There are – let’s face it – stereotypes of the typical English or writing student. Think: tweed jackets, purposefully distressed pocket-sized Moleskines, a penchant for analyzing sestinas through the lens of Freud, a caffeine addiction that is only soothed through steamed spiced Chai lattes, and a knack for discussing literature to its very last hidden bit of symbolism. To the mainstream (or rather to the non-literary-related major), myself – a creative writing undergraduate – and my peers are sometimes categorized as sensitive and a bit… different.
We recognize this difference; we sometimes even celebrate it. We create memes of it through social networking (such as the ever popular Tumblr site, F*ck Yeah English Major Armadillo) and we poke fun at this difference ourselves. (Here at Susquehanna University, we do in fact hold tightly to our Norton Anthologies, dear Armadillo.) At the end of the day this difference, we think, sets us apart in a positive light rather than a negative one. This difference is good, it may seem.
However, as a creative writing undergraduate, I believe the mainstream does not distinguish between the English and creative writing major. There is a distinction – sometimes relatively small, sometimes overwhelming. While we may have parallel attributes similar to the overall stereotype, the minutiae of our dialogues and our learning can vary drastically.
In the English class for this blog, Book Reviewing, I have a noticed a sharp contrast in the literary canons for the two areas of study. There are, I believe, three creative writing majors in a class of ten or so – the rest are English majors. While discussing a review of Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral, many of the English undergrads stated that they had never heard of Carver before, let alone read his work. A writing major across the conference table and I exchanged a glance of incredulity. Carver, I thought, was a staple for understanding and learning about contemporary writers. This was also the case for many other writers that were brought up in class – Don DeLillo, Elizabeth Bishop, John Cheever, even John Updike and Ernest Hemingway. (But in fairness, the others had heard of Hemingway, they just had not read his short fiction.)
One of our own faculty members here at Susquehanna University, Dr. Tom Bailey, compiled and edited a book about the craft of short fiction, On Writing Short Stories, (used here at Susquehanna and other institutions) that includes these authors. Creative writing majors abuse the spine of this book, cracking it open to study forms, syntax, and imagery. This book and these authors can be found in other syllabi, too. A simple Google search of “creative writing, English literature, undergraduate, syllabus, edu” yields literally millions of results, displaying curricula from schools such as New York University and Columbia. Carver, Hemingway, and Updike are taught at all of them.
Nevertheless this book and these writers do not often find their way into English classes. One day I asked an English major what exactly they read in English courses. “A lot of comparative stuff,” she said. “Analytical things, essays, dialogues – stuff like that.” When I asked her if she read creative work, she said, “Yes, but it’s usually novels – classic novels, mostly. We do read some contemporary things, but it’s mostly pieces from the classic canon.”
My brief conversation with her led me to question what the canon actually is. I think, fundamentally, there is just a simple difference in what we consider a canon. It’s subjective. The difference in our canons, I want to believe, rests with what we are trying to learn from the literature we read. In general, and in a possibly stereotypical view, creative writers read the canon like writers, using it as medium to understand the inner workings of craft and analyzing the work like a manual about that craft. Short stories are, in fact, short and easy to navigate, making the investigation of things like narrative arc and characterization simpler. English literature students read the canon like critics, not to appraise but to evaluate. Novels and essays are works that have a lot in them to sift through and to interpret.
To the non-literary student, these ways of reading may seem similar. But, if I can be so bold, these elements are very distinct from each other. This divide does, indeed, cause confusion and stymies discussion. When I say Carver’s work is an example of dirty realism I am met with the counterclaim that Charles Dickens is a better example. Both writers are solid examples, but they are… different, and doing different things.
Literary curricula are, and must be, strategic. The syllabi of English and creative writing departments at the undergraduate level are, in essence, advertisements for further discussion in and out of the classroom. English and creative writing programs have a responsibility to literature and the comprehension of it. Think: like any good essay, there are contrasts. However, there are also comparisons. This dichotomy allows for credibility and believability. Creating divides and having a lack of cohesion in the canon creates a shaky ground for thoughtful conversation when the two sides of literary study are put together.