He genders the workshop itself in other ways, using “she” to represent the creative workshop teacher—though it is interesting that as Shivani also argues that students are guided to imitate the models that the female teacher brings to class (Carver, Hemingway, Barthelme, Plat, Glück, and Levine are the ones he mentions), two women, four men, but the method of imitation that he rails against comes strictly out of this classical, masculine, rhetorical tradition. In Cheryl Glenn’s article “Silence: A Rhetorical Art for Resisting Discipline(s),” she writes “gendered power differentials [still] continue to determine who gets to speak out, who should remain silent, who gets to decide—and when” (267). And, as we will see later here, gendered power differentials also still determine what we can and cannot write about.

But it also defines what forms of writing are acceptable to Shivani, a move that discounts any other method of telling than his own. Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald write that “women have often written in unprivileged or devalued forms such as letters, journals, and speeches to other women” (xx) and “they write of the necessity of an education, the perils of marriage, the catastrophe of abuse, the conditions of women’s poverty, or the pleasures of women’s sexualities” (xxi). As women find voice, a consideration of different forms is necessary, because a linear form often does not represent fully the subject matter that a particular author brings to the page. From my perspective, a recovery of women’s voices, rhetorics, and literatures is an important adding-to of the vast world of words and though—not a taking-away. I simply don’t understand why some men feel so threatened by literature written by women—and to extend this, why the literary world feels threatened by reading minority writers, LGBTQ writers, or anyone else.

Shivani continues, “Literature as we have known it though history springs from genius—that most politically incorrect of words. By definition, no creative writing teacher can give official sanction to this terminology. And so the literary criticism of Horace or Sidney or Coleridge or Eliot is out the door. All of literary criticism is banished. Creative writing can flourish only in this enormous vacuum. Creative writing is taught with this single most important premise: no criticism, as the word is traditionally understood, can be allowed into the workshop.” At this point, I actually agree with Shivani—sort of—which is enough to make me slightly nauseous. I think that criticism should play a large part in the creative writing classroom—but craft criticism, not literary criticism. Traditional literary criticism has its role in the literature classroom, where it is extremely valuable in interpreting the artifact of a text. The beauty of criticism in that sphere is that it is constantly changing, constantly recovering lost voices, constantly questioning the perspective that one brings to the reading of a work. Craft criticism is different. Craft criticism looks at the way a text is constructed to achieve the effect that literary criticism looks at. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” which we discussed in my fiction class on Friday, we don’t care if the story is about abortion, what the title might represent, what symbols and metaphors and such Hemingway used. We looked at how he constructed the ambiguity of the story, how he crafted the dialogue, used the repetition of phrasing to construct the characters, used his punctuation (we’d also been reading Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style), to end up with the story we were reading.

But what Shivani defines as genius is complicated in “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities” (Huffington Post 8/13/2011) when he attempts to silence the female poets in ways we women writers have come to expect: “One would think that a celebrated female poet like Sharon Olds would show some signs that she had assimilated the key ideas of the twentieth century—or even since the late eighteenth century. But Olds is like a time-trap in medievalism, stuck in her obsessions with bodily flows, the pain of childbirth, and the witchery of men who love like it hurts…but it might as well be in a land before constitution, consultation, and communication.” What Shivani fails to understand—or at least acknowledge and articulate—is that women writers being able to write on such topics is a very recent acquisition, even as he rails against confessional poetry. In his attempts to silence the validity of women’s voices, the way that women—and more than women—come to voice in the creative writing classroom, are relegated to realms of “therapy,” which still retains a stigma of shame. Teaching students to be ashamed of their bodies, their experiences, and their traumas is absolutely unconscionable. Cheryl Glenn, in “Mapping the Silences, or Remapping Rhetorical Territory,” writes, “For the past twenty-five hundred years in Western culture, the ideal woman has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement)” (1). Writers are told to “write what you know” and until only very recently have women in the United States been permitted to know anything but their own bodies—and even then, their bodies have legally been controlled by the men in their lives. Still, today, men want to control women’s bodies and our decision about what to do with them. And even this basic freedom for women is not universal. And those are perspectives we need to be reading too.

Until recent decades, women writing about their bodies and their experiences has been confined to “confessional” writing—and demeaned in the doing—but even as I write those phrases, women writing illness narratives, addiction narratives, and other deeply personal things is still largely dismissed in the writing world, often shelved in “self-help.” Even Susan Sontag, writing Illness as Metaphor at the beginning of this phase, could only write about her experiences with illness in a form that did not recognize her personal experience as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding. But such silencing affects men as well as women: while it is slightly more acceptable these days to write about motherhood, menstruation, rape, and other personal issues rooted in the physical body, the flip side is that it’s less acceptable for men to write about fatherhood. Yet it was Philip Lopate who wrote Portrait of My Body, navel-gazing at its literal best. But it’s still less acceptable for non-white, non-straight men to write about themselves honestly, let alone about their bodies.

Shivani argues for tradition in the literature/writing classroom even as he argues against it. He writes, “Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn—for that is too reductionist a term—but by challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.” Of course, he seems completely unaware—or purposefully remains unaware—of the way that masculine traditions have shaped literature, how it has shaped the canon, even to how masculine voices are the ones, traditionally, who have run academic departments and decreed what can and should be read in various classes. And of the great geniuses he mentions, all of them are men. This is not to say that Chekhov and Tolstoy and Kafka are not brilliant, but it reduces the vast world of writing down to a tiny sphere of What Is Acceptable To Read. And he remains ignorant of why any of that would be problematic.

He argues that “Literature is not about expressing yourself,” and again he uses “penetrate,” and in his picture of the creative writing classroom, the students who “eagerly participate” in this “mild form of hazing” are all gendered male. And he concludes his argument that “[creative writing] is perhaps also a refuge from self-help (which is where memoir flourishes)… No wonder creative writing is the most popular scene on campus. Show don’t tell, find your own voice, write what you know, sure, you can do that while carrying on a hectic social life and not even feel guilty you’re wasting time. Come to think of it, Louise Glück, that Pulitzer winner, doesn’t look at all that different from what you’ve been doing.” The voices he is disparaging here through his sarcasm—not to mention using a female Pulitzer winner as his example of creative writing gone wrong—are the voices we most need to recover from silence. It is the reason that my students have no idea that there are more writers in Nebraska than Willa Cather—and introducing them to various contemporary writers of the Midwest teaches them that they can participate in this community of words, that the Midwest is still a valuable place on the planet, that their perspectives are valuable, and even essential. It is an opportunity, not a problem. To quote Audre Lord, who argues for the value of perspectives: “‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine,’ yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust? Or another, ‘She’s a white woman and what could she possibly have to say to me?’ Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’ Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’ And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other” (304). What Shivani is ultimately arguing for is a continuation of the white, straight, male, privileged class that has dictated What Is Literature since rhetoric began (ironic, he doesn’t fit into that paradigm either). If that’s all he wants to read, that’s his business, and I wish he’d leave the rest of us alone. He’s not a teacher; his website only claims a bachelor’s degree in economics as his education. What right does he have to speak for us?

But that is not what literature is. Literature is the voice of a perspective at a specific time during a specific event. But creative writing is how we get to the literature. If there’s any element of therapy in a creative writing classroom it is to teach students that their perspectives are valuable, that you can write about anything you like (and sometimes that should go no further than your diary), it’s teaching that “what you know” is valuable, because the reality is that my students don’t think it is. That’s why I have to tell them I don’t want to see any science fiction stories—they feel attracted to writing about brand new worlds because they don’t believe that the world in front of them has anything left to see, to say, to learn from.

If you feel like weighing in, please do! I don't pretend to have all the answers--and a discussion would be lovely!


  1. Should that not be Sontag's "experiences with illness" not "will illness"?

  2. Well said. Thank you for writing this.

  3. I'm glad you broke your silence: this is an excellent essay, and where Shivani sounds out his argument with huge sweeping generalizations and a blanket statement about _creative writing_ and the accompanying course work, your argument is detailed, precise, evocative. And it deals with the most heinous element of Shivani's complaint: the continuing patriarchal control of the canon. Lovely, lovely writing.

  4. YES! Thank you so much for articulating this, especially the gendered aspects. Thank you thank you thank you.

  5. Thank you for this rebuttal. I agree, Shivani is annoying (although he does, annoyingly, get some things right).
    I did, however, want to take issue with your defense of Sharon Olds. I teach her poems in my creative writing classes--not because she broke taboos, but because I think my students can learn from her use of metaphor, voice, and imagery. Versification is not her strong point--many of her poems may as well be prose--but they are not without poetic value.
    I think it adds fuel to Shivani's fire if one's only justification for reading Olds is her taboo-shattering. Anyone can lace their writing with placentas, vernix, semen, and other effluvia. To do it in a way that speaks to something larger in the human experience, as Olds does, is what makes her work valuable.