Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bureaucracy versus Art

TRADITIONALLY artists have been the most disordered of personalities; the least likely to stay within the lines. What we get now from our writers, however, are individuals most likely to conform in order to make it through the long MFA winnowing process. They’re not living in unruly bohemia. They’re raising their hands, for years, at the head of a class. They’re taught that the process, the rules, the obedience, is more important than the art. The survivors of the endless hoop-jumping are those best able to put their personalities and their craft within a box. They could just as well be bankers or accountants.

The result is the creation of bureaucrats more than artists. To the bureaucrat, following the regulations is all. Our literary bureaucrats can produce spotlessly clean well-regulated manuscripts. What they’re not giving us is great art.

I’m proud of the fact that when I ran the Underground Literary Alliance I recruited many writers from the underside of America, underdogs who’d been otherwise ignored. Those who came from broken families and broken worlds—truly broken—who’d been kicked in the head once or twice and hadn’t known only achievement and success. Who’d viewed this mad society from the bottom up and railed against it, seen the disordered world, knew the inequities, brutalities, and tragedies so fully part of the world and wrote about them.

17 comments:

Harland said...

Do you have any idea how many MFA programs there are in this country and who, exactly, attends them? Or are they all the same to you? Is some middle-aged woman attending a low-residency program in, say, Kentucky the same as a 24-year-old at the Iowa Writer's Workshop? Is the 24-year-old at Iowa, for that matter, the same as another 24-year-old at Brown?

Do you have any idea of the breadth of the work that may be read in an MFA workshop? Or of the differences between the instructors? Or the different ways that such programs can be structured?

Do you know how many books an MFA candidate is likely to read and discuss in literature seminars throughout their two years in a program?

Just wondering if you have the slightest idea what you're talking about.

Do you ever get tired of trafficking in generalities?

King said...

Hmm-- why is this variety not reflected in the produce of these many programs, as discovered in scores of literary journals; in university poetry anthologies, "Best" stories collections, Best Workshop fiction, etc etc etc. What I find everywhere is widespread mediocrity. Not bad, not good, just blah same-old same-old.
My opinion only, of course.

Harland said...

But you don't find it "everywhere." You don't look "everywhere." And everywhere you do look, all you ever see is demi-puppets and conformists.

Don't you ever think that there might be people attending these programs who aren't looking to learn how to conform? Who, whether they enjoy the experience or endure unending pressure to conform, take their degrees and then write what they want?

Has it ever occurred to you that people who come "from broken families and broken worlds" sometimes seek out advanced degrees? People who haven't "known only achievement and success"?

mather said...

Harland, the MFA programs are very similar just by virtue of being MFA programs. They are not 100 percent the same but same enough. One braids their ponytails, one lets them hang loose. The common denominator is money. Imagine having the money to pay for such a nebulous "education" as an mfa program! Even people in regular college courses laugh at it! Accountants laugh at it! How many working class people are in the mfa programs? How many poor people? They are a joke. Anyone who wastes their money on one is a fool, and then to turn around and whine because there is not a job waiting for you is even worse.

But, shit, they really read a lot of books in their focused two year program. And when no one's looking, they revert to their televisions and boxes of bonbons.

Harland said...

"Harland, the MFA programs are very similar just by virtue of being MFA programs. They are not 100 percent the same but same enough."

Actually, they aren't. Do I happen to think that too many of them are cash cows for the universities that offer them? Sure. But some of them offer a full ride, plus stipend.

"How many working class people are in the mfa programs? How many poor people?"

Taken as a whole, I'd say probably more than you'd find in the average PhD program. But the point is that the King is suspicious of higher education generally. He sees college as a deliberately designed societal dividing point.

"But, shit, they really read a lot of books in their focused two year program."

About a hundred. And they spend about two hundred hours discussing them. I'm not prepared to dismiss that as a complete waste of time.

"And when no one's looking, they revert to their televisions and boxes of bonbons."

No doubt some do.

mather said...

Yes, I'm sure that most of them offer the occassional free ride to the appropriately brainwashed Native American or Black Lesbian or reformed Christian drug addict. And then only if they can write the acceptable pc essay. Neato. That's about 1/2 percent. You're probably right, the number is higher than in PDD programs, but I'm not sure how that helps things. PHD's are pretty elite too. And the fact that it is possible to get a PHD in creative writing is despicable. A doctor in creativity, sure.

Oh, man, they usually read a hundred books in a two year period! Shit, that just takes all the wind out of my sails. How many thousands of books are there that are worth reading?

Harland said...

Yes, Mather, people enrolled in degree programs are vetted for "brainwashing" ahead of time, the better to effect their indoctrination in the sinister perpetuation of PC beliefs. Honestly, it's possible to be even harshly critical of these things without jumping the rhetorical shark.

King said...

Why is it, "Harland," that of two long essays I wrote in 1994 for North American Review, it's the weaker, less un-p.c. one which is available on-line? (The one about the inocuous subject of baseball!)
The other one, about the reality of Detroit, is much stronger, but by necessity in stating reality it's also more politically incorrect.
Just the way things work, I guess
***********************
On one point Harland is correct-- that there's a hierarchy of MFA programs, as there is in American society as a whole.
And so, a degree from Brown is more valuable than one from a low-residency program in Kentucky; the Brown MFAer more likely not only to be published by a conglom, but to receive publicity backing for that publication.
This society is very much class-based. It's a denial of reality to insist that this doesn't apply to the realm of literature.
****************
"Harland" tries to live without context. He claims his anonymity as a route toward a pure discussion of ideas.
Except for one thing-- I'm not posting anonymously! neither here or elsewhere. Which leaves an HTML Giant free to dig up an old, biased essay about the ULA.
Harland is free to bring up anything I've publicly said, on any topic, while he himself hides within a cloak of anonymity.
It's the writer who can least afford to exist without context, if he's to be a chronicler of the truths of his time and world.
Harland wants to live in an abstract dimension; in outer space I guess.
But in reality he doesn't live there. He has a background, a context, which motivates his appearances here and what he says in them.

Harland said...

I don't know why, King, but of course the only logical answer is that someone wants to suppress your radically subversive ideas. Perhaps there's a CIA connection at the University of Northern Iowa, too?

I don't suppose there's any point at all in pointing out to you that Brown's degree is prestigious in part because it is, in my opinion, a superior program. I don't suppose there's any point, either, in pointing out that you have shifted ground now, moving from a blanket condemnation of MFA programs to a crocodile-tear defense of the poor underprivileged people seeking degrees at programs lower in the hierarchy.

What exactly does "publication by a conglom" mean to you? Is it something that "real" writers should refuse on principle? Is it like winning the lottery, e.g., those who are published by a conglom now can enjoy lives of wealthy leisure?

My identity is irrelevant. I don't have any desire to be the "chronicler of the truths of my time and world." In the sense that you mean, that's not literature to me.

King said...

?? Then what is literature to you?
Why do you write?
***************************
Your identity isn't irrelevant. You're at this blog, out of many thousands of litblogs, for a reason. Just as Daniel Handler was posting here for a reason.
The reason all political correctness needs to be thrown overboard is because the job of the artist is to tell the truth. BEING honest.
One needs to look at any esteemed short story collection is to see that the writers live within a constricted box. They're either A.) all pc bourgie people who never, ever have an untoward thought; B.) They pretend to be this in their work.
Yet there's a little of monster in all of us. Except when the person posts anonymously, as in this case, the monster is never allowed forth.
I'm sure that you post anonymously because there's another version of Harland out there. The brightly lit Dorian Gray portrait hanging on a wall-- with the real version hidden in a back room. Many of the individuals actions are monbstrous-- his greed and selfishness, for instance-- but because he's one of society's catered individuals he gets away with it.
********************
Are Brown students/writers "better"? Really?
Didn't Walter Kirn recently write a book debunking that thought?
This is a caste society, remember. Yes, a certain amount of individuals, largely themselves from upper-middle class backgrounds, get their due to their hard work-- their conformity. Their willingness to follow the rules. Which I argue is good for science but not so much for art. The writer I looked for when I was running the ULA was the kid sleeping in the back row because he lives on the streets, or from pure boredom staring out the window. (It's beyond me how any creative intelligence can go through such a long institutional process which is so against in every way an imaginative temperament.)
Many Brown students are there because they're rich. There've been plenty of articles about Eurotrash at Brown, for instance. I'm sure there are also many "legacy" students.
How did you get in, Harland? Daddy write you a proper reference?
Who paid the bills?
I went to college, as you know. (The BB Club has researched my background.) I worked my way through. My factory rat old man was sick and much of the time I was the only person in the house working-- though I was seldom in the house. I worked nights as a security guard, would sleep in my car on the urban campus before classes-- and of course was often put to sleep by the mind-stunted profs in the too-hot or too-cold classrooms themselves. When I wasn't saying something to piss them off.
Naturally, my vantage point on education and on society is going to be very different from yours.
For me, that was just a start! I've had some hellish experiences which I should be writing about more.
I'd rather look for the Nowlans of the world who can better do what I seek from literature.
Contrary to your stereotype of me, I love to read. It's the only reason I got involved in my quixotic cause.
But I don't like to read refined bullshit. I prefer writing that's relevant, meaningful, and truthful.
****************
Harland states that he's here for his "amusement." Really.
Which means that he's either a trivial person, or he's a liar.
Which is it?

Harland said...

"Why do you write?"

Love of language, artifice, and imagination.

"Your identity isn't irrelevant."

My "real" identity is my business. You'd find nothing in it that would be more relevant than what I'm saying.

"all political correctness needs to be thrown overboard...because the job of the artist is to tell the truth."

Gee, is there anything MORE PC than your binary concept of the world?

"One needs to look at any esteemed short story collection to see that the writers...bla bla bla"

They're all this or all that. But you haven't read them "all" and your a priori claim that you don't have to because you know what's in them based on the authors' provenance is specious. Your awarding of bonus points for "untoward thoughts" is mere vulgar amateurism, given your idea of the "untoward." "Bourgie" John Cheever had more untoward thoughts in a single short story than you've had in your whole life.

"...there's another version of Harland out there. The brightly lit Dorian Gray portrait hanging on a wall-- with the real version hidden in a back room."

If I sent you my name, social security number, and fucking curriculum vitae you'd STILL have no idea who I am, because that hive of unsubtlety balanced on your shoulders is insensitive to the nuance behind all those big, zeppelin-slow signifiers that allow you to erect this crazy reality in which pointing out the insufficiency of your tautological, solipsistic thought is evidence of monstrous greed and selfishness.

"Are Brown students/writers 'better'? Really?"

Not necessarily, but Brown is "better." One reason is because there are fewer students because they are selected VERY competitively, which may not make them "better" but eliminates weaker students who are taken on by other programs for no reason other than that they can pay tuition.

"This is a caste society, remember. (bla bla bla)...their conformity. Their willingness to follow the rules."

King, I am enchanted by your celebration of the virtue of autodidacticism v. corrupt formal education, but you are not going to persuade me that every person who excels at a prestigious school is being rewarded for their conformity.

"The writer I looked for when I was running the ULA was the kid sleeping in the back row because he lives on the streets" bla bla bla again. Even if I accept that education is antithetical to the artistic temperament, how is a life on the street complementary to it?

"Many Brown students are there because they're rich."

Yep, true enough.

"How did you get in, Harland? Daddy write you a proper reference?"

Keep swinging at that pitch.

"I went to college...worked my way through....would sleep in my car on the urban campus before classes-- was often put to sleep by the mind-stunted profs in the too-hot or too-cold classrooms themselves."

Maybe because you went to a shitty college.

"When I wasn't saying something to piss them off."

Nice pipe dream. I'll bet that in school you kept your head down and your mouth shut. Goes with your personality.

"I'd rather look for the Nowlans of the world who can better do what I seek from literature."

Why not just go to a machine shop and listen to the machinery? Or go to skid row and drink Thunderbird? Why read about someone else's "chunks of experience" when you can easily have some of your own? You're arguing against the creative role of synthesis and imagination in art -- saying they have no place -- why not eliminate the middleman?

"I don't like to read refined bullshit. I prefer writing that's relevant, meaningful, and truthful."

To hold the mirror up to reality. Got it. Like the poor, this attitude of the Junior Art Appreciators League will always be with us.

King said...

I can't say anyone in my family has ever kept their "head down and mouth shut." Not in our personalities.
****
Again, you're here for a reason. SOMETHING I'm saying must be bothering you. Your appreciation of Selby alone says that you're more attracted to that "experience" than you pretend. Chunks of raw experience was all he was about! Look at his books, man. He had one style, that he pushed to the limit. Very effective; occasionally monotonous. It was WHAT he was saying which made his writing compelling.
There's the topic of authenticity, which I have no time to go into here. Your kind of writer wopuld love to have the authenticity of a Selby or Kerouac-- it's why you're so desperate to buy them after they're dead. Or sometimes, like Ginsberg, when they're still alive.)
The Beats cred was made outside Columbia. Kerouac dropped out and never turned back. Ginsberg was thrown out.
To you it's all about ownership. Ginsberg's carcass is nailed to a wall at Columbia, sure, where fakes like you can pose with it, and borrow from its glow.
***************
Nowlan's the true gen. Yeah, better if we'd cleaned him up a bit. No matter. He's no less accomplished than was Selby. Too bad you don't have the honesty to acknowledge this.
Then again, honesty isn't at all what you're about.

Harland said...

"SOMETHING I'm saying must be bothering you."

Why, yes. Since my arguments are easy to follow and hang together, you can check out the very consistent remarks I've made in my comments over the past few years and see what that SOMETHING is.

"Chunks of raw experience was all he was about!"

No, a highly synthesized and refined form of demotic speech was what he was "about," which is why his admirers included people like William Carlos Williams (decidedly NOT a champion of "experience" on the page).

"It was WHAT he was saying which made his writing compelling."

Really? So you'd say that it's a similarity in the *subject matter* that links the striking, latent queer, lathe operator Harry Black with the successful, married-woman-fucking executive Harry White?

"Fakes like me." And what kind of fake is that, King? I actually knew Selby, and Ginsberg. I don't just talk about how cool they are on a blog.

"No matter." Sure, no matter to you. You're a guy invested in a verbal art who holds the language in contempt. Remember that, kids.

King said...

Synthesized? Only in the sense that all writing is "synthesized" to some extent.
I can't say I know why you're here. Whatever point you have to make must've been made a thousand times over. Obviously I don't accept it, whatever it is.
You see, the world is such a place that not every single person in it will agree with you, or get along with you. Or can be discouraged or bought.
I know it's hard to believe for someone whose entire life has been built on getting his way in every circumstance.
Construct every rationalization and argument you want. What keeps me going is that I know, today, I'm not finding what I want as a reader. I know that today's lit isn't connecting with the American public (aside from the James Patterson's of the litworld). I don't believe it's an either-or situation: Patterson or you.
What a choice.

Harland said...

'Synthesized? Only in the sense that all writing is "synthesized" to some extent.'

Of course you would deny Selby his artifice.

"I can't say I know why you're here. Whatever point you have to make must've been made a thousand times over."

I'm arguing with you, King. It's funny, but that glorious bohemia that you love to invoke never seems to mention the internecine aesthetic arguments that always take place within it. There's no room for disagreement in the King's bohemia.


"You see, the world is such a place that not every single person in it will agree with you, or get along with you. Or can be discouraged or bought."

Ouch, King. Here I thought I was quietly and steadily wearing you down, co-opting you so that you might relax your mighty and principled critical and artistic acumen.

"I know it's hard to believe for someone whose entire life has been built on getting his way in every circumstance."

Yeah, it probably would be hard for someone like that to believe it. I don't know anybody like that, of course. What kind of person would that be? Someone who goes to someone else's event and heckles them, maybe?


"What keeps me going is that I know, today, I'm not finding what I want as a reader."

There are some really good YA books out there you might like.

King said...

?? Like I've never had an argument on this blog? That's all I've engaged in since the ULA was born.
What's lacking in the refined world of letters are arguments.
MY bohemia? I have no world.
It's the literary world which lacks contrary voices. I'm just one guy.
You're turning reality on its head again. I don't have the power to exclude, or any power at all.
What I've done is tried to open up a closed system, as manifested by institutions like the New Yorker, NY Times, and others, who decide what is or isn't considered literature in this country, and therefore deserving of notice.
You may disagree with my aesthetic standards-- the fact remains that I'm the one on the outside, while your p-o-v is clearly Inside, deciding that the likes of a Nowlan or myself aren't writers.
The scorn you heap upon us is palpable.
But that is still YOUR judgement, not everyone's. You want to impose your opinion on literature as a whole.
Otherwise you wouldn't be here.
Whether I think your writing sucks or all writing sucks makes no difference. I'm one voice. I have the right to express my viewpoint.
Expressing my viewpoint isn't shutting anyone out-- least of all those who have all the access to the literary organs of power they could want.
There's an objective reality.
One can objectively see who has power and influence in literature.
This is done by seeing who sits on foundation boards and panels (or who finances such outfits); by the major editors and publishers at the big congloms; by who are the opinion makers at major publications; and so on.
If someone is receiving grants or dishing them out, or choosing directors, etc, that person is obviously a player in the litworld., and wields power and influence.
An Eggers, for instance, not only publishes a line of books and periodicals, but he's involved in numerous joint arrangements with the largest publishers. He's been also shown to be vindictive against those who've crossed him.
This is well-documented.
No one crossed him more than did the Underground Literary Alliance.
Unwise on our part?
I'd say so.
But it's also an example that the esteemed world of letters is every bit as corrupt as big business or big politics.
Its members are merely better at wearing a phony-ass "liberal" facade.
************
The ULA was a failed attempt to gain some kind of leverage-- it was created out of a sense of reality, understanding about how Letters, like everything else, works. An understanding of leverage.
The only leverage I had was the ability to make noise. Now that's gone. Your side won.
Yet you still wish to continue the argument, at a time when many ULAers are completely impoverished; the organization broken-- with enough fissures that it will never come back again.
Yet still you're here. That apparently wasn't good enough.
If you don't know when to call off the dogs, the loser in the long run will be you. . . .

Harland said...

Great, King.

You've just written your own fan fiction script for the part of "the computer" in a brand-spanking new episode of "Star Trek: Driving the Computer Crazy."