Roundup

  • Mike Ponder: “I’d say I am a businessman. A businessman who was lucky enough to have the talent to paint.” Ah, but what is talent when your true calling is generating money? It’s true that poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance man and it would be naive in the extreme to suggest that artists give up their day jobs and shirk their breadwinning duties. But does the true artist spend nearly moment possible producing art first and foremost, no matter what the circumstances? More advice from Ponder: “At the end of the day, if you are going to be successful as an artist you have to be successful as a businessman.” If this is true, then why doesn’t Thomas Pynchon taking meetings?
  • Jonathan Lethem talks with theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin. Video also available.
  • It seems that scrotum-shock isn’t confined to the States. The Hamas Education Ministry is removing Palestinian folk tales from school libraries because of “sexual innuendo.” Of course, an offhand reference to genitals is far less suggestive than a Mae West line and certainly less pernicious than a schoolyard taunt. But what’s even crazier is that Hamas has not only removed the book in question, but destroyed 1,500 copies.
  • Are Oscar Ameringer’s literary contributions being overlooked in Oklahoma because of his politics?
  • Nilanjana S Roy: “They have the air of seasoned explorers, emerging from the rain forest of literature with advice about how to avoid media pythons, the malarial interview (where you speak in a kind of delirium that lasts until you see what you’ve said the next morning in the paper) and other hazards of the festival life. The festival enthusiasts are the ones who’re comfortable leading the life of rockstars on a long world tour, sans the groupies and the psychedelic drugs.” I can report with some authority that authors are not immune to groupies and psychedelic drugs. And I’m certain that Alice Denham can agree.
  • Rose Wilder Lane, overlooked literary journalist?
  • Gwenda’s reports of bad AWP fashion have been memorialized by Carolyn Kellogg, although it would seem that Tayari Jones was the exception.
  • The horrors of 1980s stickers. (via Quiddity)
  • Seamus Kearney makes the case for epilogues.
  • 30 dead at a Baghdad book market.
  • Joshua Ferris observes that, of Granta’s recently announced Best Young American Novelists, 15 of 21 had MFAs. Maybe this was one of the reasons I wasn’t nearly as excited about Granta’s list as I wanted to be. In the end, isn’t good writing not about workshops, but about sitting on your ass and trying to write the best damn story you can? Personally, I find greater value showing my work to people I trust instead of sitting in front of a bunch of emaciated students who are more driven by uninformed envy than collective no-bullshit encouragement. An open environment in which you can count upon people to tell you the truth is far better than a stuffed classroom in which the same textbook tropes are encouraged. I feel the sorriest for bleary-eyed editors looking for something different.
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13 Comments

  1. Here, here, on the MFA comments….says the guy currently in an MFA program. I can’t complain about the education and the brilliant writers I’ve had as professors. I CAN complain about the genetic defects in my “workshops” who offer such stellar criticism as “I don’t like this in italics. Lose the italics.” I stopped listening to workshop feedback long ago. I’ve found two other writers whose opinions I respect and are always dead on with critiques (and, yes, that includes negative/constructive feedback) and that’s who I listen to.

  2. The bad fashion ended BEFORE Tayari, I swear!

    The best thing about an MFA program is it gives you a couple of years of ass-in-chair. Worst things? Too many to mention.

  3. All the complaints I see about MFAs come from people who’ve never enrolled in one or from those who have but seem to have had little or no publishing success. I’m not denying that there must be well-known MFA grads who hated their time in a writing program, but who are they and where has it been chronicled?

  4. Workshops are just one part of MFAs — and in a low res program a very tiny part. Think of it more as working one-on-one with a really great, accomplished mentor or three to improve your work. Maybe you see no value in this process, but there are lots of fine, fine writers with MFAs so it can’t be all bad. A little list of some of the voiciest writers around with MFAs? Kelly Link, Samantha Hunt, Dan Chaon, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Shelley Jackson and ZZ Packer… and those are off the top of my head.

    Sorry to be short, but I just have no patience for the wholesale trashing of MFAs by using a broad brush anymore. There’s no problem at all with you deciding that an MFA has no value for you (or that workshopping doesn’t), but deciding it has none for anyone? That’s up to each individual writer.

  5. No worries, Gwenda. And I respect your position. I never indicated that working with a mentor or another writer was without value. Nor did I write that an MFA is entirely useless. If it helps you to become a better writer, just as going to church helps you to become a better person, then fantastic.

    What I object to is the frequent hostility to young writers who don’t subscribe to the norms and the workshop’s oppressive groupthink environment. I’ve attended a few workshops and writing groups and found them to be a pointless waste of my time. None of it ever helped me to become a better writer. Maybe there’s a workshop environment, perhaps something along the lines of Clarion, that’s better. But I simply haven’t experienced or observed one. I’ve had more valuable one-on-one discussions with people who (a) weren’t diffident in telling me where I had problems, (b) didn’t view my fiction through the prism of a competitive writer who wanted to “write better” than me (I have quietly helped many other writers out and I certainly don’t measure them by my own writing; I look straight to their work and remain hard but encouraging), and (c) didn’t pooh-pooh fiction because it fell outside a specific mainstream literary fiction standard.

  6. Ed, I think you may have been the victim of bad luck. I spent three years at an MFA and never witnessed “hostility to young writers who don’t subscribe to the norms . . .” I’m not sure how many “a few workshops” is, but I find it hard to believe you didn’t find anything that benefited you as a writer. Not a single person said something that made you think about writing in a different way? You didn’t meet another writer who then became a longtime reader? No one said anything that benefited your manuscript? None? In most cases the people who were least satisfied with the workshops I attended were those whose stories got the most flak and that the problem wasn’t what their classmates said, it was their classmates weren’t completely enthralled with the story.

  7. What seems to be missing from the MFA discussion is that the very discussion is setup to inflame writers without an MFA and to inflame those who have one or are currently acquiring one. I don’t have one. I have looked at many programs and every year I think about it. I get applications. I just don’t send them out. Is there a bitterness within me that I don’t have the financial means or the time to take on such a program when I might really benefit from it? Yes, a little. I wonder if this is true for other writers who don’t posses and probably never will possess an MFA but think the experience might be beneficial. This seems to immediately polarize people. I suspect that many (several, at the very least) writers who wish they could get an MFA decide instead to bash the MFA process, asserting that it results in formulaic, watered-down fiction and the like.

    On the flip side, if you have made the time commitment and found the financial resources to make it happen, of course you will rush to point out the merits of an MFA program.

    Does some MFA program writing end up sounding the same? Yes, but what of music that sounds the same? Imitation breeds similarities. Does workshopping suck for MFA program students, I suspect it does. My own workshopping experiences have taught me that. While I don’t think it’s as simplistic as meeting somewhere in the middle, I think what is often overlooked is that those who don’t have an MFA are in guessing mode…those who possess one merely need to discount the non-knowingness of the non-MFA holder. It is an argument contructed for endless debate.

    And now I’ve added to it. Sheesh.

  8. I am starting to think there is a secret MFA Haterade program somewhere, and its graduates strive to generate tired anti-MFA screeds at the same pace that their nemeses bang out tired Raymond Carver knockoffs.

    Do you really think Clarion is that different from a graduate writing workshop? I haven’t done Clarion, but my understanding is that they have a similar setup and rules: 10+ students in a circle, writer isn’t allowed to speak during feedback, everyone must critique.

    At any rate: as an MFA holder it’s not entirely rose-colored glasses for me. I think graduate writing programs need to take a very close look at how they market themselves to prospective students. (I also think more faculty training in workshop moderation would be beneficial all around.) But I do agree with Callie that economics are at the heart of this endless war. Workshops are much more inherently suited to tuition/revenue generating academic programs than one-on-one mentorship is. They’re also not for every writer, and as Gwenda says, everyone needs to make their own choice. But I think it’s important to realize: Compatibility is not a question of merit…even though plenty of people would like you to think so (see above on marketing) and have stacked the deck (i.e., access to mentors, which I suspect is the REAL story behind the Granta stats) accordingly.

    Also, I’d just like to say that I have never been, nor am I currently, emaciated. That is all.

  9. almost everyone has an MFA, so it makes sense that a lot on that list do

    statistics

    What?

    I’m pretty sure that almost everyone in the set I label “everyone” does not, in fact, have an MFA. Maybe the composition of the sets other people label “everyone” is part of what drives Erin’s suspected Haterade program. Maybe some folks sets are peculiar.

    I can’t think of a branch of knowledge it would be appropriate to cryptically sign off with.

  10. Hi Ed,
    I’m honoured that you linked to my blog. I hope your regulars found it interesting. I am putting you up on my blog roll straight away … there is lots of food for thought here! 🙂 Seamus.

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