Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

As busy as I am right now, I can’t seem to move past this article about Dan Thomson, a 68-year-old man who recently filed a complaint against the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, claiming they rejected his application on the basis of age discrimination. The workshop’s current director, Lan Samantha Chang, who has been in the job for over a decade, says that the selection process is based entirely on talent: though other details about the candidates are sent to the graduate school, her policy is “not to look at them and to evaluate candidates solely on the writing sample.”

To be clear at the outset: age discrimination certainly exists in the world, and is just as certainly a problem. I will, however, lay real cash-money that age is not the reason Thomson was rejected, and would have done so even before reading the blurb and first two chapters of his self-published opus on Goodreads. (And oh, goddamn, are we returning to that subject later.)

“It seems like a program just for millennials,” says Thomson. “I would have guessed there’d be a broader range of ages.” As the article points out, the program is held at a graduate school, where the main demographic is people in their twenties: just under half of those accepted since 2013 have been aged between 18 and 25, while the median age for accepted applicants is 34 and a half. The median age of all applicants, however, is only 36 – hardly a difference suggestive of bias.

Thomson, he says, isn’t interested in seeing the program reprimanded: he just wants to get in: “I wanted to make clear that somebody my age has a right to do it.”

To paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this must be some strange usage of the word right that I wasn’t previously aware of. While it’s certainly Thomson’s right to apply to the workshop, it is not his right to be accepted. There are only 25 spots available to the thousand-odd yearly applicants: with that sort of ratio in play, even genuine talents will inevitably miss out, not because they’re bad writers, but because there simply isn’t space for everyone.

And then we get to the kicker:

Thomson said he enjoyed his creative writing classes in college in the early 1970s, but found at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose.

“It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience,’ ” he said.

After graduate school in anthropology and law school, Thomson focused on raising his family and living a life worth writing about. Two years ago, he completed his first novel-length work, “The Candidate,” and decided to self-publish it.

He has not sought other options for publication, nor has he applied to other creative writing programs…

“It may be vanity on my part… but I have a fairly high opinion of the two pieces that I sent in,” he said.

Again, for the sake of clarity: I have nothing against self-publishing as an endeavour. I know some amazing writers who’ve opted to take that route, and have fallen in love with many an indie book as a consequence, to say nothing of self-pubbed-gone-mainstream works like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Nor do I have any bias against writers who start their careers later in life: one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was the first and only work of Mary Ann Shaffer, published posthumously after her death at age 74. There are plenty of great writers who never got their start until later in life, or who found success through non-traditional means, or who managed both: because, by themselves, these facts are not cause for any degree of scepticism.

But for fuck’s sake.

Among authors of any kind, a near-universal pet peeve is being told, on revealing their career, “Oh, I’d love to write a book some day!” by someone who admits to not writing now. It’s not that we have any bone-deep aversion to the idea of writing for fun as opposed to writing for money; indeed, a great many of us swim in both waters at once, or else migrated from one camp to the other without quite noticing how it happened. The objection, rather, is to those who reflexively conflate the two – “Oh, you do this as a job? I’d love that as a hobby!” – without realising how arrogantly dismissive this sounds. At best, they’re assuming that writing involves no element of craft or skill that requires refinement over time, no awareness of an ever-fluctuating market and industry, and so can be picked up by anyone at the drop of a hat. At worst, they’re boasting of their own brilliance-to-be: you might be a dedicated professional, but damned if they aren’t confident they can do just as well or better without all the years of work.

Dan Thomson, it would appear, ticks both these boxes. On the basis of no more experience than a single self-published novel, The Candidate – which, at 100 pages long, is more accurately a novella – and participation in a few writing classes forty-odd years ago, he applied to one of the most prestigious MFA programs in America. So, naturally, age discrimination is the only possible reason for his failure to make the cut.

That rumbling you hear is the sound of my jaw grinding bitten-off expletives into grist.

At age fifteen, I opined to my then-English teacher, a woman now sadly deceased, that the reason my story hadn’t won or placed in a contest to which I’d submitted it was genre bias against science fiction. Mildly, she replied that she knew of multiple students who’d won such contests with SF stories. “Oh,” I said, and deflated a little, and then forced myself to acknowledge the possibility that, regardless of my abilities, other people might indeed be better. Thomson’s seeming inability to make a similar deductive leap at age 68, coupled with his stated belief that “young people” lack sufficient life experience to write well, doesn’t suggest to me that he’d do well taking crit from other, younger writers – which is basically what an MFA entails, though I doubt Thomson realises it – even if the Iowa Writers’ Workshop did let him in.

And believe me, he would be subject to criticism. Oh, would he fucking ever.

A brief disclaimer: as someone who works as both an author and a critic, I make a conscious effort to review transparently. If I think there’s a problem in the text, I show my working; if I haven’t read the full book or have skimmed particular sections, I say so; and if a story hits my buttons, whether positively or negatively, I aim to make that fact clear. In the context of writing groups and editorial work, I try to set my stylistic preferences aside and focus instead on the author’s intentions: on providing feedback that helps them make their style better instead of more like mine. As such, I don’t usually weigh in on fragments or blurbs of a random writer’s work unless they’ve said something in public – such as in interview or at a convention – that suggests a direct link between their attitude about the world, or writing, or the world as expressed through writing, and the content they’ve produced.

That being so, and in accordance with his clear belief that his work merits the same respect as the would-be bests in the field, I will treat Thomson as I would any author possessed of such a glaring disconnect between their self-perception and reality: with sarcasm and sources.

According to the article’s author, Thomson didn’t pursue writing in his youth because, “at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose,” with Thomson himself quoted as saying, “It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience.'” This strongly suggests that Thomson has, for whatever reason, conflated life experience with literary skill: that, in his view, the way to improve as a writer isn’t to work on your prose, but to gain more inspiration. This perspective is echoed in the blurb for his novella, The Candidate, which is less a plot summary than a full paragraph of Thomson explaining why his book is important:

Can An Honest Man Be Elected President? I didn’t give the protagonist of The Candidate a face. I didn’t give him a body or a race either. That was not an oversight. I am confident you will do that for me. I did give him a voice and when you hear that voice you will assign him whatever characteristics seem appropriate to you. Listen to that voice. If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live. Does a fish know he is swimming in water? Does he know his pond, lake, river, ocean? After a series of wars, recessions and global warming we are wondering where we are and where we are going. There is a fear that rich powerful men have an agenda for America. The Carlisle Group did write a plan for the new American Century. They believe that war is good for our economy and our souls. War is of course older than the Carlisle Group. Eisenhower warned us of the Military Industrial Complex. Remember that a demand for more bombs requires that they be exploded. Mr. Telos also speaks of important economic realities for a democratic capitalist society. He reminds us of an unshakable truth that Karl Marx gave us. “Capitalist societies require a reserve army of the unemployed to keep wages down.” So we keep a pool of unemployed and poorly employed in poverty. This book is written for people who can think and want to think. It is not the Sermon on the Mount or holy writ, but a spark to your own thinking.  

There are, I would submit, three possible explanations for the creation of such a blurb, none of which is flattering to Thomson: pure ego, a lack of awareness that fiction and non-fiction blurbs have different conventions, or a failure to distinguish between a blurb and a review. Either way, his assertion that, “If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live,” is suggestive both of hostility to criticism – if you don’t like, agree with or understand this book, then it’s no fault of mine – and a flat conflation of worldly experience with literary merit. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the ethos of the fictional Norman Telos is closely aligned with that of his creator: in exhorting us to value his character’s wisdom, Thomson is, with precious little deftness, hoping we’ll praise him.

Thanks to the preview function on Goodreads, I was able to read the first two chapters of The Candidate. It is not an experience I recommend, unless you like laughing angrily at the sheer bloody-minded entitlement of untalented men.

“The name of Norman Telos’ car was an automatic talk show joke,” the book begins. Thomson swiftly proceeds to describe said car in detail for the better part of three pages, making sure to tell us that it’s the best sedan since the model-T. Only then is it made clear that, rather than being a car that Norman owns, it’s actually one he’s invented. As such, we skip immediately on to the details of his next invention, a silent machine gun sold to the DOD.

And then this happens:

Norman Telos’ next series of inventions were drone cops to solve the Ferguson problems. To Norman Telos the events that happened in Fergusson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and the shooting of the Black boy with the toy pistol in Cleveland November of 2014 were two problems of trust that could both be solved by a machine. Blacks cannot trust the police because too many police are racists. Police fear for their own lives in confrontational situations. The answer to both problems is to put officer friendly in front of a video game screen controlling a drone that takes all the risks for him. His actions will be documented solving the age old question of who polices the police. Further, the situation was safer for both the police and the policed. The drones were armed with a machine gun for extreme situations where killing to prevent killing would justify its use. More importantly the drones were equipped with nonlethal force; air powered bean bag guns that could knock any perp on his back and if he refused to surrender the bean bags could be shot at him until he had no ability to resist, an arm that carried hand cuffs to the perp and finally the machine itself was powerful enough to push over several men.

RACIST POLICING IS SOLVED FOREVER, EVERYONE CAN GO HOME NOW HAHAHA FOR SERIOUS OH WAIT oh god why.

The description of the drones goes on for several more pages. Comparisons to both R2D2 and Robocop are made – hilariously so, though comedy is clearly not the intent. Crime falls, Norman grows ever richer from his inventions, and the reader’s will to live takes a savage beating. Then, just as I was about to schedule an emergency splenectomy to help inure myself to this nonsense – taking cops out of physical danger doesn’t remove their racism, which is the actual fucking problem here, and especially not when you arm them with machine guns, are you kidding me? – I reached the wonder of Chapter 2, which suddenly introduces a Female Character! And oh. Oh, my god. YOU GUYS:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter. At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king sized bed sipping martinis. Jane asked, “So what is next for you Norm?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving or I will give it more chemical inducement.”

Jane, “That is a rather crude not too funny joke which makes me feel cheap. I may make a lot of money on this job but I refuse to be treated like or talked to like a whore. Call for your helicopter. You can have a refund.”

Norman, “Sorry. I truly didn’t mean to insult you. Please don’t be so sensitive. I saw it as a joke at my expense.”

Jane, “Ok. By next I didn’t mean here and now between us. I wanted to know what you are going to do with your billionaire career. What is next?”

Norman, “I am going to run for President.”

Jane, “Wow. I never expected to hear a thing like that and take it seriously, but coming from you, of course. So why do you want to be President.”

Norman, “I don’t really want to be President. I want to run. Winning is unlikely and would probably be a bore. Besides I will be running on the Democratic side and  Diebold is likely to sell the next election to the Republicans.”

It’s at this point that I stopped breathing properly and had to wheeze into my cupped hands for several minutes. (Also, lest you think that Thomson is some sort of geriatric savant who accidentally presaged our decent into the darkest timeline, I’d note that The Candidate was published in February 2016, well after Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President. Whatever other similarities lie therein, I’ll leave to a more intrepid soul to fathom.)

Norman and Jane continue to talk for the rest of the chapter. I only skimmed after that, but not distractedly enough to miss Norman posing this serious philosophical query: “Is there a god or a dyslexic dog?” Jane doesn’t answer, but that’s not surprising: she’s pretty much there as a prop to give Norman an excuse to extemporise in detail about Why Religion Is Wrong. Only then, mercifully, did my free sample come to an end.

At a base technical level, Thomson doesn’t know enough about prose writing to include the word “said” and a comma after each character name, or how to indicate the possessive for a proper noun ending in s, or any of the basic rules of pacing, structure or grammar. Even so, no line edit in the world can fix this mess. The prose is didactic and clunky in a way that only comes from being wrongly convinced of the brilliance of bad ideas, while the introduction of Jane Gray is the literal embodiment of How Not To Write A Female Character. Culturally, we spend a lot of time mocking female writers for their (supposedly) thinly-veiled self-insert characters, and yet I can say with authority that I’ve never encountered any such work by a teenage girl that manages to be anywhere near as obnoxiously obvious as the equivalent fantasies written by grown men.

So, yeah: Dan Thomson, whatever he might like to think, did not fail to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because of age discrimination, but because his writing fails to meet even the most basic grammatical and structural standards you would reasonably expect a high school English graduate to know. But let’s by all means keep up the steady flow of editorials claiming whiny entitlement is a millennial problem. Like the proverbial five o’clock, it’s always a slow news day somewhere.

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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.

– Ryan 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—without a trace of embarrassment—say 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.