I recently came across Michael Martone’s “Hermes Goes to College” in Upstreet #4 , classy little journal from Richmond, MA. You can read it here. The essay reprises a conference presentation from last year’s AWP conference, and it deals with a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately: the powerful effects universities have on our creative writing—and creative writers. Martone uses the extended metaphor of Hermes and Apollo to frame this discussion; he presents Hermes as a babe, innocently discovering music in the form of the lyre and passing it on to Apollo. The latter doesn’t hesitate, proceeding to “open up a music department and study the heck out of the thing till it reveals its secrets—its bone, its horn, its leather.” To Martone, this represents the easy and all too familiar, following a path of diminishing returns. He says it much better: “I am worried that we don’t worry enough about the subliminal influences of the institutions in which we find ourselves housed, colleges and universities, which for me seem to be diabolic engines for sorting, categorizing, defining.” And the problem with these “diabolical engines?” Martone continues: “If you think about it, the kind of writing my writing students are most engaged in is criticism, specifically the critique of fellow students’ creative writing. The institution is a critical institution and insists we act critically.”
Of course, by this point in the essay, it’s quite evident that learning to think and act critically are working decidedly to Martone’s advantage. That aside, the issues he raises are vital ones. Does this kind of critical thinking enable creativity or confine it? Do these institutions sustain the arts or reduce, dull, and package them? I share Martone’s unease regarding American writers and their forced dependence on the University. And as a veteran of two Creative Writing programs, I can attest to how the process of “learning to write” works to categorize, mold, and in some cases discourage. At least half the writers I worked with stopped writing after they graduated (or didn’t), and anyone who has been near one of these programs has heard that story before. At the same time, I can’t help but think most of my peers didn’t suffer from learning to “act critically” but rather from not learning to act critically enough, especially in regards to their own work. Poets learn from reading poetry, just as novelists learn from reading novels, or at least they should. A pervasive problem with Creative Writing programs is that too many students want to read little aside from their own work, and this trend goes beyond the walls of the academy. The submissions pile of any literary journal attests to that; there are three times as many poems submitted as issues purchased, and that’s a conservative estimate. Simply put, there are too many people who want to be writers and have no interest in being critics—or even readers. So while Martone identifies a palpable isolation and complacency in the modern writer, blaming “institutions” feels a bit too convenient to me.