CRAFT CLASS: THE WRITING WORKSHOP IN AMERICAN CULTURE
The hidden history of the creative writing workshop and the socioeconomic consequences
of the craft labor metaphor
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In a letter dated September 1, 1912, drama professor George Pierce Baker recommended the term "workshop" for an experimental course in playwriting he had been planning with former students at Harvard and Radcliffe. This was the first time that term, now ubiquitous, was used in the context of creative writing pedagogy. Today, the MFA (master of fine arts) industry is a booming one, with more than 200 programs and thousands of residencies and conferences for aspiring writers nationwide. Almost all of these offerings operate on the workshop model.
In Craft Class, Christopher Kempf argues that the primary institutional form of creative writing studies, the workshop, has remained invisible before our scholarly eyes. While Baker and others marshaled craft toward economic critique, craft pedagogies consolidated the authority of elite educational institutions as the MFA industry grew. Transcoding professional-managerial soft skills—linguistic facility, social and emotional discernment, symbolic fluency—in the language of manual labor, the workshop nostalgically invokes practices that the university itself has rendered obsolete. The workshop poem or short story thus shares discursive space with the craft IPA or hand-loomed Pottery Barn rug—a space in which one economic practice rewrites itself in the language of another, just as right-wing corporatism continuously rewrites itself in the language of populism.
Delineating an arc that extends from Boston's fin de siècle Society of Arts and Crafts through 1930s proletarian workshops to the pedagogies of Black Mountain College and the postwar MFA, Craft Class reveals how present-day creative writing restructures transhistorical questions of labor, education, and aesthetic and economic production. With the rise of the workshop in American culture, Kempf shows, manual and mental labor have been welded together like steel plates. What fissures does that weld seal shut? And on whose behalf does the poet punch in?
Craft Class argues that the creative writing workshop, the primary classroom form that higher education uses to teach creative writing, has been understood too narrowly. Using an impressive archive, Kempf makes a substantial and crucial intervention to the history of the American arts and crafts tradition."
— Juliana Spahr, Mills College, author of Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment
Challenging conventional histories of arts and crafts ideology, Craft Class offers a provocative genealogy of the creative writing workshop. Creative writers, in addition to scholars of contemporary American literature, will find this well-written book appealing.
— John Marsh, Pennsylvania State University, author of Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry
Kempf performs a wonderful excavation of the meaning of the "workshop" for the discipline of creative writing, demonstrating how it arose as a deeply human response to the problem of alienated labor in an industrial capitalist society. In a series of brilliantly chosen and illuminating case studies, he discloses the true historical significance of the craft ideal nurtured in such spaces, reawakening us to the utopian energies that circulate in the writing classroom even now.
— Mark McGurl, Stanford University, author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing
In Craft Class, Chris Kempf has woven a compelling history of how a range of writers in the early and mid-twentieth century — militant leftists, institutional liberals, disaffected radicals, and upwardly-mobile administrators — all drew upon of the idea of the artisanal "workshop" to make sense of the great subsumption of craft labor under the discipline of modern capitalism. And he shows us the trouble this causes. To call writing labor, Kempf helps us see, is to enmesh the teaching and the practice of writing all the more fully in the contradictory character of labor itself. And he shows us how the contradiction built into the ideal of contemporary "creative writing" — Write your truth! Defy normativity! Get a great job when you do! — has a long history. This is an indispensable book."
— Christopher Nealon, Johns Hopkins University, author of The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century
scholarly article publications
English Literary History (ELH): "'A vast university of the common people': Meridel Le Sueur and the 1930s Literary Left" (88:1, Spring 2021)
American Literary History (ALH): "The Play's a Thing: The 47 Workshop and the 'Crafting' of Creative Writing" (32:2, Summer 2020)
Modernism/modernity: "'Addicted to the Lubric a Little': Spectacle, Speculation, and the Language of Flow in Ulysses" (24:1, January 2017)