Essay
The Iniquitous Agony of Literature

The Iniquitous Agony of Literature

La inicua agonía de la literatura

Adriana Díaz Enciso

Part One

I must have been around eighteen when I showed up, my writings tucked under my arm, for the Elías Nandino Fine Arts literary workshop at the Ex-Convent del Carmen in Guadalajara, my hometown. This was a very long time ago, though not so long that I can’t remember approaching the workshop because I considered myself a writer. I knew I wanted to be one forever, and I needed to find others with an equal yearning, to form part of that dialogue and, essentially, to change my life. Then, as now, to me literature meant a vital way of being in the world, of knowing and interpreting it. It was also a starting point to get to know and imagine other worlds, to be carried away from myself and become another, to become others. It was a gateway to ecstasy, awe and beauty, and a means to delve into the experience of being human in this world and in others: those of the imagination.

Hence, I turned up for what was the second phase of the Elías Nandino workshop, and my life was indubitably transformed through sessions led by poets who had once been attendees themselves and were now at the helm of that space. Generous guides, friends, companions along the way. I remember Jorge Esquinca with special affection and gratitude, but the bonds I forged were many, many the affections. There, a timid teenager who was also adolescent in her naiveté and isolation became a true writer. If she learnt so much, it was precisely because her tutors and fellow workshop participants understood literature—and poetry in particular—as life. Conversations, pursuit and kinship continued beyond the workshop sessions: in cafés, in the cultural venues that kept stubbornly popping up in what was then an utterly conservative city, and in that city’s streets. We were reading and creating literature, we were living—or learning to live, a lesson that never ends—and one thing couldn’t be understood without the other.

Publication (in newspapers and magazines at first, then books) were natural fruits of this process of learning fuelled by comradeship and a passion for writing. True, it was a National Fine Arts Institute workshop, but there was nothing institutionalised about its activities. It was a space of freedom not only for creation, but also for literary and existential questioning and, most importantly, for reading: the reading of our contemporaries, undoubtedly, but also of the great masters of the past, pillars of a most fertile tradition of Mexican, Latin American and world literature. To learn and apply oneself to work at that forge with a dedication that was almost communal mattered more than the notion of success. No, the Elías Nandino workshop was not a school.

The many creative spaces that continued to transform my life in Guadalajara and, later on, in Mexico City over the decades weren’t schools either. Alliances were multiplied, and it is perhaps more accurate to speak of fellowship, fraternity. There were also splits, equally passionate. In our discussions about one author or another, about an artistic principle or an ethical consideration, our lives hung in the balance. Literature existed, it mattered. It was possible to follow in the footsteps of those who had walked the path before us—trails blazed with the fervour and devotion that a vocation demands. It was also possible to differ, to reason with them, even if many of them were already dead, and to surrender oneself to that same call without risking any insurmountable rupture between life and literature. Looking back in hindsight, I think that existential crises and all, we were happy to a great extent, though perhaps we didn’t always know it.

The plague of “creative writing”, with its accompanying host of depressants of the inspired spirit, had not yet descended upon us.

It is true that creative writing programmes were first established decades ago in several universities, in particular in the United States, though the trend was extended to other countries as well. But the bombardment of adverts about schools, courses and resources of creative writing that we’ve been subjected to in recent years, reinforced by the meddlesome presence of the web in our lives (and let’s not even speak of what has happened during the pandemic) has taken on an insufferable forcefulness that goes hand in hand with the earnest exertions of the publishing industry, the culture of celebrity, and the social engineering of our times to dry up the fountain of literature, and any other artistic manifestation along with it.

Something essential—a spontaneity, a freedom of spirit, a human way of living and relating to reading and writing—is undermined every time we receive an email (often unsolicited) in which we are invited to take part in a literary event or competition, or send contributions to some journal, written in the fake upbeat jargon of publicity, showing us the high-definition pictures of smiling authors or editors. Such language seems to take for granted that all the recipients of these messages form part of a perfectly integrated and aseptic society in which literature is as useful, as coveted and as common as the car, holidays, or the vacuum cleaner.

The quality of the events, authors and books being announced is of course variable. Sometimes they signal the discovery of true creators, men and women truthful to a call, whose voices stimulate and nurture us. Other times the announcement is about arrivistes engorged with an inane discourse: shameless hucksters. The gradations between both extremes are infinite, but the language that articulates their promotion is one and the same. The ideal of a necessary democratisation of culture was quickly ravaged by the inveterate notion that everything that is of any value in our (global) society is by necessity a commodity, and that, as such, its function is to satisfy cravings, which are transient by definition; to make equal, to standardise, to iron out any differences that the status quo may consider offensive and, in short, to make us all conform. Risk is out, and what’s left is a puerile parody of culture offered as entertainment.

What has become of the urge to discover and question our human life, to take risks, propose new visions and clear the way for our own existence, without which literature simply cannot exist? Nowadays, save noble and ever more heroic exceptions, institutions, publishers, the academy, awards, book fairs, the self-publishing world, the reading audience and, even worse, more and more authors speak from a common front, a firmly structured system with clear promotion ladders and rules both of inclusion and excommunication, on the understanding that whoever considers themselves an author must be within that system, tacitly accepting the rules of the game. Those who don’t, according to this system’s criteria, are a nonentity.

While in the not so distant past it was possible to find interlocutors for a vital dialogue in and around literature, such a pursuit has now become burdensome and sombre, for it seems almost impossible to find anything if not through the filters of this vociferous regime. It’s not that there are no true writers anymore, of all ages, genres and everywhere on the planet; they are there, but the infrastructure that has been insidiously growing over the past few decades pulls bridges down and severs bonds in its eagerness to push us all—authors and readers—into a kind of events room at a five (or rather four) star hotel, so that we may “network” in an infinite cocktail party. Those who refuse to enter are silently rubbed out, their names deleted from the new, self-appointed literary community. If the person is already famous enough to make it impossible to obliterate their name, then the meaning of their work is distorted; it’s simplified, tenderised, domesticated, so that readers become incapable of registering a single page that rocks the boat. And if the work of the author in question is so very powerful that every intent to sell it as if it were a tame animal fails, there are the omnipresent trigger warnings to draw upon. Beware: reading this work may give you back your humanity.

This system is perverse enough to call itself “inclusive”. Everywhere it’s calling out to us: “Come, write, tell your story, discover your creativity. You too can become a writer.” Whereas the naïve and/or vain are tricked or yield, those who are often excluded are genuine authors, those who do not conform. Those who know that this is not the way literature is created. Little by little we become pariahs from our own craft—a “professionalised” trade, whose aim is to guarantee that the best product is offered. That is, one that pleases all.

The feeling of exile and disorientation is profound.

Creative writing teachers are, of course, writers themselves. It’s important to bear in mind that teaching is one of the ways in which many authors earn their living, and in many cases it is a genuine work of love. Nevertheless, unfortunately authors tend to be the last ones gaining any benefit from the lucrative business this boom of schools and courses represents. In the summer issue of The Author, The Society of Authors magazine, Alice Jolly speaks frankly about the exploitation that she and other authors teaching creative writing are subject to. I’m not surprised; I know in my own experience how it goes—I have also taught some so-called courses, though if it depended on me and not on the institutions or online schools, I’d still call them literary workshops, which is what’s worth rescuing. In a previous piece in this space, Literal’s readers have already read my denunciation of the exploitation that continuously affects authors and literary translators, so I won’t elaborate on the matter now.

However, I find in Jolly’s piece another concern that I share: that of the impossible tangle in which creative writing teachers find themselves in when they sincerely try to share with their students their passion for literature and act as devoted guides, but cannot possibly meet those students’ expectations, kindled by the courses’ publicity, of immediate triumph and publishing. Many of these courses include modules about how the publishing industry does business, or about how to find an agent. There are also heaps of adverts of independent workshops and webinars about these matters, while in universities the creative writing MA and PhD programmes proliferate. But who, in heaven’s name, among those authors whose work has most enriched humanity, has ever become a writer this way? What kind of mind can envisage that a literary vocation is recognised when someone tells him or herself: “I’m going to enrol in a school so that they teach me how to write”?

Regrettably, it seems that such nonsense can be envisaged by quite a few minds, muddled by naivety, but also by monetary interests, ambition (one that is not precisely literary), the illusion to become a best-seller, or God only knows what.

The results have been already visible for a while in what is written and, in fact, published. Michael Schmidt, poet, founder of Carcanet and editor of the PN Review, mentions in an interview the effect that the huge amount of writing courses nowadays has on the kind of submissions sent to that journal. He states that many poems that have clearly been polished in that kind of course can be convincing at first sight, and that many among them are truly good, but there are others that are hollow despite such fine-tuning, which makes discerning more difficult.

His comment caught my attention because I sometimes read poems or novels (the latter often the recipients of multiple awards and translated into many languages) that are quite a shrewd spectacle and yet leave me cold. I’m talking about texts that are “well-written”, in which it’s difficult to find major flaws, but which, to me, are not literature. Texts and books that immediately make me think they are the product of a creative writing course. That is to say, literature created with moulds. And it is those moulds that most agents and publishers consider acceptable. Therefore, inexperienced readers consume more and more of those well-written books and end up thinking that that is literature. A piece of work that is clever, competent and dead.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. The moulds are hawked everywhere. The rules of the game are shamelessly repeated in tiresome cacophony. Courses and competitions are announced everywhere without respite, along with the girdle that sustains them. A while ago I wrote in my blog about the astonishing guides published every year by the National Poetry Award in the UK. There I talk about the intrinsic perversity of a literary competition that offers the contestants guides “to write a winning poem”; guides, it goes without saying, that infantilise poets and which aren’t any deeper than what you’d expect of a literature (sorry, creative writing) class in high school. The award’s announcement, indeed, has been issued again this year in the same format, with explanations of poems and “writing prompts” for the poets who might want to take part. I would have thought that if a poet needs to be given ideas, then he or she is not so much of a poet, or that poem in particular isn’t in pressing need to be in the world, let alone to be entered in a competition. Unless—and this is the crux of the matter—this is all about writing poems specifically to enter a competition, tailored to its rules.

Sadly, that is precisely what all this is about. In one of the emails with supposedly literary content that have swamped my inbox during the past month, a well-known magazine announces its short story competition with the heading “This is what A L Kennedy (the judge this year) wants to read from you”. The award will come along with a consultation with a literary agent, and the announcement includes the inevitable “guide” for the contestants: a school guide for amateur writers that no author who knows what they’re doing needs, and that they would find rather offensive. I wonder if this is really the purpose of our new literary milieu, so inseparable from the publishing industry: to find amateur authors, tame them and shove them into the market, stripping literature of all dignity, all depth, all mystery and all wonder. Many of those authors shall be very young (the language used in these competitions is, as I have already mentioned, more fitting for children and teenagers). And, evidently, youth is a fundamental component of what the market seeks. I’ll explain.

When I look, for instance, at the literature translated from other languages that is now published in the UK, I undoubtedly celebrate that literary translation is growing and allowing for what is being written in other parts of the world to reach a country that, up to a couple of decades ago, didn’t manage to venture much beyond its own English canon. However, I am concerned to see that the great majority of the translated authors are young and, at the oldest, rarely more than 40 or 45 years old; that is to say, authors that represent the generations in which a literary career became a marketing endeavour driven by a greedy publishing industry with unprecedented impudence. The authors in question can be extraordinary, or not. It depends. But, I wonder, won’t those countries from which so many books reach us now have also authors with a solid career of decades behind them who have something important to say that is worth reading elsewhere on the planet? Won’t they have, in fact, in their tradition authors already dead who would make many readers in other languages very happy, and who in fact would give us a context to read the younger ones better? But it is no secret; agents, publishers, everybody in literary cliques say so: there is interest in young authors only, and they must have a “strong online presence” and many awards under their belt, even if the once honourable tradition of literary awards is by leaps and bounds becoming a dangerous exercise in endogamy that we can hardly ignore.

Don’t take me wrong. Reading the great young authors enriches us all, and it is quite exciting to discover new powerful voices. But the loss involved in burying in oblivion all those who don’t boast that element of novelty is incalculable, and it shapes a new canon ruled by meretricious rules that are insidiously distorting the very concept of literature.

Hand in hand with this cult of youth is the vogue of youth poet laureates, that oxymoron (and, indeed, in the second part of these reflections I will talk about Amanda Gorman). How is that? Who, that is not a true genius, merits to be crowned with laurels at 20 or 22? The mere notion is not only ridiculous; it subjects these young people to an unfair pressure that some of them might not perceive, dazzled by the honour and fame, but that may well destroy, if not their “career”, their literary vocation. The honour bestowed on them is in itself institutional, which implies feeding these young authors on one go into the system. Very few, I fear, and very brave, will be those who don’t find their pursuit and authentic voice smothered this way.

Let us think of Rimbaud, the precocious poet par excellence. Let us imagine him as the “youth poet laureate” of the 1870s France. Isn’t that an atrociously ridiculous notion? Wouldn’t he have rejected the honour with not a few expletives, trampled on the figurative crown, and run away? Rimbaud’s poetry is still alive; it keeps on nourishing us in mind and spirit. It is, in the humble measure of everything that’s human, immortal. No doubt Rimbaud was  difficult to deal with, a man who could inspire devotion as much as fear or outrage, and perhaps not many would want today, if they could, invite him to their parties (or publishers’ soirées), but he was a magnificent poet, and—an imperative condition to be so—a free poet.

It is freedom itself that is under siege. The onslaught is relentless. “Write this and that”. “How to write your first page”. “How to write about climate emergency”. “How to write your blog”. “How to write a winning poem”. And as to events, in person or online, readings, courses or festivals, they have hardly ended when we’re already plagued by the surveys to measure their effectiveness, as is the case with every product and service now, making life inhabitable, demanding of us a rating for every single human interaction we engage in. It may be that this whole circus is set up with the best intentions, but good intentions don’t necessarily lead to safe harbour if they stem from mechanically following the herd.

I started these pages writing about the scourge of “creative writing” because, whilst some modules in these courses and schools may seem indistinguishable from a literature class or literary workshop, literature and the more noble and humble notion of workshops have been eliminated from their designation. The trend started by an often incontinent and sterile academy fell into the hands of the greedy market, and together they nowadays are bent on wiping literature off the map, all the while boasting of the wealth of “opportunities” they offer by laying writing within everyone’s reach, of their inclusiveness and diversity. Is it really possible that nobody can see what is being destroyed? One look at the biography of the great authors in universal history is enough to understand that this is not the way that literature is created, no matter how many diplomas, awards, MAs and PhDs you have. This is not the way to create meaning, to inquire into human nature or the experience of being alive in this world. Not one of those great authors would have subjected themselves to such ignominy. Had they done so, neither them nor their work would have survived. Where did the dignity of the literary craft go? What has become of the curiosity, adventure, risk and joy in creation? Not to mention responsibility.

Writers, I’ve said it before, are the first to be exiled through this gross appropriation of what used to be our trade. For my part, and just as when I was eighteen, I still need companions along the way, and luckily they are there, but to some extent we all suffer the wounds of this exile. If nowadays any attempt at being part of a literary community involves a tremendous sense of orphanhood it is because the said community has become smaller, weaker, subjugated by this fair of vanities and inanity that, in our times, calls itself the literary world. We are losing the liberating, spirited, mysterious and transcendent essence of words.

Why do we accept it so meekly?

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