The Banality of the Yardstick

It can be very dispiriting to consider the dynamics at play when teaching a creative writing workshop. No matter how hard you work to create a comfortable, trusting atmosphere, no matter how much you privilege respect towards the readers (preliminary editing!) and the authors being workshopped (don’t be a dick!), you always know that there are tensions and rivalries simmering below the surface, at a level you’ll never be able to notice, much less ameliorate. (Not that you’d want to; monkeying with the lives of students being a point for an entire other post.)

But of all the pernicious (and ultimately unnecessary) sorts of infighting that go in our workshops, the one that bothers me the most is the intense impulse on the part of the students to rank each other. “How is my work in relation to other people’s?” they ask – and, “who do you think is the best writer in class?” “So-and-so was doing really well, but their last piece was, well…” “I feel like so-and-so is my competition; I think that I write better than them, but people like their style more.”

The first impulse is to brush off this kind of behavior. I mean, this is undergraduate creative writing, after all – the impulse to take oneself and one’s peers too seriously is a common part of being in college, and certainly not the most serious of sins. Better that young writers take themselves too seriously than that they ignore your class entirely, right? 

Maybe – but there’s something grating to me about the application of this kind of yardstick, because the undergraduates are by no means the only ones applying it. If anything, they’re only reacting to the sort of competitive urgency present in the larger culture, and the literary culture, specifically.

You see it in MFA programs – the angling for “star” status, the sense of favoritism between professors and grad students – and in the world of publishing – the sense of publishing in the “right places,” or of receiving the best awards. In a world where writers feel increasingly marginalized (even though the writer in English has a larger potential readership than previous generations could ever have imagined), the fight over the scraps of praise and acclaim can be brutal. We’re all desperate for affirmation, in a culture which we feel leaves us with little respect, and so we take out our insecurities on our communities: our classrooms, our writers’ groups, our teaching circles.

Of course, I’m guilty of this as well – I’ve made my fair share of swipes at others for petty aesthetic gripes. But if I actually had the authority to drop wisdom on my students I would try to tell them that the yardstick approach is a banal and ultimately unhelpful way to approach one’s own work and the work of one’s peers. In the rush of pronouncing judgment on “good” or “bad” work – all the while hoping that some outer force will pronounce the judgment of “good” on their own fiction – students miss out on appreciating the various and weird approaches of their friends and classmates. And as this sense of exterior judgment and approval moves up the chain, from undergrad to grad, all the way up to the petty gripes of our professional Franzens, it has the effect of limiting the discourse to that which can achieve recognition within a fairly narrow aesthetic framework.

I’m not saying we should pretend as if there are no aesthetic standards, and that all writing is equally valid. I just wish – especially in the early going, since it’s hard to teach a grad student new tricks – that all of us could stop looking at fiction with the reductive worldview of “is this successful,” when we know from experience that “success” is not always a good indicator of artistic merit. There are more undergraduate writing classes in America than there have ever been, and students learn their habits early. It seems to me that if we want to foster a more vibrant, diverse American literary culture, it wouldn’t hurt to try to fight the urge to compete, and encourage the urge to listen to each other as equals.

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