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A Critical Take on the Critical Introduction

My time at Eastern Illinois University is quickly coming to an end. And while the other students in my cohort are busy slogging through literary theses chapter by meticulous chapter, diving into subjects like Object Oriented Ontology that roughly 150 people in the country will understand/find interesting, I’ve been drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and writing short stories.

 It’s a tough life.

 In order to keep the Creative Writing students from having too much fun and also because anyone with an English degree needs to write something inaccessible to large segments of the population, English Departments across the nation require a critical introduction to creative theses. What is a critical introduction, you ask? It isn’t exactly clear.

But from what I can tell, there are a couple of different takes.

Option A: Placing your work in context

This is the best option for anyone writing genre fiction. Because one of the interesting things about Sci-Fi, Western, Horror, whatever, is that there are a lot of different and particular conversations happening within these genres. What are the rules? How can the rules be broken? How does your work follow/not follow the rules of whatever genre? And, what is gained by writing within a specific genre as opposed to writing “literary fiction,” which is a fairly unwieldy distinction?

The goal for this type of critical introduction is to demonstrate that you understand the landscape that your own work will inhabit. You know the literary geography.

Option B: Studying the Masters

Not everyone writes genre fiction, and studying the geography of “literary fiction” is like trying to sail the seven seas with a twelfth century world map.

In this particular predicament, it’s best to pick a set of writers that you find influential to your own work, and to study the shit out of them. But this isn’t a typical English graduate seminar paper. Instead of critically engaging with irony or investigating the issue of “empathy” in two contemporary texts, the critical introduction needs to study how certain authors use point of view, or the amount of summary vs. scene, or humor, or the million other things that go into a short-story/novel. It’s a study of craft, rather than theory.

At the end of that craft-study, you show how the craft-choices of those writers influences your own work. What are you copying, and why?

Why do we do this?

This is the real question. Both options for the critical introduction are good for writers. We should know the landscape of our work, and we should be aware of our influences. And articulating this knowledge is a good way to better understand our own writing.

Here’s the thing, though. The term “critical introduction” implies that the creative work itself isn’t critical. It’s like English departments decided that writing “creative” work isn’t tough enough to warrant a Master’s degree, despite the fact that creative writers take literary theory courses. If we’re going to make the creative writers do critical work, shouldn’t the lit theory people have to write some creative work? Why is this a one-way street? I would love for my lit-theory comrades to write “creative introductions.” Maybe they could write poems about the fifty or so people who will actually read their work.

But that’s not even my main problem with the critical introduction. My main issue is that the assignment itself is a hybrid mess of a thing. The critical introduction isn’t a creative piece and it isn’t a seminar paper. In order to pass my thesis, I need to write a type of paper that I have never had to write before.

There are a couple of different solutions to this dilemma. First, we could stop making creative writers do a critical introduction and substitute it for some type of oral exam that would show the writer reads and is engaged with the writing world and whatever else we need to prove. But the other option is to offer creative writing courses that are not workshops, where the goal of the course would be the type of craft-study that would lead into a critical introduction at some point.

And, if we could figure all of this out before mid-March, when my thesis director wants a copy of my critical introduction, that would be great. Thanks.

–Sean Towey