Caroline Small had several lengthy and thoughtful comments on this post by Nate Atkinson. I thought I’d highlight them so that more folks can see them. I’m going to pick a couple, so it’ll be a little disjointed, but I think the points overall are clear (and you can always jump back to the thread to see the comments you’ve missed by Caro and others.)

First this one.

I agree with Noah when he says this “it just seems like comics has gone the consolidation/subculture route for so long (as Nate admits) that further progress along that road threatens to become sclerotic.”

I think the problem is exactly that: the public (I like the lit theory word “discourse community”) is SO well defined and SO specific that it actually determines not only the conversation about the art but the art itself, rather than the other way around. The comics-reading public is a thing independent from the comics it engages with, that most comics self-consciously and intentionally appeal to, rather than an epiphenomenon of neutral people’s discussion about those comics. Perhaps that epiphenomenon was what the OLD TCJ did, creating that community. But that community’s been stable, with a clear discourse and assumptions, for a pretty long time.

Noah also accurately states my position on the accomplishments of contemporary film. I think at least some of the reasons for that, though, have to do with the phenomenon Nate describes and how that worked in the early days of cinema. I think the emergence of a discourse community about film was much less about subcultural identity and much more about legitimating film in a multi-media, multi-form artistic context. Cocteau is the archetype of this, his friendships with Picasso and Gide and Proust and Diaghilev and Radiguet (et al., et al., et al.) created a sense of what art was and was for that informed his films, and his films informed our sense of what film is. As such (and he’s only one example), films’ original genetic diversity is much more diverse than comics. So even when film gets more self-referential in the mid-century, it’s referencing something more inherently diverse.

And you can argue that comics draws heavily from fine visual art, which in some instances is true, but the thing about film is that it was all arts, including writing, including music. (Cocteau wrote for Stravinsky…) Even today’s screenwriting takes writing and literature seriously in a way that comics does not, although it’s certainly never been as important for film as for theater, where dramatists and directors are still pretty separate functions. Still, I’ve never heard film people or theater people make the kinds of claims you hear all the time in comics, that the expectation of competent, nuanced writing as a baseline expectation for any professional work makes someone “anti-visual.” Maybe it’s because even though there are filmmakers and dramatists who only make films and plays, there are greats in those fields who considered themselves primarily writers: e.g., Beckett produced both drama and fiction, Cocteau wrote novels and poems. Auster writes screenplays and novels. And in all cases their literary work is exceptional and standard-setting. It seems like the only great in comics I’ve ever heard say anything really valuing writing is Saul Steinberg, and you never hear modern day critics acknowledge Steinberg’s own preferences in that area – his visual acumen is always what gets praised.

So I think it’s not just that comics is less genetically diverse, but that the discourse community likes it that way. Warren Craghead and Austin English, for example, don’t get all that much attention from the TCJ-defined community (although there was a recent interview!), so the “public” isn’t getting defined in ways that include their perspectives in our sense of what comics are.

Which is to say that I agree with Nate that comics have been about the formation of a public first and an art form second, if at all. But this is why I like the term “discourse community” so much — I think that it’s never a seamless, painless transition from the kind of discourse that supports a subculture to the kind of discourse necessary to support an artform. TCJ is in a unique position to encourage and support that transition, but they don’t appear to really deeply want to. Being at the top of the heap in the subculture is a hard position to do it from — it’s asking a big fish in a little pond to swim into the waters where they’ll be a small fish again. I get why they don’t risk their position and their influence within the existing industry for that goal. But comics has so much extraordinary potential as an art form, it makes me sad that the most influential critical voice in comics doesn’t see it as a primary part of their mission.

And this one.

Here’s the Lynda Barry article:

Compare it to this passage from Don Greiner’s wonderful book on the pedagogy of James Dickey:

The prevailing tone of these classes is joy — joy in the art, in the language, in the writers themselves…Dickey is especially memorable on Yeats, Pound, Thomas, Houseman, Hopkins, Frost, Robinson, de la Mare, and Bridges…[The lectures] are in every way a testimony to a man engaged with the rigors of poetry. Yet they are also a testimony to a man committed to readers, committed, as it were, to passing it on.

Or, consider this essay by John Barth (in a rather spotty OCR from the original 1985 article:

[Writing] gets learned. Can It Be Studied? Boyoboy, can it ever. Since long before the invention of universities, not to mention university programs in creative writing, authors have acquired their authority in four main ways – first, by paying a certain sort of attention to the experience of life as well as merely undergoing it; second, by paying a certain sort of attention to the works of their great and less great predecessors in the medium of written language, as well as merely reading them; third, by practicing that medium themselves, usually a lot (Charles Newman, the writer and critic, declares that the first prerequisite for aspiring writers is sufficient motor control to keep their pens moving left to right, line after line, hour after hour, day after day, and I would add year after year, decade after decade); and fourth, by offering their apprentice work for discussion and criticism by one or several of their impassioned peers, or by some more experienced hand, or by both.

Those four obvious, all but universal ways of learning how to write correspond roughly to what I take to be the proper objects of study for all serious writers -their material (”human life,” says Aristotle, ”its happiness and its misery”), their medium (the language in general, the written language in particular), their craft (the rudiments of, say, fiction, together with conventional and unconventional techniques of their deployment), and their art (the inspired and masterful application of their craft and medium to their material). Not only does the first of these – the material – not imply a creative writing course; it is beyond the proper province of one, though the study of great literature is one excellent handle on ”human life, its happiness and its misery.” And real mastery of the fourth – the art, as distinct from the craft – is more the hope than the curricular goal of a sound writing program; it comes from mastery of the other three plus a dash of genius.

Barry’s course — which sounds wonderful in many ways — seems to correspond to the first item: the material. The article even says “Barry isn’t particularly interested in the writer’s craft.”

But if you look at Barth’s breakdown, the craft is what makes stories into writing. Craft includes “the rudiments of fiction.” And a good solid understanding of the rudiments of fiction is what seems to be missing from an awful lot of beautifully drawn comics I’ve seen (not to mention an even greater number of pedestrianly drawn comics I’ve seen.)

Screenwriters study the writer’s craft; screenplays are fiction. But art comics writers tend not to — and they’re especially dismissive of that last one, submitting apprentice work for critique. I heard someone on a panel at SPX say that one of the problems with working with a big press is that the editors tried to edit the comic but you can’t edit a comic the way you edit a book, telling the cartoonist that the joke fails here or whatever. That attitude isn’t a property of comics — it’s a property of an immature writer, because EVERY writer can learn from readers.

I guess all this rambling is to set up two questions – isn’t there something comparable to the “workshop” in studio art, where your peers critique the ideas and execution of your work? It seems like there would be, so I can’t imagine that person was getting that notion from visual art, but maybe I’m wrong.

And, if anybody reading this studied comics in a formal curriculum somewhere, what did your program teach you about writing? Was your experience more like what Barry goes for in her course, or what Dickey describes in his?

And I’ll finish with this one.

Jeet, the comment about Barry not being interested in craft was on the first page of the NYT article on her class; it’s not an assertion I’m making about her work.

Perhaps the NYT writer misunderstood her, but I think it should be pretty easy to see how the description of the techniques and approach she uses appear significantly different from the kind of teaching one got from Professor Dickey (whose workshop _I_ took, as well as Dr Greiner’s — Greiner was the one, Noah, who made me read “The Sound and the Fury,” darn him!).

My criticism of teaching the psychology of creativity is this — that psychology, more than any other kind, isn’t the same for everybody. And an awful lot of literary creativity has tended to emerge out of the mindset of an advanced critical reader, not some playful wellspring of creative openness. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of “readerly” creativity. You see that in Dickey; you see it in Barth.

I don’t, however, see that in Barry’s pedagogy, which is why I said her teaching was about something different. And so I think you’re missing the point of the comment, which is not whether she is a good teacher, but whether there is a difference in discourse community there, and whether it can and should be bridged. Are you suggesting that Barry’s pedagogy is, in fact, within the discourse community of traditional creative writing? From the quotes in the article, it seems like Barry herself is resistant to that.

I don’t DISAGREE with Barry’s pedagogy, and certainly not for her goals, which it seems to fit well. I do think Barry’s pedagogy isn’t a substitute for Dickey’s pedagogy, and that a great writer probably needs some of both kinds.

Do you think Barry’s is a substitute, or do you think there’s value in both? Because the only thing that I DO disagree with is what sounds like her contempt for the more traditional pedagogy that writers like Dickey practiced. It works just like her comment on Franzen.

One of the wonderful things about Mr Dickey was that he could take a student from the backwater of South Carolina who’d never read anything but the Bible and the newspaper and make him understand why TS Eliot was poetry. And he didn’t do it through “inspiring their creativity;” he did it, as the excerpt I quoted says, through sharing his love of reading and through the idea that reading is a source of inspiration for creativity. Sometimes he turned those people into teachers and writers themselves — but he always turned them into readers.

Disrespecting that isn’t cool at all. Pedagogy doesn’t have to be “about” psychology to be effective psychologically.

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