A series in which the editor attempts to summarize and synthesize scholarly research on aesthetics, creative writing, and literary magazines as a part of their PhD journey.
Academics toss around the word “pedagogy” like coeds juggle hacky sacks across the grassy quad – both are just things that you’re bound to encounter in a college environment. The term itself is used so diffusely that I’m honestly not sure what it specifically means anymore. I have taken several classes on pedagogy in graduate school, where I discovered “pedagogy” is the core of much educational jargon. As journalists might say, it’s evergreen material – which is useful for the anxious publish-or-perish crowd. Yet I have the same problem with the concept of pedagogy as I do with hacky sack, which is to say, I have no idea what the rules of the game are. Is the theory working toward a real-life goal? Are we just killing time? I don’t have a satisfying answer.
One book that I flipped though recently is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2009. The press offers this description: “In The Program Era, Mark McGurl offers a fundamental reinterpretation of postwar American fiction, asserting that it can be properly understood only in relation to the rise of mass higher education and the creative writing program.” I quite liked this book – it is packed with footnotes that cite interesting primary sources – but I would say its strengths are almost biographical. It’s less of a deep dive into the history behind the ideology of creative writing pedagogy than it is a series of case studies of “authors [who] had gone to college and taken creative writing courses,” to borrow one reviewer’s phrasing. To be clear, I don’t think that is a bad thing. Sometimes, ironically, it helps to see the forest for the trees – especially when those trees contributed immensely to the larger situation of creative writing studies today. It’s bringing the abstract into the realm of specifics, and isn’t that what we love about creative writing? All those wonderful specifics that taken together produce a whole imaginary world? Anyway, I digress.
The first “tree” that McGurl pays close attention to is Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian American author who was born in Saint Petersburg but became an American citizen in 1945 after bouncing around Cambridge, Berlin, and Paris. (Nabokov and his wife Véra escaped the advancing German troops in May 1940 on the SS Champlain, which only a month later would become one of the earliest passenger ships sunk by a mine – and then torpedoed by a German submarine – in World War II.) As McGurl explains, “Arriving in the U.S. in 1940, Nabokov entered the picture too early to profit from what was at that point little more than a twinkle in the eye of Paul Engle, Wallace Stegner, Elliott Coleman, Baxter Hathaway, and the many others who would soon be forging a new place for writers in the American university” (21). McGurl notes that, while Nabokov did “[get] a taste of creative writing instruction” while teaching a summer class in playwriting at Stanford University, he spent much more time teaching Russian at Wellesley College and lecturing on literature at Cornell (22). The classes that Nabokov taught were low-paying and, ultimately, distracting Nabokov from writing the novel that would become Lolita. He delivered the same lectures year after year, never changing the syllabus. Despite Nabokov’s reputation as “a militant Cold War individualist,” Nabokov “[made] no pretense of taking any interest in his students (Thomas Pynchon famously among them) as individuals” (23). Nabokov even wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson, “I am sick of teaching, I am sick of teaching, I am sick of teaching” (Karlinsky as cited in McGurl 17).
Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly crossword, which he made for his wife Véra in 1926 (via Wikimedia Commons).
This period of Nabokov’s life prior to the success of Lolita, which would forever free him from his teaching duties, does not appear to have been a happy time. However, one lifelong hobby outside of writing provided Nabokov with some joy – entomology. Nabokov was a research fellow in zoology during the 1940s at Harvard University, where he spearheaded the organization of the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. In 1960 the English entomology Francis Hemming even named a species of butterfly Nabokovia after Nabovok. Nabokov would later comment in The Paris Review: “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.” According to McGurl, Nabokov’s adjacent career in the study of butterflies is not unrelated to the “disorganized science of creativity” that was slowly becoming established in American institutions such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936 (24). As McGurl writes, “With its obvious kinship to aesthetic miniaturism, [Nabokov’s] scientific work on beautiful little butterflies speaks powerfully to the importance of pleasure in study, which had been another of the themes of progressive education” (30). Thus, although Nabokov “missed a date with institutional destiny” (28) – arriving to the U.S. too early to benefit from “the graduate creative writing program, which turns writers into salaried writing professors and students into tuition-paying apprentices” (21) – the theme of pleasure in study still stands out in Nabokov’s biographical narrative, albeit in a different context.
There is more to be said about Nabokov’s weird place in the history of creative writing pedagogy. For example, there is the unavoidable conversation about Eros in Nabokov’s writing, which McGurl associates with the sort of “fondling” over details that students of literature tend to employ in close readings (32). But what I take away from this sample of discourse, at least, is that pleasure in study is something essential to the place of creative writing in higher education. And that idea holds water. It seems like all the enrollment spots in creative writing classes fill immediately on the first day of registration. As the dean tells Sandra Oh’s character in Netflix’s The Chair, “Creative writing? That’s the only field in your department building enrollments. Students want to produce content.” And, while the dean plays the role of a pseudo-villain in the series, what he says is true – students do want to produce content. Because engaging in that creative process is pleasurable. And the source of that pleasure – an amalgam of self-expression, self-establishment, and “bend[ing] the arrow of personal experience,” as McGurl says (41) – is worth exploring, especially in the context of postwar America and its culture’s hyper-focus on the individual.
McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Harvard University Press, 2009.