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Posted by on Sep 1, 2015 in Blogh, Fiction, Novels and Novelists | 1 comment


I spent the weekend reading a book I had hoped would piss me off: MFA VS NYC, The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach. It did piss me off I suppose, but it mostly depressed the hell out of me. According to these authors, I don’t exist. As its title suggests, it is a very limited view, reducing literary culture in America to a binary that excludes almost every book I care about. It is a tasteful, well-presented group of essays on mainstream fiction as I would expect. But taste is the enemy of art. This book challenges nothing, save for the various cliches we hear about MFA programs and the big NY publishers. A reader will not know of the existence of radical or alternative presses, non-academic writers or writers who make their living in jobs. One agent admits that he can only sell what he likes and only likes what he can sell. Others deliver the news that an author’s fate lies in the hands of 20 year olds for the most part. Writers who do not follow one or the other career path are represented as poor, deluded idiots who are taken advantage of by exploitative contests, Amazon self-publishing, etc. You would not know that fiction writing is verbal art, and that the imagination is involved. You would not know that at one time commercial publishers published books like Naked Lunch, Under the Volcano, Nightwood, Invisible Man, or of contemporary authors like Helen DeWitt. Writers from the 19th century and before are occasionally mentioned, but not as often as Jonathan Franzen, a man who is very publicly an idiot, but whom most of these writers consider to be among our greatest, despite his embarrassing episode with Oprah, and his embarrassing essay on William Gaddis, or Mr. Smartypants. They are a little too nervous to be self-satisfied. Conscience nags at apathy throughout these pages. The essays are well written and considered, but for me it was exhausting, a bit like hanging out with people I have spent my entire life trying to avoid. I don’t think it matters at all. The state of publishing and of fiction is not a problem compared to global warming or the war against the poor. Good books will always be written, and great books will occasionally be written, and they will be read and written by people who have MFAs and by people who don’t. The most interesting work will always appear in the interstices. I suppose people have to talk about something, so they do. I would contrast this book with books like Ron Sukenick’s Down and In, which I wrote about last week, and which anatomizes in great detail the rich proliferation of art in America and the lengths artists and writer’s must go to to create their work and somehow find an audience. Liking what you can sell is not on the list.

1 Comment

  1. I very much enjoyed the energy of your essay, above, and I can assure you that you very much DO exist and have an impact. : ) There was some discussion of just this narrow viewpoint a while ago on Twitter. I wish I had saved some but remember offhand a writer from Tel Aviv expressing much the same opinion… where was she in this mix?

    If I may, I think your artistic soul is parched; I don’t know if this is at all feasible (if you’ve got young kids, etc.) but if there is any way you could make it to a place where literature is more valued (I can think offhand of Dublin or Iceland) it may be wonderful for you. Perhaps you could find some sort of gig over there for a bit. Again, may not be doable, but as you work in libraries, there may even be a conference of something.

    I think the United States is a horrid and toxic environment for most artists. I also find the type of comments on places such as The Millions very unfriendly. I found myself getting wrapped up in the snark over there (as “Moe Murph”) and decided to just stop it. I no longer use that name and now go by Maureen Murphy.

    I also took a chance by baring my feelings after a comment I made was dismissed in a very nasty way. I commented:

    @Mygod Your initial comment in relation to my contribution to this thread really hurt my feelings. It was obvious that I put a lot of effort and hard work into what I said and, rather than address its substance, you made a snarky comment about copying and pasting a “rejected Millions essay” then seized today upon the tangential matter of it have “a title.”

    I was very excited about both the movies I discussed, and the ideas that sprang from viewing them, so excited that I wanted to share them with people who have similar interests. People may or may not agree, but I think that results in growth. The poisonous and rotted images that arose in me, that I painted in the my earlier comment, which were really a way of masking my real feelings, springing from my very real belief that some responses are growth-filled (even if challenging and in opposition) and others are spirit-sucking and inhibiting.

    I am going to take a long vacation from snark; I would rather be open and excited about books, movies, artists, and people who love books, movies and artists. Actually, If the publishers are willing, I really hope they will delete my 8/23 comment. I don’t want to contribute to a brittle environment where someone might not comment because they think they’ll get snarked on!

    [I decided to declare myself a “snark free zone”)

    Well, just a few things, good luck to you!

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