I DON’T EXIST!
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.