Why Bury Fiction? Part Two of a Series.
Why Do People Keep Declaring Fiction Dead? Reason #2: They Hate Creative Writing Programs.
The general public has an ingrained concept of who a creative writer is. To the public, writers are typically bespectacled weirdos or seasoned rustics who, after decades of toiling in restaurants, tanneries, or oil rigs, pen their hard-earned tales. Decades after dying in poverty, these writers are celebrated as geniuses. There’s an irresistible romance to this kind of life (at least, to someone who hasn’t actually lived the humiliating grind of poverty), and it’s understandable that people don’t want to let go.
But creative writing programs aren’t really new, as Kurt Vonnegut writes in a 1999 New York Times article “Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists.” He writes about how, after being asked whether one could really teach creative writing, he responded,
Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called and continue to be called editors. The Times guy who wondered if anybody could be taught how to write was taught by an editor. The tough guy […] like me, handed in manuscripts to his publisher that were as much in need of repairs as what I got from students at the workshop. If the tough guy was Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway, he had the same creative writing teacher who suggested, on the basis of his long experience, how the writer might clean up the messes on paper that he had made. He was Maxwell Perkins, reputedly one of the greatest editors of fiction who ever lived.
So there you have it: A creative writing course provides experienced editors for inspired amateurs. What could be simpler or more dignified? Or fun?
Of course, there are more writers nowadays, and fewer editors. But writing communities have existed for years. The most famous examples that spring to mind are George Eliot’s correspondence with Henry James, and Hemingway’s critical exchanges with Fitzgerald. Many writers of the “Lost Generation” critiqued and supported each other’s work. Creative writing programs simply codify this experience while providing some measure of shelter and support.
In his 1982 (!) speech “Poetry and Ambition,” Donald Hall declares,
The United States invented mass quick-consumption and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people’s car, the Model T, the Model A—”transportation,” as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality—and two in every garage. Quality is all very well but it is not democratic; if we insist on hand-building Rolls Royces most of us will walk to work. Democracy demands the interchangeable part and the worker on the production line; Thomas Jefferson may have had other notions but de Tocqueville was our prophet. Or take American cuisine: it has never added a sauce to the world’s palate, but our fast-food industry overruns the planet.
Thus: Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of “Lycidas”—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem —ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.
And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.
How do you build a character with internal monologue? someone asks. How do you set up an unreliable narrator? How do you shape the narrative arc?
I shake my head. Despite all my years in creative-writing classrooms, I still have no idea how to pretend to unravel the mystery. These concerns are red herrings, I say. So are the relative merits of the first, second, third persons, active and passive voice. I tell them about W. C. Fields–how I had heard that after reading an analysis of his juggling he couldn’t juggle for six years. They laugh. They know the feeling, they say.
And I feel like a fraud. Week after week in come their stories–some just committed to page, some rewritten so many times and under the aegis of so many different workshops that the writer himself has lost all sense of the authenticity of the piece. What can I do about this? How can I help someone breathe life into a flat and pointless piece of writing? I cannot. If there are teachers who know how to work from the abstract to the concrete, I am not one of them.
So what can I do in a world in which bad stories may well be written by likable people? I can forget the writers. I do forget them as I sit reading paragraph after paragraph of mediocre writing, my blood rising yet again at the presumption of an audience, any audience, for this, let alone the serious attention of an irascible writer with one foot nailed to the ground for the duration of the semester.
The story is, in fact, the second draft that I have seen, and it has been completely transformed. The student has not followed any of my suggestions; he’s done better, much better. I find myself envying him his furious youth, his selfish, single-minded determination.
And then, one day, in comes a story with an opening paragraph so good that it fills me with a rush of hope, hope not so much for the writer as for myself. Reading on, page after page, I feel lifting from me the awful burden of having to take seriously a piece of writing that should be consigned to the bin.
I included those last two paragraphs because Freed’s depiction isn’t completely negative. But in case you missed it, Lynn Freed’s self-portrait of a creative writing instructor who doesn’t necessarily enjoy or believe in her job set off a long, vitriolic debate. Had more people actually read the whole thing, the ensuing conversation might have had fewer exclamation points and swears. I’m late to the party and don’t have much to add except that, for the sake of fairness, Freed should have written about one of many creative writing instructors who are both effective teachers and enjoy their fairly easy, well-paying jobs. Or at least acknowledged that such teachers exist.
Creative writing programs don’t fare much better when artists portray them.
Take Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel, whose protagonist is a writing professor who is a burned out husk of a novelist. He leads workshops where painfully talentless pupils trade feeble opinions about dorm-life stories featuring stereotypes and bestiality. Spoiler alert—when the professor finally discovers a talented student, he begins an inappropriate relationship with her.
As my friend and former professor Cathy Day points out, nothing is actually taught in Blue Angel’s fictional fiction workshop, and the students don’t learn anything. Absent are the carefully crafted lesson plans, skill-developing exercises, analytic assignments and individual critiques which are a hallmark of Cathy’s pedagogy (which, incidentally, is informed by decades of training and experience).
Margo Rabb’s short story “How To Tell a Story” features Chester Charles, a writing professor who is described by the narrator as sporting a “camel-colored, elbow-patched cardigan, which he wears every day (do they give you a crate of these the moment you receive tenure?) Chester is rumored to be about fifty, though he looks ninety. He carries a donut-shaped hemorrhoid pillow around with him everywhere, to sit on during our three-hour class. Rumor has it he was once nominated for a National Book Award; I’ve searched for his books in five bookstores, and all are out of print.”
Chester Charles leads workshops which are toxic, soul-rending analyses of autobiographical stories. All in pursuit of an MFA—or, as one character calls it, the “Master of Fucking Around.” Academically and socially, there is a lot of screwing around in this program.
More recently, there’s John McNally’s After the Workshop, a novel about a dysfunctional writing program which also features a burned out novelist. Set in Iowa, by the way.
So, to recap, here is how creative writing programs are being portrayed: our classes are lead by fashion-challenged male professors who are burned-out novelists. After all, those who can’t do, teach, right? Being workshopped is basically, as Rabb writes, “being a piece of raw steak fed to starving bears, all of them clawing you, chewing you up, and then spitting you out. And afterward, you’re supposed to say ‘Thank you.’”
By all accounts, the stories churned out by MFA students will be bland and formulaic; their sheer quantity will crowd and pollute the once-great arena of North American Letters.
And finally, according to the misconceptions, most creative writing students are talentless hacks who are basically being defrauded. The few talented students are doomed to a life of sexual harassment and, if they’re lucky, will land a teaching job at a creative writing program where they’ll lose their fashion sense, be sapped of their creative energies, and bilk more students in a horrific accelerating cycle.
With that kind of public image, it’s no wonder people are so eager to announce the death of fiction. As I’m reading this, it seems like one anxiety people have about creative writing relates to decline and decay—perhaps mirroring a larger anxiety about our own culture. Maybe the greatest anxiety is about suit jackets and industrialization closing in on our artists, perhaps the one virgin field we have left in this country. I’m not sure why these fears are being projected so brightly on the field of creative writing. Obviously, not everyone buys into this negative image, though; in the time it took you to read this sentence, a college somewhere started an MFA program, and five hundred students applied to it.
Reason #3 People Keep Declaring Fiction Dead: It’s Too Insular.
When I wrote book reports in middle school, publishers listed offices in TORONTO SEATTLE CHICAGO NEW YORK. In high school, they listed CHICAGO NEW YORK, and today, simply NEW YORK. It was a slow-motion retreat and we ended up with our backs to the ocean—or, at least, the East River. I think many people are worried that most or all contemporary fiction is being filtered through a specific, insular, Manhattan sensibility. This fear informs Siegel’s comments about fear of alienating New York editors and agents and “literary triumph” consisting of “publishing one or two pieces in The New Yorker each year.”
But if there is a New York sensibility, it has a surprising degree of variety. After all, Deborah Treisman, Fiction Editor of The New Yorker, was born in England. She attended college in California and worked at The Threepenny Review, which is located out of Berkeley, about as far from Manhattan as one can get. Cressida Leyshon grew up in Bristol, England, and was an editorial assistant at London-based Granta before becoming The New Yorker’s Deputy Fiction Editor.
Outside of New York, there’s Heidi Pitlor, series editor of The Best American Short Stories series, who was was raised in Concord, Massachusetts, educated in Canada, and received her MFA from Emerson. The most “New York” of the premier editors is Laura Furman, series editor of the O. Henry Prize Stories, who was born and raised in New York, with a story published in The New Yorker. More recently, though, she’s lived in Rome and is currently teaching at the University of Texas at Austin.
Alas: The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief. Artistic vocations are about embracing more and more of the world with your will; professions are insular affairs that are all about the profession. The carefulness, the cautiousness, the professionalism that keeps contemporary fiction from being meaningful to the most intellectually engaged people is also what is stifling any kind of response to The New Yorker.
Although Carolyn Kellogg’s response argues that vocation and profession mean the same thing (with dictionary definitions to boot), I think Siegel is defining “vocation” as something akin to joining the priesthood and “profession” as something akin to being an insurance salesperson. Years ago, writers got kicked out of institutions (Mark Twain and Charles Dickens dropped out of elementary school, Edgar Allan Poe got kicked out of West Point, Jack London dropped out of UC Berkeley).
Now, writers are vital parts of those institutions, especially academia. This is nothing new, of course: James Joyce and Herman Melville were teachers, Virginia Woolf lectured at Cambridge, Mark Twain accepted an honorary degree from Oxford. I suppose Siegel is arguing that because writers nowadays are more involved with academia, they are less likely to take professional risks. Although his evidence for this is shaky (there are plenty of alternate “Best Writers Under __ Lists” and writers of all eras knew better than to antagonize the leading literary journals), the “vocation versus profession” argument is faulty in another way. I’m not sure “artistic risks” (such as writing a formally innovative story) are affected by not taking “professional risks” (such as publicly criticizing an employer’s hiring decision).
As a reader, I don’t mind “creative mischief” at all. In fact, I would agree that being mischievous or innovative or even dangerous in one’s writing is probably integral to fiction’s survival. As a former writing student, I’m happy that various forms of “mischief” have been quietly eliminated from creative writing programs and replaced with professionalism and sobriety.
Returning to the concept of vocation, Lynn Freed also discusses it in “Doing Time”:
Talent is the naked emperor of writing programs. How, for instance, does one approach the subject of talent in a workshop that may well be devoid of even one student showing a hint of it? Mentioning talent serves only to make everyone nervous. (Do I have it? Does she? Anyway, who is she to judge? I just got a personal rejection from The New Yorker.) Mentioning vocation, on the other hand, is likely to make everyone feel comfortable. In a world that confuses the calling to write with the desire to be a writer, vocation is just another word for ambition.
I partially agree with Freed—nine times out of ten, ambition is a faulty substitute for talent. But Freed’s article is often based on the premise that one needs talent to be a successful writer. The truth, as we all know, is that it takes very little talent to pen a wildly successful novel.
If you’re a writer, I guess this simple truth is either horribly depressing or strangely liberating. Something to feed anyone’s ambition, at any rate. But quick, let me say something positive to conclude this post, something appropriate to the concept of true vocation: there’s a certain faith to what we’re doing in creative writing programs—a faith that good writing finds a home, a faith that talent can be perfectly sharpened given enough time and guidance. And, ultimately, a faith that we live in an era filled with worthy stories, whose truths are still valid and useful.
Does anyone feel better?
Next week, guest blogger Adam Reger will solve all of your problems. Stay tuned.