Get off the Lit-Crit Tip

Second in an occasional series called “A Small List of Things I Had Known 10 Years Ago,” from Armand Inezian. You can read Part the First here.

I’d like to add a disclaimer that this is not a how-to column. This column works best as point of reference, a tool by which you can stack my experiences against yours. Somewhere between the two, presumably, lay the truth.

What’s Lit Crit?
This might have changed in the five years or so since I graduated, but based on my experience at Emerson and conversations I’ve had with other MFA students, most MFA programs tend to have similar course requirements: a mix of workshops, seminars on literature and some combination of electives. The literary seminars are what I want to write about today.

Back in my grad school days, I (along with some friends) called these types of seminars “Lit-Crit” (literary criticism) courses. These are courses in which you study literature, (whether it be poetry, classic novels, modern novels or whatever), read lots of books, write papers about the books, and then probably do some kind of presentation.

Before I delve into this topic, let me say that I have nothing against Lit-Crit courses. I think the study of literature and all the tools and theories that go with it are great. I think it’s a fabulous idea to study literature and write books about books. I met one of my favorite professors through a Lit-Crit course. What I do not like is the way Lit-Crit is handled in context of MFA programs. Again, I am only speaking from my narrow frame of experience. If someone else had a different experience, please speak up.

The Residue of PhD Programs
Why even have Lit Crit? I think the answer is that most MFA programs are set up not by MFA’s but by PhD’s from English Departments. These folks have a hard time imagining the idea of handing a diploma to someone who hasn’t read many books and listened to lectures and written papers about them. This is all fine and nice, but I will tell you that I spent too much time reading a one novel a week and preparing papers and presentations and researching said papers and presentations in the library. What suffered in the meantime? My own writing.

Many of the people who’ve commented on this very blog have described a desire to use their time in an MFA program to finish a book. Very few have expressed the desire to study and comment on the classics. Not because commenting on the classics isn’t worth doing, it’s just that you only have so much time in a day.

A Small Burden
In my case (and in the case of others) this proved to be a burden. The problem was that I reverted back to my undergraduate self, the self who spent a lot of time becoming very good at writing term papers. When you get your bachelor’s degree (come on, you remember this), writing papers is very important. In fact, in the case of many liberal arts classes, your midterm and final papers are your sole graded assignments. It was very easy for me to slip back into that mode. My backwards reasoning was that since my own writing was creative, I could do it whenever. If I wanted to finish my Lit-Crit papers, however, I knew I’d have to be disciplined. Which means read the reading, set up an outline, hit the library and write a good paper. In my first academic years, I spent way too much time preparing and writing papers. I found myself rushing my own fiction work and the result was that I was not bringing my best work to workshops.

But shouldn’t writers read?
Again, I’m all for reading. What I object to is the tendency of Lit Crit professors to assign work to MFA students as though Lit Crit work is of equal value to someone who wants to write in the contemporary scene. And writing term papers might make me a better term paper writer, but when’s the last time you went to Barnes and Noble and bought yourself a nice term paper to read on your flight home? Does writing a book about Chaucer’s novel give you any real sense of what it takes to write a contemporary novel? I would argue that , if you write books about novels, it means that you’ll get better at writing more books about novels.

I’ll always remember taking a literary seminar on the Modern Novel that was taught by a very smart literary PhD who was a very good lecturer. We had just read “The Great Gatsby” and the lecturer was discussing the green light on the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock when a fellow MFA student (and writer) asked the lecturer what F. Scott Fitzgerald might have been thinking when he wrote that. But it was the wrong kind of question to ask a Lit Crit person. The lecturer answered her by discussing how symbols might work in a novel, but what he was really talking about was the way literary researchers approach symbols in other peoples’ novels.

Again, I could be wrong, but most writers whom I know don’t plan symbols, and they certainly don’t spend time thinking about how their writing might fall under the aegis of a movement (like Post-Modernism or whatever).

Also for me personally and for other writers I know, it is far more advantageous to read contemporary works (the kind assigned as homework for your writing workshops) than to read anything written before, say, 1880 or so. Stuff written before Joyce, Chekhov and their ilk may be of general interest but you’re generally not going to be able to employ that writing style (except in ironic tones) and get published. In fact a lot of the stuff written before 1950 — especially in tone, length, word choice and voice — feels fairly archaic.

So How Do I Get Off The Lit Crit Tip?
The obvious answer (since they’re not going to change the curriculum on your behalf) is to slack off in your Lit Crit class. Don’t put as much effort into your papers, don’t worry about the grade as long as you’re getting a C or higher and don’t kill yourself to read all the literature. Skim the literature for main points before you go to class, so you can participate in class discussion, but your first priority should beyour own book. If you have finished your creative writing work for the week, then turn your attention to the Lit Crit homework.

I would further suggest that GPA doesn’t matter so much in the case of getting an MFA. I don’t put my GPA on my CV. And if your goal is to become a writer (and not a teacher at all), then you don’t really need a GPA. Hell, you don’t even really need the degree.

You may feel compelled to do a very good job in your Lit Crit class. You might feel this way because you are very conscientious (like me), or maybe you’re afraid of getting low grades (see the above paragraph about GPA), or maybe (also like me) you fall back into that undergraduate feeling that classes that require big papers are more important than those that require personal writing. Or perhaps you figure that the people who put the curriculum together are smarter and more successful than you, and therefore they understand the reason why you should be taking Lit Crit classes, and someday you will be thankful that they made that choice for you.

If this is the case, please consider that, even though colleges don’t like to admit it, they are selling us a service. Actually, in undergraduate programs, they are selling a service to students and parents. In grad school, especially modern grad schools that teach the arts, they are basically selling a service directly to you, the student. Chances are that you’re either spending thousands of dollars of your own money or borrowing thousands of dollars for tuition and other fees. What is the money for? As several other posters have mentioned, it’s so you can find the time and support to write your novel, creative nonfiction, poetry or story collection. What the money is not for is for you to research the themes, symbol and whatever of someone else’s books and write papers about them.

Aren’t You Getting a Little Worked Up About This Then?
Probably, but the main reason that I am writing this series is to give potential MFA’ers a sense of the options they have going into a grad school program. I am being very honest when I say this is a list of things I wish I’d known — and I consider my MFA experience to be a fairly positive one- because had someone sat down and talked to me about some of these things, my MFA experience would have been even better.

To summarize: Be aware of the amount of your time you are giving over to theory and Lit Crit courses, especially if it is reducing your own creative writing time. Give first priority to your own book. Don’t assume someone with an English PhD has the same skill set or perspective as a creative writer. Don’t allow yourself to be cowed by departmental administrators- most likely they’re not paying you, you’re the one paying them.

Cheers,
Armand

Comments 19

  1. Wild Guppy wrote:

    Very insigtful post. I’m in an MFA program right now and just finished up a paper that nearly killed me to write for a lit crit class I got an incomplete in last semester. My prof, (a young, smug English PHD may or may not accept it, because according to her, I submitted it too close to the deadline for incompletes, though before. This damn 25-page paper took me three weeks to write. If she doesn’t accept it, I get an automatic F, even though I went into the paper with an A. I’m a novelist. I want to work on my novel, not jump thru these litcrit hoops. I really appreciated your post. Find myself slipping into the same problems as you mentioned. Hopefully, I’ll at least squeak by this one but if she gives me an F, I’ll have to fight it. Any suggestions on doing that?

    Posted 16 Dec 2006 at 4:53 am
  2. Carolyn wrote:

    I’m currently an MFA student, too. And while I feel the pain of litcrit classes — and have been tempted to say the grades don’t matter — I know that when you apply for a univerity teaching job, your graduate transcripts will be included. Cs will look bad. That said, first priority should always be to our own creative work — and that may be the most valuable lesson we learn in grad school.

    Posted 16 Dec 2006 at 1:15 pm
  3. Andrew W wrote:

    We hated our lit classes in Emerson’s MFA program too. But some profs made it work. P’shares founder DeWitt Henry teaches a modern lit course at Emerson that replaces academic papers with short stories—you read a set of work from related writers and then write a story that uses their tricks.

    Sometimes that method fails, such as when someone who didn’t watch TV growing up is asked to write a story using pop culture characters. But it’s a lot better use of their time in an MFA program than to ask them to write an academic paper on the same topic.

    Posted 16 Dec 2006 at 3:23 pm
  4. Wild Guppy wrote:

    Desoite my previous post, I do think taking some litcrit courses is helpful. In undergrad, I was an English major, and I got enough of that there. It’s also hard to have a conversation with somebody in an MFA workshop if they haven’t read at least some of the classics (especially if the contemporary peice we’re talking about has a reference to some classic.) I can see why they include the literature classes. But, really, why couldn’t we just be allowed to come up with a short paper and a more serious creative response to the work if we wanted to?

    Posted 17 Dec 2006 at 1:29 am
  5. Armand wrote:

    @ Wild Guppy-

    I also agree that traditional Lit Crit classes are great, but maybe not the best thing for someone trying to get an MFA and write a novel in two years.

    As for the paper you mentioned, I’m sorry that I don’t really have any good advice- I would guess that you will probably have to work it out with the professor in question.

    Armand

    Posted 17 Dec 2006 at 9:14 pm
  6. Armand wrote:

    @ Carolyn & Andrew W-

    Thanks for your takes on my comments! I should have said that there are other alternatives to just slacking off in your Lit Crit class. For myself, I went to school part time- giving myself extra time to write. Someone else mentioned finding a school at which Lit Crit courses are not required. I also like Prof. Henry’s idea.

    I have really enjoyed the comments and feedback, and I hope you keep checking in.

    Armand

    Posted 17 Dec 2006 at 9:34 pm
  7. Todd wrote:

    Coming from the other end (I have an MA rather than MFA) I would have to say I have a mixed feeling about lit crit and its effects on writing/writers. On one hand, I learned to read closely and carefully, an essential skill for any writer serious about writing (highly recommend Francine Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer”)and writers, I believe, would benefit in particular from exposure to New Criticism (basically Prose’s approach). On the other hand, lit crit often does stray away from the works themselves and tries too hard to be philosophy, and, while novelists, poets, and dramatists can be philsophers, we’re primarily moulders of the imagination and use our imaginations to shape ideas.

    One thing bit that bothered me about this post is the shunning of writing before the early to mid 20th century. While 19th century novels aren’t necessarily stylistically compatible to contemporary writing, there is so much more than style that one learns from writers writing before 1922 (the year Joyce’s “Ulysses” was published). For instance, read “Madame Bovary” to see how to deepen a character. And even stylistically–read Lewis Carroll and see how carefully he crafts some of his sentences. In one sentence Carroll can move from idea to action in a precise and economical way that is hard to see in contemporary writing, even in contemporary minimalism.

    We’re all writers and we write in a tradition and everyone who has written before us should be our contemporaries.

    Posted 17 Dec 2006 at 9:57 pm
  8. Richard wrote:

    I got both an MA in English and an MFA in the mid-1970s. Back then there were no LitCrit classes. There were literature classes, and in both programs nearly all of my professors discussed works of literature the way good book groups work, only with a moderator with a great deal more knowledge and experience. I did very few research papers. We did more essays discussing the works. It sounds very, very old-fashioned and quaint now, but for a writer, these courses were great.

    Posted 20 Dec 2006 at 7:45 pm
  9. The R wrote:

    As a relative newcomer to the MFA experience, I have mixed feelings about the so-called “Lit-Crit??? courses. I am a first-year MFA student whose undergraduate degree is not in English, plus I didn’t take a whole lot of lit courses while I was an undergrad. In my particular case, the Lit Crit courses that I have taken as a grad student have opened up whole new worlds, especially when it comes to literature (including literary theory) written by Latinos. In fact, I am glad I’ve taken them. It has already started to affect the way I read and write. On the other hand, that last ten page paper I wrote using gender theory and feminist criticism took a lot more time to complete than I thought it would; and it took me completely away from my creative writing. Honestly, I would rather spend a lot more time on making my fiction better than writing a paper in which I am extending the argument of some theorist. I am, however, one of these people who plans to teach later, so, in the long run, the Lit Crit courses would probably help me later

    Posted 21 Dec 2006 at 4:01 pm
  10. Armand wrote:

    @ Todd

    I do see your point about reading older writers. I didn’t do a very good job of addressing that particular part of the topic because it was more a sidebar issue to the greater topic of Lit Crit courses.

    As for me- I still humbly disagree with the notion that MFA writers must read the classics in an academic setting.

    Reading the classics seems like an issue of interest to many people. If you write up a post on it, I’d be excited to read it.

    thanks-

    Armand

    Posted 22 Dec 2006 at 2:27 pm
  11. Imani wrote:

    For days I have been trying to think of a nice way to respond to the idea that anything written before the 1950′s starts getting a little “archaic” and anything before the late 19th century could not be useful for a MFA student. (Because you’re contemporary!) And I can’t. So I’ll quote Nabokov (who should be recent enough to be of some use to you, I hope).

    A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place.

    I assume a major reason one enters an MFA programme is to improve one’s craft, yes? It’s not to ape another style. What possible advantage could books written in the past 50 years have over the “archaic” texts besides more familiar spelling? Seriously. If the answer has something to do with more ready evidence of what’s currently “marketable” I will slink back to my blog, crying quietly.

    Posted 28 Dec 2006 at 10:16 pm
  12. Todd wrote:

    @Armand,
    Actually, as I’ve thought back, my best lit courses in grad school focused very little on lit crit. In them, I had an experience closer to what Richard describes in his comment. I was especially appreciative of my guide through Ulysses in my Joyce course. And reading and studying Milton’s Paradise Lost in depth was just a joy as a reader. Milton’s use of language rivals Shakespeare. As far as lit crit, I think at least one course in theory would be valuable for any writer, even if the primary purpose is to satirize lit crit, as David Lodge does in his academic novels, or even Roth to some extent in The Human Stain.

    And you really had to complete a novel in 2 years to complete your MFA? This is hard to for me to imagine, but I tend to write slowly.

    Posted 01 Jan 2007 at 6:46 pm
  13. Armand wrote:

    @ Todd and Imani-

    Thank you both for your thought-provoking feedback. I’m glad we all found a unique path to our writing.

    also @ Imani-

    Thanks for bringing your viewpoint to the fore! I think you and I would probably disagree on some of the fundamentals as to why people read and write, and it would make for some very interesting correspondence, so I hope you keep coming back. I would be very interested in discovering how your MFA and writing experiences evolved.

    also @ Todd,

    in regard to this:

    “And you really had to complete a novel in 2 years to complete your MFA? This is hard to for me to imagine, but I tend to write slowly.”

    There was no requirement that I complete a novel (or in my case, a book of short stories) in the time I was at grad school- if I gave that impression, then I apologize. I think that my requirement was something like 80 pages, minimum.

    What I was trying to get at is the notion that, for many of us, an MFA program is a golden time for crafting as much of a book as possible.

    thanks again-

    Armand

    Posted 01 Jan 2007 at 10:01 pm
  14. Imani wrote:

    Oh well, crap, I guess this is where I mention I’m not a writer and am not in any MFA programme? I’m a mere snotty reader.

    Tee hee.

    I did mention on my blog centuries ago that I thought your point on why overly theoretical lit crit may not be the best sort of approach to texts in a MFA programme. (I especially like it because I hate lit theory.) That makes sense to me. I’m looking forward to seeing you expand on the points with which I disagree because I’d really like to get a better idea of where you’re coming from.

    Posted 02 Jan 2007 at 12:21 am
  15. gordon wrote:

    What a great thread of comments. Thanks to everyone for sending in your thoughts, and to Armand for his provocative posts. Nice stuff.

    -gordon

    Posted 02 Jan 2007 at 10:22 pm
  16. Armand wrote:

    Hi Imani-

    Thanks very much for being a reader- without avid readers, writers are nothing!

    As for going into more detail on the topic of the connection between contemporary writing and old literature, I’m going to beg off that duty for just right now. I think it’s taking us kind of far off the original topic of my post- maybe we could jointly address it in a future post?

    Finally, I hope (ahem) Gordon puts up a new posting; it’s been a while.

    Armand

    Posted 09 Jan 2007 at 12:44 pm
  17. gordon wrote:

    yeah — it has been a bit since I posted. Holidays just completely took over. But, no more excuses. I think we’re back.

    Posted 10 Jan 2007 at 10:04 pm
  18. Allison Landa wrote:

    My colleagues at St. Mary’s College of California’s MFA program were very familiar with my bitching about this.

    Learning to write and learning to lit-crit are different animals. We got two years to work on our writing, not to smoke our theoretical cigars and pontificate. Whenever our classes slipped into lit-crit mode — and they did far too often — I’d just start writing in my notebook, working on my own stuff.

    At best it bored me. At worst, it felt like a waste of time and money.

    Of course you can learn from other writers’ choices. But what I wanted to learn was the craft that glued their work together, not the symbolism that could be pulled out of any old ass.

    Posted 28 Feb 2007 at 4:52 pm
  19. Imani wrote:

    But isn’t symbolism one of the tool’s of one’s craft? If one chooses to use it, does it not help in creating the form of one’s work? And if it’s executed poorly, couldn’t one learn from that as well?

    Hello Armand, I wandered back here after you commented on my blog.

    Posted 01 Mar 2007 at 11:39 am

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