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Learning from tools.pdf

Learning from tools.pdf

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September 2006
Learning from tools
by Stefan Bec
 A criticism of MFA programs and writing workshops, especially as they affect two recent works of fiction.
If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the War, it’s Workshop.
—Kingsley Amis,
Jake’s Thing 
he required reading list of an American high school student usually includes, along with works by Remarque, Knowles, and Salinger, a famously awful “anonymous” offering called
Go Ask Alice 
. The book, billed as the real diary of an average Sixties teen, chronicles a terrifying descent into drugs anddepravity. Picture Marcia Brady helping William S. Burroughs tie her off in a public lavatory and you’ve got the idea.The thing is, it isn’t a real diary. Neither, unfortunately, are
Jay’s Journal 
(descent intoSatanism),
It Happened to Nanc
(descent into AIDS), or
Annie’s Baby 
(descent into teenpregnancy). All of these penny-dreadful pseudographies were written by their supposed
, anoctogenarian Mormon former youth counselor and “music therapist” named Beatrice Sparks. Youreally can’t make this stuff up.Bearing that in mind, I have to wonder at times whether there might be a similar entity behindmuch of the literary fiction seeing print these days. Consider some of this year’s releases and theirpurported authors:
(Alfred A. Knopf): “Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop … graduated Phi Beta Kappa andsumma cum laude from Harvard University in 2001. In 2004 she received her MFA in fiction fromthe University of California at Irvine.”
Born Again 
(Harcourt): “Kelly Kerney received … an MFA from the University of Notre Dame …she is twenty-six years old.”
St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves 
(Alfred A. Knopf): “Karen Russell … is a graduateof the Columbia MFA program… . She is twenty-five years old.”
Special Topics in Calamity Physics 
(Viking): “Marisha Pessl graduated Phi Beta Kappa fromColumbia University.”
To Feel Stuff 
(Harvest): Andrea Siegel, in her own words:
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[E]veryone keeps asking me what I’ve learned from my MFA. … Other Bennington students ask  because they think my original “I’m learning that I’m going to get a degree” is a totally assholicanswer and want to see if it’s changed into something more romantic… . I’ve learned … that it’s wholly impossible to escape the core version of yourself… . you’ll never overcome the samethings you were crying about to your mom back in eleventh grade.No wonder the bookshelves are dusted with the fallout of so many bad Junior Proms.None dare call it conspiracy—but what if Twentysomething Grad Student is meant to function,like Anonymous Teenager once did, as a marketing strategy? How else to explain this astonishingproliferation? It isn’t limited to these five books: Show me an author bio without an MFA in it, and I’llshow you a celebrity chef or a former counterterrorism director.Can a workshop produce a good book? Well, anything’s possible. But the publishing world’sreliance on MFA programs is, nevertheless, not only lazy but also profoundly detrimental to the art of fiction. Moreover, there are many ways in which the workshop system is rigged to yield books thatprimarily appeal to—I hesitate to say 
speak t
, though it does suggest the one-sidedness of thetransaction—other writers and would-be writers.Take Marisha Pessl’s great cinder block of a debut,
Special Topics in Calamity Physics 
.[1] (No,really—I just used it to smash the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen.) I haven’t yet finished it, and don’t wish to comment on its quality, but anyone who’s read a
of it can see how perfectly itillustrates the insularity now weakening literature. It’s modeled on a Great Books program, with eachchapter named for—and shot through with allusions to—a classic work:
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 
Madame Bovar
, etc. Is this such a good idea?The main character of Jonathan Safran Foer’s
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Clos
wasmodeled on the protagonist of Günter Grass’s
Tin Drum 
. Zadie Smith’s
On Beaut
was patterned afterE. M. Forster’s
Howards End 
, as she needlessly rendered it. And now this. Pessl’sheroine, Blue van Meer, falls in with a teacher and her circle, but we already had
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 
, a better book than a fledgling author like Pessl could dream of writing.
ovels should be about people, not about other books. In one corner there is Nabokov, whoseallusions are so deeply encoded that it’s neither possible nor necessary to catch every one of them—
Jeffrey Meyers’s recent essay on
Pale Fir
The New Criterion 
, May 2006), a novel whichPessl’s baroque mystery supposedly recalls. In the other corner, we have Pessl, who, wittingly or not,poaches on the authority of geniuses. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but most of her beloved luminaries are long dead. The only people she’s flattering are her educated peers, eager to getthe jokes and check the boxes.I mentioned “would-be writers.” More damaging than anything else, the recent spate of books by young grads gives aspiring novelists the impression that it can be
. All one needs are theslightest bit of verbal facility and some familiarity with the tastes and prejudices of the averagereader—the young, ambitious, Ivy-educated lit-lover or critic—and,
, success! But this raises aninteresting question. When a young writer is praised for his insight into the human condition, oneasks: Did he learn it from life? Or did he just read about it? A delightful and unusual reference book,
Brewer’s Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics 
by William
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Donaldson, relates the story of Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), “liar, exhibitionist, literary fraud,and by some accounts a genius”:Born in Bristol, and raised by his widowed mother, Chatterton had begun to “medievalize”himself by the age of 11, brooding over old parchments in Bristol churches. In 1763 he producedhis first literary forgery,
Elinore and Juga 
, allegedly the work of a 15th-century poet… . Hisgreatest work was
The Legend of Thomas Rowle
, supposedly a priest of St. John in Bristolduring the reign of Henry IV.The public always has been obsessed with youth and with child prodigies, but, incredibly, nobody everstops to wonder what a young man or woman—having experienced little but the comfortable world of academia—can possibly know about the larger world and the people in it. What happened to debuts written by people in their forties? Shouldn’t there be struggle? Why are those who’ve done and seenthe least expected to tell us the most?I can’t count the emails I’ve received accusing me of writing negative reviews out of spite orenvy. Before you point and laugh that I’ve hoisted myself by my own Dartmouth lanyard, I’ll disclosethe truth: I’ve “workshopped” fiction of my own so abysmal that it should never have seen theassembly line. If I learned one thing from my hopeful peers (believe me, the professors can rarely be bothered to offer much criticism, what with their classrooms full of 
de facto 
teaching assistants), it’sthat we didn’t have much to say. At least not yet. So: no, I don’t envy those who have had a halogenlamp shined on their fits and starts. And if I’m too hard on them, it’s because I see them as tools of anoperation that has done plenty to embarrass the whole enterprise of literature.
laire Messud’s new novel
The Emperor’s Childre
is a wrench in these works.[2] It reads like anexposé of the factories that give us writers like Marisha Pessl. One main character—named, in a bizarre and suggestive coincidence, Marina—is a beautiful, pitifully idle society girl, just barely at work on her first book. (Pessl, if not a society girl, is at any rate a model and actress.) Marina’s father,Murray Thwaite, is a celebrated liberal journalist, a more believable version of Pessl’s heroine’s father,a celebrated liberal professor. Will parallels never cease?That Messud’s book is coming out at this moment suggests that the planets may be aligning toloosen the MFA stranglehold on fiction.
The Emperor’s Childre
is a disturbingly credible tableau of the sort of people who develop in a cocoon of ambition, entitlement, and pride.The aforementioned Murray Thwaite is a monster of false modesty, whose big secret project is amanuscript about—wait for it —
how to live 
. He is assured of his own wisdom as only this species of pretentious, scotch-swilling adulterer can be.The thirty-year-old Marina Thwaite’s debut book,
The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothe
, is afashionable bagatelle about how children’s apparel reflects cultural mores. (If, as Auden had it, poetry makes nothing happen, then books like Marina’s at least have the effect of making us duller and moretrivia-obsessed.)It was a fine choice on Messud’s part not to make Marina a novelist. Marina’s subject reinforces what Messud tells us, explicitly and otherwise, about the perils of self-invention and the petty passions that can motivate it. It’s also true that a book about children’s clothing, unlike a novel, is all but guaranteed to be worthless: Even Murray muses, as he opens the manuscript (which he never
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