Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blame grad school

Am I really going to write about this again?  I suppose I am.  I have remarked here, from time to time, about the embittered ravings of Anis Shivani, and his loathing of all things academic.  But now here we go again, this time from Cathy Day, writing on themillions.com (via HTMLGIANT, again, thank you Kyle):

...most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom. 
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers.

Oh, for pete's sake.  "Incubating?"  This is not what we're doing, and for those of us who have been in MFA programs, this isn't what we felt was being done to us.  That is, if we were bothering to do anything at all worthwhile.  As students, we were writing whatever the hell we wanted to write, and as teachers, we are teaching according to whatever the hell our students are writing.

"The short story is a more manageable form."  Perhaps.  But you have to be a pretty shitty teacher to value manageability over artistic ambition.  More than half of my current fiction grad students are writing novels, and some of my undergrads are, too.  And I read them all, without hesitation.  BECAUSE THAT'S MY JOB.  Several of my recent grad students are publishing novels as well--good ones.

But how is this possible?  Well, it's because grad students are not fucking idiots, that's why.  They are able to give one another the proper context when they workshop novel excerpts.  They read one another's novel manuscripts.  When their peers workshop short stories, they are able to apply much of what they learned in this process to the process of writing and editing a novel.  They also read lots of novels.  And, at least at Cornell, we have craft-centered literature classes in which the structure, style, and purpose of novels are discussed.

The workshop model is not forcing anyone to write short stories, or any particular kind of short story.  Undergrads like short stories because they're just starting out at fiction and want to give it a try on a smaller scale.  And it's true, we are very ready to accomodate them.  But these stories are not like processed meat, dumped out of a can.  They are wildly different from one another.  And we accomodate students' longer works too--and their memoirs, graphic novels, poem cycles, opera librettos, dance/literature hybrids, experimental film scripts, fine art printing projects, and collaborations with composers.  And yes, I have seen all of these things in my five years at Cornell.  And every time, I've said, "Awesome, let's do this."  Is your writing program not like this?  Then fix your writing program, because it sucks.

Furthermore, much of the work of a writing teacher happens not in workshop but during office hours, or at the coffee shop in the basement, or at a bar after workshop, or on the phone, or via email, or in the many years of professional and personal friendship that often follow a student's years in an MFA program.  We do not run factories.  We provide a place for students to figure out what they want, and then we help them achieve it.  The idea that there is some rigid structure here, or that we are helpless in the face of it, is asinine.

If the publishing world appears to be drowning in a flood of mediocre short stories, that's because it is.  It always was.  Most writing is terrible, and there is a lot of it.  I am tired of people declaring that this era is shittier than all the others, and then blaming me for it.  In fact there is more good fiction being written now than I could read in eight lifetimes, and, much as I'd like to believe otherwise, that's not my fault either.


kellydavio.com said...

"Is your writing program not like this? Then fix your writing program, because it sucks."

I could not have said it any better! Thank you for injecting a little reality into the stream of tiresome anti-MFA screeds that seem so popular lately.

5 Red Pandas said...

I have a friend I used to be writing partners with and she went to grad school for her MFA. She'll be the first to tell you that she picked the wrong program, and hadn't been ready for any program when she went, but she doesn't blame MFA programs in general. That would be presumptuous, wouldn't it?

It often feels like there is some axe to grind, or some agenda being met when I read these anti-MFA articles. Why not celebrate the good writing out there- there's never too much talk about good writing- than bemoaning the supposed cause for bad writing?

I don't have an MFA but I sought out writers with whom to share my work with and it has made me a better writer and given me the community and connections I might have gained through a program. It seems silly to rail against MFA programs. I might have been jealous of the opportunity a few years back, but I'm not anymore. MFA programs are going to be as good as each prof and student makes them.

Sung said...

At NYU, at least when I was there, we had four or five fiction workshops per semester, and one of them was always a novel workshop. That didn't mean that for the others, you were limited to the short form, but rather, you were guaranteed in the novel workshop that all writers would be working on longer works.

It worked for me, and it worked for a number of other writers, so novels, at least in one MFA program, do get written.

- Sung

Jennifer said...

Right there with you. Cornell's atmosphere, as you describe it, is right in line with my experiences at the University of Arizona. In craft classes, we read widely (and usually a book a week, whether they were short stories or novels or what have you) and were encouraged to workshop whatever we wanted.

I worked almost exclusively on a novel while I was there--it was read, in full or in part, several times. In fact, professors who didn't even have me as a student read my novel. And in fact, I am still in touch with most of my professors and they would probably read the novel yet again if I dared ask them to. (Yep, still in progress. Four years. But that's another topic altogether.)

Carolyn said...

I got an MFA at the program where Cathy Day used to teach, and I had her for two classes. She was a terrible workshop leader; I think you've seen why.

jrlennon said...

Well, I'm not interested in putting Cathy Day's teaching on trial--one's man's bad workshop leader is another man's guiding light. I am more concerned about this specific article.

jrlennon said...

Wyatt Bonikowski provides this link, which is good:

Amy said...

Oof. Having come from a school -- and knowing people at others like it -- that only allowed for the short form, being in Cathy's workshop was monumental.

From @5 Red Pandas: "It often feels like there is some axe to grind, or some agenda being met when I read these anti-MFA articles. Why not celebrate the good writing out there- there's never too much talk about good writing- than bemoaning the supposed cause for bad writing? "

I have never taken Cathy's thoughts to be in the same league as anti-MFA screeds, and I have absolutely celebrated what she's done for me, my work, and my peers. (http://www.amywhipple.com/2011/01/18/cathy-day-and-the-big-thing/)

"Then fix your writing program, because it sucks." Isn't that what this is doing? A call for change? It seems unfair to dismiss her ideas because they start in a place of unhappiness (and thus assumed to be anti-MFA); who's going to change something they're twirling on a mountain top about?

jrlennon said...

It may well be a call for change--I just think its logic is incorrect. I don't think short story writing is in a slump, or novel writing. The stated problem does not, in my view, exist.

jrlennon said...

I mean:

"Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?
Without a doubt."

This is just inconceivable to me. I feel as though the article is making vast and inaccurate generalizations based upon unfortunate but narrow personal experiences.

Good writers should not make their artistic decisions based upon what other people want them to do. Most don't. My students generally ask me for help in achieving what they want to achieve--they don't want to be told what to write.

This is not just at Cornell, but everywhere I've taught.

jrlennon said...

Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.

Is this supposed to be ironic? Cathy Day couldn't possible be teaching this way, could she? Who does? Can anyone provide examples of writing teachers whose pedagogy this paragraph actually resembles? "We really like minimalism." What? Who's the "we"? Faulkner and Coover are well regarded among almost all the writers and teachers I've ever known. It is as if she has invented the worst teacher in the world in order to complain about her.

jrlennon said...

And Amy, I am glad you had such a positive experience in Cathy's workshop. Let me reiterate I am NOT impugning her teaching, about which I know exactly nothing.

5 Red Pandas said...

Cathy Day's description of attempting to workshop a novel in an MFA program seems too simplistic and fatalistic to me. When I was an undergrad and was in my school's writing program several students brought novel excerpts to workshop and had success. I don't think it affected their grades and there were no scowls from the professor.

Fast forward 12 years. I took an 8 session workshop this fall and *gasp* successfully brought my novel to the workshop and got extremely useful and generous (not of praise, but time and attention) critique of my novel-in-progress. In 8 sessions!

Her essay also strikes me as giving writers and students too little credit. I'd hope that anyone in an MFA program could teach themselves (with the help of some great readers and honest self-criticism) how to write a short story or novel by reading other short stories and novels and by discussing them with like-minded friends even if they weren't in an MFA program. Maybe I'm naive but I always thought MFA programs admitted writers, and did not create writers from scratch.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I think a lot of students go into MFA programs blindly, not knowing what questions to ask, not understanding that even the best schools may not meld with their own goals and styles of learning. I did that. I went to a program because of its prestige and it was a terrible match for me, though others loved it. I dropped out half-way and still consider maybe trying a different program, going in with my eyes open, asking lots of questions along the way.

Sal Pane said...

I have to admit I’m really surprised about the backlash on this article. Comparing Cathy Day to the ridiculously negative Anis Shivani seems like a total misread to me. Like Amy and Carolyn above, I’ve also had Cathy Day for class in two graduate fiction workshops and one graduate readings course. She was also the chair of my thesis and someone I keep in touch with even after I graduated.

One of the issues Cathy’s trying to get at here is that the workshop might not be the perfect tool to help burgeoning writers work on novels. I think anybody who’s tried to workshop a novel can attest to that fact. What are you supposed to do if you can only put up 20-40 pages a semester? Give the class the first 40 pages? How does that help if you’re already on page 250? Workshops are geared toward short stories, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s had a positive experience workshopping novel chapters (but if you exist, more power to you).

On the other hand, Cathy Day really helped me in every stage of the process of writing a novel. She read countless drafts over my three years at Pitt’s MFA program. She would meet with me on a regular basis to discuss where I was in the book and how it was coming. She would routinely send me articles related to the novel. Eventually, she even rounded up my entire thesis committee for one last roundtable discussion of the book. And when the time came, she suggested agents to contact.

Cathy realizes that people can write novels in MFA programs, but her article merely points out what we’ve always known: workshops are inherently built for short stories, not novels. She’s not Anis Shivani raging about why MFA programs are going to destroy American letters. She’s just trying to imagine an alternative pedagogical tool for helping would be novelists. I don’t see the problem in that.

rmellis said...

Honestly, I read the article and I just didn't get what she was complaining about. So I can't comment.

Getting an MFA can be useful, but it's not the be all and end all. Who ever said it is? I took tons of workshops, but still have to teach myself how to write again every damn time I sit down. And that's how it should be.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear rmellis. Why do I get the feeling that I entered and exited my MFA program at just the right time? --mshowes