THE FAILED APPARATCHIK
I.) First Impression.
What would we have thought if top literary bureaucrats in a Soviet-style country, seeing that the populace isn't interested in their bland, machine-like works, suddenly announce that the public must be retrained to read in proper fashion: taught to read "like writers"?
Wouldn't we laugh hysterically?
Wouldn't this be a sign of the complete bankruptcy of their cultural system, of their ideas?
Yet this is exactly what's happening in the United States today, as put forth in a new book by Insider's Insider Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer. The book is a rear-guard action meant to rescue what little remains of the literary system's credibility. Prose's colleagues (most recently, Mona Simpson) admit that the public has scant interest in literary fiction and poetry. They blame not themselves, but the public!
In her book, Prose asks whether writing can be taught in MFA programs. She says that she's taught writing for 20 years, and so has to believe it can be taught. Picture the failed Soviet bureaucrat standing fretfully as the Berlin Wall readies to topple; "We've been doing things our way for decades, Comrades. We have no choice but to defend what is; our own existence; our bureaucratic survival!"
Prose styles herself a literary critic and theorist, yet strangely enough (or not so strangely), never exposes her ideas to criticism from outside the walls of the narrow world of status quo agreement. Being so embedded into the System and its failure, Francine Prose is incapable of stepping outside her box to view the cultural world as it exists in reality. A sad place for a critic to be.
Prose isn't a critic at all. She's a mouthpiece for the Machine, standing in a room of mirrors watching images of sameness bounce off the walls of the room again and again.
A question for Ms. Prose:
The investment in America's literary writers, through the System's programs, involves many thousands of persons and billions of dollars. The energy and expense dwarfs, a thousand-fold, the investment in art in Periclean Athens, or Elizabethan England. Yet where are America's great writers? Who can be pointed to, to justify the hundreds of MFA programs? Who rises above the interesting and competent? Maybe these programs help people to feel good about themselves-- but WHERE, Ms. Prose, are the great, moving, earth-shaking poems, stories, and novels?
When all is said and done, won't Francine Prose herself be viewed as no more than a System writer, well-rewarded with medals and ribbons-- or tokens of same-- pinned onto her chest from the internal bureaucracy, while having no relevance to the authentic culture, to the progress of the true stream of literature; her art never escaping the safe bounds of its craft, competence, and conformity? She talks of the love of language, but in her words I see no raging passionate VOICE; no out-of-control Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas, or Kerouac; no energetic unstoppable talker with an irresistably attractive love of LIFE. Instead, careful steps through the dusty corridors of literary priests.
Any reply to this, Ms. Prose? Hello? Hello?
II. Second Look.
Maybe I'm unfair. In her book, Francine Prose does admit the limits of writing programs. They don't create great writers. She accepts this. Why then the enormous expense, for society and the individual? Aren't the programs nothing more than ways to keep dutiful literary apparatchiks like Francine Prose employed?
Prose describes her efforts to impose her Princess-and-the-Pea sensibilities upon her students. To their credit, many have rebelled. Probably her lectures mimicked the "fictions" she applauds: refined murmurs from the mannequins on the sofa.
Prose's viewpoint is bourgeois and domestic. Petting a cat takes on deep significance. Such trivialities are important-- and so the immersion in details. The apt detail CAN be important for a narrative, but for Prose and writers like her they become an obsession. It's part of their fixation on their materialistic world. They've spent a lot of bucks on their possessions and so they'd better describe them!
It's an escape from thought. Prose loves Chekhov stories, she says, because they're non-judgemental. Writer, she admonishes, have no opinion on anything around you. If the world is corrupt; well, that's just the way it is. Blink at the furnishings. Let the world pass over you.
Francine Prose not only appreciates house cats-- she IS that cat, cataloguing the room's furnishings, quietly and delicately, with great feline sensibility, and stupidity, before pattering off into the sunlight for her afternoon nap.
Prose leaves the living room, of course, for funerals, conferences, trips to Europe and such, but wherever she travels she never leaves the confines of her comfortably ignorant mindset. Like others of her kind, there's no world outside her well-bred lifestyle. Her kind of writing, found in literary story after story, poem after poem, novel after novel, written by MFA-produced factory automatons, is fine up to a point-- but NOT when their stupid insular world is all there is; when such irrelevant generic craftings define our literature. Writers like Prose are blocking the way to the emergence of more authentic and original authors; to the realization of a greater art. Francine Prose has published numerous books-- 10? 12?-- while underground writers like myself have been allowed to publish not one.
Do we have anything to add to the national dialogue, Ms. Prose? I guess not! At least, not sofas, carpets, lamps, or cats; nothing so elevated as that.