A few months ago, my sister asked if I’d be interested in a guy who read Tom Robbins. I told her I hadn’t really thought about it before (truth). Then I thought (to myself), what does that even mean? Are Tom Robbins fans certain types of people, the way Tucker Max boys are? I didn’t think so. Then I thought that maybe she was asking me about Tom Robbins because, simply, he’s popular. This, to me, was a sad thought.
I admit there was a period in my life where I judged people based on the type of music they listened to and genres of books they read. I’m happy to report that these days of complete and utter superficiality are now behind me. (Well, for the most part: I’m still pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to marry someone who listens to Nickelback. But that’s just common sense.)
As far as books are concerned though, basically I’m just happy if the person reads at all. You only read Carl Hiaasen? Fine by me. Dante in Latin? Excellent. Candace Bushnell fan? Little weird, but sure, I’ll take it. And yet. There was a time when I was a snob, and this time wasn’t too long ago. Studying creative writing during Da Vinci mania and James Frey controversy made it easy to turn up my nose at those who read mere commercial fiction. Mostly because everyone around me was turning up their noses too. Just the word – commercial – I mean, ugh. Right? The word was dirty to my liberal arts educated writing community.
Then I made the jump to an even more exclusive literary circle – the MFA program. In New York City. In Greenwich Village. I was doomed.
I was recently out to dinner with two other former MFAers (one from my alma mater, The New School; the other from Sarah Lawrence). We, of course, had a long chat about books and agreed that our MFAs have ruined us, but possibly in a good way. Explanation:
You see, in writing programs, the last thing writers are ever taught is how to get published. It’s all about craft, craft, craft. And in order to hone that skill, we must read, read, read. But again, we are not told to read New York Times bestsellers. We are told to read the few masterpieces of literary fiction that publishers were kind enough to took a chance on. Most of these authors are dead. Or insane. Or reclusive. Or have been long since considered “classic” or “genius,” two titles that the average student will probably not be able to attain upon graduation.
Literary fiction remains a go-to choice for when I read for fun (that is, when I have time for such things!). However, the David Foster Wallaces, Italo Calvinos, Marcel Prousts, and the Thomas Pynchons are hardly beach reading. Yet writers in MFA programs are told that this is the only form of writing worth doing. To me, there is accessible literary fiction (Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon…) and there’s the authors I mentioned I above (let’s call them the Uberliterary).
The Uberliterary, to me, are the writing equivalent of fashion designers. There are those who design clothes you buy at the Gap and there are those who design clothes strictly for the runway. Walking art projects made by designers for designers, saying “looky what I can do!” There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But sadly, since I’m not in the fashion club, it all just looks like a mess to me. I am, however, in the literary club. So when the Uberliteraries write for other writers, I smile and wink back.
So, why has my MFA “ruined” me, as I said? Well, remember I also said “in a good way.” I can be as snobby as I want because I was practically trained to be. Yet, I couldn’t choose not to be pretentious if I didn’t have this training. (Make sense?) Working in publishing has de-MFAed me. Not only because high concept literary fiction isn’t exactly a moneymaker, but because it’s surrounded me with book lovers who love the written word. No matter what it is. So, I left my snobbery at the door and didn’t look back. I can choose to pick it up again, but why would I want to?
What do you all think? Any former or current writing students care to share your experiences?