What’s your most controversial belief about literature?
I have an extremely personal relationship with reading. Illustration 1: when I was sixteen I would write in the margins of books which friends certain characters reminded me of (including when I read Crime and Punishment, and yes, one of my friends reminded me of an ax-murderer). Illustration 2: again as a teenager, I was on a walk with a friend discussing a short story collection we read for class; I was so upset by the collection I very-teen-dramatically threw it on the ground and walked past it. Literature helps me make sense of the world, so I am a big fan of close reading. This is not the controversial part.
The controversial part is that I think this kind of close and personal reading can actually hinder the creative work of young writers. I speak from my own experience and from my Intro to CW students — students I’m teaching right now. There’s a lot of work we’re having to do in terms of unlearning close reading in order to write more freely. When you’re writing, not everything is a symbol, not every description has some hidden meaning, the syllable count of each line of poetry is not some kind of secret code. Now — I support close reading and believe in it — but that’s the job of lit classes and critics… and writers shouldn’t be burdened with the worry of interpretation when they are writing. Honestly, I think a lot of this stems from having to teach literature for standardized tests — as if there is one interpretation, one right answer, one thing the author intended. (Shoutout to Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “intentional fallacy.”)
However, however, it’s also important to realize that New Criticism and the intentional fallacy — that is, the idea that just knowing the author’s intention is not sufficient to interpret a work of literature — those movements are rooted in disconnecting the author from the text. And that is an act rooted deeply in unacknowledged privilege. To say, “What the author intends doesn’t matter” divorces the author’s lived experience, her body, her identities from her work, as if any of that is even possible. In her new book The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez explains the central importance of linking the body of the author with her work. She suggests “workshop participants [should] contextualize . . . the writing of others by reading it with an awareness of the author’s body and lived experience” (105). She assigns author interviews alongside works of literature in order to give the author voice, just like students should have voice in workshopping their own writing.
I guess what’s controversial here is that we need to reexamine what we’re doing both in literature classes and in writing classes. In lit classes, we can bring the writer’s voice into the room more, to bring a bit more New Historicism in to counter the standard New Critics. In writing classes, we can allow students to go on instinct sometimes, to trust that there’s some higher or deeper knowledge driving a piece forward. That they don’t have to be able to explain everything they’re doing.
My two cents. I spent most of my working life so far teaching high school English, so I now feel deeply responsible for the trouble my creative writing students are having with allowing themselves to go on instinct and play rather than plan everything out to have some kind of standardized-test-appropriate message or theme.
What would you like to burn down the most?
I love artists and I love writers and I love art, but I would like to burn down the overreliance on workshop and craft essays as the main pedagogical touchpoints of creative writing pedagogy. Like… there is research we can do on what makes great writers. Let’s do it.
What you most hope to find in the slush pile?
In the slush pile, I’m always looking for sweet gay love poems, pieces written with weird or surprising language, work that challenges familiar poetic trope, or really anything that leaves a lasting physical impression, whether that be a smile or a sinking in my stomach. That’s how you know it should be published.
Worst yoga pose?