Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Talking About Writing Programs

University writing programs have been going full-steam for over forty years. Every year hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in the hundreds of them and the many related seminars, retreats, symposiums, and related ass-kissing bullshit.

By contrast, the investment in the ULA and its writers in its four-year history has been in the thousands of bucks, scraped up catch-as-catch-can. YET, there is already more edge, energy, and relevance in our writings than in that of the combined millions of sheep who've received their MFA degrees-- their proper blue-ribbon certification. At worst, we're competitive with our poetry and prose. (College poetry is so bad that any streetcorner bard beats it.) When it comes to performance and the presentation of exciting lit personalities, there are no MFAers who can even come close to us. We wipe the lot of them off any stage.

To say that MFA programs produce some or a few decent writers, given the investment made in them (the greatest investment made in writers in any society at any time of human history) is, given the context, no argument at all. There's a few "okay" ones out there. Well, I would hope so!

The simple fact is that the body of work over the years doesn't justify the massive investment. Since literature began relying on schools to produce its writers, American literature has steadily declined. The failure speaks for itself.

MFA writers insist they haven't been harmed by the programs. A steady parade of grads leave the factory, walking in straight lines, neatly attired, expressions bland if not blank; pod person eyes devoid of spark of intelligent life. They look the same and sound alike. "Affected? We were not affected at all," a few insist, then hurriedly get back in line. There they go, marching forward, marching, marching! onward ho! Where they're headed they do not know.

Pick up one of the many hundreds of "literary" journals out there and the sameness of poetry and fiction is instantly familiar. Conformist lit-- practically generic.

The purpose of the ULA-- an outgrowth of the D-I-Y "zine" movement-- is to provide an alternative way of producing writers; writers gaining a feel for their art through the production and distribution of zeens. We don't say we're the only way to produce writers. We do offer a sound alternative. For the ULA to suddenly begin to absorb some of the huge mass of MFAers who are out there would be to soon destroy the integrity and existence of this alternative.

The ULA at its outset was like a band of anarchist pirates. Our first presentations were outrageous. We weren't out to "get along" with anyone. (We couldn't even get along with ourselves.) That was our nature. While I'm sure we'll bring in some MFA writers at some point-- those who show they understand what D-I-Y is about-- if we open our doors too wide our little pirate ship will be swamped by bureaucratic conformists-- by demi-puppets. Our Manifesto is still relevant. To understand the ULA, that remains the starting point.

I've spent over twelve years, beginning with New Philistine, pointing out the many problems of writing programs, in too many words to post here. I've exchanged views on such with program advocates such as Madison Bell-- who having written a textbook is kind of an authority on the subject, giving the best defense possible from an establishment viewpoint. On-line outlets such as Salon and Ironminds (now defunct), have in the past pointed to me as a leading opponent of such production factories. (I haven't been the only critic of them.) I sincerely believe that they, and the entire system, and the accommodations demanded by it of writers, is harmful to the art. As proof I can point to the best MFA story writer of them all, Mary Gaitskill, whose strongest work yet seems confined in a kind of straitjacket of craft-- wanting to burst out of its limitations but not doing so; and whose more recent work, for The New Yorker and such, shows a noticeable falling-off. Our goal is to produce writers who surpass Ms. Gaitskill in the very things she does best; the strength and reality of her vision and prose. We're on the way toward doing this, and will do so, if we stay the course and not fall into institutional confinements.

In short, to ask me, of all people, to accommodate the MFA process, when I've made opposition to it a focal point of my noise, is ridiculous. It'd be like asking Lenin to become a capitalist, St. Peter to accommodate Nero about to crucify him upside down, or James Brown to start singing bland show tunes. Such accommodation will have to wait for some future stage in the ULA's history.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not aware of anyone who has suggested that an MFAer flood to ULA is immanent. If such an unlikely event were to occur, I agree that ULA would probably have to check and redirect it to maintain ULA coherence, strength, and purpose.

Tony

Adam Hardin said...

What I think has happened is that a few writers who could have been great writers have entered an MFA program only to have their development truncated and molested to the point which the great books they may have written are lost forever. If you want to say it more direct, they got castrated.

Writers have always evolved themselves through reading and writing.

And then you have Dave Eggers who did not go to an MFA program but somehow managed to conform exactly as though he had graduated from one.

The underground will be the place for the ressurrection of American Literature.

King said...

Well said, Adam. I can always point to former zinesters like Jennifer Gogglebox who when in the zeen scene wrote amazing prose-- then she went into an Ivy league journalism Master's program and all literary wildness appears to be gone.

Anonymous said...

The ULA is making a big mistake by closing off their membership to those who have MFA degrees. There is a false assumption being made by the ULA membership that those with MFA degrees are part of a factory of writers that conforms to certain monolithic standards upheld by the publishing industry and is, therefore, contributing to the decline of American letters. The ULA ought to realize that MFA programs do not guarantee publication of any sort once that program is finished and certainly do not produce writers who adhere to one specific standard of literature. The MFA degree primarily benefits those who wish to teach literature and writing either at the high school or college level and in no way influences an editor's decision to publish work based on that degree or the position the graduate holds afterwards. Neither is the publishing industry partial to any particular style of writing that is produced by novice MFA graduates. Actually, quite the opposite is true. In other words, there are plenty of MFA-holding writers who struggle and suffer as a result of the publishing industry's literary myopia and whose values align closely with those of the ULA. To exclude MFA graduates from the ULA is like asking Lenin to exclude Marxists, to use the previous analogy. Rather than seeing MFA graduates as a threat to the purity of the ULA movement, it should see them instead as an opportunity for the movement's expansion.

Anonymous said...

The ULA is making a big mistake by closing off their membership to those who have MFA degrees. There is a false assumption being made by the ULA membership that those with MFA degrees are part of a factory of writers that conforms to certain monolithic standards upheld by the publishing industry and is, therefore, contributing to the decline of American letters. The ULA ought to realize that MFA programs do not guarantee publication of any sort once that program is finished and certainly do not produce writers who adhere to one specific standard of literature. The MFA degree primarily benefits those who wish to teach literature and writing either at the high school or college level and in no way influences an editor's decision to publish work based on that degree or the position the graduate holds afterwards. Neither is the publishing industry partial to any particular style of writing that is produced by novice MFA graduates. Actually, quite the opposite is true. In other words, there are plenty of MFA-holding writers who struggle and suffer as a result of the publishing industry's literary myopia and whose values align closely with those of the ULA. To exclude MFA graduates from the ULA is like asking Lenin to exclude Marxists, to use the previous analogy. Rather than seeing MFA graduates as a threat to the purity of the ULA movement, it should see them instead as an opportunity for the movement's expansion.