Despite the Fact
...that this blog clearly peaked with that last post about would-be cat abortionists, I suppose I must go on. I'm not really sure why either.
After reading it for two weeks, here's the bulk of my commentary on The Faerie Queene: That Spenser really liked parades.
You can't go two cantos without knights running into a parade. Usually it's just long lists of sins or love emotions or whathaveyou. This is what Bart Giamatti called the "pageant1" and what I would call annoying. Look, we all love parades, even knights allegorically representing chastity love parades. But not every demon has to have one.
Or at least that's what I thought before. I've completely come around on parades being written about in Spenserian stanzas:
Macy's parade every Thanksgiving Day,
Woody Woodpecker flies! Behold the morn
as red McDonald's haloed head allays
the guilt of Snoopy's sins no longer worn;
afloat with charity a dog newborn
to angel heaven. Good this grief they surf
in currents rising high; but cords untorn
are sinful men assigned who owe the turf
a soul they claim by holding bound a balloon Smurf.
And that's what I spent all morning doing. Not for the first time, I'm really glad I don't write Elizabethan poetry. Fiction!
1 Pete Rose is hereby banned from baseball.
Despite the Fact
(In case you're curious, I stumbled upon this Yahoo Answers article while fact checking a moment in a student's story. Yes, fiction workshop makes me want to clear my browser's cache. Let's move on).
Best lines from answers to this question:
* To begin with, don't listen to your cat.
* Why would you murder your baby because your cat thinks it's a good idea?
* I'm sorry to say, and not trying to be mean or anything, but don't listen to an animals opinion.
* Lose the cat (or at least declaw it).
* But if you really love your fiance, as i think you do cause you said yes to marring him.
* My grandma's father's cat ate a bird my great-grandfather liked more.
* Cats generally know best...take the feline's advice and terminate asap.
* I think your cats needs to be put in her place! HER POLITICAL VIEWS ARE IRRELEVANT!
* Just let your cat perform the abortion.
* Source: degree in human behaviour; animal behaviour; and personal experience.
O, and don't worrying about answering this question yourself. It's resolved.
Elif Batuman's "Get a Real Degree"
I didn't want to read another handwringing essay about MFA programs, but Batuman's sucked me in with a strange combination of insightful critiques and obtuse generalities. It's really a fascinating read as it gets so much right but even more so very wrong about creative writing programs. It's hard to know how much of this is Batuman and how much of this is Mark McGurl, the author of the book she's reviewing, but it's easy to get the sense reading "Get a Real Degree" that no one involved in the process has ever actually been in a graduate-level writing program.
O, and admittedly they haven't. Which is fine, preferable to the alternative, probably, but it disconnects the book and its review so thoroughly from the MFA that after a time Batuman might as well be writing about high school graduates or people who've eaten at McDonald's. The MFA is--correctly--identified as a near universal credential for the past two or three generations of writers yet its the presumed universality of the MFA which leads Batuman far from her target. By trying to write about every program, she (or McGurl, again it's hard to pinpoint where this is coming from) ends up writing about no programs. In the end it makes her conclusions no different from those old studies defining racial characteristics, a collection of conjecture and stereotypes seemingly done because it was easier than actually tackling the complicated truth.
O, and that's an appropriate analogy because Batuman (for some reason) continues to reference Stuff White People Like.
Look, no one likes creative writing programs. I mean, we "like" them in the sense we attend them and teach at them and people, people I imagine I don't like, waste considerable time ranking them, but very few MFA graduates could or would stand up for them as being essential to the production of literature. The historical truth of this is obvious, yet that does not mean the MFA--a degree I don't have! (though it's really a matter of semantics)--is worthless.
Sticking with McGurl and Batuman's use of baseball as a metaphor, the MFA is the minor leagues, a place where one rarely learns anything more valuable than the time given to learn it. Baseball isn't a different game at AA than it is in the majors yet most 20-year-olds can't make the leap. Instead they play the game again and again until they either hone their talent enough to hang with the big kids or they get discouraged and quit. The 3-6 years players spend in the minors purport to teach players a lot of things but anyone who follows baseball knows they rarely do. The minors' true value is in giving those players time to develop enough personally (maturity/community/etc.) and professionally (working hard despite the daily grind) and physically (steroids).
I guess that's where the metaphor falls apart, but otherwise I think we might as well be talking about MFA programs. Sure, some pitchers actually do learn a changeup in the minors and some MFA students probably do learn "how to write," but in my experience the vast majority of creative writing students going through MFAs simply grow into the writer that, in a more perfect world, they would have been anyway. They meet older students who influence them, they discover new books, they maybe become aware of why their writing is failing--all things they could theoretically do without the MFA yet likely never would. Not because most MFA programs know what they're doing--they don't, I don't think--but because one's physical presence at a program for those two years allows it to happen. Time to read, time to write, time to--shudder--grow. Yes, I know that makes MFA programs sound little better than 2-year-long summer camps. I don't care. They are. This is a good thing.
Of course, now I'm falling into what is, I think, my biggest objection to Batuman's review which is that neither she nor the author of the book she's reviewing took the time to ask whether or not "The MFA Program" is even a thing. I mean, there are MFA programs, but are they really so universal that one can honestly write this sentence and have it apply to all of them:
Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos.
I find this to be a shockingly naive observation from a very, very smart writer. Which program does this? We're supposed to believe all of them do? Batuman (or perhaps McGurl) must be under the false impression that since the MFA is a degree then something must be taught. And since you can't teach expression or imagination or experience, the programs must naturally spend all their time "fetishizing technique." We then get this bizarre statement:
In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.
This confuses me for two reasons, the first being that choosing a book written in French completely baffles me by what she now means by "technical/technique" and the second being the impossibility of there being such a thing as well written bad book. If the book is bad, the writing is bad. I can't speak for McGurl and Batuman's unknowable capital P "Programme," but my experience in writing workshops has rarely led me to see the quality of the writing detached from the quality of the book/story/whatever. If anything, I've often found that we don't care enough about the quality of the writing, instead favoring to talk speculatively about a piece's intentions.
Which I think takes us to the most interesting passages from Batuman:
But how does one calculate the literary value of sociopolitical grievances?...Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest. The danger of Cisneros’s dig at her Iowa classmates, ‘cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids’, is the implication that the children of privilege don’t have stories to tell; that, because they aren’t from the barrio, they all have families like the one on Father Knows Best...
The danger of ethnicising novelistic alienation is that it removes this dialectical and historical element from the novel. Instead of striving to capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present, ‘high cultural pluralism’ simply strives to describe the greatest possible disjuncture from some static, imagined cultural dominant.
This is interesting and, while I still don't know if it's entirely representative of what I see being valued in the MFA, it's certainly something worth thinking about. Still, it's interesting McGurl and Batuman assign the commoditization of "persecution/difference" as something coming from MFAs rather than from larger cultural currents. It seems pretty clear to me that one could write about this phenomenon in any medium and any time post-WWII. Why is this "high cultural pluralism" suddenly an MFA issue? Perhaps Batuman gets closest to the heart of the problem when tying it to shame:
Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better
There is, I think, some value in pointing out the shame of literary production though I hardly think it's the force in MFA programs Batuman thinks it is. Nor do I understand why it would be an emotion unique to MFA programs at all. That said, I found some truth in her saying programs treat fiction as a form of "empathy training" though I'm not sure this is quite the dagger she thinks it is, especially while holding up Dave Egger's work as more forcefully pursuing social change. Other than that he doesn't have an MFA, I don't really understand the difference between him and the "cult of persecution" and I think someone could make a compelling case that he's that cult's spiritual leader, at least among Batuman's "White People."
Toward the end, Batuman asks, "Why can’t [programs] teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?" This is a great question though I don't think it's the biggest one facing creative writing programs. Creative writing programs should teach as much literature as possible and, in my experiences, they do, often to the chagrin of their students (I'm currently reading The Faerie Queene in a classroom full of MFA students, for instance). Some programs don't, of course, but many take their responsibility to literature both contemporary and classic seriously. Again, it's a question that makes sense to me but I don't think it's the question anyone who has been through an MFA would ask.
I suppose I'm simply confused because I have all these terrible things to say about MFAs and Batuman wrote 9k words about programs without saying any of them. In the end, it's a smart essay but it's not about MFAs or the problems facing them. The shame Batuman writes about cuts a different way, not shame over one's ineffectual career but over one's ineffectual era. Only later will history choose our Stendhals and until then readers are going to have struggle with the rest of us. And we're all failing and we've all got MFAs so obviously the latter causes the former. Of course, we've all gone to high school and all eaten at McDonald's...
I watched the ND-Michigan game live, and Dayne Crist coming back into the game with an obvious concussion was borderline criminal. And now there's this characteristically nonjudgmental report from the AP about how they only pulled him when he couldn't remember plays or hold a conversation with his offensive coordinator. His concussion then healed itself by watching his team struggle and so they put him back in the game. How does the AP acquire this information without getting Brian Kelly to comment on the fact that he put his quarterback at risk in order to win a meaningless game between non-contending teams?
[Update: the previous AP article has been updated with quotes from the parties involved. It makes none of this sound better to say the least. I guess the blurry vision, memory loss, and general non-personhood that followed a viscous hit was somehow not a sign of brain trauma. Here's the thing, team doctors let him play football, but would they have let him take a nap?]
Look, I don't care how much Joe Montana's kid sucks--a lot, it turns out--putting Crist back out there should lead to NCAA sanctions. Ideally, it would give the team the right to void Kelly's contract. I know he's not a doctor--neither am I, incidentally--but there's no way he should have heard the sentence, "I can't remember the plays." and even entertained the possibility of putting that player back in the game. I don't care what the doctor said. I don't care what Crist wanted. This was Kelly's call, and his own career was more important than the lifelong-health of a 20-year-old.
I'm going to go all sportstalk radio here: I don't understand why this isn't a scandal. How many stories about brain trauma does Alan Schwarz at the New York Times have to write before this gets taken seriously? Thankfully, the NFL is trying--though not enough--and at least there we're dealing with adults, many of whom are millionaires. This concussion thing is just one more way college football is an increasingly perverted institution where money and self-importance take precedent over the student-athlete. We've accepted the wink-wink 'student' part of that formulation for many, but if universities are going to continue to take advantage of these kids, at least they can take care of them.
Do Brian Kelly and Notre Dame care about anything other than the money and glory they can wring from Crist for four years? Kelly thinks these games are about his career and the university thinks they're about their reputation--why shouldn't they when they're getting all the money?--and so Crist is just a tool, one who will be replaced when he graduates or doesn't graduate or gets seriously injured. For four years he depends on the university for everything, and the least he should receive in return is his own safety.
Because after those four years, he gets nothing.
I don't know. I don't have any answers but, like many, think it's time coaches and universities and fans regain some perspective.
< /sportstalkradio >
On Editing a Novel #20
CHOOSING A FONT FOR YOUR NOVEL. This is the single most important thing you will do as a writer. It and it alone will determine your publishing success. Think back to the last time you were in a bookstore. How did you choose which book to buy? You flipped to the back and read the colophon didn't you? Of course you did. According to research, the origin of a book's font is the first thing book consumers check when undertaking a potential literature purchase. Take a look at this quote:
With a sudden upwelling of reverence, Robert Langdon fell to his knees.
Terrible, terrible writing, right? Wrong. Terrible, terrible font. Now let's see it as it appeared in print:
With a sudden upwelling of reverence, Robert Langdon fell to his knees.
And that book became The Da Vinci Code.
So what font should you choose? It depends, depends solely on your genre. Follow these guidelines and you should be fine.
Times New Roman-->Non-Fiction
Lucida Blackletter-->Elf Fantasy
Lucida Calligraphy-->Jane Austen Rewrite
Georgia-->Jonathan Safran Foer
The good folks at MudLuscious Press asked me to contribute to their stamp stories project and I obliged. These are 1" x 1" stories that get sent out when you order from MudLuscious and other contributing presses. My story will be sent out with orders from Ampersand Books. Those books look great. You want those books.
Also, starting with our next volume, The Cupboard will once again be mailing out stamps, this time from Scott Garson and Joanna Howard. Excited.
If you're interested, here are the other options I gave MLP: (one of these is actually my favorite)
The detective solved the murder this way: everyone did it or the heir confessed or the blood is in the foyer or the widow got everything or eureka! or the conspiracy disbanded or nothing happened and there is no body and no knives and everyone is fine forever.
I hold my breath and become more of myself. Vowing to keep only the things near the center of me, I bury the rest in sand. The enemies I’ve made of my eyes, the spies of my fingers—I despair over the places they’ve been that I never really was.
When she awoke, she remembered something about hands but could not remember if the feeling came from a dream or a nightmare or if she’d roll over to find someone clapping.
If you want to read the one MLP chose, order from them or Ampersand and cross your fingers. I promise, you'll get something much better than the stamp.
For some reason, I decided to join Twitter yesterday. You can but probably shouldn't find me here. Also, I added a clunky feed on the side of this blog in case you weren't getting enough insight into me during your visit to this site where I share my thoughts on candy bars and puppies.
(Refresher: I'm for them).
I mostly joined because it had gotten to the point where I had 8 or 9 different Twitter feeds I checked regularly. These were, with a couple of exceptions, about sports. Yesterday with college football starting and the Royals playing and rosters being cut down...it became too much. I very reluctantly started an account and then very gleefully spent 6 hours choosing a color for my sidebar.
I settled on white.
The best part is, we now get to have this conversation:
You: Hey, how's it going?
Me: [staring at my phone]
You: [staring at nature]
Me: Sorry, I joined Twitter.
You: You should qwitter.
Me: That should totally be a hashtag!
You: I don't know what that is.
Me: [staring at my phone] Did you know the Seahawks cut T.J. Houshmandzadeh?
I feel like I should retroactively date this post to two years ago when everyone else wrote it.
It's pretty simple: I lost all my music. I suppose I thought I had my computer backed up on my iPod and my iPod backed up on my computer, the only flaw in this arrangement being that I kept these two items in the same place. This place was in a home with a window. This window ceased to be a window at some point and became something more like a robber-shaped hole. This is called evolution.
Here's what I want from you:
* Your favorite albums
* Your favorite songs mixed as if on some kind of tape
I thought it might be good to see what friends/strangers/etc. send me instead of trying to meticulously recreate my old library. I mean, I know I had mostly Better than Ezra songs but which ones exactly?
This will be an improvement. We'll learn something about each other. I'm excited.
2417 Yupon St.
Houston, TX 77006
Also, please resist the temptation to rob me. That would jerky.
As of five o'clock, I'll be doing that somewhere. Things I am going to do:
* Watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - not that I wasn't doing it before, just that now I'll be able to do it while dressed like Toby Esterhase and pretending to smoke a pipe.
* Print things - I don't know why, but I've really missed having a printer. Not that I even print that much, but there's something terrible about living completely in the intangible. The old Adam Peterson would have turned this into a 3k word post about ebook readers. The new Adam Peterson is going to print black-and-white photos of puppies.
* Ask you to send me music - I don't have any music. My only album is the new LCD Soundsystem album. Someone else pointed out to me that everyone in these coffeeshops I've been killing time in can see my iTunes and probably thinks of me as the guy who, like, really loves that one album and hates everything else.
* Sleep - In a bed. No big deal. Just me doing human things.
* Mail out Cupboards - if you've ordered a Cupboard in the last few weeks, you should know that it's come directly from the backseat of my car. Incidentally, that's also where I've been keeping my balsamic vinaigrette.