Louis Menand

The High-Low Problem

The problem [Pauline] Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem — the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.

The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious — as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the ‘deeper’ significance of the product.

— Louis Menand, “Finding It at the Movies,” New York Review of Books, 3/23/95

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Creating Writers: Do MFA Programs Produce Dull Writers?

Can creative writing be taught? Virtually nobody thinks it can, but there are 822 creative writing programs in the U.S. ostensibly doing just that.

Louis Menand has a (typically) great piece in the current New Yorker that considers the rise of these programs. Here is Menand’s opening. (MFA’s, you are advised to avert your eyes.)

Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.

Read the whole thing. In fact, read everything Louis Menand writes.

Personally, I have never taken a creative writing course and can’t imagine ever doing so. To me, the question is not whether writing can be taught; it’s whether creativity can. These programs seem designed to produce a certain kind of writing: conservative, restrained, discreet, sophisticated — dull.

Imagine you are a young writer thrown into a workshop. You are anxious, surrounded by a dozen equally inexperienced but ambitious student-writers all eager to critique your work. Are you likely to go out on a limb by trying something wildly original? Of course not. In that environment, you don’t take chances. You conform to the expectations of others. Why throw meat to the sharks? It is no wonder that the beau ideal of these programs is Raymond Carver, whose stories are so concise and involuted that they are workshop-proof. (I should point out, I love Raymond Carver.) The simple fact of submitting your pages to others for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down compromises the writer’s independence — and at just the time in a young writer’s development when he is still searching for his own unique style.

Of course there is no way to measure how the increasing professionalization of our writers has affected our literature, but here is an anecdotal test: when was the last time you picked up a book by a young American writer with a truly wild, out-of-left-field new voice, unlike anything you’d ever heard before? To my mind, there is a ton of very good books out there but there is a sameness to the prose, a cautious, sober tone that we take for “good writing,” even “literature.” It is as if we have come to a consensus about what good writing is supposed to sound like. It is a tyranny of good taste. For some time now, the most daring new writing has come from other countries, particularly Latin America. How sad that even our creativity has to be outsourced.

Yes, yes, it is too much to lay all that on the rise of creative writing programs. Plenty of dull writers have nothing to do with these programs, and plenty of iconoclastic writers have come through MFA programs with their creativity intact.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine these programs not tending to homogenize our young writers. There has to be a standard curriculum, after all — they have to teach something. We have created a national professional academy for training young writers just as we train young doctors and lawyers. That may be good for writers, not so good for literature.

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