Thursday, July 12, 2007

Review of The Elephants Teach from 29.1

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. $17.00 paper (ISBN 0-226-55454-6), 238 pages.

Reviewed by Abdel Shakur

Although creative writing as a subject is more popular than it’s ever been (over 400 programs world-wide, granting 1,000 degrees every year), it’s hard to see such explosive growth and not feel a nervous twinge. What standard of writing are these programs directing their students towards? Are they all being taught, as some critics would charge, to “write like Iowa”? Further, what does it mean to have so many studying writing at a time when society marches towards ever braver levels of illiteracy? In D.G. Myers’ The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, the author reframes these anxieties by addressing a more basic question: How did writing become creative in the first place? Instead of detailing all the ways that creative writing is “broken,” Myers promises a broad historical perspective on how creative writing was conceived to “work.” Covering a century and a half of history, Myers’ at times fascinating account helps us understand the institutions, personalities, and philosophies that shaped the current state of American letters.


Although creative writing as a subject is more popular than it’s ever been (over 400 programs world-wide, granting 1,000 degrees every year), it’s hard to see such explosive growth and not feel a nervous twinge. What standard of writing are these programs directing their students towards? Are they all being taught, as some critics would charge, to “write like Iowa”? Further, what does it mean to have so many studying writing at a time when society marches towards ever braver levels of illiteracy? In D.G. Myers’ The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, the author reframes these anxieties by addressing a more basic question: How did writing become creative in the first place? Instead of detailing all the ways that creative writing is “broken,” Myers promises a broad historical perspective on how creative writing was conceived to “work.” Covering a century and a half of history, Myers’ at times fascinating account helps us understand the institutions, personalities, and philosophies that shaped the current state of American letters.


Creative writing’s rise is especially striking when we learn from Myers’ account that English as a discipline itself is a relative newcomer to academia. Myers notes that as recently as the late 1800s, the predominant study of English was more linguistic than literary in focus, and had a much funkier name: philology. Definitions of philology varied, but according to Myers, “sometimes it meant historical linguistics; at other times, something like cultural studies.” According to Myers, philology broke important ground by considering English apart from the classical studies which had dominated university studies before. Philology was also significant to the development of creative writing for another reason: writers hated it. Myers traces the origin of the phrase “creative writing” to a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where the writer belittles philologists as merely “the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomanics of all degrees.” Many writers resisted what they saw as an attempt to simply quantify and systematize literature. This reaction cracked the door to what Myers calls a “constructivist” approach to literary study. Instead of literature serving as anthropological record, scholarship was devoted to uncovering the techniques authors used to construct their texts.

Although teaching composition is seen as a necessary financial-aid evil for many graduate creative writing students, according to Myers, the subject opened the door for the modern approach to writing studies. With the fall of philology, composition presented the revolutionary idea that literature was not merely a dead thing, but was instead still being written. Myers introduces Barrett Wendell, an unheralded innovator in composition, who sought to teach writers to “recognize and grasp the individual nature of experience” and “develop habits of mind not unlike those required for literature.” Students didn’t write fiction or poetry in composition, but Wendell’s focus on sensory details has become a guiding principle in creative writing instruction.


Casual readers will probably find Myers large historical cast a bit daunting. Aside from challenging pedagological theory, there are several passages of near Bible-length lists of institutions and teachers that “begat” one another. However, Myers should not be faulted for his thoroughness. The Elephants Teach is primarily concerned with giving an authoritative account of creative writing’s history. The book has a wealth of interesting information, which in a less complete context might read as mere anecdote.


For instance, according to Myers, the staple of the contemporary creative writing class, the “workshop,” started off as an experiment to get junior high kids more interested in literature. Hugh Mearns, a former student of Barrett Wendell, developed the class as part of a progressive educational attempt to make students invest in the study of writing by getting them interested in their own self-expression. Later, Norman Foerster adopted Mearns’ system, giving special focus to literary criticism, and created the first graduate creative writing program in 1930 at the University of Iowa. By giving such a detailed rendering of this history, Myers helps his readers put Mearns’ contribution into proper perspective. Unfortunately, Myers’ narrative disappoints by lacking any significant mention of non-White writers and academics. These omissions are glaring in a book that seeks to explain how contemporary creative writing took shape.

However, throughout his book Myers does an excellent job of showing how market and academic institutional forces shaped creative writing, and how those forces perverted some of the principles the subject was founded upon. Although his focus is history here, Myers also keeps an eye towards the future of how creative writing will be taught. In this newest edition of The Elephants Teach, Myers writes that the major challenge to the subject is its lack of “subjective criteria for the production and evaluation of new work.” Established with a “subjectivist/expressionist ethos,” creative writing fails to offer its students concretely defined principles, which he says leads students to tread similar literary paths—read: “write like Iowa.” Myers claims that if writers don’t know the “rules,” they can’t be expected to defy them intelligently.


The rub, of course, to this line of reasoning is determining what the “rules” actually are, and who should make them. Ironically, Myers is vague when it comes to establishing these concrete principles, but that doesn’t completely undermine the value of what he proposes. The dialog about creative writing ideals may not need absolute resolution in order to be productive. By the end of The Elephants Teach, Myers wearily suggests that “creative writing may not be able to reform itself from within.” However, by providing a first-rate history of the subject, Meyers may have laid the groundwork for a provocative discussion of dynamic new approaches to writing, as well as its instruction.

1 comment:

Ledba Rukahs said...

Brilliant review! Bravo! I couldn't have said it better myself. Oh, wait...