Tuesday, March 11, 2014


There is a new book out: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Culutres of American Fiction. It sounded morbidly fascinating to me, so I got it.

The two cultures are Creative Writing workshops and the "literary" community in New York City. The workshops are spread out in college towns all over the US. The literary community is made up of people (this book tells us) who live in one neighborhood in Brooklyn, hang out with one another and aspire to six figure advances.

There is a lot more to American fiction: all the genres, for example. And there is a lot more to the US than Brooklyn or the college towns with writing programs. Writers live everywhere and do not all make their living from MFA programs.

I made a couple of facebook posts, as I read the book. They follow:
I got MFA vs NYC on my nook and have read 100 pages. It is clear that I am not a writer. I've had none of these experiences. On the other hand, I have worked in a printing plant in Detroit and an art museum in Minneapolis and three different warehouses... I have not been a short order cook, which is fine. I never wanted to work in food service. And the merchant marine was out, because I get seasick. But it would have been nice to be a forest fire lookout...

The printing plant was not like Kinko's. The presses were two stories tall with two stories of shock absorbers below them. They couldn't move the presses, so they turned the plant into a kind of fortress surrounded by tall fences, with security guards at every entrance. I had an office job and got to wear a pretty dress. The guys on the plant floor were covered with ink and got union wages.


I am most of the way through MFA vs. NYC. Interesting book. If you are a writer, your response to the book will be autobiographical. I am up to Fredric Jameson and the workshop rules for writing: Write what you know. Find your own voice. Show, don't tell.

No, no and no.

It's good to know where show, don't tell comes from. (Not from Jameson, from the workshop culture. Jameson does not seem to like show, don't tell much.) I hate it. It is so obviously untrue. And I remember when -- almost 50 years ago -- one of my professors mentioned that many of her former students were writing back to her and saying, "I think I have finally found my own voice." Find your own voice? I thought. What is this crap? As for write what you know, why? Did Homer fight in the Trojan War? Must have been difficult, given that he was blind. How about the author of Beowulf? Met a lot of dragons, did he?

How about tell a story and use whatever techniques are needed to tell the story? The story is primary, not the author. (Lyric poetry may require a personal voice -- or maybe not. Is the voice of "My Last Duchess" Browning's voice? How about "Andrea del Sarto?")

I probably have more to say about the book, but I haven't organized my thoughts. It may not be worth more thought. Neither culture is my culture.


Blogger Russell Letson said...

This topic has more to do with C.'s world than mine, but finding or devising a writing voice of one's own is a real enough matter in non-fiction. I realized years ago that one of the reasons I enjoy my Locus columns so much is that they are written in a voice as close to my own as is going to be possible in a publishing context. (This was back before blogging became nearly universal.) My other journalistic or academic projects expected voices appropriate to their settings, and while I was perfectly comfortable using my teacher or reporter voices, it was refreshing to talk about books in a manner with fewer constraints. Though the more fundamental craft issue is gaining enough control to deploy whatever voice is appropriate to the situation. Writing a Locus column feels like working with my shoes off and a cat in my lap.

BTW, one of the pleasures of reading your fiction is that it always sounds like you. There is a definite Eleanor Arnason voice, as distinct as the Jack Vance or Phil Farmer voices. (It might help that I was able to hear the actual physical voices of all three in ordinary social settings.)

8:02 AM  

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