Tag 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?

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.

sleep, my darling, sleep

I have arrived!  I am referring, of course, to the existence of my book’s Amazon page.  Pretty neat.  It is a little odd that a book that won’t exist for another nine months is already on sale.  Yet here it is–already discounted!  More internet excitement: there is now a little blurb about me up on my publisher’s website, complete with author photo.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my Master’s exam and managed to pass it–though by how much depends on which professor you ask.  The response ranged from “good job!” to “perfunctory and pro-forma.”  Yes, the latter is a direct quote.  I kind of like it, actually; it’s so rhythmic and alliterative.  Perhaps I should write a poem titled “Perfunctory and Pro-forma.”  Anyway, as the undergrads say, D is for Diploma.  So, I am a Master–but not a Doctor–of Literature.  I think that means I get to order Literature around and tell it to make me a sandwich, but I can’t write it a prescription for antibiotics if it starts to cough up blood.

Two days after taking the exam, I received the copyedits for 13 rue Thérèse, and have been eyeball-deep in them ever since.  I was asked by a friend what the difference is between edits and copyedits, so I figure I should explain it here.  Edits have to do with aesthetic or characterization concerns.  An edit will say something like, “that peanut butter metaphor in Chapter 12 needs more work,” or “can you set a scene in flashback to explain why the protagonist is so traumatized by cucumbers?”  Compared to copyedits, they are big-picture stuff.  Copyedits operate on a level of excruciating detail.  They say stuff like, “are you sure you want to use that adjective?  You just used it five pages ago,” or “insert comma here.”  And there are like eight million of them on every page; the manuscript is absolutely covered in little green hieroglyphs questioning the smallest of your decisions.  They are the most existential-crisis-inducing thing ever.

Copyedits make you say things like, “YOU CAN PRY THAT M-DASH OUT OF MY COLD, DEAD HAND.”

(It’s all right, my precious m-dash, no one will harm you–sleep, my darling, sleep).

PhD Student

This is a writing exercise modeled on Jamaica Kincaid’s piece “Girl.”  It was so much fun to write that I cannot resist posting it…

Cite the right sources on Monday with the appropriate degree of subdued awe; fret over your work on Tuesday to make sure it isn’t too derivative.  This is how to string together garlands of words around your tiny quivering ideas to hide how flimsy they are.  Always state yourself with confidence even when you don’t have any; it is not necessary to be frightened: the rest of them are too worried over artfully arranging their own smoke screens to try to catch a glimpse through yours.  Remember that clarity is impolite; it disturbs the order of things.  This is what hegemony means; this is what transformative means; this is what deconstruction does; this is how to capitalize the word Other without giggling like a crazy person; this is how to use the word Other as a verb.  This is how to dress yourself like someone who moves in high realms of the mind that do not concern themselves with fashion.  This is how to sit at a conference talk, with your chin gently resting on your cupped hand like so; don’t look bored; cultivate an expression of mild concern, like one who perceives a crack in a line of reasoning.  Don’t worry too much about following lines of reasoning; as a matter of fact avoid it because you must never, ever burst into bewildered laughter when you see meaning evaporate from language when it gets boiled in our stew—oh yes this is how to make the stew: start with a base of hermeneutics, add two scoops of epistemology and a dash of dialectic; don’t forget to objectivize the paradigm shift and hybridize the transformative ontology of liminality.  Do not laugh; do not laugh like the unpolished rube you insist on being.  Do not believe that anything actually means anything.  This is how to avoid committee work; this is how to sign up for the committees that will look impressive on your CV.   This is how to grimly forecast the death of your discipline; this is how to passionately argue for the needfulness of your discipline in producing well-rounded, educated young citizens; remember to bemoan the piss-poor work of your degenerate students; remember you were never like them; remember you always cared deeply about your work unlike the dissipated corporate drone you are afraid of becoming.  This is how to deliver a paper in a perfect monotone to make sure everyone knows you aren’t trying to pander to an audience with cheap affectations like inflection or liveliness.  This is how to snicker at a joke that pivots on the judicious application of the word differance; this is how to utter the word jouissance to a colleague you are dying to sleep with; this is how to maintain deniability.  When you explain the difference between sign and signifier to a dewey-eyed undergraduate who is only listening to the words coming out of your mouth because he likes the curve of your lip, you must not explode into hysterical laughter.  Why do you insist on laughing as if this were all hilarious?  This is all very serious.  But what if I cannot believe that this is all very serious? You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of academic that the department won’t let near tenure?