Category Archives: academia

Literary Fiction–or–Wait, isn’t this supposed to be fun?

A new friend asked me over e-mail today, “What kind of novels do you write? Mystery? Romance? Sci-fi? All of the above?”

This is a question that makes me itchy all over.  The last book I wrote was set in Paris, 1928, so I guess that makes it historical fiction.  It’s got some lovin’ in it, so I guess it’s a romance.  With erotica thrown in.  But it’s also a war story with graphic battle scenes.  And there’s stuff about academia and translation and memory, and fuck, I don’t know.  It’s just a story, you know?  The book I just turned in to my editor has a lot of stuff about being foreign so I guess it’s an immigration narrative.  With crime.  And myth and folklore.  And a fair amount of sex.  And goddamn it, I hate this question.

The answer I gave my new friend was: “‘Literary fiction’ is what I’m categorized under.  Really, who knows what the fuck that means.  It means it takes forever for me to shit out one book but it has, like, substance.”

That’s the best explanation I could come up with, because “literary fiction” doesn’t mean anything.  It just means fiction.  But it’s a marketing category that’s meant to say, “this isn’t some Harlequin Romance or some space opera, this is a story for smart people. It’s written all pretty and has philosophical aspirations, unlike genre fiction.”  It’s a marketing category that pitches itself to its readers by trying to pretend it is not a marketing category.  It’s also the only answer I can give without launching into a long explanation of all the shit all my books are about.

One dude, after I told him I wrote literary fiction, said, “oh, so you write real books!”  I almost peed a little.  Clearly, my writing real books made me worth talking to.  This kind of snobbism is exhausting.  This kind of snobbism is a huge, major drawback to MFA programs.  The expectation was clearly that we were there to write “literary fiction.”  Never mind the fact that most of us couldn’t put a narrative arc together to save our lives, learning how to write something interesting to your average plebe was beneath us. This was especially stark when the poor unfortunates who were trying to write science fiction submitted their stuff in workshops.

When I was given a sci fi piece to review, I usually wrote a little disclosure at the top that stated that I don’t really read sci fi, so some of my feedback may be off-base.  I meant that since I wasn’t well-versed in sci fi, I might ask stupid questions or raise concerns that should be discarded, because I was not familiar with the conventions of the genre. One time, the teacher, a writer published in The New Yorker, the ultimate magazine for smart people, opened the workshop on a sci fi piece by saying he didn’t really read sci fi, so he didn’t know how to comment on the piece.  What he clearly meant was, this material is beneath me, why are you making me read this?

After that, I stopped putting in disclosures about my unfamiliarity with certain genres into my reviews because I realized that doing so made me sound like an asshole.  It doesn’t matter what marketing category a manuscript should be filed under.  The only question should be, is it a good story?  Is it–God forbid–fun to read?

I know!  FUN?!?!  Crazy.  Bring up the idea that a story is supposed to be fun in an MFA program and watch the practitioners of the writing craft present turn into writhing sacks full of angry badgers.  Fun is for children and the simple-minded.

The same writer who quite emphatically did not read sci fi, when confronted with a very early, very larval draft of In the Red, told me that I should take the crime part out.  I should just turn the whole thing into an immigration story, because that was a proper thing to write about.  Writing about guns and organized crime looked entirely too much like fun, it did not belong in a real book.

It must be I am a child.  It must be I am simple-minded.  I like it when stories are fun.

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The fallacy of authorial intent

I had three speaking engagements about my book in the past week!  The audiences were: (1) lovely elder book club afternoon tea ladies (2) rowdy night crowd in a dim bar, and (3) sleepy community college students at eight in the morning.  They were all completely huggable, in their extremely varied ways.  The community college students had some kind of test coming up about my book (still trying to wrap my brain around this concept!), and one of them quipped that I might be kind enough to give them the answers.  I laughed and asked the instructor, “Now, didn’t you tell them about the fallacy of authorial intent?”

The next day I had a chat with a fellow novelist about my time in academia.  He wanted to know how I could stomach it as an artist.  I said I loved the teaching.  “But the writing you have to do there!” he said, “what about the spiritually bankrupt rape of art that is literary theory?’

Oh yeah, that.  I said I viewed it as a game, a challenge to speak their language and pass as one of them.  I would try to be the author while also obliterating the author, there was a sort of fun in that.  Then I thought about it some more, and wrote him the following after I got home:

I was just thinking of our discussion re: academics on my ride home, whilst listening to angry Germans shout incomprehensibly over industrial guitars.  It was not only the game-like qualities of their tortured prose that allowed me to write it, but also the very pain it induced.  I did it with the same sort of wincing glee as a flagellant.  It’s always good to remind yourself that what you pour your soul into doesn’t actually mean anything.  Plus if you want to get the taste of God in your mouth, there’s no more efficient way than totally believing two contradictory things at the same time.  Ooooooh tasty paradox–fanning my toes out just thinking about it.

Back when I spent much time in journal archives (JSTOR, we were lovers once, you and I), sometimes I would come upon a very old article.  Some 1935 treatise about Baudelaire by some long-dead white dude whose pipe smoke I could smell right through the computer, written with such utter devotion to Literature that it was frankly a little embarrassing.  The doggish eagerness with which they used to lick us!  Now they cannot study us without also killing us.  Aren’t they so much sexier now that they hate us?  Don’t you just want to fuck them all?!  So adorable.

Eros and Thanatos, how inseparable are you?

UC Davis

When I first saw this image I was.  So pissed.  I could.  Not.  Form.  Cogent sentences.

I am not really a big protest person, but I am going to Davis with my Comp Lit posse tomorrow.  The video footage this photo was pulled from is easily googleable if you can stomach watching it.  The policeman steps over the crouching passive protesters shaking his pepper spray like a can of Raid and strolls down the line blasting these kids in the face as dispassionately as if he were spraying a bunch of roaches along the wainscoting in his house.  AMERICA, WHAT THE FUCK.  I could go on a very, very long rant about this, but arguments are often best made in picture form.  I found this on my facebook feed this morning:

So there.

All that officer did was prove those students completely right for asking what America has done to itself.  It hurts so much to watch a beacon nation degrade its own ideals.  We have to work our way back from this.  Come on.  There are more of us than there are of them.

Meanwhile, an open note to Officer Pike:

Do you want to be the guard who kept the third class passengers locked down below to maintain order on the Titanic?  That guy drowned too, you know.

And an open note to the students:

I am proud of you, kids.  Carry on.

The Malebolge

It must have been I am here because I have asked to see this place.  When did I ask?  I cannot remember and my guide will not tell me.  What strikes me as I travel down the circles is how scarcely populated they seem to be.  I had expected more people.  Are they all in Heaven?  The virtuous pagans cluster around small fires in the vast emptiness where they dwell, a place that must have been constructed for a much larger population.  At the second circle where the wind picks up and flings those who could not deny their bodies’ need to give themselves up, my guide gestures at all the damned carried by cold gusts and says, “You.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say.  “I thought there would be more of us.”

On through the icy rain, past all the ones who could never have enough, those who push and pull weights against each other, past all the ones who gurgle in impotent fury in their mire, we come to the flaming tombs of the heretics.  “Hey,” I touch my guide on the shoulder, “there’s nobody here.  The tombs are burning nothing.”  “Well,” he says, “turns out God doesn’t care as much about heresy as He used to.  But here, there are more people in the three rings of the seventh circle, look at all the violent.”

Here they are all boiling in a river of blood, those who destroyed things and hurt others.  I look over the screaming multitudes, and note, “Yeah, there are a lot, but you know, for the whole history of the world, it seems like less than I would expect.”  My guide shrugs and leads me on through the forest of the suicides.  I look at the gnarled branches on the squat little trees.  I do not have the stomach to snap off a twig to listen to one of the shrubs sing its story in blood.  “Seems you do not have any quips or questions,” my guide observes.  “You were almost here.”  “I may be yet,” I answer.  “Well, try not to be,” my guide says.  It’s not pleasant.”

Past the trees is a flaming desert with flakes of fire wafting slowly down from the sky.  There is no one and nothing.  “Who used to be here?” I ask.  “Blasphemers and sodomites.”  “I’m guessing, God doesn’t care for them as he used to?”  “It is so.  He is very busy, you see–with them.  With Fraud,” he says, as he gestures to what comes beyond the narrow desert.  The eighth circle, the place for all the liars, built in stone ditches.  The Bolgie.  They are packed, so that the damned cannot move, so tightly are they pressed together–down as far as they eye can see, waning off into the blackness.  I cannot find the outer rim of the center circle, the place where Hell freezes over.  It looks as if this Malebolge goes on forever.  Nearly all the souls that I can see are covered in human waste, and sealed into lead cloaks gilded on the outside.  “Wait,” I say, “this is not what it’s supposed to look like.”  “It didn’t use to look like this,” my guide explained, “but due to the sheer number of the incoming, we did not have the resources to determine which is the liars were guilty more of hypocrisy, which more of flattery.  So we took them all and gave them the punishment for both.  More efficient, and apt, if you ask me.  You see this infinity of false humanity?  This is where almost all of you end up.  Packed here.   There is no one in Heaven.”

I watch in horrified silence.  Where is the end of this place?  It seems there is none.  “How far is the ninth circle?” I ask.  “It no longer exists,” explains my guide, “the heat from all Fraud’s bodies melted all the ice.  And Satan is dead.  Only us now.”

Among the shit-covered, lead-cowled penitent, a solitary woman stumbles backward, naked and groaning, her neck wrenched to that her head faces the back of her body, fat tears rolling off her face and onto her back.  “A false diviner?” I ask.  “Yes.  If you make yourself too much of what you already are, you could be one of those.  Which is a kind of honor, very few of the false are something else than plain flattering hypocrites.  Good luck finding a simoniac.  They’re in there somewhere.  If you would like to visit a few of your nation’s presidents, I could take you to the lake of pitch where the barrators still drown.”

I would answer my guide, except I am mute with distress–for here you are.  Yes, you.  I’d recognize your blank eyes and your pretty mouth no matter how much shit covered your face.  Can you see me, or are you too preoccupied by the weight of your leaden priestly robe?  Seeing you here with all the others, my flesh turns into pain, and I fear I will not be able to escape my own hand.  You, and everyone–liars.  Is that not enough to tear myself out of my body and turn myself into a tree?  Look up, darling, on the Day of Judgement, into the forest of those who have killed themselves, and you will see me, my corpse finally returned to me, its limbs tangled in my branches.  When you see me, I will know, and I will quake to make my body shiver for you as it used to when I was alive.  When I was in it.  When you were in it.  And maybe, if God is watching, He will laugh.

Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

Why are so many writers so angry at Creative Writing MFA programs?  Do artists of all stripes loathe academic departments where their craft is studied?  Are there a bunch of actors and musicians out there who are really pissed off at performing arts schools?  I am genuinely puzzled at all the vitriol that seems to surround the MFA question when you throw the topic at a bunch of writers.  I don’t understand why I so often run into columns discussing MFA programs as if (1) they are really important and/or (2) they shot the author’s dog.  Chill, dudes.  I went to one so I thought I’d attempt to reply to some of the most common criticisms of this much-reviled but ever-proliferating beast, the Creative Writing MFA Program:

Creativity can’t be taught:  Okay, sure, talent can’t be taught.  But craft can.  Just ask Bob Ross and his happy little trees.

Young writers shouldn’t coop themselves up in a graduate program; they should “go out and experience the world:”  This argument is always delivered with the assumption that graduate programs aren’t part of The World.  They cannot approach the realness of, say, working at an Alaskan fish processing plant.  Okay, lean in for a second while I tell you a secret: writing material comes from people, mostly the fucked up ones.  There are people everywhere, even in MFA programs, and a lot of them are fucked up.  Just watch them.  If you pay enough attention to people wherever you are, they can be used for any piece of writing you like. You could even write a novel set in an Alaskan fish processing plant based on the tortured rich kids in your writing workshop.  I promise.

MFA programs homogenize writers’ voices and worsen the general mediocrity of American letters: This argument always assumes that writing was just better in the good old days, neglecting the fact that the stuff we read now from one hundred years ago is the stuff from a hundred years ago that survived a hundred years.  So, presumably, the best stuff.  It’s been through the strainers of time.  The stuff that’s being published now looks generally crappy by comparison because it hasn’t been vetted by history yet.  (Can you imagine how much poetry must have fucking sucked in Restoration England if goddamn Alexander Pope is the best that came out of there?  Holy fuck.)  Also: if you have the kernel of a unique and compelling voice, an MFA program will not ruin you and make you sound like everybody else, I promise.  It will make you realize what you don’t want to sound like.

MFA programs allow shitty writers to delude themselves that they don’t suck and send them out all fluffed up into a world of disappointment: I think this is mostly false, because there is no way you can make it through an MFA program without thinking that you suck.  Your work will be spreadeagled and pecked over so thoroughly that you will be quite convinced that nobody sucks at writing more than you.  Yes, graduate study is a move towards validating yourself as an artist, but it is also intensely grueling, and may make you decide that you don’t want to do this after all, which is totally okay.  I would argue that the regular beatdowns you receive in MFA programs actually prepare you for the world of disappointment to follow, and that if you get your stuff published, you won’t even blink at being edited because you learned to take your punches like a man in graduate school.

All these domesticated writers in their dinky academic detention centers are ruining the romance of the Author, who should presumably be drinking and screwing a lot and shooting large animals somewhere: Plenty of drinking and screwing goes on in academic detention centers.  If you must shoot large animals, there are a couple of MFA programs up in Alaska.  You can get a huge husky and name him Frostbane, go out into the perpetual snowy night to blow away some bears, and even visit that fish processing plant if you like.

Please don't shoot me. Work on your paragraph transitions instead.

MFA programs are a pyramid scheme, fleecing stupid young people with dreams.  Yeah, kind of.  Honestly, I still feel like a bit of a dumbass having taken out a bunch of student loans to attend one.  So do careful research into MFA programs, and apply only to the ones that will fund you.  If you don’t, well, you will probably feel like a bit of a dumbass for having taken out a bunch of student loans for what is mostly a pretty useless credential.  But, you know, it’s just money.  There are worse decisions you could have made than plunking down a bunch of it to take a couple of years off to write.  If you have made that mistake, take comfort in this List of Life Decisions That Are Worse Than Taking Out Student Loans For An MFA:

  • dating a drug dealer
  • being a drug dealer
  • simmering your whole life in a shitty job you hate without ever trying to go after your dreams
  • tattooing the whites of your eyes
  • meth
  • wearing leggings as if they were pants
  • appearing on reality TV
  • loving someone who treats you badly
  • joining a cult
  • visiting England for the food
  • meth
  • taking out more student loans for two MFAs

You’re welcome.

The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort.

A while back, I wrote a post on stages of the writing career from the point of view of submitting.  I thought I’d track the writer’s progress from the point of view of the Creative Writing Workshop, given that a writing career, these days, almost inevitably involves undergoing a whole series of them.  Here, then, are my findings:

Phase 1: Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome

This is a normal response when confronted by the format for the first time.  Having your piece workshopped is an exercise in naked fear, and when it’s up you take frantic notes on everything everyone says since you can’t spend any energy processing the feedback: all your attention must be channeled towards not bursting into tears like a little girl.  Your face is a particular shade of crimson that immediately identifies you as a workshop newbie, which will cause a kind-hearted instructor to go easy on you and a hard-assed one to plow into your guts with renewed vigor.  When giving feedback on other people’s work, you are merely blindly stumbling, trying not to look like too much of a clueless dumbass.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1997, during my first two workshops in college.

Phase 2: Grinding Along

You are now comfortable with the workshop format.  You have mastered the compliment sandwich when delivering your feedback on peer manuscripts.  You write down most of what they say when your work is being critiqued, but know to put your pen down when you hear something obviously spurious.  The quality of your work may be stationary or improving slowly.  It draws a genuine compliment here and there–but you are by no means comfortable: every time you are up, you still receive a beatdown that feels worthy of a gang initiation.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1998-99, later college workshops, then 2004-05, first year in MFA program.

Phase 3: OMGWTFBBQ

Something is happening to your writing.  You are not sure what, and neither are your peers.  Discussion of your work will generally begin with a class-wide flummoxed silence.  The feedback you receive might be very tentative, because nobody is sure whether you mean to be doing what precisely you are doing–whereas before they knew you didn’t.  You are a puzzlement to them and to yourself.  Your instructor might not quite know what to do with you, and might say cryptic things like, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to give feedback on this particular genre,” or might compliment your work using more specific words than the standard “good,” like “seductive.”  Your feedback to your peers is exceedingly thought-out and careful; you treat them as if they are in the same delicate transitory state as yourself.  You do not know if any of this tremendous upheaval is a good sign.  You suspect you might be going insane.  You write down very little of the peer feedback your receive; at least you have become an adept sifter.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2005-06, second year in MFA program.  By the time I finished the program I felt as if I’d been shot into space.  Complete disorientation.

Phase 4: Workshop Transcendence

Seriously, this happens.  This does not mean your work is universally liked, but it does mean that it has acquired authority–so that your peers are aware that you mean your text.  Your work is crafted; it knows what it intends; they will not quibble with that.  You will receive little to no prescriptive advice.  Instead your peers will sit around analyzing your work like literature students, drawing various interpretations (this is actually quite useful, as it highlights which themes are visible to the audience and may help you decide what needs to recede and what needs to be further brought out).  Your instructor may say some crazy stuff like, “this is a perfect story,” which will effectively bring the proceedings to a complete standstill while you shit a brick.  Your feedback to your peers may have reached instructor-grade.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2009-10, taking two workshops while in my PhD program for fun and/or needful units.

Advisory to aspirants: All of the workshop phases are characterized by mild to intense discomfort (even Transcendence involves shitting a brick).  Completion of all phases qualifies you to be at the head of the workshop table as a beginner instructor, which will in turn bring on Cycle 2 of Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome.  Good luck with that.

Humanist SMASH

So, this simplistic, poorly written tripe by David Brooks has been making the rounds among humanists lately.  The humanities are rightfully concerned about being waning relics in our modern world; academics who study all forms of art constantly have to defend their existence, have to convince the funding forces that be that they are not obsolete.  This is sad.  Sadder still would be to read the column linked above and propagate it as an endorsement of the humanities.  It’s awful.  Get off my side, Brooks!

First, there is that cringe-worthy “Big Shaggy” thing.  Clearly, his knowledge of Herodotus has not endowed him with a “wealth of analogies,” at least none that aren’t laughable.   Plus we already have a word for this thing he’s trying to get at, it’s called the Id.  Plus stating that no discipline outside the humanities tries to explain human drives is patently ridiculous, as is his observation that the humanities have no “system of thought.”  Plus his assertion that the humanities are useful because they help us be more effective corporate whores makes me want to eat his smug face.  Personally, I think there is no better way to live than “removed from the market.”  It makes it easier to sleep at night.

Brooks’s blather is not an endorsement.  Rather it is symptomatic of the pervasive devaluation of the arts & humanities in our hypercapitalist society–a society so bloody afraid of anything that cannot be handily productized.  The tone of his whole column made me feel as if I were being offered a pity fuck by the most repellent douche bag imaginable.   Yuck–no thank you, sir, I do not need your validation, and your advances make me need to take a shower.  But, before I go crouch weeping in a hissing blast of scalding water, gently rocking and mumbling to myself that I must get clean–when will I ever get clean?–I will tell you what the arts & humanities are for, and why we need them.  It’s very simple:

The arts & humanities give us the inner resources not to get swept up by the unremitting shitstorm of lies inflicted on us by all forms of media and advertising.  They remind us that life is not money, and life is not products.  When the arts & humanities die, so will we.  That is all.