What Literary Discourse Offers in an Age of Extremism
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Je Banach
While the events at Missouri and Yale were unfolding, and just a few days before the attacks in Paris and Beirut occurred, I was tasked with writing a course description for a fiction workshop that I will lead at the Yale Writers’ Conference next summer. It was a simple enough request — tell potential applicants what they would be signing up for if they choose my workshop — but in doing so my thoughts turned to the news, which in turn (as news of tragedy and unrest has a way of doing) sparked a kind of existential thinking about the greater meaning of things, and soon I was on to considering larger questions such as why I choose to do this work particularly and why one should sign up for a fiction workshop at all.
When I considered what we would do in our workshop, the answer was fairly simple: we would gather together around a large table and thoughtfully discuss the work samples that had been submitted with each person taking a turn as both reader/critic and writer/receiver of critique. When I considered why anyone should want to do this and why I should want to facilitate it, I found myself recalling the countless articles, recently published, that argued back and forth about what writing students receive in exchange for their tuition money and whether writing workshops are a worthy investment. I hadn’t weighed in on the conversation previously in any formal way having understood both sides of the argument and keeping in mind the simple fact that there is usually more than one good or correct method of doing things. However, considered within that particular week — a week in which intolerance, unrest, and violence dominated global headlines — the answer to the question of whether or not writing workshops are worthwhile or even necessary seemed obvious: They are — but perhaps not for the reason one might think.
I found myself recalling the countless articles, recently published, that argued back and forth about what writing students receive in exchange for their tuition money and whether writing workshops are a worthy investment.
Though we certainly do our best in workshops to help move each other’s work forward and get it into good form, not everyone who participates in a writing workshop will go on to win an award or write a bestseller. What everyone will do is learn to speak the most important and valuable language that we have — one that allows us to be good writers as well as good and decent humans. Literary discourse, depicted at times as dusty at best and insignificant and unnecessary at worst, is not the dead language its critics would have us believe, but the language of our future because it is the language of confronting that which is foreign to us; looking at what is familiar to us in new ways; thinking deeply and considerately; disagreeing respectfully and graciously. How, I wonder, can one be a good writer — and more importantly, a good and decent human — without knowing how to speak this language?
When I sat down to write the course description and considered what we had accomplished in previous years, I thought as much about what had happened outside the classroom as inside of it. It will be my fifth year teaching at the conference — an intensive summer conference for dedicated writers, both domestic and foreign, of various ages, races, religions etc. — and each year I have witnessed a stunning unity among our population. We often moved from our workshop to lunches together and then gathered at museums or cafes in the free time between scheduled events. Those who had just disagreed (often passionately) in the classroom now shared a meal and exchanged stories or stood shoulder to shoulder looking at a piece of art — and no one seemed any worse for the wear. When it happened this way during the first year of the conference, I wondered if it was a stroke of good luck to have students who got on so well, but then it happened again in the second year, and the third, and even the fourth.
On the final day of the 2015 conference, I sat in a Belgian café in New Haven with writers who ranged in age from teens to elder statesmen. They were of varied race and religion, and they had come from all over the United States as well as some foreign countries. Though everyone had their choice of what to do that afternoon, they chose to spend the time that remained together before people set off to return to their homes. We shared a meal, discussed literature and our time at the conference, and exchanged stories from our own lives. We talked about what would come next when we went back out into the world. We were glad to be together and sad that we would soon be parting. No one would have been able to tell that earlier in the day and throughout the week we had debated and argued and criticized one another’s work — works which represented a long-term investment of each person’s time as well as each writer’s most coveted ideas and beliefs.
Literary discourse…is the language of our future because it is the language of confronting that which is foreign to us; looking at what is familiar to us in new ways; thinking deeply and considerately; disagreeing respectfully and graciously.
Whenever I hear bad news, I think of these gatherings and feel hope.
For many, one’s confrontation with ideas and beliefs that are foreign to them will come via a book. Literary discourse, the active process of carefully considering the words and ideas of others and then speaking thoughtfully and critically about them — let us not confuse the words “critical” and “negative” here — provides a model of thoughtful, considerate, and intelligent action and dialogue that the world needs. For the person on the receiving end, whose most cherished ideas and beliefs may be criticized, literary discourse offers a lesson in how to receive criticism graciously and then go on and how to see and accept how one might improve. The magic of workshops is not, as so many might think, in tricks and tips offered, but in the process of our active engagement with one another. There is incalculable good in this process. At their best, writing workshops teach us how to confront the works and ideas of others with careful consideration, how to be thoughtful in the way we approach the ideas of others, how to find the courage to reassess our own closely held beliefs, how to agree thoughtfully rather than complacently, how to disagree firmly but respectfully, how to receive or otherwise accept criticism — even when it is the criticism of the ideas we hold dearest, how to reject another’s contrary opinions graciously, how to let go of ideas that may have been dear or precious to us but no longer serve us well.
For many, one’s confrontation with ideas and beliefs that are foreign to them will come via a book.
While extremists train soldiers in dogma and weaponry, literary discourse allows us to break down barriers and educate people of all different backgrounds to combat extremism, terrorism, racism, intolerance, and hate by allowing people globally to be part of a process of conversation that calls for us to engage with others and otherness — to disagree with others and allow others to disagree with us and to step out into the world at peace. It is a certainty that those in workshops have written words that have exposed their readers to ideas and viewpoints they might not ever have encountered otherwise. It is certain that if they continue to read and to write that they will be speaking in the most modern language we have. They have broken down the walls of otherness and stretched out a hand. How can anyone throw up their arms and say that they cannot make a difference or that a better world is not possible when this is the case?