Posts Tagged ‘Bullshit’

Trigger warning: references to child abuse.

For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

РRyan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One 

Christ on a fucking bicycle.

Y’know, for all that I’ve taken issue with Penny Arcade in the past, on this occasion, I don’t think I can muster up a better response to the absolute, jaw-dropping ridiculousness¬†of Ryan Boudinot’s remarks than to quote this strip¬†and say, with feeling:

Penny Arcade - Who Let Him Command A Pencil

I mean, really: if you’re going to set yourself up as some literary Yoda by lambasting the inherent mediocrity of the vast majority of MFA students, complete with sweeping generalisations and thinly-veiled contempt for writers in training, then the absolute least you can do is demonstrate a cogent awareness of language¬†and its implications, the better to suggest that you know what you’re doing. Because when you say¬†that reading badly-written memoirs of childhood abuse makes you wish the writer had suffered more, and then go on to say that child abuse deserves to be treated with the utmost respect, not as a topic in its own right, but¬†for writing craft – implying, if not outright stating,¬†that you think it’s more important to respect the skill with which abuse narratives are crafted than the personhood of actual survivors¬†– you come off sounding like a callous, oblivious¬†douchecanoe who doesn’t understand basic fucking empathy, let alone the power of words, and that might, you know.¬†Undercut your point.

I’m never sure quite how to feel about MFAs. Not being American, the regard in which they’re often held is alien to me, and every so often, you hear horror stories about the more exploitative aspects of the MFA system, as per the whole James Frey debacle. Certainly – and as Boudinot himself admits – you don’t need one to get published in any format, and with the advent of ebooks and digital self-publishing, the rise of commercial fanfiction¬†and the slow death of traditional print media, the publishing landscape is undergoing active, even radical changes. That being so, I’m disinclined to view Boudinot’s status as a former MFA teacher as evidence that he possesses either¬†literary competence or industry insight above and beyond the norm, and given the disdain with which he seemingly views his former profession – hello, Goddard College! What a stellar employee you’ve lost – I’m not sure he’d disagree with me.

Well. About that one thing, anyway.

Because as far as I can see, the rest of his argument is little more than a stereotypical, self-indulgent, self-fulfilling exercise in Special Snowflakeism, and while¬†I generally prefer to avoid cliches, as Boudinot is apparently determined to embody the archetype of the Pretentious White Male Writer, I’m going to shore up that assertion by selectively quoting his Twitter feed, which reads like the Poe’s law version of a Mallory Ortberg column. I mean, honestly:

That ‘real deal’ moniker is a reference to his MFA piece, wherein he laments the lack of genuinely talented writers to be found in such programs:

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

What I find so bizarre about the idea of innate talent as a relevant, identifiable factor in this context is that, by lauding it as he does, Boudinot is effectively copping to being a mediocre teacher; at absolute best, he’s claiming that the success of his students is ultimately beyond his control. If you believe that a certain amount of inborn skill is requisite for greatness – and if, as Boudinot seemingly believes, it’s a rare commodity – then what’s your incentive to teach the great unwashed mass of students who, in your eyes, lack potential? And how, exactly, does one go about differentiating innate talent from learned ability? An MFA is a postgraduate qualification: given that Boudinot also believes that the majority of great writers start as¬†teens, any students at his level may well have been writing, or reading with the intention of writing, for years, while others might be just starting out. That being so, and lacking any impartial mechanism for distinguishing which is which, one suspects the real complaint here isn’t one of ability, but timing. Namely: if a writer is already sufficiently skilled on starting their MFA to constitute a Real Deal, then someone like Boudinot can take a mentor’s credit for their success without necessarily contributing to it, while anyone who requires greater encouragement won’t reach their apogee soon enough to suit his vanity.

Either way, I fail to see how any teacher can possibly do justice to either their students or their own methods if they believe, from the get-go, that a majority are born inferior.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

This is, to put it succinctly, bullshit. While it’s certainly true that our brains are more plastic the younger we are, and that language acquisition is easier for children than adults, human beings were telling stories long before we ever learned to write them down. The ‘neural architecture’ we develop in order to learn to read at all¬†– reading being a human invention distinct from speech – is not synonymous with our ability to comprehend narrative. You can be illiterate, and still a consummate storyteller; or, conversely, you can spend a lifetime reading books without ever understanding how to write one. By conflating a ‘lifelong intimacy with language’ with a childhood spent reading, Boudinot is not only doing a grave disservice to oral storytelling, but is actively insulting every literary adult who learned to read late, or who struggled with dyslexia in childhood, or whose love of reading was otherwise delayed for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their appreciation of stories.

Creative writing is a discipline that requires effort, yes, but claiming¬†that it’s ever too late to start is just as patently absurd as the idea that only some people are born with workable talent. No wonder Boudinot’s Real Deal students are such unicorns: not only do they need the right genes, but they have to act on their inclinations within the first three decades of life to properly qualify. (The irony of believing that immutable, inborn talent can still have a fixed expiration date is apparently lost on him.)

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

See above, re: Boudinot is clearly a shitty teacher. How dare¬†his students want advice¬†on time management! How dare they feel insecure about their work! God, it’s not like professional writers struggle constantly¬†with weighing deadlines and the prospect of creative burnout against¬†the demands of parenthood, family commitments, day jobs and the restrictions of illnesses – oh, wait, it actually is, because time management is both a difficult skill to learn and an integral part of being a writer;¬†as, for that matter, is wondering what level of professionalism you have to attain before you “really” count as one, and whether that status can ever revert.

But because, once upon a time, Boudinot’s favourite Classic Authors¬†were all sat ’round in a squalid garret enacting the literary version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen Sketch, he¬†thinks his modern-day students should all just shut up and figure it out themselves, which logic is roughly commensurate with¬†saying that, since people in history used to suffer and die from causes that are now wholly preventable, nobody with access to modern medicine has the right to complain about feeling sick.

Or – hey! I know! Let’s extend that reasoning¬†to Boudinot himself, and contend – as seems only fair – that his complaints about the difficulties of teaching a 21st century MFA course, online, with only two annual weeks of actual student contact, are an insult to educators who worked tirelessly in warzones throughout history. For shame.

Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or‚ÄĒwithout a trace of embarrassment‚ÄĒsay they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate¬†student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.

So, let me get this straight: in one breath, Boudinot chastises his students for having limited taste, and in the next is shocked and appalled when their tastes don’t conform to his own, as though having read The Great Gatsby¬†is somehow proof of anything other than having read The Great Gatsby. And while I don’t want to leap to conclusions about Boudinot’s views on gender, it strikes me as relevant that not only does he exclusively¬†cite male authors¬†– Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jason Shinder – but, in discussing his students, every Real Deal writer has a male pronoun, while the two negative examples both refer to women.

Sufficed to say, there’s nothing in this article that lends me faith in the man. In fact, he comes across as a walking cautionary tale about everything that’s wrong with the MFA system: judgemental, disinterested, disengaged teachers with a suspected male bias who, by their own admission, don’t believe that most of their students will ever amount to anything, who openly profess their own inability to help the rest achieve publication, and whose best advice is to toil in obscurity for a few years before self-publishing. All that being so, I can’t help feeling that Ryan Boudinot’s biggest hurdle to enjoying work as an MFA teacher was Ryan Boudinot. What a lovely man he sounds. He’s certainly taught me a lesson.


Everyone’s heard of friendzoning – even if they don’t know the word, they sure as hell know the concept. It’s what happens time and again to unfortunate Nice Guys who, despite being nothing but sugar and spice to the girls they love, are nonetheless denied the sexual relationships they so obviously deserve and are instead treated like platonic equals – a terrible, unfair fate spawned by the dark side of feminism.

And if you thought even part of that statement was correct, Imma stop you right there.

To borrow the succinct, nail-head-hitting phraseology of one hexjackal*:

Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out.

Dear Hypothetical Interlocutor whose hackles just bristled with the unfairness of that statement; who thinks that girls can be in the Friend Zone, too, and that therefore this point is both invalid and reverse-sexist into the bargain. For your edification, I would like to submit the following definitions of the term Friend Zone as supplied by Urban Dictionary:

1. “The ‘friend zone’ is like the penalty box of dating, only you can never get out. Once a girl decides you’re her ‘friend’, it’s game over. You’ve become a complete non-sexual entity in her eyes, like her brother, or a lamp.” – Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends.

‘I’ve been locked in the friend zone with her since high school!’

2.¬†A state of being where a male inadvertently becomes a ‘platonic friend’ of an attractive female who he was trying to intiate a romantic relationship. Females have been rumored to arrive in the Friend Zone, but reports are unsubstantiated.

Girl:¬†“I love you (Insert the poor bastard’s name here,) but I dont want to ruin a great friendship by dating you.”¬†
Guy:¬†“Well why the fuck did I waste two months on you?”

and Wikipedia:

There are differing explanations about what causes the friend zone. One report suggests that some women don’t see their male friends as potential love interests because they fear that deepening their relationship might cause a loss of the romance and mystery or lead to rejection later…

Dating adviser Ali Binazir described the friend zone as¬†Justfriendistan, and wrote that it’s a “territory only to be rivaled in inhospitability by the western Sahara, the Atacama desert, and Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.”

I therefore submit to you, Hypothetical Interlocutor, that the Friend Zone is not an equal opportunities habitat. It is where men go – or more accurately, where men perceive themselves to go – when women fail to reward their friendship with sex. Or, to quote the immortal wisdom of the internet:

Slut is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say yes.

Friendzone is how we vilify a woman for exercising her right to say no.

Here’s the thing, Hypothetical Interlocutor: if you truly are a self-professed Nice Guy (and I strongly suspect that you are), then you probably espouse the belief that women and men are equal. More than espouse – you believe! You know! Except that, somewhere along the line, you’ve got it into your head that if you’re romantically interested in a girl who sees you only as a friend, her failure to reciprocate your feelings is just that: a failing. That because you’re nice and treat her well, she therefore owes you at least one opportunity to present yourself as a viable sexual candidate, even if she’s already made it clear that this isn’t what she wants. That because she legitimately enjoys a friendship that you find painful (and which you’re under no obligation to continue), she is using you.¬†That if a man wants more than friendship with a woman, then the friendship itself doesn’t even attain the status of a consolation prize, but is instead viewed as hell: a punishment to be endured because, so long as he thinks she owes him that golden opportunity, he is bound to persist in an association that hurts him – not because he cares about the friendship, but because he feels he’s invested too much kindness not to stick around for the (surely inevitable, albeit delayed) payoff.

And if she never sleeps with him? Then she’s a bitch.

I cannot state this clearly enough: if you really believe in equality, then you have to acknowledge the fact that women have a right to say no. That no matter how pure and true your feelings, your ladylove is under no obligation whatever to reciprocate them, because friendship is not a business transaction, and women are allowed to want male friends. Yes, it is difficult and sad and heartbreaking to love someone who doesn’t love you back, and doubly so when that person is a friend. Believe me; I speak from experience. This is not a fun thing to endure! But discounting the woman as a bitch, a user, a timewaster, a whore with no taste who only wants to sleep with arseholes instead of Nice Guys like you is not on. It is pure, unadulterated sexism: the attitude that friendship with a woman is only ever a stepping-stone to getting into her pants, such that if the pants-getting is off the table, then so too is the friendship.

Which, frankly, is bullshit. If you don’t care enough about someone to enjoy their company and respect their decisions when sex is off the table, then that person is right not to sleep with you, because enjoying someone’s company and respecting their decisions is pretty much how sex gets on the table to start with.

To quote the single best point in an otherwise deeply problematic Cracked piece:

What we learned as kids is that we males are each owed, and will eventually be awarded, a beautiful woman.¬†We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered…

In each case, the woman has no say in this — compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in. If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female. Yes, there will be dialogue that maybe makes it sound like the woman is having doubts, and she will make noises like she is making the decision on her own. But we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will “get the girl,” just as we know that at the end of the month we’re going to “get our paycheck.” Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she¬†will¬†wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.

And now you see the problem. From birth we’re taught that we’re¬†owed¬†a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.

So it’s very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don’t get what we’re owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to “slut” and “whore” as our default insults — we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed¬†us.

In pop culture, girls who crush hopelessly on guys they can’t have are painted as just that – hopeless. Over and over again, we’re taught that girls who openly express sexual or romantic interest in guys who don’t want them are pitiable, stalkerish, desperate, crazy bitches. More often than not, they’re also portrayed as ugly – ¬†whether physically, emotionally or both – ¬†in order to further establish their¬†undesirability¬†as an objective fact. Both narratively and, as a consequence, in real life, men are given free reign to snub, abuse, mislead and talk down to such women: we’re raised to believe that female desire is unseemly, so that any consequent shaming is therefore deserved. There is no female-equivalent Friend Zone terminology because, in the language of our culture, a man’s romantic choices are considered sacrosanct and inviolable. If a girl has been told no, then she has only herself to blame for anything that happens next – but if a woman says no, then she must not really mean it. Or, if she does, she shouldn’t: the rejected man is a universally sympathetic figure, and everyone from moviegoers to platonic onlookers will scream at her to just give him a chance,¬†as though her rejection must always be unfounded rather than based on the fact that he had a chance, and blew it. And even then, give him another one! The pathos of Single Nice Guys can only be eased by pity-sex with unwilling women that blossoms into romance!

Well, screw that. The Friend Zone is a fundamentally sexist construction based solely on the idea that women should be penalised for putting their own romantic happiness above that of an interested man. If a lady doesn’t want you, then either respect her decision and keep away to salve your heart, or respect her decision and stay because you still think she’s cool enough to be worth the effort of friendship. But if you don’t respect her decision, then you don’t respect her – and if you don’t respect her, then stay the fuck out of her life.

*Amendment, 11 April 2012: Originally, the first quote in this piece was attributed to Aeryn Walker. However, she has since informed me that the kindness/coins line originated with @hexjackal, and though I don’t have the exact reference for that first attribution, I’ve nonetheless changed it in the text.

Consider the following incident: in December 2005, a healthy, happy, normal 34-year-old woman (Rebekah Lawrence)¬†attends a self-help course (Turning Point) run¬†by a Cremorne-based company (People Knowhow). Four days later, after undergoing an extreme change in behaviour, Rebekah falls to her death, naked, from an inner-city office building. The Turning Point¬†course¬†is referred to, both worryingly and ambiguously, as being “high intensity”, and¬†speaking on its¬†behalf, the founder of People Knowhow, Richard Arthur,¬†claims that the course is not suitable for “highly vulnerable people”.¬†

Is it just me, or does this statement sends shivers down the spine?

A quick Google reveals several interesting things about Turning Point, not least that it “offers you the opportunity to come home to yourself”, a proposition which¬†is¬†sufficiently cult-spooky to set off warning bells. It is also worth noting that Richard Arthur¬†is not a trained psychologist. He is, in point of fact,¬†a computer scientist. Huh?

Clicking through to the People Knowhow site, things soon become even stranger. There is a course called Mastery and Service, linked to the founding principles of Turning Point, which is¬†intended to help participants¬†“grow in consciousness”. For those over 50, there is the Way of the Elder, which features a grainy sunset graphic and a promise to “guide you through a series of reflective exercises towards reconnection with your life’s story.” Of greatest interest, however, is the link to the webpage for the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, which, in keeping with the non-psychology background of Mr Arthur, states cheerfuly that anyone wishing to teach their courses need not be deterred by¬†a “lack of teriary training”. Rather, their training programme “welcomes applications from people who feel attuned to this way of understanding human experience and growth”.

Type “somatic psychotherapy” into Google, and you’ll find that the first webpage to come up is – surprise, surprise – that of the Australian College. Wikipedia has an entry on somatic psychology¬†and another on body psychotherapy, but not a specific entry for somatic psychotherapy; a website called¬†Goodtherapy, however, defines it as the brainchild of Wilhelm Reich, a German psychologist who believed, among other things, in a cosmic, primordial energy called orgone and who was known to try and increase the ‘orgiastic potency’ of patients by treating them in their underwear. Leaving aside the question¬†of Reich’s more extreme theories and practices, there is a more pertinent question to answer, viz: how do members of¬†the College – and, by extension, People Knowhow – use somatic psychtherapy?

The definition given on their page is lengthy and obtuse, hinting vaguely at deeper methodologies without actually explaining them; you can read the whole thing here. Among other things, the College¬†mentions the idea of “toxic cultural practices” being passed on¬†through contemporary psychology and¬†the importance of people’s¬†“sensing/feeling patterns” being developed “throughout the life cycle”.¬†The introduction concludes on a rather¬†ominous note, with the acknowledgement that¬†“all psychotherapy theories (including somatic based theories) invoke particular ethical practices, either explicitly or implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves, as Foucault suggests, whose interests are best served by these practices; who gains power.” (My emphasis.)

What, pray tell, are “particular ethical practices” in the context? Perhaps they have something to with the fact that, like Richard Arthur, the Director of the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, one Jeff Barlow, has no formal training in psychology, either. Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the College’s view of the “toxic culture” inherent in non-holistic psychology has lead most of its members to eschew it entirely, although given the number of somatic psychologists who don’t appear to have studied it at all, one wonders where and how they have developed this perspective. Curiouser and curiouser.

It is not difficult to concede the existence of a genuine link between our physical and mental health, but by all accounts,¬†the teachings¬†of People Knowhow and their affiliates seems to resemble cultish mysticism more than genuine science.¬†Combine the cryptic poetry and riddle-style aphorisms espoused by Richard Arthur,¬†his lack of¬†any relevant formal training and the fact that People Knowhow conducts corporate workshops, and you have a recipe for hokum, pseudo-science and¬†general malaise. Perhaps I’ve been forced to attend too many day-long management courses, but I am deeply cynical of any¬†form of emotional work-based consultancy, particularly in forms which claim to incorporate genuine elements of psychology – or, for that matter, any other discipline in which the facilitator lacks training. I once, for instance,¬†had to listen to a grown woman tell me that the concept of human synergistics was¬†pioneered by Aristotle. So when someone like Richard Arthur suggests, against all logic, that “the amount a person suffers in their life is related to how much they are resisting”, my bullshit detector goes into overdrive. When, on the same page, Mr Arthur references Turning Point and says that the course teaches “a cluster of techniques for permanently raising your stress threshold” so that “when the world doesn’t cooperate with you, your distress will be less extreme”, I wonder how many of those “techniques” were taught to Rebekah Lawrence.

How much longer can this culture of faux-uplifting, change-your-life consultancy by uninformed, pseudo-intellecual, would-be dilettantes continue? When will we wake up to ourselves? The real toxic culture is being peddled by modern witchdoctors, not trained psychologists.