NOVEMBER 10, 2020
“Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd.”
— John Crowe Ransom, “Criticism, Inc.”
My Head of Department asked me to speak about “creative and critical writing” to fourth-year literature students. I agreed, though the prospect made me nervous. He was asking a creative writer — and not, say, a literary historian — to speak about the subject to future literary critics. I kept trying to think of an opening line, as if I were a standup comedian. I finally decided it would be about the line itself: “Is an opening line a creative or a critical thing?”
The concept of “line” belongs to art as much as it does to poetry, and also to what the post-industrial education economy has begun calling “critical writing,” where one is asked for one’s “line of argument.” Yesterday, my mother, a former schoolteacher, tried to teach my two-year-old niece how to draw a straight line. The result was this:
I wondered which category they might fall into: creative or critical. Being an adult meant categorizing things — objects, relationships, experiences. Something happened to me after receiving my Head of Department’s message: I became obsessed with the question of categorization.
That question about the creative or the critical — no one asks it of painters or musicians. Sa pa sa — which tanpura player has ever been asked whether a musical phrase is creative or critical? Being conscious of the question would distract from the artist’s real focus.
The primary difference between creative and critical writing is one of locus. “Creative writing” presumes the presence of something like a writer’s studio, a setting more relaxed than the habitat of “critical writing,” which requires an office, a professional building, a lab, as it were. Similarly, the location where writing is published also establishes its nature: critical writing goes to research journals and creative writing to magazines that publish poetry, fiction, essays.
At the heart of this distinction lies an institutionalized hierarchy that those who created it do not want to acknowledge. It comes from academia, with its distrust — even rejection — of anything that can’t be put into a system of calibration. “Creative writing” is imagined as amorphous, slippery, an emanation of the heart, whereas “critical writing” is rigorous, ordered, a product of the brain. The heart is disobedient, the brain caged inside the skull. I’ve sat through presentations by PhD students where, at the end, a professor has asked, “But what is the theory behind this?” I’ve never heard them ask, “What are the emotions that made you embark on this project?” Emotions seem immaterial to “critical” thinking — unless, of course, they can be codified into a theory of affect.
Anything that cannot be fit into a “theory” isn’t “critical” enough — it is too “personal,” too “anecdotal,” too “poetic,” terms scholars use pejoratively. The poetic is baggy, like the heart; the head is like a hard disk with fixed storage capacity. This understanding of the head and the heart is faulty, as Eliot reminds us in “The Metaphysical Poets”: “Racine or Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.” Eliot attributes the division to what he calls a “dissociation of sensibility,” and I am tempted to date the Creative-Critical dissociation (and consequent professionalization of that distinction) to his essay.
As Nietzsche reminds us, critical thinking is as much a negotiation with one’s emotions as it is with one’s intellect:
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.
In this formulation, we have as little conscious control over what we come to believe as over whom we come to love. Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” yet is wisdom a critical or a creative category — or, to use Nietzsche’s words, is it “voluntary” or “involuntary”? Academic scholars clearly imagine the “critical” to be in the realm of the voluntary and the “creative” involuntary.
The effect of this assumption on pedagogy — particularly critical writing pedagogy — has been momentous. It has led to a curriculum that produces a head-heavy understanding of man. The aim of this pedagogy is to keep the involuntary, such as desires and dreams, outside its premises. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is studied for its theoretical formulations, while the dreams that wake us up in the middle of the night are packed off to the “Creative Writing” department. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is an institutional conspiracy to keep the seemingly uncontrollable and irrational from contaminating the premises of critical thinking, a form of gatekeeping that has now been ritualized by functionaries of the university system. That is why university departments must have a “Head.” How wonderful it would be to call someone the Heart of the Department instead!
Up until the 19th century, the creative artist was considered to be superior to the critic, and the act of creation was seen as a quasi-divine activity. God is a creator, after all, not a critic. To create was a positive force, while to be critical implied fault-finding. The modern sense of “critic” and “critical,” meaning a capacity to formulate knowledge and make reasoned judgments, emerged around the same time that the Humanities was acquiring a skeleton as a discipline. For centuries before that, the critic’s role was seen as parasitic, dependent upon and inferior to the work of the creative writer: “the critical power is of lower rank than the creative,” wrote Matthew Arnold. In academia today, however, that hierarchy has been reversed: “creative writing” is assumed to be easier — less rigorous, less disciplined — than “critical writing.”
Yet this ignores the fact that much of what we would categorize as “creative writing” has an argumentative character. The octet in an Italian sonnet is called an “argument”; the 19th century novel often featured an “Argument” as a short preface. As Amit Chaudhuri says in an interview, “Writers are always in a state of argument. Writing itself is a form of argumentation. When you write something, you reject a whole range of things as part of a dialogue with yourself and your traditions.” The heart argues as much as the head does, if not more so.
All writing is an argument. Eliot’s The Waste Land is as much “critical thinking” as The Sacred Wood is (and not just because both use footnotes!). The preface to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads is an argument for the kind of poems featured in the volume.
Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf were arguing against the Victorian novel, not just in their “critical” essays but also in their “creative” fiction, in Mrs. Dalloway as much as in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” All writing — all thinking — is a product of conversation. Two foundational texts of two different cultures — Plato’s Republic and the Bhagavad Gita — are structured in the form of dialogues, as argument. Are these creative or critical texts?
Making and enforcing these distinctions, between creative and critical, poet and philosopher, is a bit like the magician who saws through a human body in a box, and then puts the severed pieces back together. The truth, as we know, is that the body was never chopped up at all. It was only an illusion allowing us to be impressed by the magician. There never was a severance between the creative and the critical, until one went to university and was forced to choose between the two. The trigger was commercial: separation of departments, of theorists from practitioners; a commodification of writing through categorization.
I began with an epigraph from John Crowe Ransom’s 1937 essay “Criticism, Inc,” which identifies three categories of people who could become critics: “the philosopher,” although “his theory is very general and his acquaintance with […] particular works of art is not persistent and intimate”; “the university teacher of literature […][,] but he is a greater disappointment. […] Professors of literature are learned but not critical men”; and “the artist himself […][,] but his understanding is intuitive rather than dialectical.” And yet, Ransom, like Eliot before him, opts for the practitioner: “It is true that literary artists, with their command of language, are better critics of their own art than are other artists; probably the best critics of poetry we can now have are the poets.”
Creative-Critical, Inc., an enterprise that we see emerging today, is perhaps only a call for the rehabilitation of literature and its practitioners to literature departments, from where they were evacuated — or banished — after the “sociological turn.”
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing: A Novel (2018), Out of Syllabus: Poems (2019), and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019). She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.