Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kids today!

W6 reader Jay Livingston emailed me a link to this week's entry in the (really quite good) LA Times Books Blog, which is by the novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro. The gist of the piece is that publishing, and the literary aims of the young, have changed. She helpfully tells us that she has had a successful career, then addresses the shallowness that has overtaken MFA programs in recent years (and allow me to quote this at length):

...the creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today's young writers don't peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller -- and did.

The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.

Kids today!!!

Actually, there is plenty of time to write in the cold--that's what everyone is doing. Shapiro is looking at the thinnest possible slice of the writing public--a handful of graduate students--at the most volatile moment of their lives--during graduate school--and is drawing from this tiny sample a sweeping and incorrect assessment of what young writers care about.

"I see it in their faces." Seriously? You can look into the eyes of the annual 5,000 MFA grads and, you know, read their minds? She should perhaps ask them what they actually think. Would you rather have a big hit now, or a long and respected career? Let me posit that everyone will pick the latter. Students do care about writing well. That's the only thing they have any control over, and the only thing we're capable of reliably helping them with.

But of course they hope for the "big score." It appears to be doled out at random--why not throw their name into the pot? Fame and riches, however, are not the focus of their creative lives. Dani Shapiro hears about it from her students because she is successful. This is the students' only chance to work their connections--why begrudge them? If careerism annoys her, she should get out of the MFA biz.

Otherwise, humor the kids. They are exactly like you.

20 comments:

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Kevin said...

Excellent post!

mccormick said...

This was not my experience as an MFA student. Where I studied I was well aware that the forms we were working in--most of us in poetry or short fiction--had very little market value. I was also aware of how little money a good book can earn its author.

Sung said...

Can I pick the third option? I would like to have a big hit now AND a long and respected career. And a side of fries with that, please.

I always refer to the James Michener quote whenever the subject of money and writing comes up. At least I think it's Michener's -- if I've been wrong all this time, humble apologies to the actual quote owner!

"You can't make a living as a writer, but you can make a fortune."

rmellis said...

She does put blame where it belongs, though -- with publishing.

jrlennon said...

True, in the end, she does. But I fear she is insulting and misrepresenting her students along the way.

Or maybe her students are different from mine. But it sounds to me like the analysis derives more from wishful thinking and exaggeration than it does from communicating with young writers.

Mark said...

Maybe I'm hanging around a disillusioned bunch, but it is my impression that since I finished my MFA--ten years ago--the idea that writers must market themselves has increased dramatically. Maybe this has something to do with the internet seeming to offer an end-around the usual gatekeepers, at the same time that mainstream publishing has been in high-speed collapse mode. I also think it has something to do with the increasing size of the MFA pool, which has maybe stabilized now, but it was getting bigger all through the 90s and the first half of the 00s. The math of it all seems to have drastically changed: so many more of us going after such a rapidly shrinking pie. Or maybe the pie isn't shrinking but only changing hands, but it's all very unstable, so that "just doing the work" sounds anachronistic and naive to a degree that it didn't used to.

5 Red Pandas said...

I have a friend with an MFA in writing who always reminds me to take pleasure in the writing process. We play music together, as well, and he also applies that idea to music. We play because we enjoy it, and if at some point we can convince bookers to let us play in front of an audience, then that would be great, too, but making music is good on its very own. The same with writing.

To continue to be a writer who submits work for publication you almost have to cheerfully welcome rejection so that you also leave the door open for that one acceptance letter. At least that's the attitude I take.

A poet I know who's had a book published, etc. told me that you can't take rejection to heart, but at the same time, you can't take praise too seriously, either. I think that was smart, because one can cripple you writing, and the other can make you think you have no flaws.

Not hoping your writing will be wildly successful is like buying a lottery ticket and hoping you don't win. You don't have to do what James Patterson does, but that doesn't mean you don't want to have many readers. Why should the two be at odds with one another?

jrlennon said...

I think you are accurately portraying what publishers want out of writers, but I think that the need for writers to give a crap is perhaps overstated. Writers ought to be more confident now than ever before that they will be able to get their work out there, especially if they don't mind the prospect of electronic self-publishing or small independent houses. (poets have been there for years.) Publishers used to be necessary for the distribution of literature. Increasingly they won't be. We like having them as gatekeepers, of course, and it is good for readers to be able to count on publishers we like. But writing itself is not in decline, and writing itself is, in my experience, what most students spend their time thinking about--not the shrinking pie.

I don't mean to ignore the effects of the publishing implosion--they are real. But it isn't necessary to obsess over them, I don't think.

jrlennon said...

BTW, that last comment was directed at Mark. I agree with Pandas' friend's comment about not taking praise too seriously, as well.

Mark said...

I didn't mean to suggest that students should be spending time worrying about publishing, JRL. I was just assuming that, based on those cultural factors I mentioned, the kind of naivety (i.e., a total disconnection from the business side) that I approached writing with ten years ago would be less in evidence now. Your words are heartening since they suggest otherwise, but I imagine these things vary greatly from program to program.

Zachary Cole said...

This article seems to be setting up a straw man, the Young Writer Today Who Only Care About Getting Published. Isn't this pre-supposing that there was some mystical, faraway time when writers didn't care less if they actually found readers out there in the world? I'm pretty confident that, the day after the printing press was invented, some writer was trying to push his book on the masses.

jrlennon said...

Zachary, yes, I agree...she is right to criticize the state of the publishing world, but has overstated her case to make the students seem brainwashed, which I don't think they are.

Mark, I wasn't arguing with you, just commenting--I think you were quite right.

Matt said...

I agree with your critique. When Shapiro bemoans "The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating" I feel she's being disingenuous (or at least, I hope she is - failing that, she has a nasty opinion of her students).

It's like complaining that "everyone who joins the Air Force wants to fly a plane, not be a great soldier.". All cynicism aside - and that's a hard thing for writers to do - does one not beget the other (and if one didn't clue into that, wouldn't it become apparent eventually)?

Sure, there's a danger in being too savvy, in that some students may only walk away with a superficial idea of what writing and publishing are - the pizazz of a being a writer...but should that be seen as indicative of a whole generation?

Anonymous said...

Isn't Shapiro's essay just the same old sour-grapes piece that's been floating around for decades about the younger generation just not wanting to 'pay their dues'?

Should we really blame anyone for being, well, overly optimistic about their publishing prospects? I mean, who begins writing their first novel with the idea that they're just developing their chops so that their second or third novel might eventually be published?

jrlennon said...

I think that, once writers get some success, we want to just hang onto it and forget about the emotions and ambitions that helped get it for us. And seeing and hearing it in our students...there is a temptation to find it distasteful, mostly because we ourselves have put it behind us.

But it's important, I think, for teaching writers to resist these feelings. If we have decent careers, our students want what we have, just as we once did. It's perfectly natural and respectable. If we're put off by it, it's because it is all to easy to remember feeling that way, and obsessing over those things.

A good teacher should know how to focus the creative mind on the work, though--to keep the professional advice out of the classroom.

jon said...

When I wrote my first novel, i had no plan or idea of publication. it got published by a small press i had connections to. all the others i wrote with varying degrees of ambition, cravings, disdain. zip. i find i am happiest when writing without publication in mind at all. thoughts and desires about publication become a distraction for me. i either reach for things i'm not good at, or get so depressed I can't write a word and feel worthless. neither is any good for getting a story written. i assume students are like this too, now, then and in the future. they are afterall young. i just hope they read a lot, and that their ambition is not to be the most successful writer, but the best writer.

Querulous Squirrel said...

In general, I hate generalizations. Interviews, surveys, questionnaires. get real data. Her projections are just that. Projections.

Stephen said...

If you don't write to get published, what do you write for? Do you think Cervantes or Flaubert wrote for the cleansing self-therapy of it all?

I'm surprised that somebody as talented as Dani Shapiro would come out with such an unprobing tired. Have any among you read Slow Motion, or Family History, or Black and White? What did you think of them?

jon said...

Emily Dickenson, Ralph Ellison, JD Salinger, John Donne