Paris Review Interview (The Art of Fiction #16)
I Will Bear Witness, 16 August 1936
When the war on Afghanistan began, the Defense [sic] Department announced that journalists would be "embedded" with U. S. troops. This meant that their access to stories and events would be controlled by the military; the news would be censored, in other words.
One U. S. publisher attempted to circumvent the requirement that reporters in Afghanistan be "embedded." That was Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine.
Not the New York Times, nor the Washington Post, nor the San Francisco Chronicle, nor the L. A. paper. The only U. S. publisher concerned with sending free reporters to cover the so-called War on Terror was a pornographer. This is a comment on the meaning of professionalism in the U. S. today. A professional generally holds a degree in his field, his profession. That degree signifies that he can be controlled, and that he will obey and cooperate with the forces of control.
David Shields' Reality Hunger was reviewed in the New York Times by Luc Sante on 14 March 2010. A week later, the Times' lead book critic Michiko Kakutani chipped in her opinion ("deliberately provocative — and deeply nihilistic") in a piece entitled "Texts without Context" which prints out to seven pages on my computer system. Shields says that the novel, and fiction in general, have "never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself." To replace it, he says, we have "reality-based art," by which he means things like the memoir and the autobiography, but also "reality" television and books like A Million Little Pieces, James Frey's highly fabricated account of recovery from drug addiction.
Shields has written novels himself, but is now "bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters." For the record, Shields, born in 1956, received a Master in Fine Arts (MFA) in fiction, with honors, from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980. He is a professor of English at the University of Washington and a faculty member of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
3. Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed for different ends. Unlike a fiction reader, whose only task is to imagine, a nonfiction reader is asked to behave more deeply: to imagine, and also to believe. Fiction doesn't require its readers to believe; in fact, it offers its readers the great freedom of experience without belief — something real life can't do. Fiction gives us a rhetorical question: "What if this happened?" (The best) nonfiction gives us a statement, something more complex: "This may have happened."
"Writing Lost Stories,"
Iron Horse Review
Quoted in Reality Hunger, entry #180
This is callow. Dostoyevsky did not "invent" the Karamazov brothers, and Ms Rough will have to write out more than her heart before she produces any thing or experience as real as Crime and Punishment.
But set aside for the time being Ms Rough's cavalier disregard for diction, and for the actual meanings and etymologies of imagine and invent; set aside also her inexperience with the writing and, apparently, the reading of fiction. Pause for a moment over the words "offers . . . experience without belief — something real [sic] life can't do."
Is there anyone reading this who has, in an all-too-real life that I fear Ms Rough has never lived, worked without relief at a job he did not like and not realized "experience without belief"? Putting fiction entirely aside, I believe such experience characterizes the lives of the overwhelming majority of U. S. citizens and, for that matter, most of the people on earth.
In 2007, Ms Rough was an Art Fellow of the Bush Foundation at whose website we learn that she lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the Loft Literary Center there. Her Artist Fellow biographical note specifies her "Career Field" as "Literary Arts," and her "Secondary Field" as "Non-fiction." She has, of course, an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. On the Foundation's homepage, we read:
The Bush Foundation improves the quality of life in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. It aims to be a catalyst to shape vibrant communities by investing in courageous and effective leadership that significantly strengthens and improves the well-being of the region's people. (http://www.bushfellows.org/, retrieved 16 April 2010)
We imagine Marcel Duchamp applying for one of the Foundation's Artist Fellowships:
DUCHAMP: I want to be an artist fellow.
BUSHMAN: I see. Have you brought some of your artwork with you?
DUCHAMP: Of course! [places urinal on desk]
BUSHMAN: Well! This will definitely strengthen and improve the well-being of the people of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and believe me, Monsieur, we aim to make sure of that!
I believe, with experience, that the Bush Foundation, like any organization or person that uses the word vibrant, improves and secures mainly the status quo of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and that it does so by staying safely within the bounds of the expected, the often-tried and endlessly repeated, the kind of things that politicians describe as expressive of "family values" and all the other signs of empty, uncritical, unexamined, harmless triviality. I believe, again with some experience, that the Iron Horse Review, et al, do the same.
A moment from my own reality: I sat back at my desk and thought of some writers of novels I've liked. I took this list and looked them up in Wikipedia to see what they did other than write. The results:
André Malraux - adventurer, political organizer;
Ralph Ellison - studied music and art;
Sinclair Lewis - worked for newspapers, publishing houses;
Joseph Heller - blacksmith's apprentice, messenger boy, file clerk; taught composition at Penn State; advertising copywriter;
George Orwell - Imperial policeman in Burma;
William Faulkner - college dropout; Air Force service, screenwriter, remained obscure until awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949; writer-in-residence, U. Va., 1957-1964;
Norman Mailer - studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard; was studying at the Sorbonne when The Naked and the Dead was published to universal acclaim; he also wrote for the screen and worked as a high-flying journalist;
James Jones - U. S. Army infantryman;
Albert Camus - odd jobs: private tutor, car parts clerk; earned what we would call a B. A. in philosophy;
Robert Stone - taught creative writing at Yale; lived on various fellowships and grants;
William S. Burroughs - lived on an allowance of $200 a month from his parents.
I did the same for the authors of the blurbs on the jacket of Reality Hunger:
Jonathan Lethem - studied art at Bennington; clerked in bookstores while writing;
Albert Goldbarth - MFA, Iowa, 1971; professor of the humanities, Wichita State University;
Wayne Kostenbaum - MFA, Johns Hopkins University; professor of English, CUNY;
Charles D'Ambrosio - graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop;
Geoff Dyer - Mr Dyer graduated with honors from Corpus Christi College of Oxford University and keeps his private life private;
Patricia Hampl - teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota; one of the founders of the Loft Literary Center, which employs Bonnie Rough;
Charles Baxter - teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA program at Warren Wilson;
Tim Parks - associate professor of literature and translation at ILUM University, Milan;
Frederick Barthelme - MFA in creative writing, Johns Hopkins; professor, University of Southern Mississippi;
Lydia Davis - professor of creative writing, University of Albany, SUNY;
Jonathan Raban - did a stint as a minicab driver;
Philip Lopate - PhD, Union University; worked as a writer-in-the-schools and taught creative writing; professor of English, Hofstra;
Amy Hempel - a former student of Gordon Lish; teaches creative writing at various institutions;
Ben Marcus - teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts.
There is nothing wrong with being a college professor. Had things gone a little differently, I'd probably be one myself. But there does seem to me to be something wrong with becoming an MFA and a professor of "creative writing" only to complain, ultimately, that the novel is boring.
Money is always a factor.
4. There was a surge in creative-writing degree programs after the Second World War . . . [C]hanges in funding were responsible. Title II of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 — the G. I. Bill — provided forty-eight months of tuition for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans, a much bigger number than anticipated, took up the offer, and by 1950 the government had spent more money on tuition and other college costs than on the Marshall Plan. The key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certification programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.
"Show or Tell"
Review of The Program Era by Mark McGurl
New Yorker, 8 June 2009
When I took my first college-level English course, the professor asked the class of freshmen what a college degree meant. As answers were tried out, he shot them down. "Not everybody who gets a degree is educated," he said. "Think of all those football scholarships."
Finally, he told us what a college degree meant to him: that the bearer had sat through a number of courses of instruction in various subjects and performed to a certain level of competency, a level that varied from one college to another, which explained the value of a Harvard diploma over one from, say, the University of Alabama.
A college degree is an indicator of the ability to receive instruction and respond with work, written, oral, and otherwise, to the satisfaction of a number of different instructors. This is what it means to a prospective employer.
In other words, a college degree is about jobs and job security, as most students (and graduates) will freely tell you.
An MFA is one college degree among many. It is concerned with careers and job security — to begin with, those of the granting institution's staff — more than it is concerned with art. It is a ticket to a teaching position in academe which will leave one comfortably free to write. A writing program is also a good place to network, to meet and impress established writers who may help one's career. One also meets other aspiring writers who, should they succeed in their careers, can also come in handy when one needs a job or a blurb on a book jacket.
5. In ancient Japan, if you wanted to study the martial arts, you would go to a master and ask to become a student. If the master accepted you, you began your training. The training would continue for a number of years until, at some point, the master would say that you were ready and could start teaching on your own. When you began training you would receive a white belt to hold your gi together. As you practiced for many, many years that white belt would get very dirty, because it is the one part of the uniform than can't be washed. After six or seven years of putting the gi on and taking it off every day, your white belt would have become so stained that it could only be called a black belt. You became "the black belt" along with your uniform. It was a gradual, almost indiscernible process. The wide range of colored belts we now associate with progress in the martial arts was invented only recently, primarily for Westerners who seemed to need a well-defined sense of their place in the hierarchy . . .
The Eight Gates of Zen
Reality Hunger laments that the novel is no longer central to our culture's sense of itself. The book, thankfully, does not go into what constitutes a "culture" or how such a thing senses itself. But when was the novel central to U. S. culture, sense of itself or no?
Harriett Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. In that first year, the book sold 300,000 copies in the U. S. alone. That is a very respectable number of sales, but the resident population of the country as of 1850 was 23 million people. Stowe's book was purchased by 1.3 percent of the population. Say that each buyer passed her copy along to five other people. That's a total of 1.8 million readers. Still, this figure represents 8 percent of the populace. Does this make it central to a democratic culture's sense of itself?
If, for our present-day culture, we get into the numbers for television and movies, then we will see figures that may indicate some sort of importance to the U. S. as a whole.
But what really was central to U. S. culture in 1852, when people in overwhelming numbers did not read Uncle Tom's Cabin? Try this out: property, money (which is jobs), and violence, that is, "defense." What are central to this culture today? Try: property, money (which is jobs), and violence, that is, "defense."
Literature has little to do with it, and this comes as a surprise to many who spend their lives immersed in the arts and letters.
This essay is not a call for a return to the naturalism of Studs Lonigan or the writing style of James Jones, the so-called "social novel" aped in the work of Tom Wolfe.
But I do think that Thornton Wilder has a real point. If the novel is not interesting — which is what is meant by highfalutin talk about culture and centrality — it is because the novelists have failed in their tasks. And I think that the roots of that failure may lie in writing programs and the extent to which they seem to encourage a kind of comfortable lifestyle in the academy over the need of the writer to come into contact with what is real. With what is real in his culture.
Most people — who do not have MFAs or, like Wilder's Everyman, do not even read — encounter what is real in the U. S. at work, on the job, where they toil at tasks that are largely irrelevant to their deepest desires and their actual dreams. In fact, they often work at jobs that are inimical to those dreams and desires and, contrary to the blithe rationalizations of the "conservative" bourgeois, they do not have any real choice to do otherwise.
Our people are trapped in a system that manifestly does not work. Our people are betrayed by all their leaders, in virtually every field of endeavor, and, in Reality Hunger, a shining light of our MFA-certified artistic class suggests that they read more "lyrical essays." Thus they are betrayed also by the clerks. I begin to believe that getting, having, and being an MFA may be part of our problem.
6. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.
"Inside the Whale"
If it is any consolation, U. S. business is in the same boat, plagued by bearers of MBA degrees, which purport to prepare one for the world of the "free" market by sitting students around tables talking about business and writing research papers.
I worked under an MBA at Borders Books. Our general manager, she delighted in saying, "I am a capitalist!" She was that modern phenomenon which John Ralston Saul calls "an employee in drag": she had a secure, salaried income with stock options, health insurance, paid vacations, and sick leave. When I have free-lanced, I have had none of these things, because a free lance doesn't just play a capitalist in meetings, he really is one.
Let's dream for a moment. Let's dream that Bill Burroughs never got that stipend from his mom and dad, but, a Harvard man, went on to teach college English. What might have happened to this Bill Burroughs, ensconced in the English department, when he published Naked Lunch and got hauled into court on obscenity charges? The ensuing comedy might even attain what one can only call Burroughsesque proportions. Would tenure count for anything?
But, of course, had William S. Burroughs taught English, it wouldn't have occurred to him to write such a book, that is, a masterpiece.
7. Anything you do as many times as a successful actor, you can't have one set of theories. You know, you can go for years saying, "I'm going to get this thing real, because they really haven't seen it real." You know? They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real. And you know, you go mad with realism, and then you come up against someone like Stanley, who says, "Yeah, it's real, but it isn't interesting."
Making 'The Shining' by Vivian Kubrick
I used to participate in writers groups. I do not anymore, because they ceased to be helpful, but I did meet several people with degrees in creative writing. They wrote well. As Louis Menand says in his New Yorker review of The Program Era, "there is more good fiction out there than anyone has time to read." The problem is, as Stanley Kubrick might reply, it's good but it's not interesting. It is "invented." It is false. Where did all these writers learn to invent?
Whenever I would meet a talented creative writing graduate, I always complimented him on the quality of his writing. Then, always, I said: "I think you need to get a job with a newspaper or some commercial magazine for a year or two — three at the most. I think that will really polish up your writing."
In such a job, he, as a writer, would be deemed very low on the institutional totem pole, would have to tailor his writing to sell advertising, would work alongside dedicated hacks, and would in all likelihood be verbally abused and even humiliated by senior editors and above.
In other words, he would have experienced everyday work in his own country. Almost every serious writer in U. S. history had this experience before writing programs came along. It is an experience without belief because it is an experience beyond belief, one that, as Joseph Conrad observes in The Secret Agent, frees a man of illusions about himself. That is the very quality, the very experience, that would have rounded out my acquaintances' writing and endowed it with a seriousness and maturity that is missing in almost all contemporary fiction, even in the best of it.
They are missing, as well, in Reality Hunger.
None of the graduates I met ever had the balls to get a job like that.
8. When I come up against a director who has a concept that I — maybe I don't agree with or maybe I just hadn't thought of it — I'd be more prone to go with them than with my own because I want to be out of control as an actor. I want them to have the control. Otherwise it's going to become predictably my work, and that's not fun.
Our novelists and storytellers, whom we might call degreed expert writers, have failed us because, as Orwell says, good novels are not written from positions of security. Which is not to say that the writer does not need to eat; but, rather, that he needs to be out of control.
"Out of control" does not go down well with university administrations and boards of trustees. One does not receive bread from Caesar and scandalize him by publishing, as Petronius did, a list of all his lovers. Control is for editors, and that, oddly, is what our writing programs seem to me to be producing.
If they are teaching that fiction is "invented" then they are television-writing programs. The best fiction, like the best nonfiction, begins with a vision and follows it wherever it goes. The cultivation of such a thing is not a job, has nothing to do with the degree process of the university system, is not teachable by exercises, is not secure, cannot be displayed for critique in a workshop setting. A degree in creative writing is no more valid than the one granted to Scarecrow by the Wizard of Oz, though it is a good bit more useful.
Like prayer and boxing, writing is a spiritual act. That is what makes it work. It is not a matter of educational opportunity or networking or grants and fellowships. It is not a game or a mashup. Above all, real writing is not a matter of "invention," though real propaganda is. Real writing is a way of life, which is why program leader R. V. Cassill told his students to "get writers' diseases." When it also happens to be a way of making a living, I say, "Gentlemen, hats off!" But that is not necessary. Nor is it, in the case of all our writer/professors, sufficient.
9. Writers fail from lack of character, not lack of intelligence.