“Professors of Fiction”

1.

I have a conversation with my partner Dustin’s Uncle Jack about how he fell on his good hip and, while painful, it reset his hips. The pain he’s been suffering from the former bad hip is gone.

I wish that would happen to me, and then, a day later, on the plane home, it does, with a bag falling on my bad knee.

I’ll be making some more wishes.

2.

I spend the month of November at a writer’s colony, Ledig House, in upstate New York. I can’t work without very good coffee, and so I investigate, and find some of the very best coffee I’ve ever had. This is consoling. Strongtree Coffee is an organic roaster local to Hudson, NY, located right by the train station.

The owner describes changing her business recently, due to climate change. Coffee business owners are not climate change skeptics. Instead, they are preparing to fight each other for the increasingly scarce beans.

I am already on board for saving the planet, but had not prepared, all the same, for a shortage of good coffee.

3.

There’s a Turkish writer at the colony who describes living under the threat of constant arrest, due to several charges leveled against her by the Turkish government. After this conversation we watch an episode of Glee. I can’t tell if she’d be happier in America, where the government doesn’t care enough about writers to threaten them.

When she decides to leave early to return, I see the answer is no.

A few weeks later, as the election happens, I try to explain the US to the international writers, who watch, incredulous. The one who seems to understand best is an Israeli writer, who says, insightfully, that Far Right American governments are typically more favorable to Israel. No one is rooting for Obama in Israel, he says. It makes me wonder if he saw this.

4.

I reflect on the irony of trying to finish my novel during #Nanowrimo. Daily.

5.

On breaks, I read essays by people still trying to discredit the MFA, responses to them, responses to the responses. I wouldn’t mind something written that was critical of the MFA in ways that were honest as to what is taught there, but this parade of paper tigers doesn’t resemble the world.

In the meantime, it’s a new business, created by the MFA: the industry of attacking the MFA.

6.

I’m tired of these attempts at totalizing views on this topic, though, and tired of this argument, if that is what it is, which is not the same as being critical of the MFA and asking it to reform—it is about delegitimizing it.  This I think of as a mask—it only reproduces arguments elsewhere in the culture, arguments that are all really about money, and that are in themselves a mask for the same thing: access to a “safe place”, aesthetically and morally, that doesn’t exist. If anything is dangerous, it’s said totalizing view: the attempt to delegitimize the degree altogether, to portray the hard work of the people involved in an entirely negative light—and it is hard work. Worse, the anti-MFA crowd portrays itself as populist, when in fact the MFA is, despite portrayals to the opposite, a largely democratic force in American literature—a fellowship won by a student entering a grad program allows one to write a novel or stories when one lacks, say, a trust fund or a huge advance.

I can understand being bitter if you spent 80k on your degree that you don’t have, but I wouldn’t do it, and I always tell students faced with that not to go. You could make the money back in a lifetime of teaching, but it’s better to have a fellowship.

When I went for mine, those two years were the first two years of my life where I was paid to only write and and study writing. I made much less than the fancy New York magazine editing job I gave up and I didn’t care. I was tired of editing articles about Versace skirts.

I understand the critiques then partly through the lens of who I was before I went—from the time when I applied skeptically, afraid of what I imagined was a program that would try to wipe any individuality off of me.  I was a queer punk bookseller from San Francisco who’d lucked into a NYC magazine job and felt too cool to get a MFA but also too cool for magazines, too—too cool for anything.  I was young and ridiculous with misconceptions, and getting into Iowa with a magical realist queer sexually explicit story about a Korean adoptee was the last thing I imagined was possible, but, I applied to prove I was right, and then I was wrong. When I got in, with fellowship money, the myth, the idea that the program only wanted young Carvers or people to turn into young Carvers, began to shatter. When I say most of what I read about the MFA (or Iowa for that matter) is wrong, what I mean is, I used to believe that too.

7.

I find How to Write Like a Victorian, by Paul Collins, on the first book of writing instruction, a much-needed bit of comic relief. Which is to say, the attacks on the MFA begin perhaps here, and much as now, much of the complaint seems to be about the democratization of writing:

The whole discipline had been gestating for a decade, beginning with novelist Walter Besant musing in 1884 over the notion of “Professors of Fiction”—something then as fantastical as a steam-powered robot. It was a vision that at least one critic found “Appalling. As if there were not enough novels already. … [Now] we are to have our young maidens trained to the business, and let loose upon the world, in batches, every year to pursue their devastating calling, as if they were dentists or pharmaceutical chemists.”

I will now imagine myself as a steam-powered robot professor and writer. Also: consider the much better The Writing of Fiction, by one such maiden, Edith Wharton.

8.

What worries me more is the celebrity, or the economy that struggles to exist around celebrity. In the same way that most people in the Hudson area now owe their livelihood to the needs of weekenders, publishing too often caters to celebrity. “Most of the people I see promoting their book on tv are already famous,” my partner’s sister observes a few days ago. She says this as she is asking me how the average writer can publicize their book.

“This is a big question,” I say. I remember my idea for a tv show, born several years ago, out of the desire to have a show where my book would be the product placement, carried by the stars everywhere. I’m not entirely convinced it is a bad, cynical idea.

9.

I leave Ledig House, and go on to Philadelphia, making a short stop to read at Temple University and meet with students in their MFA program. I get a ride from a Tunisian cab driver who, it turns out, is a writer. He left Tunisia because of his political writing, unable to stay, but he doesn’t speak English well enough to write and publish here. I encourage him, because he is entertaining, to try to write more in English.

I think of the Turkish writer.

In the US, I say, you would never have to leave because of your political writings. Writing itself has been discredited, which is something of a time-saver for the fascists. (This is still true for now, despite the best efforts, say, of the MFA and #Nanowrimo.)

You’re right, he says, with a short laugh. And then drops me off.

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16 thoughts on ““Professors of Fiction”

  1. Karissa says:

    Where’s #3?

    I love this post though. I love that Dustin’s uncle’s fall helped reset his hip. There’s something so awesome about that.

    I applied to a grant given by my undergrad for their alums who are pursuing graduate studies. Meaning, anybody pursuing any kind of graduate degree can apply for the grant. I found myself writing a personal statement defending the benefits of my MFA education. I don’t know if that was the right tactic.

    I had a convo with a writer/cabbie recently too.

    Upstate New York. I’m envious. It must have been beautiful.

  2. davecullen says:

    Thanks. For years now, I have been not so much frustrated as annoyed by the MFA attacks.

    I got a great deal out of my MFA. I grew immensely as a writer there. I can buy that it’s not for everyone, and I also see the damage it can inflict on some people: the MFA-feel of their writing.

    But so what if some MFA graduates are bland? Weren’t most of them going to be bland anyway? If they can’t overcome the dangers inherent there, how good were they destined to grow as writers?

    I’ll take my chances–with my own writing, and with all of us, collectively.

    1. koreanish says:

      Well, exactly. But this is my problem with the attacks—they are totalizing views. They don’t leave any room for what exists outside of the terms of their critique, and act as if what they don’t know about doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter.

  3. Dave Cullen, author of ColumbineN says:

    Totalizing is a nice word for it. I only touched on a few things that bug me about the endless goofball attacks, but that captures it nicely.

    I also hear a lot of echoes of complaints I heard while in the program–generally from peers who were trying to make the program into something different than it was, and could not figure out how to make use of the process actually there.

    1. koreanish says:

      Well, this is a great point—if you go to one of these programs trying to get an agent, you’re going to feel like you wasted your money.

  4. Dave Cullen, author of ColumbineN says:

    I actually didn’t mean anything like looking for an agent. More often looking for their own ridiculous assessment of their work to be validated.

    I was also flummoxed by the inability of some writers to make use of differing opinions. When eight people in the group say shorten the scene and seven say lengthen it, there are all sorts of possible things to learn from that. Eg,

    1. Maybe the scene is just awful, and people are looking for different ways to improve it, but despite an apparent split, you actually have a unanimous verdict that the scene doesn’t work.

    2. Are all of the people really in your audience? You have to gauge over time whose opinion you respect, and who likes the genre and style you’re working in. Preferably, you figure that out objectively, as they assess OTHER people’s work. (Ie, you decide whether you value their opinion on your story before you know whether they like it.)

    etc. LOTS of things you might glean from the feedback.

    But some people just insist that all they hear are contradictions and it’s therefore all useless.

    There is always useful feedback, and nearly always an abundance. You have to be able to sift through it and make use of it.

    If you can’t or won’t, then yes, the format is pointless for you. But I think there are a lot more people who won’t than can’t.

    1. koreanish says:

      These are excellent points. Thanks for offering them. Deborah Eisenberg (who didn’t have a MFA and taught me at Iowa), said of feedback something I think about a lot. She told us to be cagey, to listen for what people might really be saying is wrong. “One person will tell you to fix something on page 6 and it’s perfect, another something on page 11. You’ll fix something on page 9, hand it back to them both and they’ll say ‘That’s exactly what I meant!'” A complaint about pacing could be more about the information a reader has than about actual length or scenes, and so on.

  5. Marisa Birns says:

    Ah, the bag should have fallen on your good knee!

    Used to spend many summers in Bear Mountain area. Miss it.

    Writing, itself, is discredited? I’ve always been late to the parties.

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