gall and gumption

Sunday, May 09, 2010

No Time Like the Present

Dear Ms. Kia:

It's inevitable. At a dinner party or on the sidelines of my son's soccer game, someone well-meaning will ask what I do. "I edit the Virginia Quarterly Review," I tell them. ... They nod politely, sometimes with the vaguest hint of recognition. Yes, they remember seeing in the local paper that we've won some big awards, right? It's well respected, isn't it? But the idea of editing a literary magazine seems, to them, only slightly more utilitarian than making buggy whips or telegraph relays."...


Dear Invisible,
There is nothing quite like the pain of being misunderstood and unappreciated by a total stranger that I've just met at a dinner party or at the sidelines of a soccer game. Believe me, I have been there and done that. Just as you find yourself, I have too often been a Person That Other People Are Not Necessarily Interested In. You may well look at me, and ask, How do you do it, Ms. Kia? How do you carry on in the face of this callous and unaccountable indifference? Do you have any advice?

Do I have advice? If I could bottle and sell it, I would be a rich woman now. But I am generous. I give it away for free. When my friends complain that they once had a miserable time with people they don't know well, do you know what I say to them? I say, "[Insert friend's name here], Do you LOVE those people?" And [Insert friend's name] says, "No," and I say, "Well I don't see the problem then." Who are these people anyway? Wild animal trainers? Astronauts? Submarine captains? I recommend that you hang with a better class of people, Invisible. Or bring something to read.

Dear Ms. Kia,

Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000. This is due partly to a shift in our culture from a society that believed in hierarchy to one that believes in a level playing field. [Emphasis added, with some consternation--Ms. K] This is good—to a point. The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can't express your individuality in sterling prose, I don't want to read about it.

Mighty Particular Considering

Dear Mighty,
I'm going to write something on the blackboard.

Sentence A:
This is due partly to a shift in our culture from a society that believed in hierarchy to one that believes in a level playing field.

Sentence B:
You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can't express your individuality in sterling prose, I don't want to read about it.

Dear Mighty,
I hope you will not take offense, but the person who wrote Sentence A may not want to take quite such a high tone in Sentence B.

That small point of style dispensed with, let's turn our attention to the substance, shall we? I fear you are unclear on the concept of equality. During the years that you characterize by the belief in hierarchy lots of great literature was written and published. But to conclude that it was the result of hierarchy--that the exclusion of ethnic and religious and racial minorities assured quality--well, you would have to believe that the Age of Affirmative Action For Straight White Gentile Men was a pure, disinterested and perfectly efficient meritocracy. Do you really want to go there?

As for the idea that social hierarchy somehow nurtures quality literature--here are a few people who would disagree with you: Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, William Hazlitt, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce. Any of these writers could have made good use of a little bit of a break when they were starting out. I'd like to see you tell any one of them that their poverty and struggles were good for their art.

Dear Ms. Kia,

By the 1950s, young writers could apply to a dozen creative writing programs; the Beats could publish in Chicago Review, experimental writers in Black Mountain Review, internationalist writers in TriQuarterly, young Southern writers in Georgia Review and Shenandoah. All on the university dime. By the early '70s—and with the development of inexpensive offset printing—every school seemed to have its own quarterly. Before long, the combined forces of identity politics and cheap desktop publishing gave rise to African American journals, Asian American journals, gay and lesbian journals. Graduates of creative writing programs were multiplying like tribbles. Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves. And with that in mind, writers have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers—and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.

Math Anxious

Dear Math Anxious,
Gee, I wish I could understand why for so many people history apparently began and ended in the 1950s when the unwashed started showing up in classes. Let's go a little further back. The 19th century writers we read now mostly in college English classes were popular writers, widely read. The firewall between popular and "literary" writing arose mainly after the First World War, though a case could be made that its foundations were laid even earlier--at least when the subject matter of poetry narrowed dramatically in range after the 18th century. But Modernism began in repudiation of the artistic, moral and cultural values that had led to the war, which was this catastrophe. The world wasn't the same afterward. Lots of other writers didn't take the oppositional stance of the Modernists; they were widely read then, and continued to be popular for years. Most of them, now, nobody reads. I read them in school because I happened to grow up in a culture that, in my childhood at least, was still remotely under the influence of Georgian (as in George V and George VI) values, at least in its literary tastes. I mean, my composition books in school had a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II on the cover.

The Modernists published their own literary journals, in small editions, sustained by private incomes and begging. They were mostly short-lived and nobody read them except for other writers. Everybody was still reading Masefield and Walter de la Mare and Palgrave's Golden Treasury.

The English professors started paying attention with Eliot; erudite, ironic, obscure, satire without an object, vaguely deploring the loss of some imaginary paradise and full of tight-lipped scorn for the unwashed and unlettered, Eliot's work was like catnip for English professors. One after another of the Moderns sort of began to gain his or her own cult following among literary types, people disposed to look for challenging literary work, that took them into the academic mainstream just about the time that people in universities were running out of original things to say about Shakespeare.

And there was lots of money, there was great demand for new teachers, and there were all the lessons all those GIs brought home from the War about the value of real liberal humanism. Two of my mentors were such people. But basically it was about money and about the belief that investing in the humanities had huge payoffs as in possibly preventing the horrors so recently witnessed. And the money was there, just as there was money for an Interstate Highway system, and, not long after, a space program. Subsidizing literary magazines fell naturally into this optimistic, liberal, expansive view.

Well, more than 50 years later, we are accustomed to hear people talk about "running a university like a business" and treating academic departments as "cost centers." Which makes about as much sense as building a highway system or a space program or operating a bus system that way. Some things cannot be made to turn a profit; there are other values besides profit. But of course now if you say that you are a hippie troublemaker etc. Now I call this a detail but it represents a huge shift in intellectual orientation, in ideology, in expectations not only of education but in fundamental beliefs about the aims and ends of human life in society. Interesting that you don't mention it, Math Anxious.

So it is remarkable that of all things creative writing programs should have proliferated, especially at the accelerated rate of the last 30 or so years when universities have been cutting away at the humanities as an unprofitable superfluity in the glorious free market. And let me tell you, the "liberals" on campus were down with that program.

When I entered graduate school in the mid 1980s I was assigned a graduate advisor, who at our first meeting suggested to me that writing fiction would harm my prospects for an academic career. I wondered why that should be: I hadn't gone to grad school to write fiction, and if I wrote fiction in my spare time and published it, why would that be any different from my other extracurricular activities like gardening, cooking, ballet? He was trying to keep me away from Marvin Mudrick, as I figured out about five minutes after I left his office. I mention this only because the idea that fiction was bad for your career was perfectly plausible cover for this bit of politicking. The person who gave me this advice was not one of old relics, no Professor Fuddy or Professor Duddy; he was a slick, expensive acquisition, a man who had the word "diversity" constantly in his mouth, who was rewarded for his perfect and uncritical conformity and courtier's skills with a fat gig orbiting around Jacques Derrida at UC Irvine.

In other English departments, though, some people could do math. Students, in growing numbers, wanted to take creative writing classes. Why wouldn't they? The earliest writing programs had track records of student publication and attracted visiting lecturers who were published writers. Students would pay to attend these programs. Now, suppose you are an English department. You start a writing program, fairly cheaply, and then let's say you admit 20 students. One gets a book deal, nineteen don't; but whether any of them publish or not, you get to keep the money. Moreover, a few book deals sort of generate a virtuous loop: they attract more students, maybe better students; they attract the eyes of publishers and agents; they attract better visiting faculty. Because most of the people who teach in creative writing programs are not living off their books.

Best of all, there is an apparently unlimited supply of people who are willing to dedicate a couple of years, a week, three months, whatever they can afford, to their development as writers.

If you have ever driven across the United States you may appreciate that it is a very boring place. Lots of it is empty, like out West. And then there are a lot of very dull towns, where there is no culture but what comes in via the TV and the chain stores. But writers get born in those places because there is no good place to be a writer, they're all equally good or bad, and they have to find other writers who, like they, are mysteriously intrigued by writing as an art--for whatever reasons, if only the hope that it will enable them never to have to go back to Gopher Butt or Soulless Acres. If you haven't driven across the country then I suggest you read Dawn Powell's My Home Is Far Away. Writers want to express themselves and they also want that audience of people who are interested in writing, who share the experience. And in the vast cultural wastes of America you may not luck into such an audience--the chances are you will have to go looking for it.

So you see? Writing workshop.

Here is what writing programs offer to writers: contact with other people interested in writing, guidance and instruction, an audience, possible connections to publishers or an agent, and time. Writers have always needed these things.

Why do you regard these hopeful writers with such contempt? Are you aware of the contempt? Is there a non-contemptuous way to refer to aspiring writers as a "precious snowflakes" Is there a non-contemptuous way to compare them to promiscuously reproducing vermin from outer space? What should these people be doing instead? Do the force and extent of this desire for self-expression suggest nothing else to you?

There have always been more people aspiring to write than there have been readers willing to read them; there are lots of readers, but they want to read the writers they already like. Writers who are not already established have always had to fight to win or keep their audiences--by luck, by skill, by vicious pamphlet wars, by publicity stunts, by manifestos, by low and devious cunning, by dying, by getting Oprah's endorsement, and, of course,by writing. They've tried everything, and most of the time they never made a decent living off it.

Now is as good a time as any to be a writer, or an aspiring writer. It is always the wrong time, it is always the right time. Other times might have been great for Hemingway, or for Jane Austen, or for Chaucer. Had you, Math Anxious, or my friend Bob, or that man over there at the bus stop been there then it might not have been any better for us than the present is. It's quite possible, in other words, that the good old days (whenever you imagine them to have been) would have been bad for you. Just as it's possible that in a former life you were not an Egyptian princess but the guy who cleaned up after the elephants.

To pull out of this tailspin, writers and their patrons both will have to make some necessary changes—and quick. With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature [you're kidding, right?--Ms. K.], reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers.

It's not the proliferation of uninteresting entertainments that besets me as a writer (although I find a horrid fascinationin Real Housewives of New York); I know how to switch them off. If you don't like the "blogosphere" don't hang out there. You sound like this boyfriend I had once who walked into a supermarket with me and said "Oh wow. Too much information." Somewhere in that supermarket was a single mother with two small kids that she picked up from day care on her way home from work and she was going to get her shopping done and get everybody home, fed, and to bed so she could start the next grinding work day. She deals with the information. Time and money are hard realities, and have been ever since ever; too much entertainment is the least of anybody's troubles.

I make my defense here of the aspiring writers, the 60,000 tribbles, though I don't read their books. I walk into the local bookstore and go right past that table with all the new titles. And even though I don't read their books, I'd never say to someone that they shouldn't write, or that they should write "sterling prose." Because, well, you never know...

I'm saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ's sake, write something we might want to read.

Oh, all right then. You go first.

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