Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Outside In

with 4 comments

So, let me try to start from some sort of beginning here.  This


showed up this morning on Arts and Letters Daily, and I recommend it to you for a number of reasons, probably not the ones the writer of it thought he was writing it for.

Okay.  It’s early in the morning.  The syntax isn’t working right.

But what this is is an article on the relationship between literary writing and the MFA programs in creative writing–except.  Except except except.

At the risk of setting somebody off again on the evils of literary fiction–I already agree on that one; the modern “literary” novel is an anemic thing, trying to (as Bill used to say) “write better and better about less and less until it writes perfectly about nothing at all.”

And I knew all about the writer in residence, MFA program thing long ago.  It’s hard to avoid it in the circles in which I move.

No, what interested me about this article is this:  every once in a while, the author of it cheerfully recognizes that none of this stuff is getting read.

I’d already assumed–again, long ago–that the audience for the literary novel, for literary fiction in general, was that web of people around the writing programs, who all read each other’s work and commented on it.

Now, it seems, that nobody is reading anybody’s work, except maybe the professors in the programs themselves, who are reading things to grade, or workshop participants, who read what’s submitted to class.  Once the work starts getting published, nobody bothers any more–except, maybe, the editor.

There is a lot I could say about all this, but what hits me hardest is:  in what sense are the people caught in this system to be considered writers at all?  The logic of this description of the present state of the writers in this system is that there comes a time when there is no audience for the actual work–the writer isn’t talking to anybody, not even the other professors in the department or the people on the tenure committee.

The fact of the book is enough to ensure professional advancement.  And nobody has time to read the actual book.  So you write it, you publish it, and then you put it on the shelf, and the only time it matters is when you’re asked to go somewhere to speak about it.

Another interesting thing is what is not happening–literary fiction is taught in creative writing programs, but not in Freshman English, or in the English department at all.  I suppose there must be upper level courses in “the contemporary novel”–there usually are–but I know enough about academia to know that very few people take those, and the ones who do are almost always the people who aspire to write contemporary novels themselves. 

Academic writing, in other words, doesn’t even have an academic audience. 

The writer of this article makes a lot of fun of the old advice to writers–get out and live!–but I don’t think it’s getting out and living that’s the problem.

The chief virtue of sending your work out to be read by an actual audience is this:  it lets you know if you’re making any sense.

You don’t have to aim for mass popularity.  And we can all admit up front that a fair hunk of readers these days lack the kind of reading skills to understand even basic literary devices, like unreliable narrator or multiple viewpoint.

But when you send a book into the world to be read, and practically everybody gets back to you to say that the book is about a cat when you know you were writing about a dog–that tells you something about what you need to work on next time.

Of course, the “literary” novels this writer is talking about do have an audience of sorts in the undergraduates who take creative writing courses.

Unlike the graduate students in MFA programs, undergraduates aren’t usually looking to be a writer when they take “creative writing” junior year.  They’re mostly just looking for the easiest A they can get, and creative writing courses are very easy A’s indeed.

The problem with this is that none of the feedback such students could provide will ever actually get back to the writers–and that’s especially if that feedback consists of hating the damned story, or thinking it’s crap on the philosophical level, or wondering why all the characters have “intellectual” jobs and feel alienated.

Okay, that was bad of me.

But years ago, I made a conscious decision to do what I do instead of going for a more “literary” audience.  I came out of an undergraduate writing program that has produced numerous “MFA writers,” as the article calls them.  I went on to grad school in Literature instead of writing, but that was largely a combination of inertia and terror.  Then I left that and came to New York, and from that I got here.

Wherever here is.

When I made that decision, my reasons were largely about content.  I didn’t want to live in a closed, introspective world where everybody knew everybody and then wrote about themselves, where there was no contact with the rest of the planet.

Now I think I was lucky to have made that decision because I can’t understand the appeal of being a writer without readers, of producing book after book whose only real purpose is to fill up a library shelf.

I am not, at this stage of my life, likely to become one of those blockbuster mystery novelists with her own TV show and a space on the NY Times best seller list.

But I know from painful experience that people do actually read what I do–and that they’re not “thoughtful,” “considered,” or even very polite about it.

And, thank God, they’re certainly not indifferent.

Exam week.  Lots of sitting around listening to students explain why they should be allowed to make up all the work of the term today.

I need serious tea.

Written by janeh

December 13th, 2010 at 6:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Outside In'

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  1. I had a student once who wanted to make up work after having failed both the final exam and the course.

    I can’t speak for the writers of literary novels, but there can be some pleasure and satisfaction in doing something that only a small group share your interest in. I admit, writing a book that few if any people will read does sound rather bizarre, but lots of musicians are devoted to writing and performing music that has very few fans and lots of people are devoted to obscure sports no one ever watches and almost no one plays. Maybe they all think that it doesn’t matter if hardly anyone reads what they do as long as it’s good stuff. Well, ‘good’ by the standards of the genre, anyway.


    13 Dec 10 at 9:11 am

  2. Happy birthday, Cheryl. :-)


    13 Dec 10 at 10:08 am

  3. Three cheers! I think all my fiction is either written by someone many people hate, or written in a genre many people despise–in a number of cases, both. But all those stories were intended to be read, and the authors lived–or died, in a few cases–by the result.

    To write for only a few people is understandable, though I am not one of those who thinks that writing well limits the audience. To write, not for the pleasure of ANY reader, but because (a) you’re paid for it, and (b) otherwise, you can’t call yourself a writer, is something very different. I don’t know how one would judge “good” fiction without a reader, any more than I could assess a car which wasn’t built to be driven.

    But let’s keep things in perspective. The publication of the last volume of the definitive collection of Leigh Brackett SF has been postponed (again)and that bothers me. Those stories I’m waiting for. But BOOKS IN PRINT is full of books I’ll never read. That no one at all will read some of them isn’t a major concern.


    13 Dec 10 at 5:10 pm

  4. Thanks Mique – although technically it’ll be tomorrow on this side of the globe!



    13 Dec 10 at 8:12 pm

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