16 September 2010


Elif Batuman's London Review of Books essay "Get a Real Degree", which is partly a review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era, a book I read a year or so ago, has been getting a lot of notice on the intertubes.  Because it's been a year since I looked at McGurl's book, I won't really address Batuman's analysis of it; my memories of The Program Era are just vague impressions at this point -- I found the discussion of Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates especially interesting; disliked the charts and some of the jargon; thought many of the discussions/evaluations of individual writers were idiosyncratic and distracting (what McGurl says about Nabokov seemed so bizarre to me as to be humorous); was grateful for some of the research, but finished feeling that it was only touching the tip of a gigantic iceberg, and that, for instance, it was incomplete without any mention whatsoever of the parallel and complementary evolution of composition studies alongside workshop practices, though that may just be because my undergrad degree is from UNH, where Donald Murray's shadow loomed large.  For a good dissection of Batuman's representation/distortion of McGurl's book, see Andrew Seal's excellent blog post on the subject.

I felt about Batuman's review much of what I felt about The Program Era itself -- that interesting insights were again and again undercut by something under-analyzed, simplified, or distorted.  Mostly, I'm just tired of people complaining about some monolithic thing called "MFA writers" and their boring books/stories.  It's a straw man argument, because to be convincing (to me, at least) a critic must show that a giant glob of the fiction being published in the U.S. today is 1.) boring; 2.) boring because of the effect of writing workshops on the writer -- that, in fact, this writer would be less boring had she or he studied investment banking.

Batuman and I agree that much of the fiction published today is uninteresting.  We definitely disagree about which kinds of fiction are interesting and which aren't; beyond that, we disagree about whether this is anything to carp about.

Here's the thing that I keep thinking about whenever I hear these "ohhhh, the MFA's are ruining the world of beauty/authenticity/Literature/whatever -- waaaa!" complaints: There is more fiction out there that interests me than I will ever have time to read in my life.  Everybody could stop writing and publishing tomorrow and I would still have more books that I would like to read than I will have time for between now and when I die.  I don't think the MFAs are ruining everything, but even if I did -- so what?  Let them.  They're not coming into my house and changing all the words in all the books I own so that those books will now be tales middle-aged hetero white guys feeling guilt while lusting after their undergraduate students.

The problem for any complainant about MFAs goes back to #1 above -- if your thesis is that most of X is Y, then you need to show a familiarity with a majority of X and valid criteria for what constitutes Y.  So many of the people who argue that, for instance, "U.S. fiction is boring" mostly seem to have familiarized themselves with high school summer reading lists and the front table at their local chain bookstore, when maybe what would make them happier would be to read some stuff published by, for instance, FC2 or Small Beer or Soft Skull or Coffee House or...

Even then, the complainant might say, "Yes, dozens, even hundreds of books of fiction published each year hold at least some interest for me -- but the majority still sucks!"  Welcome to the world of Sturgeon's Law, something we sci-fi geeks believe in as deeply as we believe just about anything else.  Crud, crud, crud, crud, crud, crud, crud, crud, crud, not-so-crud; rinse and repeat.

Once again, I ask: So what?

There's an answer to that, and a fairly obvious one -- if students are going to an MFA program with the thought that it will make them into deeply interesting and remarkably well-rounded writers, they're probably spending a lot of money on an illusion.  If Sturgeon's Law is true, 90% of them, no matter what, will never be very interesting writers.

This brings up a few more questions.  First, are the students of MFA programs laboring under that illusion?  (Or do they have other illusions, as students are wont to have -- for instance, that they are already brilliant and idiosyncratic writers and just need a damned degree to get a teaching job with some possible hope of a tenure-track position sometime in the next couple decades, even if in all likelihood they'll spend those decades teaching 100+ students/term for less than they'd make working at Starbucks; or, in the category of less vocational illusions, that their lack of personal hygiene is an expression of their unique genius...)  Maybe they just want to learn something about writing, buy the time to focus on doing that, and hope to hang with some interesting people for a little while.  People have all sorts of different reasons to choosing the sorts of educations they pursue, and the question of why people go to MFA programs should be linked, it seems to me, to questions about higher education in the U.S. in general, including questions of labor.  There are plenty of valid reasons to get an MFA; doing so because you think it will suddenly make you James Joyce is probably not the best one.  And I expect many, if not most, of the people who attend MFA programs know this.  (If they don't, they probably learn it pretty quickly.)

These are important questions for students and potential students to consider, but I don't see that they're particularly important questions for readers, who are still stuck with the basic fact that most people who write, with or without MFA programs, are not geniuses.  (Neither are the teachers -- remember Lynn Freed?)  Crud crud crud crud....

My real problems with Batuman's essay, though, lie in how she characterizes contemporary fiction.  Alarm bells began jangling in my ears when I read this, the third paragraph of the essay:
I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.
Let's take that sentence by sentence.

I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Okay, bias noted. But what is this "programme fiction" of which you speak? The fiction written by all students of MFA writing workshops? Why yes, that's exactly what "program fiction" (I'm sticking with American spelling here; it's supposedly an American phenomenon, after all) is said to be in the second paragraph, and more, for it is "defined as the prose work of MFA graduates and/or instructors". Thus, Batuman has said she is not a fan of the prose work of MFA graduates and/or instructors.  A list of people associated only with the famous program at Iowa is big enough -- Batuman isn't a fan of anybody who has ever attended or taught at an MFA program anywhere ever!  Egads!

Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Whoa, Nelly! Somebody has some unanalyzed assumptions and crazy prejudices going on here! This is one of the snottiest sentences I've read in quite some time. How nice of you to notice that there is "anthropological" interest in the writings of dirty poor people, and that they, like small children writing on walls with their feces, can enjoy what they do. How charitable of you, Ms. Batuman. Such a fine example of a human being you are. (As Andrew Seal points out, "What really bugs me about this comment is that, despite her distaste for the literature of 'developing nations,' she holds up Don Quixote as a great beacon of literature when, if there is any single work of literature which justifies a belief that an extraordinarily talented writer can invent a new fully-fleshed form almost ex nihilo, it is Cervantes's novel.")

Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. This sentence is a strange one on its own, but it makes a certain sort of sense within context. Batuman is trying to make an argument about authenticity and identity, and does so elsewhere in the essay, but it's an interesting sentence here because it moves from disparaging all literatures not from the wealthiest, best-educated nations to saying that MFA students and teachers all want to write like they're from those nations that are not wealthy and don't have deep literary infrastructures (that is, infrastructures that are obvious to people outside of those cultures -- I don't think she's talking about Onitsha Market literature when she talks about "literary culture").

In other words, she seems to think that all MFA writers want to be Dambudzo Marechera. If only we were so lucky...

Finally, At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme. Back to that whole, "anthropological" thing -- people from "developing nations" can't write good lit'rature, but they do have truths to tell us about their "less privileged culture", and so we can read their books as specimens and travel guides. MFA students, who just wish they were less privileged so they'd have something to write about, are not in a position to create specimens or travel guides.

I almost stopped reading after that paragraph, because its entire effect was to make me think that Batuman is a nasty, closed-minded person, not somebody whose opinion about, well, anything I would want to give credence to. It would be like going to Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D'Souza for history lessons. I mean, really, why put yourself through the pain?

But I did keep reading, for some reason, and discovered that rich white folks from suburbs are okay, and they shouldn't feel bad about telling their stories. Batuman spends many words on the evils of people being encouraged to write from whatever they conceive as their identity (preferably one that confers on them the privilege to be oppressed), and then she moves on to the evils of people writing about historical disasters without writing about historical non-disasters. All of this seemed to me to miss a giant point: Readers like stories with conflict in them. Sure, there are plenty of books that to some readers might seem like they wallow in the awfulness of one sort of life or another, but to condemn everyone from Sandra Cisneros to Tim O'Brien to Philip Roth for somehow being ashamed of the less conflict-prone parts of their lives and perceptions seems to me bizarre. Of course they're going to write about the stuff that most gnaws at them, that is full of tension and conflict, that is individual and personal and problematic, that intersects with history and society. That's what grabs their imaginations and impells them to write.

Batuman complains about Cisneros's apparent lack of appreciation for the cultural diversity of her rich white peers at Iowa, as if what the workshop instructor should have done was lead everyone in a mantra of, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" And then they could have all had a nice serious discussion of "Why They Hate Us".  Except Cisneros wasn't writing about Iowa today, she was talking about her experience there decades ago, and it's an experience that deserves (and receives, if I remember correctly, from McGurl) some historicizing, some contextualizing within the system of American high education, and especially of Iowa's program, at that particular time.

Batuman spends thousands of words on the topics of identity and authority, arguing that MFA writers learn nothing so much as to celebrate the writerly potential of persecution.  But what she says is full of contradictions, and it's impossible to see what sort of writing she's actually advocating for. Writers with a strong sense of ethnicity shouldn't write only from that perspective, she seems to think, but white middle/upper-class writers should write about white middle/upper-class life and not pretend to know anything about anything else -- and, by definition, anything else they write about is just pretending -- and nobody should write about any sort of oppression or disaster without also carefully balancing that with depictions of non-oppression and non-disaster. Right. Sure. I'll get to work on that novel about watching a fly climb up a beige wall right away! (In the hands of somebody like Nicholson Baker, such a novel could be quite interesting. Wait, no -- he was once a visiting writer at an MFA program, so he's not allowed to be interesting.)

Batuman is arguing, it appears, against pluralism and for some sort of vague unified field of Literature. Such an argument seems to me to go against her desire for more interesting fiction -- we are more likely to get an exciting range of fiction from a diversity of styles and approaches than we are from a bunch of "Don't do that!" rules. I want to think that Batuman would agree, but her prescriptions and proscriptions don't lead in that direction. The best argument I know of against MFA-style writing workshops is that, in their generic form, their structure encourages certain types of writing and doesn't allow for others -- encourages writing that is easily critiqued, easily graded, easily subjected to the disciplines of a seminar. Plenty of teachers and writers are aware of this, though, and have developed techniques over the years to combat it and to complexify the workshop experience. But that's not the argument Batuman is making, or not entirely, at least. She is arguing that some things are legimate subjects for writing, and some things aren't; that some kinds of people are legitimate writers and some kinds of people aren't.

The best answer to all of this was given by Chimamanda Adichie in her lecture on "The Danger of a Single Story". Listen to her talk about growing up writing about pleasant white British girls. About the perceptions and prejudices she has had because of the limitations on stories she has heard. About the need for a polyvocal, diverse literary community, a world of infinite threads of stories. "The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."

Batuman would reply, I suppose, that "difference" is exactly what she's against, because she equates it with wallowing in a sense of persecution: "The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as ‘difference’." But no. Welcoming various types of stories into the world is not about valuing persecutedness over self-reliance or something like that; it is about recognizing that "the novel" isn't any one thing, but a panoply; that the best writers have a multiplicity of reasons to write and the best readers have a multiplicity of reasons to read. "Universal literary value" is a human construct, not a Platonic form, and so it is something that is subject to power. To get all nostalgic for the days when some mythical people of the past could define Good and Bad Literature unproblematically is to get all nostalgic for a time when white guys were the only people with full access to literary accomplishment. It is to yearn for the days of a single story.

I expect Batumin knows this, which is what explains the contradictions filling her essay. The final paragraph is full of vacillations, as if she realized the corner she'd painted herself into.  She suddenly wants to portray her essay as one advocating that people should get some life experience before getting MFAs, that they should read widely, that they should work hard to be well-rounded.  Sure, who's going to argue with that?  (Just the other day, I was complaining to a friend that too many undergraduates who major in acting don't really get much from their college years if they don't seek out stuff that has nothing immediately to do with the theatre.)  But in many ways that seems to me to be something that should be addressed particularly in undergraduate education, which returns me to the points above about this being an argument within higher ed...

I expect, too, the various folks who've been celebrating the essay do so not because of its contradictions, but because of various individual insights they agree with ("Yay! I think that one-trick pony Tim O'Brien should write about something other than Vietnam, too!"), or from a knee-jerk anti-MFA sentiment that seems fairly strong on the Internet. There's a lot to be unpacked in that sentiment and its popularity, but that's a task for another time, and perhaps another person...