March 20th, 2015
I was too angry to write this yesterday.
Three weeks ago, novelist Ryan Boudinot (author of the 2011 novel ‘Blueprints of the Afterlife’, a dazzling book the National Book Award jury surely hadn’t heard of the year they took the unprecedented step of bestowing the prize on …nobody) published in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, an article titled ‘Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now I No Longer Teach in One’:
The piece expressed, within a spirit of sympathy and friendship for his former (anonymous) students, some raw truths that are too little heard: desire and hard work aren’t enough to be a writer – a fair amount of natural talent is required too; no one who isn’t a devoted reader who enjoys being challenged and stretched has any business writing; a tragic tale poorly told shouldn’t find a publisher; and, in the MFA industry, these eternal truths must be put extremely gently if at all by any teacher wanting to keep their job.
The wounded, angry and hysterical comments in the blogosphere and on Twitter were instantaneous. Another Stranger feature followed immediately by a student from Boudinot’s workshop, taking reasonable – if unreasoned – offense with the piece. Soon enough, the board members of a civic effort spearheaded by Boudinot to make Seattle a UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ demanded he retract and apologize for the article. Boudinot refused on principle, whereupon the entire board, in classic Seattle politico chickenshit fashion, resigned.
This all made me so angry because it hit home deeply, for a couple reasons. The barely relevant one is that I spent fifteen years in that city’s civic affairs, and I know too well how terrified of criticism and original thinking the members of its political/nonprofit class are. The uncompromising stands that must be taken in politics translate poorly to the give and take of arguments about art. But I had cringed a little when I initially saw that Boudinot was taking his crusade to City Hall. I felt simultaneously like, that’s nice, and, keep me a million miles away.
The more relevant cause is that the intellectual cowardice that has sprung Boudinot’s crusade out back to where it belongs, away from the phony patronage of power, and multiplied on the interwebs like a fungus of boohoohoo, is epidemic. The reasons for the dumbing down of the larger culture are multiple, but working together. The Right impoverished education financially in the interests of corporate domination, and the Left impoverished it intellectually in the interest of equality. Both put us where we are now, with democracy nonexistent as the great mass of citizens can be convinced of almost anything, and the direst challenge facing humanity (global climate change) believed to be fiction by one-third of Americans, and not as the result of human action by another third.
Our present situation is a Huxleyan/Orwellian mix – Campechano, we would say in Mexico – entertainment is king, and reigns because the very language itself in its strongest strain has been exiled from the mainstream. Writing as it is known to most people has become a form of therapy. The automatic setting for the tone of a writing workshop outside the academy has long been one of sensitivity rather than rigor, that the pain which participants bring to their work is the thing being criticized, not the technique. Now it seems this approach is that of the standard MFA program – and how could it not be, with such programs numerous as they are? How much writing makes it into a book? How many books ever published are even worth reading?
Below our space is a bar in which a poetry group meets – mostly, people writing in or who at least speak and read English – drawing a dozen or two dozen people, once a month, evenings. I used to stay open for the event, waiting for them to finish, and come up to dive deeper in, to hook up in the constant orgy which is the writing life, which is primarily composed of reading. One participant, a high school drama teacher, climbed the stairs to the store. Again and again the others, having expressed their feelings and heard those of living, unpublished and unknown writers, packed their things at the end and left. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is where the culture is now.
Given the level of discourse that passes for debate on the Internet, it’s not surprising that one commenter accused Boudinot of “wishing more suffering on” one student of his who the writer assumed was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For clarity, let me quote this subtitled section (nearly) in full:
“No One Cares About Your Problems If You’re A Shitty Writer
I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry… For the most part, 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 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 memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”
Pretty rough, right? Though this is perhaps more than a joke: the profoundest suffering cloaks itself in silence, is unspeakable. There is a reason a memoirist like Cheryl Strayed can artfully narrate a difficult year two decades on, during which she went off the rails a little before coming back. The worst experiences derange their witnesses past easy autobiography. As the White Stripes sang, ¨Truth doesn´t make a noise.¨
There’s a story I always tell my students on the rare occasion that I am invited to teach a workshop. (It has happened, and I’ve been paid, though with just a bad unpublished novel, a bad filmed screenplay and a decent but semi-self-published volume of poems to my name, I feel like something of an impostor when I do it.) I will change the names of the people in this story out of respect for their privacy, though I very badly want to find my old friend I have not seen in nearly thirty years.
I heard this story, first-hand, when I was studying at Cal State Northridge, in the 1980s. My friend was at once a companionable and somewhat mysterious figure in the dorms there where I lived after my father died. (A large commuter school, CSUN’s dorms were small, and attracted an odd and entertaining crowd of Japanese exchange students, deaf kids – it was a deaf magnet school – and older students going to college late wanting the classical college experience at an institution which then mostly catered to suburbanites’ professional studies.)
Jacob Stein was thirty-three, a grad student in linguistics, unmistakably distinguished by horrible, disfiguring facial burns; one hand was a three-clawed, red thing. More than once someone in the dorms had unkindly referred to him as Freddy Kreuger, and though this met with humorless approbation because we loved and respected him, the comparison was no exaggeration. Jacob was sober, in a social atmosphere that modeled itself on the movie ‘Animal House’, and chain-smoked Camels and drank Classic Coke, the retrenchment branding after the failed New Coke. He had been a glam rocker in the wave of L.A. bands that followed Bowie, and between study sessions, certainly staving off a backslide into his worse habits, he stalked the dorm halls, Coke and cigs in hand, looking for company.
He was, I will tell you, legendary: the tragedy which lay on his skin, his epic style of storytelling, segueing into free association, lost lyrics of pre-punk bands, a kind of universal radio. But also, beneath this, a kind and intelligent soul, and a good friend. People secretly taped him, and the tape was copied and passed around, and gave a tiny culture a hoard of private catchphrases, quoted hilariously but respectfully, in a kind of friendly, historical awe. A buddy in my writing workshop wrote a story he presented to the class in which Jacob was the principal character. I don’t know where he is now.
Jacob’s parents met, at sixteen and fifteen, the last survivors of their respective families, in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Think about that. Would that not be enough of a story?
When the camp was liberated they stayed together, each other’s only world, and were married, and emigrated to America. Jacob’s father’s name was Howard. I met him only one time, in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club, somewhere in the Valley, where Jacob had asked me to drop him off. His father had the blue tattoo of numbers, on his forearm, and though I now calculate he must have been less than sixty, he looked thin, bent and old. I don’t remember, or didn’t know, Jacob’s mother’s name. Howard and his wife emigrated to America, and settled in Los Angeles: Van Nuys to be precise, where my Dustbowl grandparents came over the hill after the war to buy a house on a green lot with a swimming pool. I imagine their situation was much the same, with darker roots.
Jacob and his twin Albert were born, and when they were seven years old, the family took an outing by boat on some Southern California lake. The boat’s gas tank, for some reason, exploded, and both twins fell into the burning gasoline. Jacob lost two fingers and was severely burned over much of his body including his face, and spent six months in the hospital and endured a lifetime of skin grafts. His brother was just as badly injured.
Nevertheless both boys, recovering, had a kind of classic mid-century American suburban childhood: Albert was high school valedictorian, Jacob captain of the football team. Albert was the youngest graduate in the history of the UCLA Medical School, and on leaving school was immediately offered a position as a surgeon at a prestige Los Angeles hospital (I believe it was Mt. Sinai) paying one hundred thousand dollars a year. On the strength of the offer he borrowed the money to buy a house, and packed and moved in. In the living room of his new house, surrounded by boxes, he received a call telling him the job offer had been withdrawn, and he hanged himself. Jacob, his twin, broke down and was committed to a mental institution, from which he had only emerged when I met him.
I tell my occasional students that when you write, you are writing to Jacob’s father, Howard Stein. You cannot impress him with your traumatic childhood, your sense of exile and woundedness. The ostracization you have suffered in this society, your difficult childhood, gives you no authority with him. Those who have pilloried Ryan Boudinot, who have said he is abusing the (very real) privilege of white maleness in this context, that he has been insensitive – these people don’t understand what literature is, nor its purpose. They certainly have no business trying to make art.