Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Get with the program (or MFAs, part 2)

Like others, I found Louis Menand's June 8/15 New Yorker piece about university creative writing programs pretty interesting. What interested me may be a bit different than the points others have focused in on. Rather than going off on the million and one issues the article raised for me (yes, it was one of those pieces I found myself talking back to as I read it, really incisive, pithy ripostes like "oh yeah?" and "sez you"), I'm going to limit myself to a couple key issues. Or at least they strike me as key.

One is Menand's contention that
the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics--"Who am I?"--that are already part of their inner lives.
The second is his assertion that
university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit--the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. ... Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.
Well now. As I noted in an earlier post prompted by this article, I have nothing against MFA programs. I would have liked to study in one myself. The question of whether writing can be taught doesn't exercise me. Nor does the question of what sort of writing is being taught in these programs, although comments made by others about the tendency to a sort of sameness ring at least partly true. To me, the important issues are what fiction is being written by the writers being trained in these programs, what topics these writers' fiction addresses, who their readership is, or who they think it is, or who it should be, who reads, who should read, who writes, who should write.

Menand's piece, as I think the two excerpts above show, works from the assumption that the world of writers and readers is uniform. Of what is this uniformity composed? Unsurprisingly, it is composed of a middle-class, mostly white, not necessarily mostly male but definitely male-dominated literary culture -- sort of like New Yorker readers (you and me excepted). Where he considers writers whose origins are in the working class or in people of color communities or from countries not in Europe or North America, he does it so as to place them too inside this frame. This box of writing about "who am I" where the I is either situated within the dominant culture or relating to the dominant culture, and in both cases thoroughly imbued with the dominant culture's consciousness and ideology. Who am I? I am just like you -- either because I am you, same life same background, or because, don't you see, we are all the same. It doesn't seem that there's any room left in the fiction Menand identifies as emerging from MFA programs, ostensibly in response to reader demand, for a very different answer to "who am I," an answer that requires the reader to move far, far outside her/his own experience, frame of reference, identity, culture -- to be challenged by the unfamiliar both literarily and politically/culturally, rather than writer and reader meeting on a safe, same middle ground.

Is there no other topic that fiction can and should address? Hello! What about work -- my god, the way most adult human beings spend most of their waking lives, working to try to bring in enough money to survive, is this not a topic of equal or greater interest than "who am I"? What about layoffs and unemployment, poverty, homelessness; what about health and illness and access or lack of it to medical care; what about strikes and boycotts, what about mine cave-ins and assembly-line injuries, what about immigrants suffocated to death hidden in the holds of ships or trunks of cars, what about rape and violence against women, what about gay-bashing and anti-trans violence; what about political struggles, revolutions, counter-revolutions, wars of national liberation, wars of colonial conquest, wars of imperialism such as the several the United States is currently carrying out? MFA program fiction is what appeals to readers? Because it focuses on "who am I"? Really? Or is it that the MFA system limits readers so that these "who am I" stories are the only ones available?

The second Menand assertion that I excerpted above makes it all explicit. And ugly. Smug. For here he comes full circle. He posits as a given that "the ivory tower" is the location of "real life" -- or at least, of the life lived by those who read and those who write. Is he kidding? It's hard to know what to say about his assumption that most readers live in "the world of mass higher education and the white-collar work place." That most, in other words, are like him, which means unlike most human beings on the planet. What a tiny, insular world is this literary land he imagines readers and writers together inhabit. I don't know whether he has market research to back up this remarkable idea. Or whether he's referring to readers in this country only. Or whether he's referring to readers of literary fiction only, which, face it, is not the kind of books that sell the most copies. Regardless -- facts aside, you know -- he does seem comfortable with this conception of his. This noxious notion that excludes most of humanity from the world of reading. Comfortable not only that it's true (which it isn't), but, even more remarkably, that it's okay. There's no concern about who should be reading and writing, who should get access to literature, whose ideas should get a chance for expression.

If you think that last issue, who gets the chance to write and publish, is unrelated to the whole topic of university writing programs and the MFA degree -- have I got an unpublished novel for you! More on this soon.