Assume the Position: Academic Creative Writing Programs and the Rhetoric of Literary Culture

deadline for submissions: 
June 19, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
South Atlantic Modern Languages Association
contact email: 

In his seminal history The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl argues that one aspect of the proliferation of graduate creative writing programs in the twentieth century, now the most significant literary patronage system in the U.S., was a pressure on the programs and their participants to “[rationalize] their presence in a scholarly environment by asserting their own disciplinary rigor.” Historically, this has manifested itself in a strong emphasis on “craft,” influenced heavily by the modernist movement and the theories of the New Critics. Many of today’s practicing poets and fiction writers have also taken graduate coursework in literary theory and have been asked to theorize about their own creative work in artists’ statements and craft essays, implicitly arguing that their work not only succeeds artistically but contributes to the research mission of the universities granting their degrees by in some way “Making It New.”

Authors such as Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth have famously lamented what they saw as a turning away by young writers from the journalistic tradition and from the socially engaged novel and toward preoccupation with form. Whether the absorption of “creative writing” into academia indeed contributed to a devaluation of traditional literary realism in favor of work positioned as avant-garde is debatable, but in this panel we hope to explore the ways academic concerns shape distinctions between “high” and “low” art and “literary” from “commercial” writing. In an age of writing fellowships, prizes, and tenure-track creative-writing jobs, to what extent does the positioning of one’s work dictate its inception and reception? What are some of the ways that authors attempt to influence the positioning of their work? Are works that can be positioned as “experimental” more prestigious than straightforward narrative or lyric?  In what ways, and by what means, do artists appropriate, transform, or repackage “low” art forms into critically celebrated work positioned as avant-garde?  What are the consequences of these shifts?  And, finally, who is the primary audience for the work: the academy or the public?

Papers will be presented at the South Atlantic Modern Languages Association conference in Atlanta (November 3-5). This year’s conference theme is High Art/Low Art: Borders and Boundaries in Popular Culture. We are open to a wide range of topics, but possible ideas might include the artist statement as genre, rhetoric of the avant-garde, debates around conceptual poetry, generic disruption, studies of individual authors, or personal reflections by poets or fiction writers. By June 19, please submit an abstract of 300-500 words and a brief bio to Caroline Young at and C.J. Bartunek at