Train in Vain

“…as for literature / it gives no man a sinecure.” – Ezra Pound

“We do not ride the railroad; it rides upon us.” – Henry David Thoreau

On December 23, 2013, the website of PEN America published an interview with the novelist Alexander Chee as part of a regular Q&A feature called “PEN Ten.” Asked “Where is your favorite place to write?” Chee replied: “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” This hint was picked up a couple of days later on Twitter by the journalist Jessica Gross, who tweeted directly at Amtrak’s public account, asking “How much momentum do we have to gain for this become real, @Amtrak?” As Gross recalls in an essay for the Paris Review Daily entitled “Writing the Lakeshore Limited,” a representative from the company responded offered her a “test run.” Gross’s test run, undertaken in early 2014, was apparently successful enough for Amtrak to consider extending the program; in very short order other writers began buzzing about the idea, leading Amtrak to begin work on a “formalized entry process” in late February 2014.

The Amtrak Residency program first came to many people’s attention via an article by Ben Cosman, published on the website The Wire on February 21, 2014 and headlined “Inside Amtrak’s (Absolutely Awesome) Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers.” “First, let’s get it out of the way,” Cosman wrote. “The Wire is 100 percent on board with this idea. Pun intended, because we’re writers. We love writing, and we love trains, and we love them both together.”

Trains and writing, writing and trains: “Combining the two,” Cosman concluded, “is absolutely bonkers. We can’t believe no one thought of this before.” The rest of his article portrays the Residency as both a bold entrepreneurial initiative and a broad-minded act of philanthropy. “Now perhaps the most important point: The residency was free,” Cosman writes. “According to Gross, all Amtrak asked was that she send out a few tweets while she was traveling, and do an interview for the company’s blog at the end of her trip.” The Wire quotes Amtrak’s social media director Julia Quinn as saying that that Amtrak now intends to “engage with writers several times a month,” and specifies that they plan to “focus on individuals with a strong social media presence.” Clearly online publicity is an essential part of the Residency: a single free round-trip train ticket (for a seat that, in all likelihood, would have remained empty otherwise) has now resulted in several significant online clips for the company’s press kit , not to mention however many hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts referring directly to the company’s largesse, many of them conveniently logged with the hashtag #AmtrakResidency.

The perhaps surprising degree of passion aroused by the Amtrak Residency illuminates, among other things, the extreme precarity of the literary world. As Mark McGurl convincingly argues in his 2009 book The Program Era, “the rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.” Creative writing remains a force to be reckoned with in the literary academy, but there’s a case to be made that the Program Era is currently giving way to the Residency (or, if you like, the Pro Tem) Era: a period in which the institutionalization of literature is becoming both accelerated and casualized, with writers occupying the academy only on short-term contracts, or for brief periods during the summer.

The writer’s residency is not, of course, a natural kind, nor is it a particularly ancient one. Like many other features of modern American literature, it’s a product of the MFA era, and a relatively late one at that. Robert Frost, who began teaching in the summers at the Bread Loaf School of English in 1921, is often dubbed the first writer-in-residence. A cursory Google Ngram search for the term “writer’s residency” brings up nothing before 1974, with a precipitous upward spike in the mid-1980s; “writer-in-residence” (with hyphens) appears as early as 1932, but really takes off only after 1960 (and peaks in 1994). Insofar as the residency has a pre-20th century ancestry, it can be found in British traditions like the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, granted to eminent literary men beginning in 1708 and still in existence today. (Geoffrey Hill is the most recent honoree; his five-year term is set to expire in 2015.) These appointments, then and now, are traditionally reserved for eminent elder statesmen who have proven their value to the Republic of Letters and have earned a comfortable, if temporary, sinecure.

By contrast, residencies— a term apparently adapted, like “internship,” from the field of medicine — are typically seen as stepping-stones, and given to young and promising but still unproven writers.1

They are typically temporary and non-tenured, lasting anywhere from one to five years, with little chance of being renewed, or leading to some other job within the granting institution. (There are, of course, exceptions; where would the academic job market be without its exceptions?) In this sense, residencies are closer to postdoctoral fellowships than academic jobs. Even the lowly, much-pitied adjunct professor is, in a certain sense, more secure than the writer-in-residence; adjuncts are at least entitled to hope for an indefinite extension of their temporary contracts, whether or not they can count on it, whereas writers are given to understand that, once their time is up, they’ll need to be moving on.2

Although these are not, in most cases, particularly attractive or romantic situations, a certain unshakeable prestige attaches to the notion of being a “writer in residence.” Residencies are not just a way for writers to make a (temporary) living — like copy editing or SAT tutoring or waiting tables — but something writers actually desire to be. While the poverty and precarity of the adjunct academic is pitied, the same qualities in a writer’s life are more likely to be seen as romantic; Gross, or her editors at the Paris Review, hint at something like this irony with the subtitle “Trains as writers’ garrets.” 

Some of the appeal of Amtrak’s scheme undoubtedly resides in the magic of the railroad, which was once a symbol of capitalist rapacity but is now a picturesque reminder of an older, quainter America. But it also lies in the concept of “residency” itself. Writers, whose lives tend to be anxious and solitary, are especially prone to feeling homeless and unloved, so the idea of taking up residence—whatever the terms of such residency actually involve—is deeply comforting. Gross is conscious of this, and makes it explicit in a lapidary passage in her Paris Review essay:

[My] reasons [for loving trains] are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal—the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements.

The Amtrak Residency thus transports the writer back, first to adolescence (the beloved college library), then to childhood and the comforts of domestic security, and finally to infancy: “the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.”

The chance meeting of two well-worn objects of middle-class fetishism — trains and writing, writing and trains — accounts for the unexpected seductiveness of the proposed Amtrak Residency. What could warm the cockles of the broken bourgeois-bohemian heart more than the idea of writing a novel or a poem or a literary essay on a train? And if, in order to make this exquisitely anachronistic fantasy a reality, one simply has to write some tweets and blog posts in order to generate online buzz for a corporation, where’s the harm in that?

This is not a situation that’s very familiar to literary writers (though it’s well known to musicians, athletes, and other culture industry workers who have been courted by corporations). Historically, corporate sponsorship of American literature has been fairly limited: support has much more often come from governmental, philanthropic, or academic institutions than from the private sector.3 Of course, the difference between what Amtrak is proposing and what, say, the NEA or the Rockefeller Foundation or the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College does should be obvious: though government agencies and prestigious schools may have mixed motives for associating themselves with writers, at least they’re mixed: the state makes a pretense, if nothing else, of caring about the commonweal, and colleges and universities make a pretense, if nothing else, of contributing to our common cultural heritage and granting a disinterested independence to the makers of important cultural works. There is, as it were, an alibi, an ethical justification for those entities’ actions. But a company like Amtrak is really only trying to maximize its brand, and nobody’s even pretending anything to the contrary.

I do believe that serious literature ought to be subsidized and encouraged in the United States; I’m not even completely opposed on principle to the idea of corporate sponsorship. And I have nothing against trains, honest! But there is something disturbing about the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign. By all means, praise the Iron Horse, but remember that tweets and Facebook posts, however frivolous or ephemeral they appear as we’re writing them, are both forms of micro-labor and moves in someone else’s power game. This wouldn’t be the first time writers have played along, on their own dime.

  1. I’m deliberately leaving writer’s colonies like Yaddo and MacDowell (both of which date to the turn of the century) out of this discussion, since, as retreats populated only by writers — well, and administrators, and custodial staff — they seem to have a somewhat different status than residencies at institutions not solely designed for that purpose. 

  2. Another prominent trend in the MFA world is the “low-residency” program, typically run during the summers or between terms. In these cases the time that a given author is actually in residence can be as brief as a day or two. Because of the reliance on non-tenured faculty and the high demand for such programs among aspiring writers (many of whom can’t afford to attend a year-round, two-year MFAprogram), low-residency programs are a major moneymaker for academic institutions. Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Bennington College in Vermont, and Antioch University in Los Angeles all run successful low-residency programs. 

  3. In fact Amtrak is publicly funded — it was established by the Rail Passenger Service Act, passed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970, and continues to receive extensive government subsidies — but it has been managed from the beginning as a for-profit corporation. 

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