Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Murzban throws down

Zaaang! W6 friend Murzban Shroff (who recently scored a win in his fight against obscenity charges in India) emailed me today to let me know about this Huffington Post interview, wherein (in the context of much praise for American writers and writing, including me (thanks, Murzban)) he has the following to say:

The biggest weakness of American literary culture is the academia that has crept in--the golden rules of creative writing, which present a sort of ready reckoner for evaluation. There are too many people trying to be writers and trying to make a story out of their lives. As a result, there is a certain degree of sameness in the writing: in not just the choice of themes (parents' divorce, death, sexual abuse, etc), but in the narrative arc, in the way the whole thing drums out. This happens mostly at the university level, where filters can be imposed in the creative writing programs, making entry-level barriers more rigorous, more discerning.

My response to this is my usual eye-roll, I'm afraid: I honestly do not blame academia for any of this. It is true that the academy has succeeded in making competent, mediocre writers out of people who perhaps shouldn't bother. But nobody is forcing this stuff to be published. If there's a failure here, it is in the risk-aversion and excessive chumminess of commercial publishing. For my part, as a teacher of writing, I am not trying to churn out new young literary phenoms. I am trying to help intelligent, passionate people discover and cultivate the best parts of themselves--and when this results in work of genuine promise, to encourage and help shape it.

I generally don't strive for consensus in my classes, and when I apply filters, as I sometimes must, it is for the purpose of filtering out the conventional and uninspired. I do strive to lure weirdos into my classes and make them weirder still. So don't blame me, dammit! I'm doin' my best. But I don't think I'm just trying to justify my existence when I say that, when it comes to undergraduate writing classes, the more the merrier. It's about more than creating great writing, at least for me. It is about creating better people through literary art. When we get our hands on a live one, of course, we are delighted; and our graduate program does set the bar for entry very high. But when my lower-level classes fill up, I tend not to cull.

I think Murzban's work is the exception that proves the rule about the conventionality of American publishing. We are big on Indian fiction here, but not enough editors and marketers are willing to think very far beyond incense and arranged marriages. Then again, that is what people seem to like. Indeed, maybe it isn't the conventionality of publishing that is the problem, but the conventionality of human beings. Nobody's ever going to thank you for being eccentric--and if anyone does, befriend them for life.

As for our friend Murzban, read the whole interview; it's excellent. And read his book.


Anonymous said...

I should add that, to his credit, Murzban does also take American publishers to task a bit, as I do here...

Terry Chouinard said...

How undergrad is it of me to write that every time I read W6 I learn something. Something new and always something interesting. Yo Teach! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

thanks, printy!

jon said...

This is certainly an intractable problem. I don't even know if it bears analysis, since each of its parts (under grad creative writing, the MFA, publishing, the American Audience), appears in isolation to be guiltless. Even the result (piles of indistinguishable works of literature in whatever genre), is nothing new really, except its quantity. But if you put all of these together you get a situation that most people I know lament. There is really nothing anyone can do about it though, so like the culture wars, it's a real problem without a solution. It is tedious to consider and gives rise to eye rolling. Still, it seems to me there are too many writers, too few independent publishers, and too few readers. Undergrad Creative Writing is great. But no one needs to get an MFA to be a great writer or even a good one, or there would have been no great or good writers before 1946. The MFA is just another post-graduate degree you need to get anywhere. Great, good, or wonderful books have always been relatively rare and have often struggled to find an audience. I think in the end this particular problem is a byway in the horror of what our world in America has become. And John, from everything I know, you must be a great teacher, and I believe that is still an important calling.

Jason said...

There's a great conversation in the latest Mid-American Review 30th Anniversary Issue that talks about the pros and cons of MFA programs:

Anna Leahy and Larissa Szporluk "Good Counsel: A Conversation About Poetry Writing, the Imagination, and Teaching"

I read through it last night, and I think it's a fairly concise examination of the pros and cons of entering one. People become really passionate about arguing for one side or the other when the decision to enter one should really come down to an individual writer's needs.

I think it's not just commercial publishing ventures refusing to take risks. A lot of the literary journals associated with MFA programs don't either. I subscribe to quite a few, and though I enjoy a lot of the writing, there are your obligatory "cancer" stories and the "married couple abroad is struggling and has epiphany that either leads them to stay together or divorce or break up" story and your "idealistic school teacher crushed by the reality that kids don't really care and teachers don't really care and guess what the staff is all sleeping with each other" story.

And it's not that these stories are done badly. The writing in them is often top notch. But these types of stories are such a trope that they now border on cliche and no matter how well-done they are I tend to find myself getting bored reading them because I know how they're going to start, finish and end.

I like Conjunctions a lot because they seem to take risks (although they are associated with Bard College), as do some of the non-MFA affiliated journals like Hobart and Barrelhouse whose reputations have been growing in the past few years. And speaking of which, there are also some great stories in that Mid-American Review I mentioned above.

Speaking of commercial book publishing ventures, etc. I can't really chime in since I don't have much experience there. But in some ways I'm going to respectfully disagree that it's all about commercial publishing's unwillingness to take chances on unconventional work. A lot of it is also the fault of the small MFA-associate literary mag.

Sung said...

The nature of writing itself will change. The writer will have to deliver and deliver fast. He/she will have to make sense a lot more quickly.

Egads, I hope he's wrong about that!

I suppose it's true that academia makes "competent, mediocre writers out of people who perhaps shouldn't bother," but you can say that about any subject, really. Because let's face it -- the bulk of the population is competent and mediocre, whether they be writers or farmers or doctors. Most of us are lucky enough to be Salieri, and very, very few of us get to be Mozart.

As far as blaming the publishing industry is concerned -- jeez, I don't know. They're selling a product, right? They're selling what they think people want. And as long as people keep buying, they'll stick with whatever that sells.

If there's a massive influx of raw brilliance coming out of Mumbai, just you wait -- twenty years from now, we'll get a bunch of stories that deal with divorce and death and sexual abuse from there, too. It's just what happens when a society gets richer, more comfortable, etc.

[I just finished Steve Hely's How I Became a Novelist (thank you for the great recommendation, Rhian!), so I might be feeling a bit more pessimistic than usual.]

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, that Hely book is a riot...

Agreed, there is ample blame to go around for bad books. And I am rather excessively sensitive to those who blame academia, for obvious reasons.

When you get down to it, not much really excellent writing is possible. A culture may have hot streaks or cold patches, but really, greatness is rare. Perhaps that's what we're all complaining about, all of the time.

Sasha said...

Maybe universities and creative writing classes and the publishing industry are all serving to quiet bizarre voices or force them to toe a certain line--but is that so bad?

It sounds lovely to say that the weird voices are the special ones but 1. they are usually the unintelligible ones, too. Art is about communication. If your voice is so strange or new that you fail to communicate anything to the audience (except that you're really, really weird), what's the point? For the writer or the audience? That way breeds frustration. Hence "tips," "rules" and conventions to make work more intelligible. They help foster art by expanding the artist's ability to communicate with her audience. 2. Eccentricity is lonely as hell. Forming a community (such as in a university program, or the publishing industry's clique) helps alleviate that loneliness. Being part of a group might "tame" a writer's voice, but what else is she supposed to do? Suffer through her (writing) life completely alone? We're not all Emily Dickenson. Who wants to live like that?
3. Maybe lots of "unpromising" people are getting too big for their britches and suddenly thinking that they, too, are important and should tell their stories (which are pretty much like everyone else's, save for being THEIRS)...and that's somehow a bad thing? I don't think people trying to participate in their society's culture and lend their own voices to it is a bad thing--I think that means that they feel empowered. And it should be no shocker that in a democracy that values independence, we have tons of people trying to chime in with their experience of some cultural hot button (being wealthy or poor, being abused, etc). I don't really think that phenomenon has anything to do with MFA programs or the publishing industry, but more about democracy and how much we honor individual experience in our culture.

But hey, this is just coming from some non-MFA-ed chick scribbling away in her apartment--what do I know?

Jennifer said...

I am frustrated by the anti-MFA talk that populates discussions about writing. Of course one does not *need* an MFA to write. But pre-1946, it would have been very rare for a woman like me, a child of drop-outs whose relatives are overwhelmingly illiterate and imprisoned (and I am not speaking metaphorically) to have a chance to write and publish literary fiction. I clawed my way to a very prestigious MFA program via community college, university, and a series of low-paying jobs. Grad school afforded me the opportunity to write and provided a community to which I never otherwise would have had access.

And blaming publishing is fair, in my opinion. The past decade or so has brought about a widespread consolidation of publishing houses, and businesses that are accountable to shareholders behave differently from family businesses. It takes a lot more money to make shareholders rich than it does to keep a few key people comfortable, and there is no inherent value in owning a cultural institution if you are a mutual fund manager.

Anonymous said...

I think the publishing buyouts and consolidations of the nineties & early 2000's continues to stand as a watershed moment for writers...that's when profit margins for books went through the roof and literary fiction became basically impossible to live off of.

But of course Wallace Stevens (or his musical counterpart in the insurance business, Charles Ives) would have been disgusted by the notion that you should be able to live off your art. It might seem like the fantasy of a decadent culture.

Complaining about the MFA ruining writing is a bit like complaining about hammer that has built an ugly house. It's just a tool that, like most tools, usually gets used wrong.

As for weirdness, Sasha, good point--I think every writer needs to decide where he stands on the continuum between public appeal and personal eccentricity, and get comfy there. Because, as I've said many times, nobody's gonna thank you for expressing your innermost thoughts. Good writing seeks clarity--it makes the complex understandable, the alien familiar. It may challenge, but it shouldn't confuse.

Jason said...

I believe that saying weird voices are usually unintelligible is a bit unfair. A lot of the weird voices are completely capable of communicating well and writing solid stories, but their imaginations gear toward different subjects than the tropes I've described in my comment above.

I was reading some Donald Barthelme stories this morning and though they were wonderful,I kept thinking, "If he was a new writer sending these out today, he'd probably have a really difficult time finding a home for them in literary journals(and of course, maybe when he was starting out way back when he had just as much trouble...I've never read about his life, so I don't know). But of course, here I'm pointing out a writer acknowledged to be a master and I'm thinking in terms of "what if" and have no way to prove my point valid, coasting more on my intuition. And obviously, in the way that not everyone is Mozart, not everyone is Barthelme.

But I think if you want to go in a direction like that and try to develop a unique voice and say something a bit odd or provocative, you might have some difficulty not only with developing your talent but finding a public home for your stories. I feel like the publishing world--both books and literary journals--discourages it. And while that could help lead to developing the thick skin necessary to keep going in the face of a high level of rejection, it could also lead to a lot of heartache.

For most writers, it's easier to try to write like what's already in the literary journals (or books) because that's what they publish and that's what's familiar, and if you write like that you stand a better chance of getting in. On the other side of the coin, of course, and in all fairness, how many editors/readers have the insight to recognize someone like Barthelme when they first encounter the work, before that person becomes "Barthelme, the respected!" "Barthelme, the Innovator!" "Barthelme, week 6 on the Syllabus!"?

I guess I agree that it comes down to personal preference, and for me I get more excited by writers trying to do something new and inventive and maybe not entirely succeeded than I do by writer's covering familiar territory. This doesn't mean I don't derive pleasure from conventional narratives. It just tends to mean they don't knock my socks off.

rmellis said...

Jason -- I would argue that if a story is boring and you know how it's going to end it's not in any way "well-done,"; it's bad. BAD. The writing can't be good if the story is boring -- it's just devoid of embarrassing awkward bits. It's the kind of boring, bland bad we need to stand up and call BAD.

Whether a story is conventional or weird has almost no bearing on how good it is -- how it resonates, how it makes meaning. Some of my favorite stories are about oldish middle class people having relationships (see Alice Munro) -- while those stories are conventional in content and structure, the mind behind them is anything but. And many "weird" stories are hopelessly dull: how many stories have I read in the last few years that begin something like, "If it weren't for Tommytoes and Aunt Popo getting arrested for the 13th time down at the Pedicure Palace, I would never have found out I have secret powers"? Too many.

Jason said...

Again, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree because boring is such a subjective thing and saying boring was probably a poor word choice. I didn't necessarily want to illustrate my point with examples, since that might be construed as trash talk, but I think if I use an example from a writer I admire who sort of failed to live up to my expectations in one particular instance, it might not be taken that way (at least I hope not).

So let me preface this by saying one name I enjoy seeing in lit magazines is Tom Bissell. I recently read a really interesting essay of his from Tin House about drug use and an obsession with the Grand Theft video game and its effect on popular culture in America. He also authored the wonderful story "God Lives in St. Petersburg," which was in McSweeney's and then recently reprinted in their Better of Volume 2.

With that being said, I love the magazine AGNI. The latest issue starts with a story by Bissell and I was excited to see this and as soon as I purchased it, I sat down eagerly to read. The story follows a newlywed couple abroad having problems. The story is well-paced with vivid details and overall it does produce an emotional reaction in the reader: You really dislike the husband by the end. And yet, reading this story, I couldn't get really sucked into it. It didn't give me that thrill, and the reason wasn't because it was a poor story, but because even with its variation in detail from all other married couple abroad who have an epiphany stories, I've read a million of these things. I suppose it's the case where when a particular nerve is stimulated too often, it starts to lose sensation. Of course, I'm sure there are plenty of others out there who would argue that this story is great and who enjoyed it very much, and I couldn't really present a strong counterargument to that because I can see the worth and value in it. It simply doesn't turn me on.

This sort of moves me toward a great issue which is the idea that there are only a handful of stories to be told and only the detail vary. This is something a lot of writers say, and I think the most famous variation was attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald. And I tend to believe this attitude stunts the growth of a lot of imaginative possibilities. Anyway, I hope this comment isn't seen as me slamming Bissell because I do have a lot of love for the guy's work. I'm just trying to illustrate how I can see a story as objectively a good piece of writing and be unenthusiastic about it at the same time.

rmellis said...

I'm going to track down a copy of that story and read it today so we can continue this very interesting conversation...

Sung said...

I'm just trying to illustrate how I can see a story as objectively a good piece of writing and be unenthusiastic about it at the same time.

Sounds like 90% of the New Yorker stories I've read. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but that's the ratio I've found to be true for me.

What makes a story good? I think that's ultimately what we're trying to find out, and of course, since this is a highly subjective matter, it'll be different for everyone. Even though I like Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother," I love "The Enormous Radio" because it's just a little bit stranger, a bit more off the beaten path.

BTW, I don't think Donald Barthelme had too much trouble placing his fiction. He got in the New Yorker when he was 30 years old, and they published him over and over again. "Me and Miss Mandible" is my favorite of his, so hilarious, so strange.

For those who like their fiction weirded up, I'd recommend Matthew Derby's collection Super Flat Times. It's like reading a futuristic nightmare.

John said...

The "incense and arranged marriages" comment struck me.

My sister's dissertation focused on the Japanese internment. She said that when she announced her topic, some people in her department looked like something smelled really bad. She got many comments that implied (if not downright stated) that she would never get a tenure-track job with such a non-sexy focus ("What new can you say about it?" "Hasn't that been done before?" "What about Asian American she-he's in traveling Midwestern rodeos?"). As a former academic, I know that the academy has anxiety about marketability in various contexts.

But then I go back to the actual dissertation topic itself. For me, it's strange (if not insulting) to think of research about the internment in terms of marketing. But then I do agree with JLR about "incense and arranged marriages" through the lens of what readers want and what we see again and again as we look for something to read.

But here's where I get very confused about what I think.

Arranged marriages, as far as I understand them, could often be a pretty shitty thing. I imagine that the internment was, too. Sexual abuse. Many other things mentioned in this thread. But then I think that their commonality as topics, their trope status, their verging on cliche is what enables us to make pairings like "incense and arranged marriages."

And in many ways, I'm not sure that that pairing is right.

So that's where I begin to agree with Rhian's response of good writing. The more conventional subject done by me will NEVER be the same as the conventional subject done by Munro. To think about Munro or [fill in the blank with a writer you love] in terms of subject matter does not seem that fruitful an approach.

In the end, I don't think that any work or body of writing can come to stand in for India or the American South or suburbia. And maybe that's the problem: I think many readers want tropes and cliches so that they can "know" something/another population or "see" themselves. And publishing has figured that out.

Heck, I have no idea!

rmellis said...

John -- Very interesting way to think about it: publishing always looking for the New Cliche. (Can't figure out accents on here...)

Sung -- I've heard about Matthew Derby but never read him; now I'll make a point of it. Glad you enjoyed the Steve Hely book.

Jason, finally found a copy of Agni; will report back soon.

Sasha said...

From rmellis: I can see a story as objectively a good piece of writing and be unenthusiastic about it at the same time.

I agree--good craftsmanship and heart are two different things.

To me, nothing hurts more than when you pour yourself into a piece and you feel it expresses something within you that you'd never be able to or been able to express otherwise...only to have people look at it with total confusion. So to keep that from happening, I try to make my craftsmanship as solid as possible--so nobody in the audience can miss the forest (the heartbeat of the story) for the trees (the type on the page). And that means I am 100% willing to listen to what teachers/books/whoever has to say, and feel like that opens up my work and allows me to take more risks and make it more personal than I could if I were fighting to get everyone to hear the story's heartbeat despite terrible structure or haphazard description, etc.

To me, craftsmanship--which is what you're supposed to learn in workshops, from reading other writers, from professors, from editors, etc, right?--is about clarity. And clarity is MOST important if you want to go to really deep places or explore really difficult stuff or your POV is naturally a bit bizarre. So I think the weirder a writers is, the more she can benefit from an MFA. Not because it'll tame her voice, but because it will make her voice accessible--which really means it will GIVE her a voice, in my opinion. And maybe classes in general free so-called mediocre writers from their necessary focus on being competent enough in their craftsmanship to be intelligible, to the point that they can take the time and energy and risk to deepen their writing, too.

I just don't really see how the happiness, acceptance, and skill that comes from writers working and living within a professional community can be a bad thing for their writing. Even if those communities are as cliquish and conventional as any other gathering of human beings.

But then again, I don't work or live within a professional community of writers. So this is all based on theory and fantasy :)