Writing across borders: Globalizing the Creative Writing Program Part 1


SRIKANTH REDDY: So I’m very
happy to be in conversation today with John Wilkinson,
who is the chair of Creative Writing at the
university where I teach, who is a poet from the United
Kingdom, who now finds himself running a creative writing
program in the United States. And I’m sure John will say
a few words about the route that he took to this position. Amit Chaudhuri we all know– we all know as a
celebrated novelist, is also a professor at the
University of East Anglia and has similar border
crossing experience in the field of creative
writing through his involvement and actually, origination,
of the creative writing India workshops in Kolkata. Aditi, now an assistant
professor at Ashoka, did her MFA at NYU and
taught creative writing in the SUNY system, the
State University of New York system, for, I think, two years
before arriving here in Ashoka, so as a prospective, again,
across border perspective on this question. And Saikat is now,
as many of you know, chairing the creative
writing program at Ashoka, has taught at
Stanford University, is returning to us here
in Delhi from fellowship in the US at Wellesley
College, right? And is furthermore a
scholar whose interests extend to questions
of cosmopolitanism and literary practice. It’s a kind of uniquely– a group that’s uniquely
suited to begin thinking about the questions
that we’ll be thinking about for the next two days. And I thought we might
begin by asking each of you to reflect on whatever
particular anecdotal, or autobiographical,
or experiential experiences you’ve had in
the field of creative writing as a writer, as a teacher,
as an administrator who’s had to work in different
kinds of national contexts. Following these
opening remarks, I’ll ask a few questions to begin the
conversation among ourselves, and then we’ll
open the discussion to questions from you. And I hope that you’ll feel very
much part of the conversation from the beginning. So shall we begin with Saikat? SAIKAT MAJUMDAR: I
was not particularly– I did not really
enjoy partly because I move from city of 12
million in Kolkata to a small town in the Midwest. And of course, the change
was too much for me. And I felt like the workshops,
I wasn’t paying attention to anything. I didn’t– there was a– I was– I felt I wasn’t. But in a strange way I was. And I’ve just written
about this somewhere that after two
years after this, I started writing my
first novel, and I felt that there were
certain things– it’s a bit like I was listening
in the workshop the way a shrink listens. You don’t hear– you don’t
listen, but you hear. You’re [? cognitively ?]
neglecting everything. But actually, there
are things that are sinking in, like a tick,
like a verbal mannerism, like how people
talk, how they smile. This body languages
sort of sink in. And I realized in
a strange way what I thought I had ignored
everything had actually affected me. And I think it’s
really the practice of making yourself bare every
week to a group of writers. I mean, of course,
being in an MFA, the first thing you do is to
get to call yourself a writer for the first time, especially
if you’re being funded, whatever, a writer-in-training,
a [? writer-in-apprentice. ?] It’s when you can
call yourself that. And who knows if you
ever get to call yourself that ever again in life. I mean, that’s a whole
other different question. But you can say that I’m a
writer or whatever but them. And this exposure,
this showing myself to a community of
writers everyday, more serious, whether
or not they’re hostile, but they’re serious. They’re engaged. And it’s pretty intense. I think– so in a
way, what I felt was the MFA, the
creative writing program that you take away from it
is it’s not really teaching in a conventional sense. I think for me, I feel the
more technical an art form is, the more teachable it is. So filmmaking is, in my
mind, the most technical. There’s so many physical
things, so many engineering, scientific things you need to
know that it has to be taught. And literature in my
mind– and other people may have different opinions–
is the least technical of all art forms. I mean, of course,
there’s point of view, and voice, and all
of the things we love to talk about in
creative writing programs. But at the end of the day, I
feel there are just two things. You need some sort of a
fresh relationship with life and a fresh relationship
with language. I don’t mean a kind of
a conventional command. It’s not the command which
gives you academic expertise or business settings, but
something fresh and quirky, something original. And once you have these
two, you can be a writer. And there’s, of course,
the dreary discipline of putting things to paper. And what I found rather– and I
think this is something which I imagine many of you in the room
might share because my sense is we all are– we are a group of writers
with a fairly high degree of literary literacy,
which is a boon and a curse at the same time. Is that John Updike once said
that writing is not something you learn but unlearn. And I didn’t really
understand what he meant. How do you unlearn something? And then I realized, it’s
a lot about– there’s a lot of unlearning involved. My first novel, obviously
as many first novel happens, there’s a sense of being– paying tribute to a
lot of great writing, the sense of approaching
setting in a kind of anthropological way. And then some something happens. In my case, it was
actually becoming a father for the first time. Suddenly the world becomes
so raw, much more vulnerable, and visceral place. And boom, all those
technical kind of things go out the window. And you become–
and that rawness– there’s sort of–
somehow you try to cultivate a lack of finish. You try to cultivate
a lack of polish. So in a way, I realized
you’ve moved away. But the thing is, the
writing program most of all, it’s not really
about the content, it’s not really
about the teaching. It’s really the
space, it’s really the community that
you are there, that you get to call
each other writers, that writing is awfully
isolating business. It’s not like filmmaking, or
drama, or many other art forms where you are working people. It’s really isolating. It’s you and your laptop,
or your pen and paper, or whatever you’re working with. And– I think especially for
those of us who write prose because prose is really– poetry still have a
performative element. And it’s really nice to
be able to get together with a group of people when
you’re writing and just– my ideal writer’s resort
is like where you just vanish into [? locations ?]
throughout the day, and then at the end of
the day, gather around a fireplace with a few
beers and just read whatever we’ve written. So this idea of kind of
sharing, the idea of– so it’s very important
that something communal comes into place with writing. And that I think I’ve
found really helpful. And the very profoundly
transformative, humiliating, visceral experience of making
yourself bare week after week to a group of five
or six people, even if it’s a small group,
that does something to you. It is really like being– it’s really like both
being a shrink and lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch. You are talking, and
you’re being talked. And in so many ways, I
think the most valuable part of our writing program is not
the writing, but the reading, that you want to read. One thing I can assure you a
writing program will teach you, it will teach you how
to become a reader. And this is a tremendously
important skill. Not reading great literature– I’m not even
talking about that– reading each other’s work. How do you know what
you’ve written is any good? There are a lot of writers who– there are some
writers who are really good judges of their own work,
and some writers who are not. And I think this ability to
be able to judge what you’ve written is good is something
which comes from the workshop. So these are– it’s
very hard to say. Clearly it’s not a
conventionally teachable subject. And yet, it creates a space in a
community where we really can– something can happen at
the end of two years, even when the experience is
mostly bitter and difficult, or you hate each other’s
writing, or you– even that hatred is a kind
of an intimacy, right? Hatred– if you
really hate somebody, it’s a kind of intimacy in the
same way if you really hate some kind of– I think Amit has talking about
dislike as a kind of engagement on dislike, when a writer
really dislikes somebody. So in a sense, we
experience these things. It’s a kind of intimacy. You make great friends
and enemies often in the same person,
the person who is this. And so these other things. And I know as writers, we
are alert that the community must be alive all your life. After a point of time, I
tell to all my students that you won’t get anybody
who’ll really be committed to reading or writing. You have to find that. And you have to
find this community. So the MFA’s a wonderful
place, or the MFA– whatever degree. The degree is irrelevant. An MFA’s obviously not an
MBA, so it doesn’t matter. You can call it anything. But the program space is
really a wonderful space to sort of do that, so just
some scattered parts there. But maybe I’d love to know what
others have to say about this. JOHN WILKINSON:
Well, first of all, I’m delighted to have
been invited here. It’s given me an opportunity to
visit India for the first time. And I’ve had a
week here already, bouncing from site to site. And my brain is so
scrambled that I had to write down some notes
at breakfast, so forgive me. Much of what I do is actually
read from these notes. The first is that
[? Chicu ?] is inviting us to talk about our own
roots towards our work in creative writing. And mine– one of the
reasons he mentioned this is that mine is
particularly roundabout kind of route towards what I do. First of all, I have no MFA. Now indeed, I’ve never even been
in a creative writing workshop, and yet I now find myself
chairing the creative writing program at Chicago. When I was the world’s
laziest graduate student, I found that I did make my
own community of writers. And having three years
of graduate study, which were mainly devoted to the
study of different beers and other substances,
meant that I had plenty of time to meet other writers. And that community has stayed
with me for much of my life. And I would underline
the importance of your contemporaries, of those
whom you meet in the program, and that the MFA program
is one way of not having to go through this rather
extended process of discovery of others who might have
this strange and secret vice. But people are out
from the beginning. They are admitting to their
vice from the beginning. I thought this is wonderful. The other thing I
wanted to pick up on was your references to
shrinks because almost all of– my career until I was 50
was in mental health services. And my final job was as Director
of Mental Health Services in the East End of London. And then I had a
dramatic change of career in moving into academic life on
the coattails of my wife, who is a distinguished scholar. And this is meant that I have
confronted academic culture from the outside in a way which
I think few of my colleagues do. So it’s rather to be unusual
to come into such a position so late in life. And most of my
opening remarks really are bound up with that and
some sort of distanced comments about creative writing. So to be an advocate
for creative writing internationally is a
strange place to find myself. It’s fraught with contradictions I’ve just be reading
as I’ve been– in the last week
Jeet Thayil’s Book of Chocolate Saints on Kindle
as I’ve been wandering about. And really that
better represents my disabused romantic view of
writing as a marginal outsider activity of the suit with
no hope but financial reward or fame, but does the
culture of the MFA. Nonetheless, I find myself
where I find myself. The rise of creative
writing in the US and the UK coincides with the closure
of psychiatric hospitals. [CROWD CHUCKLES] This may seem a
frivolous remark, but the compelling attraction
to students, and indeed to ordinary people of creative
writing, is tied, I think, to the damage which is done to
human beings reduced to units of production and consumption. Creative writing is
a small compensation in that regard, which means I
confess that it participates in a therapeutic
culture which assuages individuals and manages
their dissatisfaction to the benefit of capital. It’s infected by careerism,
by prize obsession, by measurable
outputs, and the rest. Nonetheless, I’ve made my
peace with creative writing. The impulse that drives
people to creative writing is one of unhappiness
and dissatisfaction along with the discovery,
sometimes late, that writing offers an
experience of total engagement not to be found in
alienated work, the pleasure of intricate labor
in its own right. Now, I have a background– training in literary
theory where the word “craft” was always
regarded with extreme disdain. And my view of this has changed
substantially over the years. I particularly remember
the work of the sociologist Richard Sennett who talks
in a work about craft, about his own upbringing
in a project that is public housing in the most
deprived area of Chicago where he discovered that– he was introduced to the cello. And having been a child who
felt utterly miserable, adrift, and depressed, he discovered
that he could make something of a craft, of a skill,
playing the cello, and that furthermore,
others respected it for him. They called it his ax. He had his ax, and
his ax was his cello, and that this sense of
engagement with craft was fundamental to all that he
was able to achieve after that, that he was able
to build on that by feeling that he wanted to
attain an education, and so on. So craft, I think, is an
important aspect of what we do. I now feel, in fact, that
everybody should be encouraged to take creative writing class. That isn’t just empire building. It probably is to a point. I no longer have the faith that
anyone with talent will write, which was a kind of glib
thing I used to say. But if you really want
to write, you will write. You may not have time to read– but that’s a big problem– but you will always
find time to write as the history of women writers
tells us through the centuries, that people have been able to
write despite all of the odds. But I was negligent in saying
that of my own privilege. And I have indeed always
had the time to write. And in the West and
where Western modernity has been imposed,
we’ve been made to see the world in
functional terms. Our aptitudes are
measured from infancy. Testing starts
younger and younger. And people start to worry
about the kind of incomes that students will be
able eventually to earn. And now even private
American universities are exceeding to the notion
that the value of a course is measurable in terms of
the income 10 years out of the students who take
that course, which I think is a disgraceful concession to
the current instrumentalization and financialization of
absolutely everything. I’ve had students actually
express doubt to me that they can be permitted
to write without an MFA. I don’t know who they think
they have to get permission from to do this. But nonetheless in a world
where that is the case, then I feel that it is absolutely
essential that students should be given the opportunity to try
a class in creative writing, and indeed in other arts. So moving on to
internationalism very briefly– and I will only talk
another couple of minutes– the first thing I
wanted to say is that notoriously,
creative writing is an international activity
that has been linked to sponsorship by the CIA. And this is true. But this is something
that, in a sense, we can bite the
hand that feeds us. That’s important. We we’re always doing that. And that’s one thing that we– things that we strive to
do in university settings all the time is to fight
back against forces which are trying to
instrumentalize everything that we do and trying to use
it for their own disturbing purposes. In the panel tomorrow on poetry,
I’ll talk a little bit more about internationalism
and my own sense of that so far as poetic
work is concerned. [? Chicu ?] mentioned the
backgrounds to this conference in discussions which result into
discussions around translation in particular. But one of the things that has
struck me most in both Britain and in the US is the
extraordinary lack of interest in other
literatures in English. And actually, that applies
from Britain to the US as well so that in the US
it’s almost impossible– I mean, often it feels very
difficult to get people, for example, to
read English poetry. But try to get people
to read Indian poetry, or Australian poetry,
or Caribbean poetry, that is really problematic. Partly this is because of the
kind of way which technically you can set up translation as
a particular area of expertise, and therefore one which invites
credentials and validation. And I’m all for that. We’re moving rapidly
towards developing programs in translation at
the University of Chicago. But I just feel that so far as
the international perspective is concerned, it’s very
important that we continue to and that we engage much
more with other literatures in English. So I’ll just leave
that there for now. Thank you. AMIT CHAUDHURI: I didn’t
make notes at breakfast because I was having
breakfast with John, in fact. [CROWD CHUCKLES] And so– but I made some
notes while Srikanth was speaking, while
listening very attentively. I mean, what John
has just said chimes in with a lot of what
I’ve been thinking about and what I’m about to
say briefly, I hope. Like him, I’m not an MFA, or a
product of a creative writing program. I never went to a
creative writing school and pursued the
study of literature as a means to sort of
extend my time in university and in England, a time
which I would use to write poetry and then novels. So I finished my B.A. At
University College, London reading English. I didn’t attend– and you talked
about being a lazy graduate student. And that chimed in
as well with memories of my very peculiar and lazy
sort of undergraduateship at UCL where– and dysfunctional
and maladjusted. I never went to class. But I was I was
intent on publishing my poetry in the great
national magazines in the UK. And of course, that
never happened, so I spent time puzzling about
why that wasn’t happening. So my– so the other
commonality I think– and so then maybe there needs
to be a slight distinction made at the outset between
creative writing teaching– the creative writing
teaching of prose fiction and the creative writing
teaching of poetry, and the position of
the poet in connection with pedagogy and literature
and the connection of the prose writer. Prose writers in
the 20th century traditionally have practiced
less criticism than poets. Before, criticism
became professionalized in America in fact
from the ’80s onwards. And before those poets
went into disrepute for right-wing
affiliations or sympathies, the most interesting and the
most pathbreaking criticism in thinking about
literature was done by poets in the 20th century. There are exceptions to this,
Virginia Woolf, for instance, and Henry James to
a certain extent. So poets are not
averse to talking critically and
theoretically in a way that novelists sometimes are. And this reflects on
creative writing pedagogy when you’re teaching the novel
or teaching prose fiction. And then to come
back to the fact that I was wasting time at UCL
and then wasting time later on when I did a PhD at Oxford– and I managed to publish my
second novel, Afternoon Raag, a week before my
[INAUDIBLE] happened. So my plan was– it worked on some level. And then I never took up a job. I was briefly on
fellowships until I went to the University
of East Anglia in 2006 and began to teach,
not immediately, but gradually creative writing– the prose fiction I made. But I have to say
that before this, I had an encounter with a creative
writing department in that I taught at Columbia University
for a term in 2002 at the– I think it’s called– is it
called the School of Writing? I can’t remember–
School of the Arts. And so that was my first
close-up encounter. But I didn’t– to my
sense of satisfaction, I did not teach
creative writing. I taught creative writing
students, but it taught them– I taught them a course
called– a seminar called “What is Modern Indian Literature?” I think that was the name. And Jason, who’s
here, brings back those happy, sad
memories because he was in that class at Columbia. So it was a way of
addressing critical questions with the urgency that
creative writers have and often forget about. It is not always
to do about craft because the rest of the
pedagogy in that school had exclusively to do
with craft in a way that prose fiction in America
at that time, at least, was directed heavily
on the side of craft. And across the road
was the comparative– Department of
Comparative Literature which had nothing to do with
literature more or less. So there was this journey and
a kind of uncrossable bridge between the two. And here was I talking
about literature to students who are
otherwise learning the craft or talking endlessly
about craft. So talking about
literature, the book we were reading from
mainly was the Picador Book of Modern Indian Writing,
which I had edited, but which was still
to come out in the US. I was delayed, its publication,
but also Tanizaki, Naipaul, various other writers. I think something
happened in America. This is 2002. I think something was happening
at the same time in America in 2002. I think n+1 came out in 2002. Whatever you might think of n+1,
it kind of reflects a movement, an evolution which I saw
in that class as well. And what I saw in that
class was creative writers are deeply engaged not only
with critical practice, but with theoretical discourse. It’s not true that they
find this anathema. This is a particular Anglophone
or Anglo-Saxon maybe prejudice. Because again, once you move
out of the Anglophone world into Europe, into
the Middle East, or here into Urdu or Bengali,
you find theoretical engagement among writers. It’s an Anglophone and
Anglo-Saxon maybe prejudice. But I saw it among the
students of creative writing there a deep
willingness to engage with the theoretical
basis of their practice, among which was this emphasis
on craft, which is itself a historically-contingent thing,
that is it’s not immemorial, it hasn’t come out of nowhere. It has– it’s had its movement,
and it has its presuppositions. And they were willing to
discuss those presuppositions, especially in the light
of writing, and writers, and traditions who saw
craft in various ways, in different ways. I mention n+1 because with n+1,
there seemed to be a generation finally coming into
being who had– comprising writers who
had PhDs, but weren’t going to teach at university. They were going on to not
write footnoted, peer-reviewed academic articles, but essays. They were beginning
to write essays. And n+1 was a space
for such essays, which were theoretically
quite rigorous, but also did not deny that
Faulkner was a writer. Because earlier the schism
was that critical inquiry would deny the
writerliness of writing. And on the other hand, The
New York Review of Books would pretend that nothing
existed outside of Faulkner, and Janet Malcolm, or whatever. So that schism was– something had evolved
by 2002, 2003. Something new was happening. But 2011 for various reasons– I mean, John has
mentioned his reasons as to why we come
to creative writing. I mean, they’re the same. It’s true as to why
we come to writing. None of us plan to
write what we write. I always wanted to be
a world-famous poet. I ended up becoming a novelist. So we don’t plan what we do. So I took up this job at UEA. And all the talk about
shrinks, and psychoanalysis, and all of that
comes back to me now because it was a very
interesting kind of pedagogy, I realized, creative writing,
at least in prose fiction. There was an attentiveness
and an almost insane focus on attending and taking
part that I’ve never seen in any kind of pedagogy before. John spoke about being
a lazy graduate student. I spoke about being a lazy
undergraduate, maladjusted undergraduate. I would hardly go to class. This was unheard of in
creative writing pedagogy. If I missed a class for some
reason, they almost broke down. So the whole point
of pedagogy also being about not doing
things and learning, being about not
learning at university, and that not learning, opening
up something within pedagogy that mere learning
couldn’t, was foreign, was alien to this particular
mode of pedagogy, which was a first kind of teaching
model I’d encountered where everybody needed to be
present all the time and could not miss
any part of the class, whether it was workshopping
their work– that is submitting their work to be read
by others– or reading, even reading others. I would have thought that some
people would have bunked class just to avoid having to comment
on other people’s writing. But no, they had to be there
for each one of these things. And that I found– that I found interesting at
a pedagogy which does not believe at all in laxness,
in casualness, in ignoring, in opting out. That I found quite interesting. It was my first experience
of such a thing. I decided to bring to it
some critical concerns because, again, I thought that
everything we are saying here about cliche, or
craft, or whatever are based upon movements
in history and movements in critical presuppositions
which we have embraced even sometimes without knowing
we’ve embraced them. Also creative writing, as
I said, in prose fiction was very different. I knew by teaching
the PhD seminar from creative writing
for the MA in poetry because the poets who
were doing their MA were far more theoretically
eloquent, while the prose writers were very wary. I also knew that creative
writing, even in prose, was heterogeneous
in England in a way that maybe it wasn’t
in the America that I taught at because
there, the model at that time was Raymond Carver. And as you know, Raymond Carver
was recreated by Gordon Lish, so the model was
a particular kind of Flaubertian excision,
which was directing the way craft was understood. In England it was far
more heterogeneous. So there were various
presuppositions behind what we were doing. Gradually, my
shyness, my hesitancy about going beyond
workshopping died out. I began to talk more
theoretically, critically. But not in an extraneous
way, but based on what people were actually
submitting to the class because everything
that’s submitted had critical decisions
governing the way they were writing or talking
about other people’s writings. And I really thought
that it’s not enough to do your bit
in craft in the class and then go out and do
another module on Virginia Woolf and the modernists. You know, that’s not
the way it works. It works in what you’re
doing, in how you’re writing. Right now, I think in
the last few years, I have been able to bring
myself to admit to myself and make clear to the
students that writing and the teaching of how to
write, the teaching or writing, is in some ways– again, I hesitate to say
this– but a spiritual pursuit. And I don’t mean in
the religious sense. But I mean that some of
us, some kinds of writers are preoccupied not so much
with the overarching story, but with the moment. How do we move from inhabiting
one moment to another moment in a narrative? So I’ve asked them to throw out
of the window things like point of view and plot
and find out how to move from one
moment to another without having any clear
idea of how to do it through the technology of plot. And this is something
that’s done again and again, and even in something
as technical as Srikanth pointed out, as filmmaking. The great filmmakers
who edit, edit to follow the spiritual
discipline of going from one moment to another while seeming
to assemble them in such a way that, a semblance of
narrative comes to exist. But there’s actually
no real narrative. It’s a kind of consecutive
inhabiting of the momentary. I have insidiously
allowed this agenda to inform the way I
approach the texts which are handed in at creative writing. And I was interested to see
at the end of the seminar– the term, when you have this
awful kind of American model of having the evaluation forms
about how the class went, that many of them spoke about
having learned about the moment and how to address
that in writing. And this I thought was– this was the first time this
happened to me this year, and I thought this is nice,
because they didn’t say, yeah, we had a great
time, we were– and you know, blah, blah. So it was the moment that
many of them talked about. I think there’s great potential
in teaching and learning creative writing. I think the potential
is largely untapped. Anyway– ADITI SRIRAM: And I think
even just hearing these three speakers already, you have a
sense of rules having been, let’s say, followed, or doing
the MFA or not doing the MFA, or studying prose or literature,
and then teaching, or doing mental health work, and
then teaching creative writing, and in my case, coming
from an undergraduate degree at Columbia where I went
nowhere near the School of Arts or any of the
buildings that taught creative writing because I
was sitting in the engineering building studying
mathematics, to then doing a number of things and ending up
in a creative writing program. So it’s nice to
see that all of us have access points
that are different and that say something about
why creative writing is sort of this universal
thing, ultimately. And why I think– I mean, as far as
I’m concerned, it’s something that
should be taught– I don’t know who
said it here now– to all undergraduate students. Or to students at
large, it should be something that is as
ubiquitous as the intro to critical thinking,
or academic writing, or the intro to econ,
or the intro to history. Because it’s harnessing
anything you’ve done so far in your life. And it’s forcing
you to reflect on it in some productive
and reflective way, and say that there is more
to writing than the college admission essay, which is
maybe the first stage of having to force yourself to say, well,
what have I done with myself, why is that interesting, why
should someone else care, and saying, OK,
now let’s put that into a larger conversation about
what others do when they use words to express ideas,
personal ideas, public ideas, theoretical and critical
ideas, or that wonderful word creative ideas. And what does
creative even mean? And so I suppose a bit
about my background is that I, like again,
some of the folks here, came to creative writing
from these tangent points. But the– I guess,
so did everyone else that I encountered who
was in my MFA workshop, which I admit I did, too. But for example, when
I was an undergraduate, I studied mathematics,
not because I thought I was really, really good
at it, but because it just gave me proximity to people
who were good at mathematics, and who were brilliant, and who
made me feel small, but sort of demonstrated beauty on
the blackboard in a way that I knew that after those
four years of undergrad, I may not ever see again. And while it did help
me find a job, which was useful after
undergrad because I needed to pay some bills, it was
the chance to sort of just listen to other languages,
so in this case, the language of logic and sheer A to B
to C progression in a story, except this happened to
be a story of mathematics, and graphs, and visuals
that trace arcs, and that propel you from
one point to another, except not because it’s
a story, but because it’s something else. And so having done mathematics
and felt like I was just– I was near and in
or around greatness, I then went off
to do consulting. And I think it was then that
I had the experience that I’m sure many students either
have already had or will have, which was that you realize
what you don’t want to do, or what you don’t like doing,
or what you’re also still not particularly good at doing. And I found that writing
emails with lots of just bullet points– my emails were
only bullet points, no sentences, no punctuation. Again, my students
here know how much I love all of those
things, I mean, punctuation, long sentences. And I realized that there was
something crippling me, even in daily communication. If I couldn’t do something
interesting with my emails, then I was not in
the right place. And so that then became
just writing on my own, writing for my own sake. And as everyone
here, I think, will agree, whether you
do the MFA or not, whether you study literature
or not, should you write? Yes. Should you read? Yes. And what you read,
what you write, again, that’s
another discussion. And hopefully, I’m sure the
panels over the next two days will give you some
thoughts on that. But you should do
those two things. Or if you find yourself
doing those two things, when maybe you should
be doing other things, then you are thinking along
the lines of a writer, whatever, again, that
word means, right? So I was doing more
and more of that. And having the luck of
living in New York City when I was working, and when
I had been studying, I found myself at book readings,
which meant, of course, hanging out in these dusty
bars and being in the proximity of greatness, except these
were like, you know, gritty– not always gritty, actually,
often very stylish, sometimes hipster– writers reading and
writing their work. And you got to order
a beer and sit there and feel cool, and
again, feel like you were in their vicinity. And then have
discussions about ideas, but in this different
style, which came down to words on the page,
your experience hearing them read out loud, all
of the background noise, the bartender pouring things,
people walking in and out, street traffic, whatever. But all this brought
together a kind of music. It became less noise,
or theory, or being told that creative writing
is something that happens, or books are written
in a certain way to being– to sort of seeing
it come alive in a space that you inhabited whether or
not you were yourself doing that kind of writing. And that then led to my
applying to programs. So I ended up at the new
school, actually, not NYU. They’re nearby. The new school better. I don’t know. But there, again, there was
this wonderful diversity, and again, being in New
York City, of just having a huge range of writers who
would come to either teach for a semester or just drop
in for a one-day lecture in the way that
actually at Ashoka we have a ton of people
coming through all the time. And so again, as
my students know, I keep telling you all that
yes, please come to class. Maybe not what Amit might say. But also please go
do the other things. Go to the talks and listen
to what they have to say. Go to the talk of the person
you would never otherwise listen to, or who’s not
in the subject you’re interested in only
because that’s how you become a creative person
is because you listen to things that aren’t otherwise
already in your head, right? You’re reading the stuff
you’re reading because you’ve chosen to take that class. Maybe it’s required,
but at some level, it’s required because you
want to major in that thing, perhaps. But outside of those
things that you’re doing, there is a whole
range of other people that you could be
listening to as well. And so the new school did
that and brought in all kinds of fantastic writers. And many of whom have what,
I think, John was describing, which was having worked with
the same community of writers ever since they had
done graduate school. Or once they had found their
peer group after they had begun writing, and finding those four
or five people to whom they could get their writing and
say, hey, is this any good or is this total rubbish? And how do I work on this? And how do I develop this? And if you ever look to the
acknowledgments of books– novels often– I mean,
very often have them. And you just see who
the author is thanking. Aside from the folks
they use for research, it will be a group of names
that you may not recognize. But to that author,
it’s their community of people who help them
bring this thing to fruition from an idea, from
a very rough draft, or from a frustrating phase of
not being able to write and so on to something that’s now in
a book, beautifully produced, with a spine and a nice jacket,
copy, picture, and so on. So there were all these phases. And then my next
access point was that I finished this MFA, how
I was actually proud of myself. And then I had to,
once again, find a job, a lot harder to do when it’s not
your math degree from Columbia University, and you
live in New York, but now it’s his MFA in
creative writing and fiction, and no one knows quite
what to make of that, as you yourself don’t. So my access point
then was to teach what I think many people do
with a degree like this, which is academic writing, one
of these other phrases that’s become much of a catch
phrase, academic writing, critical thinking. So it sounds sort of
sexually boring, right? I’m going to be super analytical
somehow with my words, and I don’t know. But it’s one of these
things that universities have decided is super important
and vital for any student who’s coming into college having
never done this in high school, having never thought critically. I don’t know why we think that. Or why we decided that
somehow now in college it’s a whole new level
of thinking critically. We must teach this,
start from the basics, and work our way
into really engaging deeply with theoretical
texts, and complicated texts, and problematic texts,
and so on and so forth. So well that was a
trend, so I happily jumped on that bandwagon. And that was two
years of teaching that, which allowed me to
sneak into the creative writing department which also existed,
but they’d never heard of me. I don’t have anything published
yet, but stay tuned, guys. You know, to sort of teach
those kinds of courses and then try my
hand at a workshop, whether it was memoir or
teaching even high school students sort of in these
contained workshops and camps. And then teaching
fiction or rather using all of those things in my
academic writing classes and showing students that
a short story is just as effective a teaching
tool as reading a theoretical text,
or a journal article, or a newspaper op ed, or any one
of those argumentative analytic pieces to bring out the
nuances, the beauty, the logic, the mathematics, if you
will, of good writing. And then that
brought me to Ashoka where creative
writing is growing. And I think it’s because
the students are catching on to something, which is
that writing is important, that they’ve been told
from minute one of Ashoka because they’re all shoved
into these critical thinking seminars. But then they’re realizing
that there are these other ways to engage with writing that
Srikanth and this department is letting them do. And what I like about what
this department is doing, and why creative writing, to me,
should be this universal idea is because it’s posing all
the same analytic question, the same critical questions. It’s asking why do you
think this about a text? Why do you– why do you
choose to read this book over that book? Why are we choosing to read
these seven books in our class? Why should this be the canon
we use in our classroom? Do we need a canon? Do we need to know rules
before we can break them? Which are the rules to know? Which are the rules
that authors in fact do follow or have been
successful following, or not following? Or Faulkner uses these crazy
narrators in his books, and it’s very confusing,
but that’s the whole point. Well, why is that
the whole point? How accessible should a book be? If people are coming to a
book from a tangent as opposed to being told, read this
book, they come across it because the cover
is interesting, or because they read some
controversial interview with the author, or because
it was once a banned book, or whatever those
reasons might be, creative writing is all
about that access point. And our access points
are forever changing. They’re always different. They are to be respected, but
they should also humble us to say that, I didn’t– I’ve never read
this person before. I’ve never thought about
reading in this way before. I’m going to now read this
book to see what happens or to see if that
perspective changes. And so I think all of
this has to sort of say that these access points
to literature or to writing allow you then to have– to figure out how you then
access the page yourself. So when you’re asked or when
my students have been asked– and there are students here who
will begrudgingly maybe tell you this– that they’re told,
write a story, or write a response
to this book, or describe this character,
or write a character. Here are rules you have to
follow to write this character, but then here are
ways in which I want you to step away from those
rules and work with instinct and see what happens
to this character when you put them in a weird
situation, what happens then? Those access points
are really important. And it says something
about why we’re interested in being creative. And we’re all interested
in being creative. If we are a student, or if
we speak with words, if we communicate, which
all of us do, then we are being creative at a
very fundamental level. And to turn that into something
we can practice and reflect, and to move it away from
the college admission essay style of having to bare
yourself on the page almost like in a workshop– except there’s no one
really telling you how well it sounded, except
for saying you’re been admitted to a program or not– what I think be really
wonderful, and give each of us a new relationship with
words that I’m very excited in being a part of. And I’ll just take
30 more seconds to sort of say
that I’ve been very fascinated with the difference
between the students I’ve taught and the US
and the students I’m teaching in India simply because
the canons are different. Canons again, I’m
using a loaded word, but what you’ve read
before you come to class, how willing you are
to say that here are five ways in which
a story can be told, and I’m going to break from
that, or move away from that, or try to imitate that. Or here are students who
have done some of this work already in school because
they had an eighth grade English teacher who did
an entire unit on writing short stories, or writing
some kind of fiction, or poetry, versus students
who you know have read two poems for their CBSE or
ICSE syllabus, or whatever, for their some state board exam. And that’s what they remember,
and they remember it very well. But then they’re
not sure what to do with that memory of this poem. And so just seeing how
those differences then manifest on the page with
wonderfully interesting writing from both, for me,
is something that I will keep being fascinated by
for the many years I continue to teach or hope to teach. SRIKANTH REDDY: So maybe I’ll
take the full 30 minutes for us to have a brief conversation
among the panelists and also to answer– to open the conversation up
to questions from our audience as well. And it occurs to me– I’ll just ask one question
to kick things off because I think– I hope you’ll have a
lot to say about this. It occurs to me only
now that I’m probably the least international
person at the table having been a lazy
undergraduate in the US, then doing a lazy PhD tour, and
now serving as a lazy faculty member in the US. And one thing I admit that
everyone here has been hearing this conversation from a
slightly different perspective depending on what your
place of origin is, what– or what your multiple– what your trajectory between
multiple places of residence have been in your lives. And so it makes me want– in thinking about a
question of an MFAs or creative writing
and national character. Of course, you study questions
of character in MFA programs if you’re writing fiction. But also it seems to me that
we think of MFA programs as having a national character. And historically, that
national character is American because of the
origin of the MFA industry in many ways in
the United States with the foundation of
the Iowa Writers Workshops in the mid 20th century. This is a story that for
those of you who are students will find told in
very interesting ways by Mark McGurl’s book
The Workshop Era. SPEAKER 1: Program. SRIKANTH REDDY: Pardon? SPEAKER 1: Program. SRIKANTH REDDY: Writing The
Program Era, right, right. So we think about
the MFA in many ways as being a kind of an
American product for better or worse, as John pointed out. It’s also a story
about CIA sponsorship. And then, so if we think
about that American-ness of the workshop model from
an international perspective, I think we have a
great opportunity here to ask our panelists about their
impressions of that workshop model from their different
national perspectives. One thing that I kind
of heard a little bit in Saikat’s description
of the workshop was a kind of healthy skepticism
about the workshop model that in some ways I
wonder if it might be– might have something to
do with the different kind of national character
that you come from. Because oftentimes, people
might view the writing workshop as a showcase or a
forum for egotism that people might identify
with a kind of stereotypically American national identity. And that might be an
uncomfortable space for someone who’s not– who doesn’t identify
themselves as American, right? Now, there are some ways
that we can think about– and also I’m thinking that
if there is such a thing, a British national character
might feel ill at ease with the kinds of
American values that are traditionally
associated with the workshop model instruction. So are there ways
that we can bring international perspectives to
the workshop to try and think of different ways of thinking
about how a workshop might work with a productive space
for the creative practice. So, I hope that’s not a
hopelessly vague question, but I’d like to hear
your perspectives on how you view the workshop model in
ways that might not necessarily conform to the American kind
of psychology of workshop. SAIKAT MAJUMDAR: My
experience was actually kind of quite bitter. I mean, I was quite– partly because my
peers didn’t understand why I was writing this
long, rambling, Joycian stories about buses in Kolkata. And I was like, if I read one
more story about an Indiana bar, you know, this
white man drowning his– I’m going to– I’m just going to throw up. And I think they felt
the feeling was mutual, like oh, no more, There was
this conflict worldview. But I think behind this
there was a deeper conflict. And that is actually the
question Amit has brought up, the car-horse syndrome. I’ve lived with this, and I
then later taught at Stanford. And one of my colleagues
was Toby Wolff, who is a great admirer of and
a friend of Raymond Carver. And I think that program is
very much a Carveresque– though, I do think,
as Srikanth point out, the MFA is not only an American,
but a predominately Midwestern thing. It is really very much
going from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana. And I think the Ivy
Leagues have kept some sort of a snooty distance. You know, we don’t do
that except for a rare– AUDIENCE: Texas? SAIKAT MAJUMDAR: I’m sorry? AUDIENCE: Texas, [INAUDIBLE] SAIKAT MAJUMDAR: Yeah,
Texas, Madison, Wisconsin, this is kind of very much there. There’s the odd
experimental Ivy League, like Brown, the crazy
school, has an MFA, and then, of course, the Stegner
program at Stanford. But primarily, it’s a
very Midwestern thing. And it’s very interesting
I found that– and so between this–
behind this conflict between whether crowded
buses in Kolkata and empty Michigan bars,
the bigger conflict was actually between
Carver and Joyce. So I was coming from a very
Joycian, modernist heritage of lyrical, introspective
kind of writing. And there, the Carveresque–
and the American national character, or shall we say, the
Midwestern national character, though a lot of Carver stories
are set in the Northwest. But definitely, I’ve actually
come to love Carver later on, not to say that
I dislike Carver. I think it’s more about not
what the writers represent, but what traditions they create. Sometimes that can
be more problematic. And this minimalism, so Carver’s
minimalism became my bane, that oh, my god, you must–
this kind of clipped sentences, very cynical
dialogue, this very– and I felt there was a
kind of a conflict there. This was, to me, some sort
of a national conflict. And by national, it’s
strange because I think in India, we grow up with– I mean, I don’t want to say
it’s a more lyrical or whatever, but there’s a roundabout
way of talking, or whatever. It’s not just that,
but we also grew up in most in a very European,
Continental [INAUDIBLE],, this British,
European tradition. And those were my influences. And this kind of brusque,
sort of crisp mode was– I just didn’t get it. I think I’ve come to
appreciate it later more, but at that moment, there was
a kind of a serious conflict. And behind that, there was
this underlying assumption in American creative writing
programs, which also I think Amit has hinted
properly that, oh if you write about fishing and
baseball, you’re a real writer. If you write about
Nietzsche, you’re a sissy. So of course,
behind that, I’m not going to say behind
Carver there’s a bigger figure of Hemingway. And there’s a very masculine
kind of impulse of barebone, simple, clipped. There’s that tradition, But also because there’s
what has been talked about, the anti-intellectual strain
in the MFA program was also problematic for me because I– fiction was– I still define
primarily myself as a novelist, but I’m also– I love to think
critically, I love to reflect upon the
process of writing. I read a lot of other
people’s writing. I write about that as well. I teach literature. And this I didn’t think
wasn’t going to go away. And I found that
very problematic. And it was strange actually
because the tradition of poet critics, which I think
you were talking about a little before, it’s really striking
that New Criticism, which is, in a way, the first
sustained critical movement in the Anglo-American world and
certainly in the 20th century was almost entirely a
movement done by poets. They were all poets,
so the Clint Brooks, so many other figures. Even Eliot is kind of a
shadow from that figure. And it’s very
interesting that how– that tradition I
thought about– we’ve spoken about this before that–
how novelists haven’t really engaged in that. And as a novelist who likes
to also write critically, I’ve really think
about this problem. I was just teaching
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in my
literature class this Monday, and we were talking about
Stephen Dedalus’ deception of Aristotle’s poetics. That’s one of the most
fascinating literary criticism contained in any works
of literature, I think, historically. And I was telling my
students that Joyce hasn’t– Joyce is not like Woolf. He hasn’t read, left
reviews or letters, or not Eliot, who has a
sustained body of criticism. But this is his criticism. So the criticism of Joyce
you get are in the discussion between Stephen and Cranly,
and Stephen and Lynch , when they walk and they talk. And it’s– these are
very interesting. I mean, it’s– I almost– the writer, the whole
talk about writers don’t have any passports, that kind of
cliche, wants me to say that, though it cannot be. And yet, I feel like there
is a national character. And that’s not
surprising at all. Literature has
national traditions. Why shouldn’t writing
and talk about writing shouldn’t have that
national tradition also. And it’s very
interesting, of course, New Criticism was very
much Anglo-American. It’s very much poets
coming– in fact, some people say that they’re
all from the [? Ben ?] [? Warren/Clint ?] groups who
are from the American South, and this vision of this
great organic South, the pre-slavery South leads to
the kind of conception of this beautiful organic poem which
is cut off from the grit of reality and political life. So there’s interesting
criticism on that. But I do feel that it’s
very interesting, one of the things the
workshops happens is, can you talk about
the process of writing? And of course, in America I
think the figure of the writer is an idiot savant is quite you
just don’t know what you did, but you did this amazing thing. And then if you ask
them, I’m like I don’t know what happened. It just happened. I just can’t talk about it. And it’s like– and
there’s a privileging of this idiot savant that
I just sort of create this amazing things. And I don’t think anything
is particularly valuable. I don’t think it’s any
better to be an idiot savant to be a writer who
can talk meaningfully about one’s own writing. Neither is it any better
to be a writer who can. These are different things. If you can talk about your
writing in a kind of– with a certain amount of
critical sophistication, it doesn’t mean– I don’t mean academic
sophistication. That’s a very different thing. I think again, the very
useful word that was used was footnote. In some ways, the
academic writing is distinguished by
it’s intertextuality. There is always reference to
something else outside the text that you better read this up. And if you don’t read this
up, there’s an endless change. So it’s all about how– well, there’s a way of
conveying complex things while containing it within the
same sentence, which I think is more interesting
to do, which I think we try to do when we write
for newspapers or magazines. So it’s not about that. But I have found the question
of critical consciousness, or self-consciousness,
about writing in many ways there’s a
resistance to that in America. And I haven’t been– I haven’t studied writing
in England or literature, so I’m not sure exactly
how it plays out there. But it’s clear again that with
the New Critics’ location in– I think sometimes I feel
the distinction is not just national, but generic. As Amit was saying, it’s
poetic rather than novelistic. And it’s very– it’s
really fascinating because when it comes to
another genre, theater, I find most theater
departments in the world actually fuse
performance, production, and theory at the same time. You actually won’t find
that many theater academics who is not involved in some way
with production, or directing, or acting, or makeup,
or stage, or something. So by definition, this sort
of Yale School of Drama, or you have schools
like Juilliard, you almost can’t be a
tourist in the theater without being involved in
production or performance. And I find that is not
the case with literature. Of course, in literature we– and of course, the kind of
story of enmity and animosity between the literature
and the creative writing wings of the department,
often housed in the same floor is a matter of legend. They sort of look at each
other like, oh, these people, they’re– they don’t– they’re
anti-like– they’re dumb people. They don’t know anything. These are boring people. And that is– I think a lot of it
ironically I feel is the work of deconstruction
because deconstruction obviously created at the
schools around literature which seems inaccessible
to many poets and writers. But it’s very ironical because
the constructive philosophers were deeply interested
in the creative practice. So there was a– just that, there was a
certain philosophical effort to capture things which are
almost elusive, and that– someone like Derrida, that
makes the language difficult. But what happens
institutionally, this greater– the great divide,
that there are these– and I think certainly
in Ashoka, happily I don’t think we have that
yet because many of us who write there are also very
much involved in thinking about literature in
many different ways, not just academically,
but also writing columns, and newspapers, and
magazines, and other things I think that is something we
would like to be away from. And as also as we heard earlier,
that the vernacular traditions in India, this distinction
was never important. I can certainly speak for
Bangla literature, which is my sort of hated
native language, is that many Bangla writers,
poets, and novelists were teachers and academics. And many of them
actually were interested, and they were teachers
of English literature, so mainly Jibanananda Das or
[INAUDIBLE],, many of them. Of course, Tagore’s relationship
with literature is phenomenal. I mean, I just reading
[INAUDIBLE] work on Tagore and how you talked about
how his theorization of his contemporary poets, his
theorization of his own self. So this critical
consciousness is always part of vernacular writing. So I think this is something
we need to think about in that it’s like–
you know, again to rephrase Carver, what is it
that we talk about when we talk what writing? Is there a talking
at all, or is it just doing, because that
sometimes is the difference. And that I’ve found
sometimes disturbingly does mark a national
character in the shaping of writing programs. But I’d like to know
what others think. JOHN WILKINSON: Thank you. Well, that answers
that question. I guess I’d start by saying
that in the United States, people have conversations, and
in Britain, they have debates. And the use of the word
conversation in the US to reduce everything to a kind
of mutually supportive miasma is something which
frustrates me greatly. And one of the reasons that I
appreciate the discipline which Amit has talked about at the
creative writing workshop is that it creates a
different kind of safe space from that often
referred to in the US. It’s a safe space in
which you can be fierce. And I think that it’s important
to have that kind of a working group which is deeply serious
about what it is doing rath– and we were indeed skeptical
about a program, which will be based entirely
upon the workshop model, and for some of the
reasons which have been cited by Amit in particular. So what we wanted to
do is to pull together a program which
would give students a basis in literary study,
in theoretical understanding, as well as introduce
them to a workshop. But the workshop would be,
to some extent, a hybrid. That it would also be a vehicle
to an extent of instruction as well as of workshopping. And that is something
that we all still fine tuning and working on, but
it’s certainly the direction in which we wanted to go. I think that one of the
things that’s been fortuitous about this is that the
development of the major has coincided with a shift in
literary studies and theory towards a renewed
interest in aesthetics, which had almost dead over
the previous 30 years. Indeed, one could almost
say that from the 1970s, literary studies
have become a series of interesting
elaborate strategies for avoiding the
aesthetic experience, for framing texts in
such a way that you would be protected from
any kind of pollution by aesthetic experience. It has become apparent– it has
become apparent not only that students were missing that
experience, or wanted it, and that there was a thirst
which was not being realized, but also there has been a
shift in broadly in kind of philosophical thinking
within the American academy, and a return– and this also
refers to what Amit was talking about–
to philosophy of the event in different
ways, and to an interest not so much in the object world
at and manipulable world as into being able to think
about and find ways of discussing what it
means to experience a moment, an aesthetic event. So these two things
have come together. And indeed, there’s been a
really vivid illustration of what has happened at the
University of Iowa, which recently lodged a major
in creative writing, and expected to have a handful
of students in the first year, and found themselves
with something like 120 in the first year. And– SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE]. JOHN WILKINSON:
–over the second– of the second year, which has
propelled creative writing into being the only humanities
discipline in their top 10 programs. So one of the things
to– and I don’t know if this is true in India as
well that has also become clear is that the future of
English departments lies in the hands of
creative writing, which is a real turnaround of how
things were traditionally. The departments
which have failed to develop creative
writing programs are really struggling
to attract students. But those that have highly-rated
creative writing programs are becoming successful
in attracting students. But it’s the convergence which I
think is particularly exciting. And one of my
ambitions would indeed be to develop a strand within
creative writing, which would be a study of
philosophical aesthetics. SRIKANTH REDDY: And I
should mention that we only have five minutes remaining. So I’m going to be
the Academy Awards. SPEAKER 3: [INAUDIBLE] SRIKANTH REDDY: I
don’t know that we have time for questions
with five minutes, but if there are any
other observations. AMIT CHAUDHURI: Very, very
briefly that Wilkinson said, the only thing I’d add
over here is in India, outside of the
creative workshops, creative writing workshops that
I’ve begun to teach on behalf of the University
of East Anglia, is the change that was come–
that have come over both– the language of
literature and talking about literature after
economic deregulation, after the fall of
the Berlin Wall, after economic deregulation
of here, et cetera. And one thing that
was interesting– so what I’m talking about is
I suppose, as we sort of– as we try to dissolve
these borders– and I say this not in a
kind of sentimental way, but in a very necessary way so
that some of the stuff we’ve been keeping out can come in. And John mentioned aesthetics,
the philosophy of aesthetics and the moment. Some of that stuff that
we’ve been keeping out from, let’s say, the bubble
world of creative practice. There’s been a
lot of stuff we’ve been keeping out from
every particular domain. And some of– the
acts of keeping out are also part of the
way we talk about things in the post-free market world,
to let those things begin to seep in is necessary. But also to become
more self-reflexive about the language
you’ve been using and what’s been happening to
that language, the language we use about literature,
how we talk literature. One of the things I
noticed is that after that, after the free market
became the one model is that something which I call
market activism came into being in the world of publishing. And market activism is,
it takes marketing– the marketing of this new
category, which didn’t exist actually before literary
fiction, the marketing of this new category as an
[? admission ?] in a sense that it’s commercially viable. So literary fiction
has to be commercially viable to publishers for
it to be literary fiction. To achieve this, a
whole new language has to be created which is
never commercial, but is only literary in its terminology,
in its vocabulary. So the publishers will
never actually say when they speak about
literary fiction that we want to sell
a lot of these books. And these books
really need to earn their keep if we
are to publish them, which is their philosophy
since 1991 or the late ’80s. They will say, we are publishing
a great literary masterpiece. When they used the
word masterpiece, it’s part of this
new reification. And masterpiece, or classic
now, means a wholly reified commercial category. The most striking
example of this is the publication of
Morrissey’s autobiography as a Penguin classic, not as a
Penguin modern classic, but as a Penguin classic. And this is something– I’ve mentioned this
repeatedly– this is something he argued for. He said, I give it to Penguin
if you publish it as a Penguin– not as modern classic,
but as a Penguin classic. And it went straight to number
one on the best seller’s charts, the only time a classic
has had that kind of effect upon publication. SRIKANTH REDDY:
An instant classic AMIT CHAUDHURI: Yeah. So on the other
hand, as we know, the academics and theorists
in the ’80s and the ’90s turned not only
to deconstruction, but often a kind of
form of sociology and disavowed the
literary-ness of the literary, but at the same time did not
critique this new manifestation of the rewriting of the
literary in the marketplace. So often you will
find if they do teach in academic departments
literary works as kind of examples of
something of that, that these are literary
works that have been held up by the marketplace. So the whole critical activity
of discovery abnegated. Discovery becomes an
operation, a market operation, in the marketplace. We disavowed the
literary, but sometimes we take Booker Prize winning
books and teach them for this particular reason. So the whole process in which
we are thinking, valuing, and talking about things,
the relocation of literature in the commercial, the
emptying of literature from the literary departments,
the kind of collusion of the literary departments
with the relocation while seeming to critique the
free market in many ways. Colluding over here in this
relocation of the literary is something that I think
is something that literary– creative writing
departments would also need to be aware of in
as much as they are also both preparations
for that world, but also a very
valuable period of not being part of that world. At that time when I’ve noticed
when people do their MAs or MFA’s in fiction,
they actually pursue, at least
in England, forms of writing and
consciousness which there will not be able to pursue
once they’re out of the MA. SRIKANTH REDDY: That’s
wonderful, thank you. Yes, I think we have– ADITI SRIRAM: I
will be very quick. So a workshop, an MFA
workshop, for those of you haven’t yet taken one– just kidding– is where we
all sit around and discuss one person’s work. And that person
typically doesn’t speak. They listen to what’s being
said about their work. How many of you here are
familiar with Elena Ferrante? Who heard about this whole
sort of the mystery of who she was, or he for that matter? So there was someone
who had come up with these fascinating
books in Italian. They had been published
in Italy for a while, they came over to
the US, and there’s been this wave of media
attention about who this person is. And there were articles
written, even on the front page of the New York Times saying,
who is this person who’s written this– these books? Because they never came forward. They did no public interviews. So the mystery, of course, added
to the allure of the books. But there were assumptions being
made, or questions being asked. This person has to be a woman. Or is it a woman? Could it be a male? Even though the story is
about these two young women and their friendship
and their lifetimes, so it’s like a woman, but
it could very well be a man. The person has to be Italian
because of the expertise of the book on sort
of life enables. And there were these assumptions
being made about the book because we had no idea who
it was up until recently. We think we now know. But workshops will do this. And I found that both in
the US and here as well in the limited workshops
I’ve done with my students, we make assumptions about the
characters in the story based on who we think has
written it, or who we know has written it in the class. So whether it’s a
national character– or sort of national assumption,
or just an assumption of gender, or the
“I” in the story has to do with a
student who wrote the piece because
their experiences sound similar, or the “I” in the
story is a young Bengali male, and the person who wrote the
story is also a young Bengali male in the class. And so what I find
interesting with workshop is that that kind of– we learned to break free
from those questions, or try to at least, and
not make those assumptions and say that if the main
character’s a woman, the author is a woman. Or if the gender isn’t
specified in the story, it’s the gender of the
author of the story. If the person writing the
story is Indian, but is at the New School in a
predominantly non-Indian MFA workshops, I think, and if
I’m writing about India, then my peers don’t get
to criticize or question what I’m saying about
India because I’m obviously the expert and they’re not. And if they question
it, then there’s something deeper going on. And it was interesting to see
how those conversations evolved for them to critique me,
or to critique the bus, and for you to critique
the Indiana bar, and how much we
were allowed to do that based on either
where we were from, or what our experience was. And that’s one
thing that I think if we can use the
workshop to do and say, you start with no assumptions
and then go from there and build up a story
based on the text. Then what do you discover about
the piece, about the author? And do you even need to know
who the author is, do we need to who Ferrante is? I mean, that’s a question
for another panel, but just something to
maybe keep in mind. SRIKANTH REDDY: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you panelists. [APPLAUSE]

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