the literary life 5/9/10
I've been going through a period where I'm having trouble finishing the novels I pick up for personal enjoyment. I read about 100 pages and put them down. I've been picking up contemporary literature and mysteries. Usually, this stuff is attention-grabbing and well-written enough to get me hooked. Not so lately. I had the thought that maybe I'm having trouble concentrating on what I read because what I've been choosing is the wrong kind of contemporary literature. The plot lines are sentimental or too predictable or familiar. It's frustrating to read a book that you really want to like but don't because it seems obviously crafted--or purposefully written for the screen. I'm looking for challenge and inspiration--and what I mean by challenge is literature that doesn't seem like it was just a thesis written for an MFA program or well-marketed decent. I want to read literature that comes out some inner fire. I have noticed that many of the books I'm putting down are by recent MFA grads. What a funny and cranky thing to say! I take writing workshops myself all the time for poetry. But when I read a piece of literature, and I am aware of the conscious use of craft techniques, I don't feel like a reader. I feel like a student in an advanced writing workshop. Maybe my own workshopped mind is interfering with the experience. But then again, when I read a book that inspires me because it's so exceptional, I become aware of the craft part much later.
I think MFA programs should exist for writers as part of the process, but do we need so many? It seems like anyone with the funds and willingness to get an MFA today can easily do so--especially the low residency format. Sure, there are the elite schools like Iowa, but with so many students coming out of MFA programs, it's becoming harder to distinguish between the writer and the written. This is not to undermine the fact that there are scores of genuinely talented writers coming out of MFA programs, but unfortunately, there are also many average writers with good marketing hooks in their fiction that end up getting on the shelves. And then I walk into a bookstore tantalized by literary options I want to enjoy but ending up wondering about. I've been teaching The Great Gatsby at school. The book is a knockout. It's beautiful literature--literature that comes from something an MFA program can't provide: talent and brilliance. I think the purpose of an MFA program shouldn't be to help an average writer become publishable--it should be to help a talented writer find time, space, and a community in which to hone his/her work. Admitting too many "average" writers into the program cheapens the value of an MFA degree. And I say this more as a reader than a writer.
A few years ago I read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. I embraced the openness of such writing advice books, which propagate the myth that anyone can become a writer with hard work, perseverance, and revision. Although these works are well-intentioned and good soul-food for emerging writers, I would say that anyone can improve their writing with hard work and revision, but to get published as literary fiction--or even be admitted to an MFA--one should exhibit amazing abilities. Let me make a basketball analogy. There are a lot of young people who would love to become professional players--but let's face it, one has to be blessed with a certain physical disposition and skills-set to get there (i.e. real potential). I think anyone can improve their game with practice, but not everyone who loves the game is meant to play professional basketball. This is gonna sound harsh, but here's the truth: I think the ubiquity of MFA degrees is giving too many average writers access to a game they weren't meant to play professionally. So is the publishing world.
So I want to go back and read some literary classics. I want to read writers who labored over their work and no doubt crafted it and conversed with other writers, but writers who belonged to a pre-MFA and writing-formula world. I'm starting by reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot. So far, so good. I also want to get more selective about the contemporary literature I end up buying from bookstores. I need to research the writers, not just get tantalized by blurbs and glossy covers that promise exceptional reading experiences. Here are some of my favorite fiction writers writing today (some which have well deserved MFA's): James Lasdun, T.C. Boyle, Orhan Pamuk, Julia Glass, Lawrence Block, and Aimee Bender.