If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 18)

In the last few posts, I have explored the week of September 11. Now, I’ll go back earlier in the year to discuss Professor Joseph K’s Madness in Literature seminar.

While Joe’s fiction workshop was small (approx. 11 people), his graduate literature seminar had close to twenty. While the workshop had MFA creative writing students and MFA hopefuls, the seminar had MFA students and MA English students. This would give me my first taste of the dichotomies that existed within the English graduate study programs at the University.

I have heard about the divide between the fiction and poetry, but it was only hearsay at this point. Poets were those people who could not string enough sentences together to tell a story, while writers lacked the lyrical talent necessary to compose a poem. At least that was what the two camps would tell themselves. Faculty of both disciplines fed into this rivalry. Lana Zhang, the celebrated poet published by a major literary press, definitely favored the poetry students. The poets, encouraged by her, banded together to protect their territory from the doggerel writing fiction writers. It often shocked the poets when a storywriter or novelist actually turned out excellent verse, better than anything they hoped to write. And the fiction writers, no doubt, resented the prejudice. Joe, while he denounced this attitude, perpetuated it in his Madness in Literature course.

Joe, of course, favored the MFA students. While I was not yet a graduate student, I fell under this category. Most of the MFA’s were on friendly terms with him. Some were readers for the journal; others were devoted followers. I can’t remember a single creative writing student in the class that disliked or distrusted him at the time, though that would change later. We were all appreciative of his unorthodox approach to literature, looking outside of the canon to find voices of the subversive and the marginalized. I suspect many were drawn to taking the class because they wouldn’t have a serious term paper to write. He had his students do a presentation on one of the books covered in class and a final presentation on one of the themes of Madness in Literature. Also, he required a journal to be kept on all of the reading, turned in during the final week of class.

Since Madness in Literature’s course number was one for literature, not creative writing, there were many MA’s enrolled in the class. Perhaps they did not realize what they were getting into. Some may have known Joe’s reputation, but decided to take the course anyway. And, a few others seemed to have an affinity with Joe.

I have always suspected that being in academia is some kind of game, and the most successful students may not necessarily be the brightest, but ones who know how to play they game. They know the language and how to use the clichés. Oh, the term is jargon. The MA students, no doubt, spoke fluent academese and were accustomed to praise from their professors. Many MFA’s, on the other hand, adopted a different kind of game plan. Many of them gravitated towards writing for the love of the craft, but praise may have been rare from the literature professors. They, for the most part, weren’t aspiring literary critics. The creative writing faculty may have provided some kind or refuge from critical and theoretical nature of literary study. And the MFA program had a language and game of its own.

The literature students were no match for Joe. They appeared to be staid and conservative in comparison to him. The creative writers perceived this and ganged themselves against the MA’s. Joe often favored the MFA’s, showing preference for their ideas in the seminar’s discourse. Joe, or at least his persona, openly eschewed canonical authors. When an MA student proposed doing his final presentation on Virginia Wolff’s madness, Joe dismissively said that was old school. Since I had seen Joe’s personal library, I knew he did not completely subscribe to that view. However, he saw the graduate lit students as orthodox, unremarkable, unreceptive, inflexible, not even worthy of the A’s or B’s he gave them. Then again, was an A or a B even really worth anything in any graduate course?

Many of the literature students were more grounded in the canon, especially the specializations they were drawn to. They were not accustomed to thinking of the avant-garde feeding into literature, unless they were post-modernists. Their ways of talking about literature did not fit in with how he discussed it. They were confronted with the bizarre, the outré, the experimental, the independently published, even stuff that was downright bad. Some of the outsider writers weren’t that good at all, but their ideas were worth discussing. It may have been one thing to be required to read badly written stories, but seeing a sexually explicit German film, Taxi Xum Klo, was definitely much for some. Some scenes left little to the imagination; pornographic, though strong, would be accurate. Like most of work Joe presented, there was supposed to be something beyond the obvious. Or was there?

Beyond Joe’s choice of material, we were treated to Joe’s work. One story of his may have been included in the reader he prepared for the class. During one of the times we met at his home, he did a dramatic reading where he played Charles Manson. His stories were often like two character plays without dialogue tags or description of the characters. His subjects were often sexually unconventional people or murderers, sometimes even both. At this point, he was writing a body of creative work about serial killers, so his work qualified as madness in literature. None of the MA’s cared that Joe was a minor league literary star, a power broker in the avant-garde literary community. I’m sure a certain percentage of the MFA’s also shared similar sentiments. However, the MFA’s in his class treated him like a god. Their reverence was certainly rewarded.

To be continued…

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