I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s when literary theory became the star of the show. Where once literary criticism was the circus ring master (examining how texts are constructed and the themes within them) now asserting literature was subservient to cultural forces beyond a writer’s control was the new normal. The writer was dead. There were no writers at all. There was only destructive, pejorative, propagandistic language layered like a hundred mattresses atop each other—the artist formerly known as the writer far beneath like the proverbial pea.
Now the term theory is considered noble in a scientific age and its application to literature was meant to confirm the seriousness and high purpose of textual analysis. But it was also a move toward speciminizing primary texts—rendering novels, poems and drama smaller—Emily Dickinson had no idea what she was doing, she was a paramecium of sorts, but don’t worry, the theorist professor would tell you about the petri dish with its agar of cultural forces beyond the ken of the Belle of Amherst.
Beware the primary text.
By the time I was teaching in the graduate nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa in the late 2000’s I had students who’d been through the theory mills. The problem was apparent: they’d no idea what a text was made of. They could only say how it related to dominant cultural forces. “What’s a scene?” I asked on day one. (From their transcripts I knew that my dozen students had attended Yale, Columbia, Berkeley, Swarthmore, and the like.) No one could venture a guess. Their silence was something more than silence—it was the quiet below the coffin.
Now a literary scene is a basic building block of narrative. If a room filled with graduate chemistry students was asked what’s the composition of salt and they couldn’t answer—well you get my point.
Scene by scene construction is central to fiction, drama and nonfiction. By asking the question I wasn’t being cheeky.
Not one of them could describe salt.
“Iowa, we have a problem.”
In the weeks that followed I labored to show them how scenes work. “A scene,” I said, “can be a sentence or a full chapter in “War and Peace.”
“In its essence,” I said, “a scene is a unit of language in which we see a human being or an environment being acted upon or revealed—whether modestly or grandly.”
I could tell some of them didn’t see why it mattered but a few took notes.
I showed them scenes.
“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
“We had fifteen passengers, and to show how hard pressed they were at last for occupation and amusement, I will mention that the gentlemen gave a good part of their time every day, during the calm, to trying to sit on an empty champagne bottle (lying on its side), and thread a needle without touching their heels to the deck, or falling over; and the ladies sat in the shade of the mainsail, and watched the enterprise with absorbing interest. We were at sea five Sundays; and yet, but for the almanac, we never would have known but that all the other days were Sundays too.”
“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?—and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?”
Scenes are not just extensions of mood or prosaic establishments of tone: they tell us how human beings are caught in the act of behaving and how that behavior is often an extension of their surroundings.
In the literary universe of theory the only important thing is to explain how people became poor in the first place or how Twain’s characters are colonial tourists or how industrial capitalism makes Eliot sentimental.
Not one of these opinions has anything to do with creative writing as an art form.
Imagine sending students to music school knowing only that the violin is merely the product of the historical need for higher tunings.
By speciminizing primary texts the theorist disables literary writing.
Volition is action following deliberation. Both are facets of wish. They are the two wings of the imagination.
Literary theory scoffs at the imagination’s volition by saying it is merely “intentionality” which means a pipe dream since no writer can be original when she’s inherited a fallen language, a polluted idiom, a word hoard of varnished propaganda.
You see how this works? The imaginative writer is just the wriggling thing in the dish.
In turn many MFA students today have little recourse but to engage in ironic play—the self is unreliable, the forms of literature (scarcely understood) are undependable, the paintbrush (writing the scene) is tedious. Today’s students are taught that the deadening effects of culture are a worthy subject and the smallest self is a good story. Moreover exposition has a larger place at the table in creative writing than it’s ever had before. By this I mean the writer interprets her narrator or characters rather than writing scenes.
Here’s the opening paragraph from a recent novel that’s received some positive attention, “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria:
“It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart into sand. Not even sand, but slime, something desperate and oozing and sick. But looking back—I was a slow burn that eventually imploded.”
This simply isn’t good writing but its the standard in a world where students are taught cultural theory before scenes.
Here’s another example, the first paragraphs of Rebecca Makkai’s new novel “The Great Believers”:
“Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?”
Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”
The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets.”
Compare the above to writing that takes us “into” the place and circumstances of people—the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel “Home”:
“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.
We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. Like most farmland outside Lotus, Georgia, this one here had plenty of scary warning signs. The threats hung from wire mesh fences with wooden stakes every fifty or so feet. But when we saw a crawl space that some animal had dug—a coyote maybe, or a coon dog—we couldn’t resist. Just kids we were. The grass was shoulder high for her and waist high for me so, looking out for snakes, we crawled through it on our bellies. The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. One was rust-colored, the other deep black, both sunny with sweat. The neighs were not as frightening as the silence following a kick of hind legs into the lifted lips of the opponent. Nearby, colts and mares, indifferent, nibbled grass or looked away. Then it stopped. The rust-colored one dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him.
As we elbowed back through the grass looking for the dug-out place, avoiding the line of parked trucks beyond, we lost our way. Although it took forever to re-sight the fence, neither of us panicked until we heard voices, urgent but low. I grabbed her arm and put a finger to my lips. Never lifting our heads, just peeping through the grass, we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. ”
I’m of an age now when I can lament with discernment the erosion of serious literary writing in my time. I saw how it got started in the English departments of the ’80’s and have seen while teaching in top tier MFA programs how the effects are winning out. If you can’t write a scene you can’t know substantive literary consciousness which engages with the land, the eyes, the mistakes, the aspirations, the getting lost, the micro luck, and the depth psychology revealed in acute awareness.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger