March 30, 2008

Tom Wolfe Versus MFA


I subscribe to the NY Times Book Review podcast because it's a wonderful thing to do. It's good listening, if you have time in your schedule for twenty minutes of book talk a week. A couple weeks ago, the editor of the Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, interviewed Tom Wolfe, of the Bonfire of the Vanities/Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame.

Mr. Wolfe has a book coming out sometime eventually but the reason they interviewed him is that on the NY Times website, they are using his Bonfire of the Vanities as a kind of online book club thing for discussion and such.

The following exchange happened during the interview. And for full disclosure, I am truncating Mr. Tanenhaus's question to Mr. Wolfe for simplicity's sake.

Mr. Tanenhaus: When did the American novel cease to have that journalistic, sociological aspect to it?

Mr. Wolfe: When young writers started coming out of MFA programs. Faulkner was a shop clerk at Sak's Fifth Avenue. John Steinbeck was a fisher, a conch fisherman. The lowly origins were played up and today no one comes from that kind of background. If you put the combined education of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck together, it wouldn't be one year of college, but now writers come out of the Masters of Fine Arts programs, which in my opinion, are like standing water. It's where the mosquitoes hatch and these mosquitoes are like European Islamists, like concretism and fabulism and minimalism and on and on with esoteric approaches to literature.

Now, getting riled up by what an old man says about MFA programs is silly, but like it or not, he's one of a dying herd of the greats of American letters, so his opinion does matter in a way. What do you think about his critique? I know I disagree with it, but I'm having a little bit of trouble getting it into the right set of words, so I'll post it once I figure out exactly what to say.

viva el mustache


The Mighty Flynn said...

Here's how Tom Franklin put it last week in workshop: there's your writing education (the MFA program) and then there's your life education (the jobs you do or have done that give you life experience and material to write about).

Wolfe is bemoaning an evolution of literature and blaming it on the easiest target, isn't he? Maybe MFAs contributed to this change, but so did other factors. Literature evolves. Who is he to judge the most recent evolution as being worse than the one that brought about journalistic lit? Those who don't write like him, who earned MFAs are like mosquitoes and European Islamists? WTF, TW? "Paranoia will destroy ya."

MFA bashing is such a silly sport. Like anything else, the MFA has its pros and cons. Wolfe mentions Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck as proof that MFAs are unnecessary (of course they are), but fails to acknowledge Flannery O'C, and the hundreds (thousands?) of other great writers who have come out of MFA programs, many of whom came from lowly origins and blue collar backgrounds--and write reportorially. Earning an MFA doesn't cancel somebody's street cred or their formative development as a person. Methinks.

The Ghost of Nostradamustache said...

I think Wolfe has an interesting, and valid, point in that often going through a specific training program can stifle creativity rather than feed it. Programs tend to churn out people who write like their teachers want them to and not how the author thinks a book ought to be written. I think the mosquito analogy points to a sort of cloning that goes on. Rather than necessarily reading the authors you like and respect, taking what they do and playing with it, young authors are set up a situation where they're writing to please a grader. You can (and probably should), as an MFA student, challenge this notion but when you're in pursuit of a grade, of a degree, and of the necessary approval of a grader who is instructing you to do it like they do, you can't help but regress into their patterns instead of working toward something new.

Wolfe talks about the only advances in Literature with a capital L are esoteric in nature. This all comes from the incestuous way writers are trained to write directly by, instead of indirectly by, other writers. Being a literature student, I know esoteric writing because everything I do is only interesting to other literary scholars. What Wolfe apprears to be saying is that the prevalence of MFA programs, and the way in which they instruct writers in their craft, is in danger of doing the same thing to creative writers. It isn't creative any longer, nor does it relate to people outside of the field of creative writing.

I've heard you guys through the years all talking about voice. Maybe that matters in some way, I don't know. What I do know is that I don't give a shit about voice. Never have I sat in a class where anyone has mentioned the voice. Voice schmoice. I give a shit about a story that has something to communicate to me.

I think Wolfe's comment is interesting in another way in that if you're in an MFA program, often you're not in the real world anymore. You're teaching and you're locked in the comfort of academia. I started grad school at 25 years old and the majority of people start earlier than that. They might go directly from undergrad to grad. After grad school, you get a comfortable teaching job at a the age of 27. With that in mind, think of all the memoirs that are being written. I've only spent 6 years of my almost 30 in the real world and no one NO ONE wants to read my story. It has its funny moments, but I haven't done much. I've spent 20 of 30 years of my life in school...and so have most MFA students. In fact, one of my instructers out here at Kent State, who is a huge fan of Alfred Kazin's work, was taking a dump on Kazin's earliest stuff saying no one really has anything to say until their middle aged because you just haven't lived it yet. You, again, can disagree with that notion and there are obviously exceptions, but it seems to me that a part of his criticism, and his contrasting MFA to Faulkner and Hemmingway and the like, is that these people had to live what they wrote about, and lived often similarly to many others.

To me, that's the divide and it seems like a fair criticism. Sorry folks, but I'm not going to read a series of pretty sentences with nothing to say or some pedestrian memoir about a family vacation. I certainly won't write an essay about it. You can't manufacture experience nor can you fake it.

Diana said...

"I give a shit about a story that has something to communicate to me."


Seth is smart. It's why he's on my acknowledgements page.

Bryan said...

In what Seth said is the seed of what bugged me with the Wolfe answer. See, Wolfe, like a lot of people, seem to assume that MFA departments glorify this beautiful sentence ideal, but I don't think that's the case.

Maybe I'm thinking too narrowly, but our MFA program doesn't have a premium on beautiful sentences and seems to be a quality story first kind of program. From my AWP panels I've attended, it seems that several other MFA programs are also pro-story moreso than pro-fancypants prose. And this bashing MFA's for making elite sentence writers just isn't valid. Maybe at one point it was, but I don't think its across-the-board true any longer.

Also, Sethie, you're right in that fiction MFA's which don't focus on story can create a kind of incestous loop for literature because no one else would give a damn about how claused-up your sentences or whatever...and that's exactly what's killing poetry. No one reads poetry except poets and book reviewers, and I understand the fear that fiction writing could become poetry-like if it becomes too self-important and precious and narrow in terms of audience by shirking story responsibilities in favor of oh-so-glorious writing. But I think fiction programs understand the dangers of limiting your audience like that now, so they're pushing plot/emotional center things over gleaming sentences, while poetry has accepted their incestous relationship with the audience, so they keep churning out poets that write for poets...and use words like gyre.

And I think both Tom & Seth are equally right when it comes to the idea of life experience, credibility, and the MFA. I don't think MFA's rob your cred if you have it in the first place, but they do get you put you in a peculiar environment for 2 to 3 years that manufacture a particular life experience that's a lot different than an any-colored lifestyle...seriously, priveleged and impoverished shouldn't go together. But, I guess I wonder what's the value of imagination if you need to live something to write about it?

But, as I wrote that, it dawned on me that it's not being imaginative that's important, but understanding people that's the keystone, which is something life of any kind gives you plenty of chances to experience, whether on a working on fishing boat or drinking with fellow tacklers of the handicapped or while in an MFA program. You just gotta pay attention and live a life to not be insulated inside a world of pretty, pretty prose and as you said, Sethie, communicate with an audience. And MFA departments, at least the good ones, understand that, and just because some don't, or didn't for a while, isn't a reason to broadly denounce the MFA system. If Wolfe wants to criticize, then he needs to be more precise in his complaints.

Oh, as for your voice comment,'re still cheesed off about that conversation with Drevlow and Boots, eh? It's not MFA'ers fault you Lit people value goofy things like historical context over more important things like voice. I kid, I kid. But, see, MFA'ers get so concerned about voice because that's how we first establish credibility to the reader about the topic (that has been either gained through astute observation or life experience), and the fact that voice isn't dicussed by you Lit people is fantastic because that means the work you are studying has an authentic voice for the work and it's not worth quibbling over. Like if Faulkner sounded inexplicably British instead of rural Southern, there'd be a problem in believing his work to be authentic and no one would give a good goddamn about him, even if the voice was captivatingly British...unless somehow that voice served some greater purpose.

The Ghost of Nostradamustache said...

I can see what you're saying, Bryan, and being an MFA student you should obviously be championing the overall value of the program, but I do still believe that Wolfe's comments are in many ways valid. I have listened, both here in Kent and in mankato, to many students reading short, pretty, pointless works (and to be fair, being a lit student, I've listened to many pointless and shitty scholarly efforts too) so while the instruction might not push you in that direction, it seems to be a side effect of learning to write in academia. To take an example in lit classes: I've had classmates who write such convoluted sentences that you have to read them over and over again just to find out what the fuck they are saying. In the end you realize that he or she doesn't really know, so they're trying to cover it up with verbage. Like putting lipstick on a pig. I've read a lot of cometically enhanced swine stories over the years as well.

Not all prose is going to fall prey to this nor is it going to all be esoteric in nature. I make a distinction between Literature and just plain ol' fiction. Philip Roth: Literature, Tom Clancy: fiction.

I'm curious to hear what you think about the idea of a literary stagnation. One point I tried to make is that because new authors are learning their trade in a classroom rather than through their own experimentation innovation has suffered. A classroom--any classroom--offers great opportunities to write, be critiqued by those who have had success, and gives you the time to do both, but, whether you want to believe so or not, you are working for a grade which means often a person will take fewer risks in favor of assuring a good grade. You write to the instructor.

The authors that Wolfe lauds were people who read voraciously and who are taking what came before and advancing that to fit their own time and place. They aren't writing for an instructor, they're writing to the greater population, trying to generate an understanding and a unique perspective.

Perhaps I'm not well enough informed, but I don't see many new, unique, radical voices or ways of expression. Modernism came out of WWI essentially because after a conflict that large and that devastating, a new form of expression was needed. Other forms couldn't work in a the post-WWI world. Postmodernism came out of WWII for much the same reason: the Holocaust had lifted the veil and you couldn't look at life the same way anymore.

But we're sixty years past that and I can't think of a significant, post-postmodern movement. Where's the next Ezra Pound or Lyotard? Who is pushing Pynchon and DeLillo out of the way? (If you know, tell me so I can get in on the scholarship groud floor)

Granted, this couldn't possibly be entirely an indictment of MFA programs, but I do think it is a symptom of a regimented system churning out writers. Serious innovation is stamped out in favor of tried and true, safe methods.

I do think, though, that the lack of innovation is also a result of writers in academia needing to "publish or perish" so the works coming out are more pedestrian and less innovative, and the fact that fewer people--even English grad students--read.

So after all of that, a question I have is whether you actually see real innovation in Literature and if no, why not?

Bryan said...

Do MFA programs cause stagnant literature? I don't know. This is going to be a total co-op answer, but I think that depends on the program. Like, I've heard a major complaint of the Iowa Workshop is that everyone leaves there sounding like an Iowa Workshop writer. That concern of churning out a bunch of like-minded writers is a plenty valid worry about MFAs and the workshop formula.

But, again, I think that all depends on the mindset of the workshop. I know the way Diana runs her show is that the workshop is meant to cultivate the story, essentially see what's there then tell the writer what's it is doing on the page as it exists, then its solely up the writer to make the story work the way he/she wants. Other workshop runners base it more off their aesthetic, and then tell the writers to change their stories to better fit their aesthetic.

As for innovation? Well, you have writers like Mark Danielewski who has sprawling, strange mindfuck post-modern books. And he's on par with B.S. Johnson (dead British guy...has a biography called Like a Fiery Elephant) and other people who I can't name who are trying to break ideas of what story writing can be, but that's really just Tristam Shandy with different fonts. So to be honest, I don't think anyone is doing anything that's wildly different that what has been done before in some sense.

I suppose if you're looking for where literature is headed, subscribe to McSweeney's. They are doing some interesting and quirky things with the medium, even in delivery. Like I have a McSweeney's issue that came in a box, with a comb for some reason, and a story told on playing cards. I get the impression that they love their preciousnes, so I don't know how much of it is really based in striving for innovation or if it's just trying to be a other words, gimmicky. Anyway, Dave Eggers is the champion of McSweeney's, along with some other writers whose names escape me right now.

And this kind of lack of innovation isn't necessarily a fault of MFA programs though, but more like a fault of the medium. Maybe stylistically or -ismly there's another one down the pipeline, but I couldn't tell you what it is, so I may be the wrong person to ask about this. I don't sweat the -isms of writing and I'm just trying to write a damn story people can understand and enjoy. I'm not gunning to be called "minimalist" or "dirty realist" or "MFA-nothing-going-on-ist"...I just want the story I want to tell to turn out okay and the choices I make are based on doing what's right for the story, not what's right for my ism, if I even have an ism (I got a feeling it's that MFA one right now).

Anyway, there are only so many ways for words to be placed in print or on a screen and for them to make sense enough to mean something to an audience, and I think that's where literature is right now. We just want to get asses in their seats holding a book anyway they want (as much as I despise the Kindle, if it gets people reading, fine, fuck it, go Kindle) and make them care anyway we can, then that's our duty as writers.

Maybe this is the age of Commericialism in writing?

Oh, and here's a link about the Best MFA departments in the country. They list some more cutting edge ones in the article too:

The Ghost of Nostradamustache said...

I didn't mean to suggest that as a writer you would sit down and say "I'm going to write a postmodern novel today." I think you're right in saying that no one would really approach it that way (and if one did, he or she would most likely fail). The point I was attempting to make is that there has not been, that I've seen anyway, a reaction to and a move beyond postmodernism and perhaps that's a result of the current way in which writers are trained.

Diana said...

Seth's remark about lipstick-wearing pigs: that's EXACTLY what I remember about grad school.

Bryan, there's an essay in the purple book by Rust Hills, called, I think, "Quality Fiction Vs. Slick," a distinction much like Seth's fiction vs. literature. Hills for years and years was fiction editor at Esquire (which I think continues to publish some of the best writing in the country. Tom Junod, for instance--that guy can write.) Hill talks about the criteria he used when reading through the slush pile, the questions he asked himself about a piece of writing. I'm paraphrasing/summarizing but they're something like this:

1. What is the writer saying?
2. How is the writer saying it?
3. Is it worth saying?

As a reader, I want work that will allow me to think about all three of those questions, but it's #3 that's most interesting to me. As a reader, I like work that leads me to one of two reactions: I NEVER THOUGHT OF IT LIKE THAT or I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN. It's fantastic when I get both from the same work, when there's revelation and recognition, but it's also pretty rare. That's the part of that can't be taught. I can't teach someone to be profound, or interesting; I can't teach someone to say something important, something that a reader will underline and circle and scribble in a journal. So I talk about the first two, and hope the third will come someday, eventually.

I think lots of times it does with time. I hate to think of how trite my work was when I was working on my MFA, how clever, how shallow, how uninteresting. I wasn't writing to please my teachers, and I wasn't writing with publication in mind--I didn't go to a program that pushed either of those. I think it's just that I was clever, shallow, trite and uninteresting. Because I didn't know anything. I was immature. I felt entitled. My frontal lobes hadn't mylenated. I look at my first book which is in large part my thesis, and while I stand by the stories, and I think they have strong answers to What is the Writer Saying and How is the Writer Saying It, answering the #3 would be sketchier. I'm confident this new book can hold up to all three questions, but when I look at it ten years from now, who knows what I'll think.

Junot Diaz (MFA from Cornell) is writing innovative, important stuff, stories and the novel, the kind of writing that hits you where you live. Also -- and this might be just because I'm a late arrival to nonfiction-- but I'm regularly surprised by how innovative and interesting and good so much of it is.

Hope I didn't veer too far off topic.

Bryan said...

Sethie, I understood your point about the no-new isms in the past 60 years in literature and it might have some tie to the way writers are trained now instead of organically grown. I just took the opportunity to veer away from the path.

But, to answer your question...maybe? I'm wholly ignorant when it comes to correctly defining terms like that in literature so I'm going to be so brave as to admit that I don't fully understand the scope of the term post-modern (or modernism for that matter) when used the way you are. When I hear post-modern in terms of literature, I think Finnegan's Wake with blue fonts and inverted text or other kinds of boundary pushing stuff like that. And that clearly isn't the entirety of the term because there must be some subtleties to it I'm missing.

But, if I go with my narrow/wrong idea of post-modern, a reaction to that would look like what...Victorian prose? Isn't that what John Irving does? Could they push it to a level even more incomprehensible? I don't know?

Maybe a reaction to post-modernism is this idea of creative nonfiction (which certainly brings us right back `round to Tom Wolfe's journalistic business)...a kind of hyper invented reality not even the most memetic fiction writers can get to because of the power inherent in the title non fiction (how's that for a terry davis influenced thought?). Nonfiction is certainly the genre du jour, I think US Today had some number that for the first time since they were keeping track, more memoir style first books were published than works of fiction. So maybe people want REAL realness in their writing now instead of a felt realness.

But then too I guess this all depends on who you believe creates the change in literature. Is the audience or is the writers? To me, I think it's the audience, and Sethie, you kind of alluded to that because you said something about how the WWs caused new writing because the audience was so drastically changed. As it stands, I don't think audiences are putting new demands on fiction Literature in terms of -isms, but other forms entertainment have been in the past 60 years. Or, you know, maybe the audience has been and authors can't quite figure it out what the hell they want...that baby's a-crying and it just won't stop.

Diana, you didn't veer it too far off topic at all. I know that essay you're talking about, but it's been a while since I read it...and I know I have a book about short story writing from Rust Hills around here somewhere, but I don't know right now. Oh, and I agree with you about those three parts of writing, and that's what's killing me with this thesis because I honestly think I'm struggling with all three.

Bryan said... last was made at 2AM, so I was a little tired, so there's at least one spot that doesn't make any sense.

See, I meant to delete that part about other forms of entertainment putting pressure on literature, but I forgot to...and now Blogger won't let me delete the comment, so there it sits.

Anonymous said...

Truthfully, there are a lot of those -isms that came after postmodernism. Carver was at the head of a minimalism movement. Tobias Wolff is part of the "dirty realism" school. Marquez has "magical realism." Bender and Budnitz are recognized as part of the fabulism movement. There's a lot. And I won't agree with Wolfe that these are esoteric forms. Some of them have a much broader appeal than just the writing community--some even have a broader appeal than Mr. Wolfe's writing.

And honestly--not to make this sound like an indictment against Seth or anything--but I'm not surprised a lit student wouldn't have heard of these things. They aren't part of THE CANON (emphasis and capitals intented), which is so sacred to lit programs that so much of what's being written doesn't fit in. How many lit students actually study contemporary literature? How many lit programs offer courses in contemporary literature? How many programs will put graphic novels or genre books into their standard lit class without making them into a separate course? It's not that people aren't doing new things, it's that the only people noticing are other writers--which is generally the way things have been for a very, very long time. Until recently, those writers just may not have been in MFA programs.

MFA programs are incestuous and esoteric in the same way literature is and the same way literature programs are. The progression of literary works, however, is not stagnant. The movements today are more scattered--like shotgun pellets to the modernist rifle bullet--but people aren't necessarily doing the same things now as they were in 1970. Even then, though, there were other things beside modernism happening, but lit departments have labeled that as the dominant movement of that time. You can't really see the overarching movements all that well when your in their midst. It's a matter of paying attention to current trends, which doesn't really seem a priority to the literature departments too tied up with the dead white guys to notice. Again, Seth, I wasn't trying to pick on you--if you're interested in contemporary literature and not just THE CANON, I'm glad; at least there's one of you.

That being said, Wolfe has a point. But it's an old point. And like Bryan pointed out, it's no longer universally true, either. It's gotten to be that picking on MFA programs is like railing against Bush any chance you get. Everyone does it, everyone knows there are legitimate gripes, but it's just complaining. Nothing's going to come of it. Wolfe wants to piss and moan that people not following his journalistic, sociological style is a bad thing, and that's his gripe against MFA programs--that they've made his style outmoded, past tense, "the old way" of doing it. That sounds more like a grouchy writer bitching than a legitimate point.

Do you need an MFA to write? No. Then why? Did Faulkner need one? Did Hemingway? That's an unfair comparison. The culture was different. People would clamor for the stores whenever a new Faulkner story was in a magazine, or a new book came out. Books mattered more because they were it. Then came Hollywood, television, the internet, and books aren't as popular. Junot Diaz comes out with a brilliant book--a book easily comparable, as Diana points out, to Faulkner's great stuff--and it's considered a failure because it sells only 300,000 copies. I believe if Faulkner were alive today, we wouldn't know him from Steve Almond. On top of that, schools don't have students read anything newer than Steinbeck. If they do, it's YA books. MFAs--like Flynn said--are a chance to get that writing education, learn the contemporary stuff and not write another Catcher in the Rye because you didn't know it was already out there (something so many beginning creative writers end up doing, anyway). The MFA is an academic degree, not a writing degree--nobody argues that having an MFA makes you a great writer. It's a teaching degree. Many of us in the program want to teach writing--not because it's the most lucrative thing we could be doing, but because it's a chance to continue in a field we love.

There are probably more writers today because of MFA programs, but "the greats" are going to be that way, MFA or not. Don't blame the MFA for the way writing is. Don't blame writers for making literature stagnant, because it's not. It's just not selling, because, well, look at the best-seller list. Popularity can't be a measuring stick for literary quality anymore.

End rant.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the MFA is not the program, but the individual in the program. The idea is that one is there to learn from other people who have written something that's been published, something good, something we can agree is art. It doesn't really matter if you publish with or without an MFA, so long as you work hard on your writing, and if you're in a program to help you do that, then that's what you should be doing. Seth is right about a story that communicates something, and most writers in MFA programs are often too stubborn, too egotistical, or too immature to know how to communicate an experience on paper. Let's face it, writing is hard. It was hard for Faulkner (ever read his first novel SOLDIER'S PAY--it's a stinker); it was hard for Hemingway; it was hard for Steinbeck. You don't become a writer because you have a piece of paper that says you have an MFA unless you're paying attention to those hard-working people who are attempting to show you something about writing. Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson showed Hemingway, Faulkner learned from James Joyce and read everything there is to read, Steinbeck was influenced by Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. And the mightly flynn is right about MFA bashing being a silly sport. Rilke said, I think, in his letters to a poet, that if you're not compelled to write, you're wasting your time asking useless questions. As far as new movements, there aren't any--at least we won't know what they are for another 50 years. Dirty realism and magical realism aren't movements, they are styles that come out of movements like modernism and post-modernism, which are too big too consider here; plus, the thing about an "ism" like the aforementioned, is that they cannot be contained, they cannot be boxed, one criteria bleeds into another. Wolfe is railing against all the bad writing that comes out of MFA workshops, and he should be, because a lot of awful writing does come out of MFA workshops; it is stagnant, it (the writing)does stink, but that's not the program's fault, is it? Where are the artists, where are the risk takers, where are the people who challenge themselves more that anyone else? Don't blame a program, don't envy your peers, show up, work hard, and try to learn to write. It's a difficult task. Not many can accomplish it.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that dirty realism, magical realism, minimalism, and the like would absolutely be called movements. The fact that a large group of people, headlined by some very popular writers and acclaimed works, went toward this particular type of writing would denote a movement--the writing went somewhere it hadn't been before. If minimalism wasn't a movement, then I'd have a hard time explaining why it influenced two decades (and growing) worth of writers who worship at the altar of Raymond Carver. The things we now call modernism and postmodernism movements were probably just silly little experimental styles to their contemporaries, some of many. Really, call them styles, call them movements--it's just semantics. My point is that literature is only as stagnant as language and culture in a given society, and our society has definitely not been stagnant for the last fifty years.

But you're right, nobody can label the dominant movement until we're clear of the era and can see the broad scope of literature. That, and some pithy, astute lit critic comes up with a name to label it with.

My issue with Wolfe's comment isn't that he's griping about MFA programs--again, an old, horse-whipped complaint--but that he's bemoaning the move away from his journalistic style. It's the Victorians whining about modernism, the modernists whining about postmodernism, and so on and so forth. His very complaint shows literature hasn't been stagnant since the 60s. It seems to me a very time-honored literary tradition, the older generation nitpicking the newer one. I say we allow the old man his grumbling, smile and nod, and worry about our own damn writing.

The Ghost of Nostradamustache said...

Ande, I appreciate your defense of your discipline and your backhanding of mine, but it seems like you're thinking of Literature students is too narrow a scope (as mine very well might be about MFA students). To say that we are only interested in the canon is short sighted. Yes, as an undergraduate English major, you spend a lot of time familiarizing yourself with the canon, but by the time you reach the graduate level, you are expected to know the canon so you move beyond it. For instance, last semester one of the works I studied most closely and wrote about was Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. For a class on WWI Lit, a classmate of mine studied Pynchon's Against the Day.

Also, keep in mind who creates the canon. It is not as established and set-in-stone and you might think. Dead white men are constantly dropping out of the canon in favor of more contemporary writers. Sure it takes a long time and an author will need to have a pretty sizable or influential body of work, but You look at just the Norton Anthology of American Lit and you'll see a substantial group of still living and relevant authors in there. The most important work we're (we as in literary scholars) doing is in reading and working with texts that are newer and haven't gotten much attention and should. Keep in mind, scholarly attention is a different animal from sales and readings and the like. Virtually nothing has been written on Chabon, for instance, beyond book reviews, but odds are that'll change was time marches on. The canon essentially evolves based on who is being taught, who is being spoken about at conferences and who is being written about. The idea that the canon is some sacred list that literary scholars hold up for veneration and sacrifice farm animals to is simply incorrect. If anything, the canon evolves because new Literature teachers, as a reaction to changes in attitudes of what constitutes Literature as well as a difference in values, both social and literary, with those who came before, acknowledge contemporary works as equal to and often superior to dead white men.

I admit that perhaps the clarifications like modernism or postmodernism or naturalism is more likely to be floated around on the scholarly side of Literature than the creative side. But I would agree with anonymous movements like dirty realism and magical realism and the like are more likely sub-genres within a larger one. To use Modernism as an example, the movement not only showed a radical shift in the way a story or poem is physically written (i.e. Dos Passos's marriage of historical documents and fiction) but also a socio-political shift. After WWI, literature came to focus on alienation, disillusionment which is clearly a reaction to the unbelievable slaughter of the war.

So, my original question was why haven't we seen a combined shift the way we did with Modernism and Postmodernism in such a long time. I guess, at least on the American side, I would have thought that the Vietnam War/Kennedy assassination/Nixon bullshit would constitute a more traumatic experience than WWI (of which our involvement was minimal). Stylistically, Bryan I think you're right that we've seen a shitload of memoirs as a result. I'd say the vast majority of literature to come out of Vietnam is memoir. Why memoir, I can't say. You might be right that audiences now want to read something that's "true," but I'd wager it's more than that. Other than that it's hard to say. But even as I think about it, for lack of a better word, important authors who have come about in the last 40 years, I can't think of anyone who came through MFA programs before they began publishing.

Let me ask those of you in the know: When did MFA in creative writing become a large scale option for aspiring writers? Are we too close to the MFA's prominence to make any kind of claim either way?

Anonymous said...

Chabon, in fact, came through an MFA program at UC-Irvine. His first novel was actually his thesis. Richard Ford and Yusef Komunyakaa also got MFAs from Irvine.

Flannery O'Conner (as Flynn pointed out, and maybe pushing the 40-year line), John Irving, Stuart Dybek, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, Denis Johnson, and a whole laundry list of writers came from the Iowa Writers' workshop. Check here for that.

Junot Diaz, like Diana said, came through the MFA program at Cornell.

You'd really have to count the Stegner Fellowship in this batch, because it's like getting an MFA--you take workshops but don't have to teach, plus Stegner kind of pioneered a lot of creative writing pedagogy--only you don't come out with a degree. In that group comes Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ken Kesey, Phillip Levine, Larry McMurtry, Robert Pinsky.

Basically, I could go on, but there isn't a shortage of major authors to come out of MFA programs. Pynchon didn't, Wolfe didn't, Roth didn't (but he taught in Iowa's), Updike didn't, Vonnegut didn't (but taught at Iowa's). These are all older guys, though, and many of them went through school before MFAs were huge. Some got BAs at Ivy League schools (which at the time could have been as good as an MFA, and shoots Wolfe's lowly origins theory to shit), some even got advanced degrees (and at their time, an MA in writing was probably the same as an MFA)--hell, Wolfe went and got a PhD.

To answer your question, it was probably about the 70s that MFA programs became more and more popular--about the same time more people were heading off into college after high school because it's what people are supposed to do. In the time of Faulkner and Hemingway, not everyone finished high school, let alone left for college. There's some kind of shift now where finishing college today is almost analagous to finishing high school a hundred years ago, and getting an advanced degree (like an MA or MFA or PhD) is about as common as people going to college in Faulkner's time. Considering the students coming through my composition class, and how many of them can barely string together two coherent thoughts when they get there, I'm not surprised there aren't more Hemingways today. Granted, it's a smallish state school, not Harvard, so we're not getting the top-tier students gracing our halls, but a high school education isn't cutting it as "enough" in a lot of places.

I have to stop and realize, though, how silly this whole thing is. How rare was having Faulkner, and Steinbeck, and Hemingway? How many writers were around them writing shit? How often were their contemporaries asking "Where's our Hawthorne? Where's our Tolstoy?" and bemoaning the sad state of their literary predicament with our "greats" putting out works we find masterpieces?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I stumbled on this blog, it's sort of interesting. I think we're missing an important point. Some of you are responding to the canon like it's a dead thing, or old fashioned or a tradition you'd like to do away with. I don't understand where any of you are coming from. Contemporary literature doesn't exist without the canon, the canon doesn't exist without the classics, the classics don't exist without mythology. All of it is based on expression. Why do you want to separate contemporary writing from the canon. That's not possible. Without the canon we wouldn't know what stream of consciousness is, we wouldn't know what an epiphany is, we wouldn't understand every single struggle writers have grappled with, existentialism, etc. What are you arguing about. All writers learn from everything that's been written. Your arguments are moot.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone was complaining about what came before. Nobody said anything about discounting or doing away with the canon. In fact, I don't think any of what I've said has to do with separating contemporary writing from the canon. Quite the opposite, really. None of our arguments are centering on the idea of the canon being non-applicable.

The argument started over the idea that Wolfe thinks the MFA is ruining literature. It's kind of a ridiculous argument, but a popular one. The question wasn't even put to him like the turning away from his journalistic style was a bad thing, but he chose to take it that way in his answer.

His point is valid, though. I've come across some teachers who breed a cult of personality around them, where their followers sound just like them in their writing and in conversation. It's the danger of workshops--writers writing to please their instructor. It happens.

But it's happened for longer than the MFA. Eliot got feedback on The Wasteland. Ellison was a first audience for Wright with Native Son, giving his reactions as the pages came out of the typewriter. The expatriates of the Lost Generation shared their work with each other in its nascent stages. It wasn't called a workshop, but it's a similar premise.

Bryan said...

Anonymous Commenter the're 100% right that an MFA is not licensure for authorship. I don't have the number, but it's pretty astronomical the number of MFAers who graduate then never bother to pursue writing. It's kind of like the dropout rate for first-year teachers. Also, you're right that it's not MFA programs fault for bad writing, for the most part, as they are benevolent entities at their core. However, sir/madam, your point about ego is delicate. See, to me, writing for publication is for the ego, it's saying "Look at me. I have something important to say that you will like, so listen up." So as writers, you need ego, and a big one, in order to believe that you'll make it, but maybe a better term for what I'm talking about is self-confident because writer's also need to show an equal amount of supplication. They need to have this feeling of "Yes, I am great, but I would also like some help." It's the ones who think they are above help that's the issue, and they don't belong in writing programs...they should just be trying to publish on their own.

Seth, I think Ande's right that the rise of the MFA started some time in 1970s because most of the major modern (by modern I mean alive or recently alive) writers tend to have advanced degrees in writing, or if not MFAs, then at least some kind of advanced degree. So the MFAs impact on Literature probably should only be thoroughly examined on writers born in the 1950s and up. Certainly people born before then have them (see O'Connor, Flannery), but not in the numbers like now. And the MFA is still on the rise too. Unfortunately, just by having more MFA programs doesn't mean that suddenly many more people are now fantastic writers, just more people who want to be writers. And by that, I mean, they want their names on books, they don't want the challenge of creating meaningful stories.

I do wonder goofy hypotheticals like what would have happened to Faulkner if he went through an MFA program. But I also wonder would he of the several-pages-long sentence even get published today. So, you know, what's the publishing community/business role in shaping modern literature movements?

Okay, I made a mistake. The interviewer of Wolfe was Sam Tanenhaus not Dwight Garner. I've fixed the post to reflect that. I'll end this with something Ande asked about the question that Tanenhaus asked to Tom Wolfe that started this. Below, I'll give the full text of the question Garner asked to Wolfe that got us on this discussion:

Mr. Tanenhaus: Two of your classics, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, are being reissued in paperback and the question you've pursued as a writer and observer and critic of the perceived lines between what constitutes serious nonfiction writing, journalism and the novel and how the two somehow got separated. When did that happen? When did the American novel cease to have that journalistic, sociological aspect you brought back to it?

Wolfe gave his MFA-bashing answer. Tanenhaus chuckled at the mosquito line along with Wolfe (for whatever that's worth). And after Wolfe finished, Tanenhaus changed topics to Wolfe's early years as a journalist.

Anonymous said...

I can't say much about Tom Wolff, didn't read the books, saw the not-very-good movies, and so his opinion about writers and MFA programs means little to me. I don't know how long he was in the trenches (teaching that is), or if he even was, I suspect not and don't really care. He made his mark and that's good for him, but as a writer, I need something besides opinion to help me with my craft. For example:

Letters to a Fiction Writer by Frederick Busch

is one of the most useful books I've ever read. It's a collection of advice to wannabe writers that I found invaluable. I'm more interested in those teachers who struggle at the bottom, who have big hearts for their students, and wisdom to impart, than I am about a guy who's made it to the top and preaches from there. His (Wolfe's) opinion doesn't mean much to me one way or the other. I don't bow down to the altar of star power, the commerce of product, the comodification of literary endeavors that make money for the big houses. Thank you small presses for existing, so the rest of us can write literary works and not have to worry whether or not we're going to be rich and famous. That's just a dream. Like the poor kid who hopes to make the NFL or the NBA, but doesn't have a chance in Hades. There's a difference between being an artist and making money--let's leave that to the business majors, and if we're lucky as writers, maybe we can hire one of them to be our CPA., but I wouldn't hold my breath.