IN THEIR ARGUMENTS our critics like to place ULA writing at some point along a continuum of training-- in a sophomore writing course, or the first year of MFA workshops. Or, more likely, in nursery school. The implied standard, the assumed aesthetic goal, is the final culmination of the process: the much valued Master of Fine Arts degree, symbol of writerly accomplishment.
Yet it's indisputable that the dominance of MFA programs has failed literature. The art's position in the culture has become marginalized. Despite huge investment, the system produces no great writers. The vast bulk of literary writing remains overwrought, overrefined, stilted, imitative. Creative writing professors themselves, like Lynn Freed in Harper's, now denounce what such training does to writers.
One has to wonder if it'd be better if writers were less well-trained; if at some point in the continuum, the process ground to a halt, while the writers still maintained a portion of originality and freshness; before all life had been processed out of their works.
Then again, if they were natural writers, they wouldn't be in the programs to begin with. The programs are for bourgeois people who lack confidence in their art, who've yet to find a voice. They're wannabes: They wish to be writers-- they've paid their money, now tell them how!
The natural writer writes. He need know the rudiments of spelling and grammar (shaky even in Shakespeare) enough to communicate with the reader. Then get out of the way!-- this person writes because he has something to say, a message to impart or story to tell. There are no writers blocks or blank pages for the natural writer.
Jack Saunders latest novel, Bukowski Never Did This, is experimental, in that it's like no novel cranked out by the conglomerates. But it's also transparent. There's clarity on every page. Jack puts his thoughts, his ideas, and his life in the book and says, "This is who I am." No training, craft, or calculation necessary.
Each underground writer is completely different, of course-- which is what makes the genre great. Can one dismiss an entire body of writing which contains such variety? Emerson Dameron isn't like Wred Fright isn't like Bill Blackolive isn't like Urban Hermitt isn't like Steve Kostecke isn't like Grant Schreiber isn't like Mark Sonnenfeld isn't like Bernice Mullins isn't like Christopher Robin isn't like Michael Grover isn't like Marissa Ranello isn't like Crazy Carl Robinson isn't like Doug Finch isn't like Leopold McGinniss isn't like Jessica Disobedience. All that unites them is the authenticity of their voices.
Demi-puppet caricatures will dismiss all of them. Writers who aren't themselves genuine are unable to relate to genuine writers. Establishment writers and wannabes take their cues from the outside world. What's acceptable? What are the trends? What do the System's agents say, or the editors, or the critics? What's being published? What is the public encouraged to buy? Is this book 2005, or 1983? What would people in Manhattan say, or in Williamsburg, or in L.A.? Or in the workshops' highest levels, Iowa, the New School, Columbia, Brown, or Bennington?
Natural writers have never paid attention to that kind of shit. Their aesthetic cues come not from others but from their own vision. They express THEIR truth, in their own words, their own styles. At its very best-- the stray issue of Last Laugh or Urban Hermitt; a poem or essay by Frank Walsh; a novel by Joe Pachinko or James Nowlan-- the writing is very good, expressing truths about this world and about life itself that can't be found in a thousand slick overpriced processed one-week-available products from the assembly lines of the university programs and publishing conglomerates.
The natural artist will always be dismissed by the fake version. Someone pointed out on this blog the way Van Gogh and Gaugin were dismissed by the well-schooled salon painters and critics of their time. After all, they didn't follow the rules. They didn't paint inside the lines. Amateurish! Sophomoric! Infantile! (And the way they dressed! And what happened to the guy's ear!)
We've seen the phenomenon in popular music, when early rock n' roll MADE music the popular art form it is now. Elvis and his combo couldn't play their instruments, highly-skilled jazz musicians insisted. Grade school! Romper room! Janis Joplin's band couldn't hit their notes, their academy-trained producer sniffed. Their notes! Bad, bad music everyplace. All it had was energy and genuine feeling which connected in deep ways with people. One can see the classically trained violinist, huge sums of money invested in her education, rightly puzzled and envious of cornball rubes of the 1950's having-- on independent labels yet!-- monster hits. The majors like Capitol and Columbia steadfastly stayed with the standards and the classics while their world sunk around them. For the expert violinist, the cataclysmic cultural happenings of the day were surely beyond comprehension.
As the writings of the ULA are beyond the comprehension of the MFAers and MBAers and the wannabes now.
What do we do with natural writers like Jack Saunders, or Bill Blackolive, or Pachinko, or Hermitt? Do we enroll them in writing school, and conform their visions, laboriously wringing all spontaniety and original voice out of them until they're "trained" and write just like everyone else? It would ruin them. Overtraining is a form of decadence. The writer loses the fresh eye of the newborn. The baseball pitcher with the 100 mile an hour fastball begins wondering how he does it. The tightrope walker begins looking at his feet, and falls off. There is no turning back. This is the risk, anyway. Take a wild animal from the forest or jungle and domesticate it, confine it, put it into a zoo for part of its life-- then release it back into the wild. Could it survive?
In The Sweet Science A.J. Liebling discussed the trainers of pugilist Rocky Marciano, a crudely effective slugger. They didn't try to remold him, to make him a fancy boxer light on his feet. They worked with what he had, careful not to alter his natural ability, in fear of losing his awkward but tremendous punch. They knew he was an original.
We don't argue against all trained writers. That would be ludicrous. We're arguing for an alternative. Too many MFA writers are beyond hope. They're too well-trained. All is stilted. All is craft.
That craft is all is shown by the mocking statements of recent critics on this blog. What invalidated my essay about a border crossing wasn't what I said, what truth, experience, or insight I had to convey (this not mentioned), but how I said it. The critic said that he wrote like that in tenth grade! Style is all. If you're not in fashion according to New York City arbiters of taste you're no place. I doubt the person at all cares what Jack Saunders talks about in his books. The style seems unfamiliar. It looks too simple. The ideas? The struggles? The experiences? The humor? The wisdom? Don't bother about that! Ideas in writing? That's not what they care about at the bistro!
We live alongside a literary world of ruthless suck-ups who've never had a genuine thought in their lives, who busily watch what OTHERS are deciding-- what might Maud say? Or James Wood? Who crank out their stories of groveling ambitiously at loft parties as they grovel ambitiously in reality, and pander and praise on their blogs, truth a relative concept, the level of plagiarism or grants corruption determined by what the mass of the lit world has to say; their minds contained and controlled every step of the way by the offices gossip peer pressure trends standards routines of the Machine. We're supposed to listen to them?