The Rise of Technique

In my last post, I made the observation that many writers today are ignoring works from older periods (basically anything from the early twentieth century and older) because we value technique over message. Many older works have technical flaws, sometimes major ones, whereas current authors may be more technically proficient, even if they lack the vision of older authors. Broad generalizations, I realize, but I think I’m still on solid ground in making them. (Besides, if you can’t make generalizations, then what fun is the Internet?)

What I didn’t answer, and what will be the focus of this post, is how this came to be, the reasons for technique’s dominance and the submission of theme. Once more speaking broadly, here is my analysis of the literary history that has caused literary history to be left firmly in the past.

The source of most of the change comes from the variety of post-modern theories that rose to prominence in the sixties and seventies, i.e. deconstructionist, Marxist, and feminist criticism (among others). These theories share a common rebellion against the older view of literature, which emphasized the author’s insight and message; according to the new schools of thought, theme and revelation became, at best, illusory or, at worst, dangerous. Marxists declared the novel anti-revolutionary, while Freudians claimed it was only an elaborate reenactment of childhood traumas; the post-structuralists, meanwhile, denied that literature could present any coherent message, and even if it could, there’s no truth or morality worth the effort.

The result is a pessimistic view of literature, one that does not grant it any purpose or, in some cases, any artistry. And these theories took root fast and strong, with large chunks of literary academics (including those teaching creative writers) converted to the cause. Writers came of age and learned their craft in a climate that questioned the value and purpose of the very act of writing.

Yet, theory could not destroy the institutions of literature, even if it did weaken the idea. It’s a self-evident fact that some people want to write, that they are good at it and want to devote their lives to it. (It should also be pointed out that not everyone jumped ship on literature: segments of writers and professors alike remained loyal to the value of theme.) Writing remained a sometimes viable profession, with agents, editors, and publishing houses immune to academic squabbles, providing economic motivation to write. Creative writing programs and workshops grew, even seeping into the undergraduate level, growing and solidifying the institution of writing.

This is where the rise of technique comes to fruition, in the clash between institution and ideas. The industry of writing continued as usual: writers continued to read and write, major in creative writing or the liberal arts, maybe get an MFA, and (ideally) get published. But the culture of these institutions changed, if not the structure; the professors, writers, and editors who make up the system were exposed to the post-modern theories and applied them.

The result is an emphasis on technique. With theme and message turned to contentious issues, writing and literature programs retreated to the more teachable subject of technique; metaphor and narrative are seen as either not being up for debate, and theories that do find fault with traditional techniques can still encourage experimentation as a form of rebellion. This leads to writers who write and read primarily for technique and editors and publishers who evaluate mainly on technique, and over a couple of generations the older, theme based writers are lost to newer, technique based writers who take their place.

Since I’m apparently incapable of completely covering a topic in one (or even two) postings, I have to point that there’s still an unanswered question here, and it’s perhaps the most important question of all, the one I know everyone is begging me to answer: how do you feel about this? The short answer is that I think the emphasis on technique is wrong, but I’ll explain my position more (and give suggestions for improvement) in the next post.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. He is currently blogging, volunteering, writing, and applying to graduate schools.