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Short shorts
November 22, 2004 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust Being a writer in today's lovely world of fiction and creative nonfiction is like reliving 70's TV hell, where that Nair commercial jingle has been conveniently rewritten into "Who writes short shorts?" Poetic vision rarely shows up. After all, how can you express vision in 100 words? As for plot and character development, give those antiquated goods to Goodwill. All that matters with short shorts is a competent writing style and a desire for lots of publication credits.
posted by ColdChef (33 comments total)

 
swirling in the publication toilet

heh.
posted by rxrfrx at 12:34 PM on November 22, 2004


One man's short shorts is another man's blog entries.

Also, "that Nair commercial jingle" was a rewrite of a Top Ten hit for the Royal Teens in 1958 called "Short Shorts."

/pedant
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:37 PM on November 22, 2004


Also, "that Nair commercial jingle" was a rewrite of a Top Ten hit for the Royal Teens in 1958 called "Short Shorts."

Which featured the legendary Al Kooper on guitar.

/super pedant

As for short short stories, in the hands of a really good writer, they can be interesting, but like everything else, when it becomes the dominant thing, it descends into gimmickry and blandness.
posted by jonmc at 12:43 PM on November 22, 2004


For sale: baby shoes. Never used.

--Ernest Hemingway

Best Microfiction Ever.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 12:46 PM on November 22, 2004


I thought the storysouth.com article interesting, but a bit long.
posted by buddhanarchist at 12:49 PM on November 22, 2004


I enjoy writing and reading microfiction. I've never seen them as more than an exercise, though -- good for getting the words flowing when writers' block hits, or for finding a character's voice when things feel stagnant. It's like stretching exercises for an athlete.

I didn't realize that so many people seemed to think of them as The Next Big Literary Form, or something.
posted by verb at 12:52 PM on November 22, 2004


Advice to writers: Write only for money. Don't bother with small magazines. There's only one Big Time, and if you're not in it, you're nowhere. If you're trying to get published by chipping away at the attention span of the loser editor of a literary magazine that no one reads, here's a short-short that describes you: You are pathetic. If you actually think you're good, plant your butt and write a big, whomping 5,000 page triple-decker on the order of "Martin Chuzzlewit," and tell the word to kiss your behind.
posted by Faze at 12:53 PM on November 22, 2004


Flash fiction is definitely the It Thing right now, especially in online lit mags.

Is it an online culture phenomenon relating to short attention spans?

Some online flash mags are surprisingly tough to break into. Some actually provide good publishing credits, or an "in" into a corresponding print mag. Others seem to be cliquey, some seem to favor their own editors and editors' friends, and many will publish utter shite if it's by an author who has tons of online credits. This is not to say that you don't find some real story gems in the short-short genre...

Does anyone here read the online sites that publish primarily flash fiction? What do you like? Pindeldyboz? Word Riot? Flashquake? These might be some of the better ones.

Does anyone here write flash fiction?

I like to think flash really can be an art, but usually isn't. Most flash fiction falls into two camps, also: short emotional vignettes centering on interpersonal relationships, or magical realism (too much of the former, not enough of the latter.)

Does anyone forsee flash fiction catching on to the point of actual book anthologies being published? Somehow I doubt it.

Print magazines are publishing more and more flash fiction, too. I hope the market for longer-length short stories is not being eroded by the trend.
posted by Shane at 1:12 PM on November 22, 2004


The article linked to from the StorySouth article about academic poetry is really cool, too.
posted by COBRA! at 1:13 PM on November 22, 2004


Wow. I'm not sure how to cope. I was preparing myself, getting ready for the bit where he starts attacking "the McSweeneys set" for all the ills of modern literature... and it never came. I don't quite know how to react.

I'm not sure I buy the argument that the rise of the short-short as a form is somehow a result of collaboration between talentless writing school graduates and lazy editors. That would require a fair bit of explanation as to why, all of a sudden, lazy editors care enough about talentless writing school grads to conspire with them in a literary scam. It has not historically been thus, and I'm unclear as to what has changed.

Anyhow, the short short genre has produced some excellent work recently. Dan Rhodes Anthropology for one; and, yes, Dave Eggers for another (good stuff every Saturday in the Grauniad). And hell, if it was good enough for Borges-

On Exactitude in Science

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658


-it's good enough for me.
posted by flashboy at 1:20 PM on November 22, 2004


The anthologies are already out there. I have this one.
posted by goatdog at 1:34 PM on November 22, 2004


His argument that MFA program's churn out decent, but uninspired writers has been one of my biggest contentions about them, but I also think it's a form of vocational immaturity to think that way. I mean it's important that they not turn out cookie cutter hacks who've weathered the blast of academic critique bereft of originality. That's an issue worthy of scrutiny. The more important thing is that they exist to give the necessary training for good, powerful, original writing to happen in some (not all) instances. The rest is up to the writer and while I all writers want to get published, not all writers want to turn the world on it's head. I'm sure some would be happy to simply provide good, entertaining, (possibly) instructive storytelling. One of the oldest and most basic necessities of civilization.

After all, are medical schools pressured to see to it that everyone who graduates with an MD finds a cure to a disease and or becomes a household name? No. And that's because good but unspectacular Doctors enrich society just by their mere presence and the application of their skills upon the world around them.

The same applies for writers.
posted by Skygazer at 1:45 PM on November 22, 2004


If more short shorts like these were being produced, I would have no critique of the genre. However, these two stories are the exceptions. Instead of demonstrating depth and vision, 99% of the published short shorts are merely sight gags, inside jokes, scene descriptions, or scattered details from some writer's life.

Jason Sanford, meet Sturgeon's Law. Sturgeon's Law, meet Jason Sanford.

As somebody who has both published and selected short fiction for publication, I can't say that Mr. Sanford is wrong about anything here, but I wonder why he is so aggrivated. His beef seems to be with MFA programs rather than the form. Let's review his four theses, conveniently packaged in list form:

1. Short shorts can be a powerful form of writing, but they've been invaded by a hostile hoard of MFAers who see the genre as...

Note that the argument here is with something called "a hoard of MFAers" rather than the genre under discussion. This seems to be the main thrust here: "writing programs are bad." It's Sanford who's hostile, not the writers of short fiction.

2. An easy route to publication heaven, especially when...

Sure. I call 'em writer's crack: they quickly give you the pleasure of finished work. As a writer, I like them mainly as exercises, or as a way to start germinating longer work. As an editor, my reason for picking shorts for an MRW issue in 2001 was that I find them perfectly suited for online reading. They are, perhaps, the ideal form for the web. Seems that a lot of people agree. What's wrong with that? Don't like it? Buy a novel.

3. There are so many bland, sound-alike MFA writings swirling in the publication toilet because...

Once again, the argument is with "bland, sound-alike MFA writings," not short shorts as such. I know the title references "MFA disgust," but this is a different argument than he set out to make.

4. You can teach writing techniques and skills at a university but you can't teach how to find a writer's true voice. And the writers who seek true voice are also the writers who usually run the other way from little writing trends (especially those spelled with an 'M,' an 'F,' and an 'A').

What does this have to do with short shorts? This is not an essay about the form at all, it's about the author's hatred for "MFAers." Frankly, I'd rather read the entire web's worth of great, good, mediocre and lousy short fiction than one more tired rant bitching about how much writing programs blow.
posted by muckster at 1:52 PM on November 22, 2004


I'm not sure I buy the argument that the rise of the short-short as a form is somehow a result of collaboration between talentless writing school graduates and lazy editors. That would require a fair bit of explanation as to why, all of a sudden, lazy editors care enough about talentless writing school grads to conspire with them in a literary scam.

Because they're the same people.
posted by dame at 1:56 PM on November 22, 2004


That looks like a good anthology, goatdog. I'm a fan of shorts by certain writers, and I don't mean to denigrate the genre. It's just that the Internet in particular is so awash with short fiction right now, and I've thrown a little of it out there myself. I wonder where it's all going sometimes. Someone must be reading it all, heh.
posted by Shane at 2:05 PM on November 22, 2004


Regarding the author's generalized bias against MFAs, I've often felt similarly when reading Glimmer Train. I almost never see anyone published there who doesn't have (or isn't getting) an MFA from someplace impressive like Iowa. It seems like a "safe" way to play it, publishing authors from writing workshops, and the fiction does often seem uninspired.

Then again, Eric Puchner wrote a story for Glimmertrain that was purely an exercise in run-on sentences, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as an exercise. And Carolyn Parkhurst is an MFA, isn't she? I enjoyed Dogs of Babel.

Doesn't the "writer's stereotype" discriminate against MFAs? I mean, don't we expect a writer to be Jack London, lving a harsh life and writing from experience?

As far as publishing writers based on their "credentials," such as an MFA or publishing credits, some mags have had the brilliant idea of "reading blind," stripping all credentials and name off of a work before it is reviewed by editors. Flashquake does this and I think all mags should.
posted by Shane at 2:07 PM on November 22, 2004


I read manuscripts for a literary magazine in the mid-90's. In our office, flash fiction was viewed as a fad long past its prime. Though we didn't actively discourage submissions of less than 1000 words, most short shorts were unlikely to get a second reading.

That said, as the number of online literary journals has increased, the revival of flash fiction is not particularly surprising. Many readers still balk at reading 3000+ words of literary fiction online, especially if said fiction errs toward a more florid style.

I've read a lot of short shorts, but excepting a few by Donald Barthelme, I can't remember a single one, which might be why I've always thought the form was the literary equivalent of a sitcom.
posted by thivaia at 2:15 PM on November 22, 2004


Muckster, I think you overlook what strikes me as the best point about MFA programs: they have taught the bad writers to better camoflauge themselves. And that does matter for literature as an ecosystem. I think using an essay to explore the links between MFAness and a type of story that seems to appeal to writerly concerns, as opposed to readerly ones, is totally reasonable.

Given the preponderance of crap essays dissing MFA programs, I can see why people would get defensive, but I don't think this is as awful as you make out. The writing community ought to talk about what it's doing to and with itself. Pretending writing is some magic light that shines from us all and that the brightest light always gets the most regard does nothing for anyone. Oughtn't we really take a look at what we do as much as we expect literature to take some sort of look at how we live?

On preview:
Doesn't the "writer's stereotype" discriminate against MFAs? I mean, don't we expect a writer to be Jack London, lving a harsh life and writing from experience?

I don't think the macho writer stereotype has had exclusive circulation for quite some time.
posted by dame at 2:19 PM on November 22, 2004


Pretending writing is some magic light that shines from us all . . .

This idea drives me crazy. What a strange development--the fetishizing of not the art, but the process and the profession. So the number of writers goes up while the number of readers goes down. And we all swim in a sea of mediocrity as the result. MFA programs, summer writing seminars, NaNoWriMo; all feed the beast.

Full disclosure: I'm a graduate of one of those respected writing programs. Sometimes you have to get swallowed by the whale to appreciate his appetite.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:46 PM on November 22, 2004


I don't think the macho writer stereotype has had exclusive circulation for quite some time.

Tell that to Tommy Lee's penis.
posted by Skygazer at 2:58 PM on November 22, 2004


Writer's Digest's latest contest is for 1,500 words or less...

I don't think the macho writer stereotype has had exclusive circulation for quite some time.

I don't mean necessarilly macho (I'm not a Hemingway fan), just experience-based, starving, self-taught artist type thing ... Come to think of it, most, though not all, of my favorite writers it that mold.
posted by Shane at 3:34 PM on November 22, 2004


nice article and links, but imho (in my humble opinion) the author committed one of the most basic mistakes of writing: introducing an acronym without also supplying its meaning.

(perhaps "mfa" means something to americans, but i doubt that it stands for my first assumption...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:03 PM on November 22, 2004


(disclaimer for previous post: former technical writer)

speaking of which, does anybody have a link to "The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents" with some fcuking *white space* between the paragraphs? sheesh!
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:38 PM on November 22, 2004


MFA = Master's of Fine Arts (if no one else said that...)

I am someone who has sold and selected fiction for publication (at professional rates). My first professional sale was a short-short that died along with the magazine that was to have published it. I did see the galleys for the page, though. *sigh*

The contention that flash-fiction is popular because it is easier for the editors to read does not jibe with my experiences. When we were reading the slush, there was a simple three-strike rule for a short story. Anything that made you pause or wince (spelling error, punctuation error, or *shudder* worse) counted as a strike. Most of the submissions fell so quickly using that rule that it was faster than trying to digest "flash-fiction."

As a budding writer, I was horrified. It seemed so heartless, and so I asked why. The response from three different professional editors was that there is a very limited amount of space available to publish stories, and that, while there is an awful lot of awful fiction being produced (this was pre-internet), there is also more good fiction being produced than there is space available in . Don't waste time hoping the story will come together, because the chances are very high that it won't. Go through as quickly as possible, reject things in as neutral a way as possible, and move on to the next box full of stories.

Size rarely mattered (either way). If it was good enough, it would get printed.

posted by FYKshun at 5:03 PM on November 22, 2004


FYKshun - thanx for explaining MFA.

here in oz, i think MFAs typically revolve around visual or performing arts & i didn't make the connection at all.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:28 PM on November 22, 2004


Actually mrs. jonmc was in an MFA creative writing program in Florida for two years. Her fellow students were the usual pseuds and poseurs for the most part, but as she said to me later, she was mainly in it to avoid having to squeeze in time for writing between split shifts at Sears if at all possible.

Although, when I mentioned to a stripper giving me a lapdance that my gf was going to graduate school to be a poet, she wrinkled her nose and said "You gotta go to school for that?"

Out of the mouths of babes as they say....
posted by jonmc at 6:04 PM on November 22, 2004


Dame, I'm interested in this (which is the reason this post is troutfish-long), I just think Sanford conflates several questions and answers none of them. Is short fiction inherently inferior to longer forms? I say no, and he seems to agree. If a poem can be great art, why not a very short story? Because it's missing artfully placed line breaks? Because it doesn't rhyme? It's like assigning a mininum size for paintings. Five-hundred well-placed mots justes can be very powerful. And we all seem agree that shorter fiction is better suited to the web.

The other problem is writing programs. Sanford simply assumes as a given that they produce "dull" writing, and goes on from there. But in my experience, workshops are taught by established authors, and each class is as different and unique as the teacher and the make-up of the class. There is no accepted norm. So where is the sameness supposed to come from? Sanford doesn't explain. Yes, a lot of people without talent, skill, or promise attend writing programs, but do you think they would have been better writers without schooling? Sturgeon's Law applies: 90% of anything is crap, so of course a lot of workshop fiction sucks. What's important is that the talented people keep getting better. Writing well is very difficult and requires serious dedication of time and effort. Most who try will fail at it, with writing programs or without them.

Also, as jonmc noted, writing programs offer budding writers a place to be writers. Look around: things don't look so good if you decide to write. Can't just up and go to Paris and then drop the manuscript in the mail for Maxwell Perkins. In America in 2004, it is exceedingly difficult to get published--unless your first novel promises major sales, it won't get bought, and that's that. Most jobs don't leave you enough time to seriously work on an art form that is very time-consuming to master. So, what's so terrible about a safe haven, a place where, for a few years, you have the opportunity to write and be read, that offers you advice and feedback from a group of very interested readers, and, most importantly, gives you time?

Thirdly, the connection between writing programs and the surge of short fiction. Dame, you wrote:

I think using an essay to explore the links between MFAness and a type of story that seems to appeal to writerly concerns, as opposed to readerly ones, is totally reasonable.

The discussion is fine, but is the short short really a form that addresses writerly concerns rather than readerly ones? It can take just as long to get 500 words right as it takes to get 3,000 sorta right, and readers might be easily distracted, and prefer a short read. It's not better or worse, it's just different. Perhaps you're right and all the writers of short fiction are writing program graduates who also edit and pick short fiction (like me), but that still leaves out the possibility that many people--writers, readers, editors--think it's an exciting form that works well on the web. Would Sanford prefer if all the bad writers published bad long stories instead? (Which, of course, they do.)

Pretending writing is some magic light that shines from us all and that the brightest light always gets the most regard does nothing for anyone.

I say it again: most of anything is crap. That's true for long stories and short stories, writers with MFAs and writers without. It's true for what's on the tables at B&N, and I'm sure Nanowrimo produces 99% crap because very few people could ever hope to write a novel in a month. But I'd much rather encourage ten too many people than see somebody talented give up. It's not like bad fiction or one too many amateurish web mags hurts anybody. Don't like it? Skip it, or argue why one particular piece is good or bad. To lump a form (short shorts) and an education (MFA programs) together and declare that you're full of "disgust" and "hatred" for them doesn't help anybody.

FYKshun, I'd never throw anything out because of a punctuation mistake. But if the story starts with an alarm clock going off, it's toast.

Finally, dame, can you explain this sentence? It strikes me as interesting but I don't think I get it:

Muckster, I think you overlook what strikes me as the best point about MFA programs: they have taught the bad writers to better camouflage themselves.

Are you sure you didn't mean "the worst point?" camouflage from whom? Their audience? The CIA? Seriously, I don't understand what you're getting at, but it intrigues me.
posted by muckster at 9:02 PM on November 22, 2004


Muckster: I guess I was referring to egregious punctuation errors (multiple) in quick succession. If they can't be bothered to use the tool properly, they really aren't someone with whom you want to work on a professional level. Best case scenario, you're going to be re-editing or forcing the writer to re-edit to a standard which should have been met during grade school.

That's why legitimate previous credits on a cover letter are important; they tell an editor that you have written things worthy of being published. It's easier to accept comma faults or other potential speedbumps if they're coming from an author who (based on previous experience) seems to know what they're doing.
posted by FYKshun at 10:04 PM on November 22, 2004


Long questions, long answers, hey? But I'm interested too.

Breif background flash (for what it's worth): I attended Brown as an undergrad and did a number of workshops there, including classes with Ben Marcus and Bob Arellano; I now work for a small press. I seriously considered doing an MFA for two years, and finally decided against it.

To begin, no, I don't think short shorts are inherently bad, though, like poetry, I think it is harder to make something short and good than to make something long and good; mostly, I suspect, because long fiction can contain rough patches better than short. They disappear better.

I do, however, think that short shorts already exacerbate what I find to be poor trends in contemporary fiction—obsession with writing like a writers' writer; bad motivations (writing as though you want to write just to say you're a writer)—and their unfortunate result: fiction with a hollow center. While I'm hardly a ULA devotee, I do have to say I find the MFA fiction has a specific bad taste, even the "good" offerings.

(As I have been groping around with these thoughts a lot lately, please take pity on the formlessness to come. This is as much a process of clarifying to myself as convincing; I'm glad to have the chance. I think now specific answers will help.)

But in my experience, workshops are taught by established authors, and each class is as different and unique as the teacher and the make-up of the class. There is no accepted norm. So where is the sameness supposed to come from? . . . What's important is that the talented people keep getting better.

There is, however, the same drive toward conformity, pleasing others, and getting along that exists in any community, that in fact grows stronger as the community gets smaller. This drive tends to reign in the audacious impulses of most members. Depending on the precise makeup of the community, different sorts of idiosyncrasies get pushed down the most, but rotate in and out of a number of workshops for a year or two and you'll come out smoothed-down enough. I'm not saying this is because people do it on purpose—far from it. Groups just tend toward mediocrity. Incidentally, this is what leads workshops to camoflauge bad writers. It makes them competent while not being able to give them that extra spark that makes a writer worth something—the drive to make something of herself & the uniqueness to make it interesting to others. Just as salad and soup end up at the same temperature when left on the table, writers in a workshop end up lukewarm. (Yes, there are exceptions to everything).

Further, in a workshop, other working writers are reading your work, which leads to a focus on writerly concerns over those of the common reader. A mentor and a good reader who isn't a writer will do more for talent that a thousand years in school.

Writing well is very difficult and requires serious dedication of time and effort. Most who try will fail at it, with writing programs or without them. . . . writing programs offer budding writers a place to be writers. Look around: things don't look so good if you decide to write. Can't just up and go to Paris and then drop the manuscript in the mail for Maxwell Perkins. In America in 2004, it is exceedingly difficult to get published--unless your first novel promises major sales, it won't get bought, and that's that. Most jobs don't leave you enough time to seriously work on an art form that is very time-consuming to master. So, what's so terrible about a safe haven, a place where, for a few years, you have the opportunity to write and be read, that offers you advice and feedback from a group of very interested readers, and, most importantly, gives you time?

Man, am I ever tired of the writing whine. Yes, being a writer is hard, Very, very hard. Yes, I too try to fit writing between work and freelancing and living life. Thus it is and thus it ever was. Do you really think there was some golden era of Perkins and Paris? It sure seems that way in retrospect, but that's because in retrospect all you have are the histories of the winners. Even the midlisters are silent, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist.

It is perfectly possible to sell a first novel that isn't a bestseller today. You just have to sell it to a little house that's gonna give you two thousand bucks, print five thousand copies, and cross its fingers. If that isn't good enough then you shouldn't be writing. Writers aren't owed anything. You do it because not doing it would be worse, because you care for own sake; you make your shot and you live with it, just like anyone else.

I'd much rather encourage ten too many people than see somebody talented give up.

I wouldn't. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mourn the talent so much. Talent without real drive is cheap. If you really want something, you bust ass in the face of all odds. And if you can't find it, you didn't want it bad enough. I know that sounds mean, but art isn't fucking self-esteem class. That said, there's nothing wrong with wanting time. But save up some cash, make your own time, and then do it with all your heart. Don't waste time in a place that's going to ruin whatever individuality and fire you have.

It's not like bad fiction or one too many amateurish web mags hurts anybody. Don't like it? Skip it, or argue why one particular piece is good or bad.

Again, I disagree. A glut of crap hurts us all by obscuring the real gems. And the whole "art as expression of my specialness" idea (which I suspect is at the root of so much of this nonsese) works to hobble critics on so many fronts—by impugning criticism itself and yet asking it to work twice as hard. Critics should be focusing on the flawed but promising work, not sifting through the deluge.

To lump a form (short shorts) and an education (MFA programs) together and declare that you're full of "disgust" and "hatred" for them doesn't help anybody.

There I agree, I don’t think it’s the best essay in the world, but that doesn’t make all its points null.

I need to stop now before I break Metafilter. I hope that helps explain more. And this isn’t meant to be personal. I don’t think writers who do MFAs are all evil or fucked. I just think they’re worse off than they ought to be and that our water supply is a bit tainted.
posted by dame at 10:53 PM on November 22, 2004


I mentioned to a stripper giving me a lapdance that my gf was going to graduate school to be a poet

best. aside. ever.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:41 AM on November 23, 2004


Dame, I'm not taking this personally. I graduated from a Ph.D. writing program (at USM with Rick Barthelme and Mary Robison), so I'm assuming I'm exempt from Sanford's MFA hatred, and our discussion has been interesting and civil. Let's see if I can continue it for a little bit longer....

Groups just tend toward mediocrity. Incidentally, this is what leads workshops to camoflauge bad writers. It makes them competent while not being able to give them that extra spark that makes a writer worth something—the drive to make something of herself & the uniqueness to make it interesting to others.

I'd say that it takes a number of ingredients to become a successful writer--a unique voice, skill, craft, time, dedication, talent, and so forth. By camouflage, you seem to mean somebody without talent (or "spark") who acquired enough craft to pass as a "good writer." I don't understand what's so terrible about that. Now they know their stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end, and so forth. If their readers accidentally mistake them for good writers, and if it's still not interesting to you, then who's been harmed? There have always been marginally competent successes, and they've always found an audience. So what? (A beneficent side effect of workshops is that they tend to produce better readers.)

As for the other half of the argument--the sparky people losing their edge--I haven't seen it. In my program, there was a rule: no sand mutants. Perhaps that's what you're talking about, but if you're dying to write about sand mutants, why not hone your skills for two years, learn how to write about real people, and then go nuts with the sand mutants afterwards. The program is going to teach you some ground rules, mistakes to avoid, and so forth. You supply the spark. In truth, the only rule was: it has to work, and if the teacher didn't like your idiosyncrasies, you had three choices: accept that they might have a point, ignore them, or put the sand mutants aside while you learn the basics. Know the rules before you start breaking them etc. That said, I've never seen anybody attacked for a well-broken rule.

Further, in a workshop, other working writers are reading your work, which leads to a focus on writerly concerns over those of the common reader. A mentor and a good reader who isn't a writer will do more for talent that a thousand years in school.

Why shouldn't writers be interested in "writerly concerns?" Don't those include how to best address a "common reader?" Mentors and good readers are exactly what good programs provide, and they can be hard to find elsewhere.

Man, am I ever tired of the writing whine. ... It is perfectly possible to sell a first novel that isn't a bestseller today. You just have to sell it to a little house that's gonna give you two thousand bucks, print five thousand copies, and cross its fingers. If that isn't good enough then you shouldn't be writing. Writers aren't owed anything. You do it because not doing it would be worse, because you care for own sake; you make your shot and you live with it, just like anyone else.

But dame, the entire article is nothing but a reader's whine: "They publish too much stuff I don't like and now I'll have to sift through it! Why don't they stop going to their fancy schools so there'll be less stuff for me to read!" Sanford is complaining about the wrong people writing the wrong stuff --as if he's owed great fiction, and nothing but. That's how this discussion started. I was trying to explain why people might want to choose a writing program. And I'm sorry, two thousand bucks is a shitty price for something that takes people years to accomplish. Elsewhere, people get to complain about "living wages." Two thousand bucks for two, three, four years of work is a joke, and no, I don't think it's always been quite like this. Consolidation and increased focus on the bottom line in the publishing industry are well documented. It should be ok to point this out. I'm still trying anyway, but I don't have to love it, too.

I know that sounds mean, but art isn't fucking self-esteem class. That said, there's nothing wrong with wanting time. But save up some cash, make your own time, and then do it with all your heart. Don't waste time in a place that's going to ruin whatever individuality and fire you have.

We don't need no edu-cayshun! We don't need no thought control! See, this I don't buy at all. You make workshop sound like fiction factory. Everybody's different--some will flourish in a program, some won't. You're probably right that it wouldn't have helped you, but this wholesale dismissal strikes me as facile. Surely you can think of one author you like who went to a school and didn't get their fire ruined? Flannery O'Connor, Ray Carver, Thom Jones, Richard Ford, Donna Tart, Jane Smiley, Andre Dubus, TC Boyle all went to writing school (Iowa, mainly)--and that's barely scratching the surface. Who are any of us to tell anybody how to go about organizing their life and career? Who is Sanford to judge them wholesale? Do you really think all the bad writers would have been so much better if it hadn't been for their ruinous teachers?

A glut of crap hurts us all by obscuring the real gems. And the whole "art as expression of my specialness" idea (which I suspect is at the root of so much of this nonsese) works to hobble critics on so many fronts—by impugning criticism itself and yet asking it to work twice as hard. Critics should be focusing on the flawed but promising work, not sifting through the deluge.

Oh, but now I'm the one to say: it was ever thus. When has there not been a glut of crap? Sure, the total numbers may be up, but has anybody proven that the crap-to-gem ratio has changed, and that this change is due to writing programs? I don't buy it.
posted by muckster at 10:54 AM on November 23, 2004


I'm game for as long as we stay interesting and civil, Muckster. Besides, we both want the same thing—an interesting and vibrant literary culture—and discussions like this are the best place to start.

By camouflage, you seem to mean somebody without talent (or "spark") who acquired enough craft to pass as a "good writer." I don't understand what's so terrible about that.

By spark I mean a particular combination of talent and drive. With that, plus time, skill and craft are pretty well taken care of; they can be developed as you go along. That is what makes someone worth reading.

But the competent and ultimately hollow writers are the worst danger, I think, because of the politics of publishing. People like to publish their friends, and as long as their friends are competent enough not to embarrass them, they will. As only so many things can be published a year, the camoflauged writers (or "hacks") are taking up spaces that could be better allocated. Beyond that, hacks make readers feel cheated. If you pick up and flip through some competent fiction, you may get the impression that it's worth reading. Then you buy it, read it, and end up empty. If this happens over and over, you give up on contemporary fiction. I did for years for precisely this reason.

Which brings me to the readers' whine. It counts more than the writers' whine. If you really want to write for a living (as opposed to for yourself—a totally reasonable option), readers are going to be paying your rent and feeding you. Enough good old books exist to keep readers happy for any number of lifetimes: these days, writers need readers more.

Really, writing literary fiction is the worst job in the world. You have tons of crappy demanding bosses who pay you like shit when they pay you at all. It sucks. But that's why you only do it if you have to. If you really really really can't live without it. Otherwise, you're gonna end up feeling fucked-over all the time. And that sucks. And you absolutely have a right to whine and lament and everything else. But that's not going to change it.

I do still think that writing programs lead to a similarity in writing. Look at that list you linked to. Do you really think that it doesn't push people toward writing similarly? Take nos. 21 and 22: "If you write a sentence that isn't poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don't just leave it there. Don't let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today's fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one." That advice leads to one of the most telling MFA tics, what I like to call "sparkly sentence syndrome." (Okay, fine, I just made that up.) It leads to story on story where the sentences seem so forced and demanding of attention that the reader cannot slip in, but must always pay attention! to me! now! all the time! I am author! I am special! Guess what: the reader doesn't care. Unless, of course, that reader is a writer. And then they love you and no one else does and you can't figure out why. And you just figure people are worse readers now. Suddenly, everyone's unhappy with the state of literature. (No, it isn't this simple, but you see the general point, yes?)

I think what people are really after when they go for an MFA is literary community. I can appreciate that. I want that too. But the MFA seems part of a self-mortifying community that is losing common readers left and right as it screeches ever louder for love and head-pats (viz. that Julavits essay and almost every other writer whine). This drives those of us who love writing but dislike the general way the community has gone about setting itself up mad with frustration. So we bitch about it.

Surely you can think of one author you like who went to a school and didn't get their fire ruined? Who are any of us to tell anybody how to go about organizing their life and career? Who is Sanford to judge them wholesale? Do you really think all the bad writers would have been so much better if it hadn't been for their ruinous teachers?

1. I'm sure there is one.

2. No one except as commenters on the direction of a community we belong to. In this way, I don't see the dislike of an MFA as a condemnation of people's personal choices. I see it as an easy (often too easy) stand-in for a dislike of a lot of the trends in literary circles and life.

3. Some guy with a website.

4. No, I think bad writers would have been much worse and gone away. I think good writers would have been better had there been a way to get a mentor and a good reader some other way. For sure.

We don't need no edu-cayshun! We don't need no thought control!

As a personal aside, I don't think all school is bad. I loved school. Always. But I think there is a point when you have to check out and do it for yourself, just like you have to leave your parents' house. And as for both, before 24 is prefereable.

Sure, the total numbers may be up, but has anybody proven that the crap-to-gem ratio has changed, and that this change is due to writing programs? I don't buy it.

Maybe it isn't about absolute crap-to-gem, but the effect of hollow hackwork and the general reader alienation. And maybe that isn't solely the fault of writing programs, but they don't help, while serving as a convenient point of attack for this whole shoddy setup.

I'm enjoying this thoroughly, so if you want to keep going here or on email, I'm game.
posted by dame at 2:19 PM on November 23, 2004


I like board books with stiff pages I can chew on.
posted by jonmc at 5:02 PM on November 23, 2004


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