Christine Crosby

Now while cleaning out files I have spilled coffee on some of them. These now join those  designated. One is Christine Crosby’s “Writer’s Block, Merit, and the Market: Working in the University of Excellence,” in College English 65:6 (July 2003): 626-45.

It is an excellent piece which I really want to use when I finally write my long promised “What is a Scholar?” I liked finding it when I was suffering from writer’s block because it offers a serious analysis of the problem. Most commenters on this issue think either that one does not know how to sustain writing, or that one has problems with “time management,” or one is not hard working enough or not dedicated enough, or one has “run out of ideas.” And after all, we know writing is part of our job, so why do so many not have the skills or will to simply do it?

Crosby points out “that writing in general, and scholarly writing especially, entails entering into a network of relationships and engages the writer in a process that may have a multitude of ends” (626). She emphasizes the relationship to the market: one must not just write something good, one must write something that will sell.

She cites one Keith Hjortshoj (Understanding Writing Blocks) who says academic writing becomes difficult precisely because it is such an important form of currency. When writing is a currency, writers are embedded in market relations. One might think that the fact that writing is money and makes money would spur people to do more of it, but in some cases the opposite happens.

Crosby relates all of this to the “university of excellence” which apparently began to exist in the 1980s, when, apparently, merit raises came in. I think the article by LSU system president Lombardi, “Deconstructing Faculty Work,” is relevant here. In the past, being an academic meant committing more wholistically to a profession; now everything is broken down into measurable output; this can be alienating.

I argue that failure to produce on the part of writers who want to write, but can’t, may be an effect of the contradictions of a system that turns quality into quantity, time into money, relations into instruments, and writing into intellectual property. (628)

The term “writer’s block” was invented in the 1950s and the phenomenon has “to do with how writing is valued, and with the modern concept of the writer as ‘author’.” (628) It’s not a problem of poor work ethic, or neurosis, or the energy that social reproduction (e.g. teaching, service, administration, governance) requires. She is interested in “the relation of writer’s block to the logic of capital, a form of value that is driven by an imperative to increase.” (628)

But writing “entails an ethical obligation that is fundamentally at odds with the dictates of capital and the imperatives of the work ethic.” (629) Writing is an open ended, relational engagement with readers and other writers, and this is very different from the relationship work has to capital. She is suggesting that we take hold of the non market related aspects of writing so as to unblock ourselves and become able (once again) to produce for the market. (I remember when I first got my R-1 job: my writing had been my own when I worked for a teaching college which resented it, but now I felt my writing had been appropriated by the university.)

Robert Boice’s ideas on how to get writing done are Trollope’s, warmed over. There is a vital counterdiscourse to this view in Romantic theories of artistic autonomy. (629) There is a rich scholarly literature, though, on block, which inhibits mental workers. Crosby says Boice and Trollope’s ideas are essentially the same and fit capitalism, and many writers say this market relation inhibits and does not encourage their writing. Yet the arguments about autonomy from the market do not help either. (634)

Then there is a long section about writer as craftsman and writer as artist, writer as person in conversation with others and writer as person perfecting an art object, writer and author, that it is worth rereading more closely than I am doing now. One might do well, however, not to separate art from craft, because the Romantic myth of the autonomous and withdrawn writer is also blocking. So how do we conjugate the marketing slogan “just do it” and the need for originality, inspiration of some kind, autonomy?

The answer is to think outside the terms of the “university of excellence” and instead in terms of producing in community, and to focus on the value of writing as an activity, not just as the path to producing an object (the finished text). And there is much else in this article of value, but I want to recycle its coffee stained pages and take a walk, so as to refresh myself and start in on some actual work.

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4 Responses to Christine Crosby

  1. Hattie says:

    The minute people start writing for any extrinsic purposes, the spirit goes out of the work. It is just another task, and no creativity can enter in.

    Benjamin put it well. The writer can’t write for the “observer.” The observer can do the editing, however.

  2. Z says:

    Yes but. It’s possible to not have it be drudgery. Writing as part of scientific inquiry.

    I am slightly confused at this moment because I am revisiting Barthes on readerly and writerly texts, for other purposes, but I shall figure all of this out presently.

    Benjamin is so right on so many things, do you think he would have been fun in person?

  3. Hattie says:

    I don’t know. He had the usual awful morals of men of his time, class and place. But he sure could write.

  4. Z says:

    I was just glancing at Hannah Arendt’s introduction to _Illuminations_. Apparently even he knew his life was disastrous. I am of that generation that was taught not to consider biographies, but texts, and I still tend to ignore them. It’s fascinating to think about things like the university system he was (sort of) in, and what the scene must have been like.

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