(A free class in literary reality.)
STANDARD WRITING PROGRAMS
Enormous expense! Massive investment in literature demonstrated by multitudes of writers enrolled in countless high-priced AWPs around the country. For all the investment, the result is consistent and intentional mediocrity.
Have these programs produced one great writer? The merely interesting ones (Flannery O'Conner) over the course of sixty years can be counted on one hand.
An infinitesimal percentage of MFA grads are meaningfully published-- "meaningfully" meaning backed by the giant machines of mainstream publicity. The best graduates from the most esteemed program of them all, Iowa, are assured of appearances in dusty-shelved university literary periodicals which nobody reads.
Never have so many paid so much for so little.
The real intent of these programs is to create not writers of literary fiction and poetry, but readers of it. The huge investment the hapless suckered individuals make in the sterile academic art ensures they'll be apologists for it; members of the sheep flock.
ELITE WRITING PROGRAMS
The writers who ARE meaningfully published have access to the conglomerates through membership in a handful of aristocratic writing programs-- Columbia, Brown, Princeton, the New School, and Bennington. (One way to spot their elite status is to see if Rick Moody and Phillip Lopate are on the faculty.) By the nature of their location and position in the academic hierarchy, many if not most of the teachers and students in these programs are from the upper strata of society.
These schools produce Made Writers-- those couple dozen stars of the literary firmament over the past twenty years who've been heralded by mainstream media as the "hip" and the trendy. (Think Bret Ellis, Jay McInerney, Susan Minot, Tom Beller, Rick Moody, Jon Franzen, up to the Jonathan Safran Foers of the present day.)
The interconnected pieces of the Machine itself-- the towering Manhattan publishing and magazine office buildings-- are staffed by generic Ivy Leaguers (with a smattering of upper-class Brits) who in the fantasy-depths of their stunted imaginations may actually view themselves as writers. In reality they're technocrats. Their minds have been trained to conform to a status-quo reality which every moment weighs upon them. (Think MediaBistro.) Independent thought has been squeezed out of their brains as if by shock therapy. They perpetuate and defend the failing cultural System which pays them. One shouldn't feel sorry for them, anymore than one would feel sorry for the cultural apparatchiks who went along to get along in the Soviet system: The art they produce is no livelier!
THE POLITICALLY CORRECT WRINKLE
The System adopts flimsy subterfuges as facades to pretend it's really not as corrupt and fossilized as it seems. One tactic is to augment the stale bourgeois sameness of mainstream writing with stale writing produced by writers of politically correct colors and names. And so, Zadie Smith is hyped out of all proportion to the strict limits of her ability. (To call White Teeth mediocre is to compliment it-- the novel shows predictable craft; otherwise is a disaster of form, narrative, thought, and believability.)
Upper-class east Indian writers of no talent are the p.c. literary-hip trend of the moment-- which is how pretty but empty-headed Kaavya Viswanathan could receive a half-million dollar advance for her shoemaker construction of borrowings from badly written chick-lit novels.
CONCLUSION: IMPERIAL WRITERS
The status-quo writer is not intent on creating heroic writing or re-creating the heroic deeds of literary history.
"The Roman soldier of the imperial period was not noted for his elan. He was not a warrior intent on proving his manhood but a long-service professional pursuing a career; his goal and reward was not a hero's death but a severance grant upon retirement . . . The Roman army had a multitude of competent soldiers . . . its strength derived from method, not from fortuitous talent."
Doesn't this wonderfully describe the System writers of now? Today's imperial system of literature fits perfectly with the imperial system of American civilization. As in any imperial system, its benefits serve most the interests of the few-- those in positions of control in the literary machine; highly-placed bureaucrats (some masquerading as writers) at conglomerates, foundations, and universities.
April 17th we encountered a few such folks at Columbia University.