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SEPTEMBER 7, 2010 5:25PM

Why I Am Letting My Poets & Writers Subscription Lapse

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For about a quarter of a century I have been a subscriber to Poets & Writers magazine. In the early days, before it went glossy, and was more or less a newsletter, I found it useful as a place to send around my then callow poems, and even to find out about gatherings and readings. I also had the naïve youthful belief that my subscription somehow (like the money dropped in my church’s collection plates) went to help those in need; in this case, young writer of quality, or programs devoted to helping such. As the years have gone on I have still subscribed (despite the functionary matters I most used it for now being available freely online, and in many other online sources) and read through its increasingly poorly written articles, and even ignored the fact that, despite its title, the magazine really did nothing to even discuss, much less promote, the art of poetry and writing. It became merely an advertising tool, via its ads and ads thinly veiled as articles to promote MFA programs, bad writers, scam publishers, and clueless agents and editors. Yet, I resisted the urge to cancel my subscription, even though I had let subscriptions to the American Poetry Review and The Academy Of American Poets lapse several years ago (as well as Sports Illustrated and TV Guide- sports and television simply are not that important to me any longer), because I could see all they cared about was fame and the sinecures of elite doggerelists. Why did I not follow through with letting Poets & Writers fall to the wayside? My idea was that one always needed to know what the enemy was up to, and that’s true, until the enemy becomes so irrelevant that knowing what they do makes as much sense as tracking the mating habits of cockroaches in Labrador. After all, my wife Jessica was always telling me to, since she would get enraged at the crap the magazine published, the bad writers it highlighted, the fact that several letters to the editor that she and I wrote, over the years, which were far more cogent to whatever article we responded to, were never published while far inferior letters and thoughts were published (although tracking IP #s has shown me that many people from the New York offices of P&W are avid readers of Cosmoetica, for even the purveyors of pap sometimes need to read really great writing), and even the quotations from books that were excerpted were uniformly bad.

 

Still, I felt that there was some utility I could get from the magazine. I had, in essence, gone from thinking my support was, as a youth, a gesture of solidarity with like minded beings in need of support to one of mere selfishness- using it for what little it might have, including the occasional belly laugh over the horrid MFA writers they highlighted. I could even take the nonsensical PC, PoMo, and deliteracy the magazine proffered….until, well, the proverbial last straw. That last straw was not something terribly egregious. I had read even worse pieces of writing in the magazine, through the decades. I had even gotten angry, on rare occasions. But, this thing I read in the latest issue of the magazine (September/October 2010) simply struck me, perhaps with the accumulated weight of the ignorance previously spewed by it- be it PC, PoMo, or plain old deliteracy, and moved me to an apathy that could only be slaked with this manner of comment.

 

Here it is, a quote, on page 51 of the magazine, from as novel presented, presumably, because it represents a good snippet of the fine writing of the novelist:

  The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another. When I heard the word “disappoint,” I tasted toast, slightly burned. But when I saw the word written, I thought of it first and foremost as the combining or the collapsing together of the words disappear and point, as in how something in us ceased to exist the moment someone let us down.

  Small children understood this better than adults, this irreparable diminution of the self that occurred at each instance, large and small, of someone forgetting a promise, arriving late, losing interest, leaving too soon, and otherwise making us feel like a fool. That was why children, in the face of disappointments, large and small, were so quick to cry and scream, often throwing their bodies to the ground as if their tiny limbs were on fire. That was a good instinct. We, the adults or the survivors of our youth, trade in instinct for a societal norm. We stayed calm. We swallowed the hurt. We forgave the infraction. We ignored that our skin was on fire. We became our own fools. Sometimes, when we very successful, we forgot entirely the memory of the disappointment. The loss that resulted, of course, could not be undone. What was gone was gone. We just could no longer remember how we ended up with so much less of ourselves. Why we expected nothing, why we deserved so little, and why we brought strangers into our lives to fill the void.

 

Now, I am not going to name the novelist nor the book, nor its publisher, not because I do not want to immediately embarrass them, but because I do not want to prejudice you, the reader, although I will name all by this essay’s end. What I am going to do is annotate this piss poor piece of crap the way I did in my This Old Poem essays, wherein I did far more critical evaluation by simply pointing out and ridiculing poor writing than most supposed books on literary criticism do in hundreds of pages of words, by virtue of the fact that I am not afraid to actually state something is bad, and why.

 

Now, let’s reread the excerpt with proper annotations (the legend appears below):

  The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another. When I heard the word “disappoint,” I tasted toast, slightly burned. But when I saw the word written, I thought of it first and foremost as the combining or the collapsing together of the words disappear and point, as in how something in us ceased to exist the moment someone let us down.

  Small children understood this better than adults, this irreparable diminution of the self that occurred at each instance, large and small, of someone forgetting a promise, arriving late, losing interest, leaving too soon, and otherwise making us feel like a fool. That was why children, in the face of disappointments, large and small, were so quick to cry and scream, often throwing their bodies to the ground as if their tiny limbs were on fire. That was a good instinct. We, the adults or the survivors of our youth, trade in instinct for a societal norm. We stayed calm. We swallowed the hurt. We forgave the infraction. We ignored that our skin was on fire. We became our own fools. Sometimes, when we very successful, we forgot entirely the memory of the disappointment. The loss that resulted, of course, could not be undone. What was gone was gone. We just could no longer remember how we ended up with so much less of ourselves. Why we expected nothing, why we deserved so little, and why we brought strangers into our lives to fill the void.

__________

Legend:

Underlined = verbal cliché

Italics = narrative cliché

Bold = appositives

Mixed annotations means one or more of the problems are present

 

So, I have annotated the offending excerpt properly, and it’s now time to eviscerate this poor piece of writing, which descends from merely bad, in paragraph one, to atrocious in the second paragraph. Yet, on top of the technical poverty of the writing, more importantly witness its utter genericness. The only thing one can tell about the writer is that he or she is an MFA graduate, so replete it is with the tell tale markers of that. Other than that, one can not tell the sex of the writer, nor the age, race, politics, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, nor any other marker of individuality. And, no, utter genericness does not equate with universality, for to be universal one needs to be able to identify a certain piece of writing with a writer and his or her background in some area, then use that specificity to show how it applies in the general, as well. No, utter genericness is the antithesis of universality, for it shows the utter worthlessness of the writing, meaning it has no ability to reach nor move anyone of any human stripe.

 

So, let’s dissect it. The very first sentence has two verbal and two narrative clichés, which sort of act like heralds, trumpeting that, yes, this is an MFA graduate! MFA writing is obsessed with so-called ‘truth,’ which is not really about metaphysical truth but about the writer’s ‘truth,’ or ‘what the MFA grad wants to bitch about today. The answer comes at the end of the phrase, when this writer wants to bitch about their family. No shock, for MFA grads and other college elitists will tell you that the greatest evil on the planet is not war, disease, natural disasters, racism, murder, rape nor things like that. No, the greatest evil in the world is the family, especially if it inhabits suburbia, where people live narcotized lives of surfeit, shopping peacefully and gorging themselves on whatever fatty food product is nearest. Naturally, most MFA writers are born and bed products of suburbia, no matter their ethnicity. And what is the greatest sin to the suburban family? You got it, disappointing one another. Father Knows Best and Leave it To Beaver were….brace yourselves- fictions!

 

The middle of the first paragraph is not particularly deep, but it is the best bit of writing displayed, even as it serves up ‘gems’ like the burning of toast (yes, this is sardonism) and the mix of two words in the form of the word she’s ruminating on. This, in fact, is the intellectual high point for the excerpt- the faux intellectual pseudo-expounding on something prosaic to con someone into thinking there is depth. Yes, it’s not deep, but it’s the only thing resembling something individuated and non-trite. But, as expected, the remainder of the paragraph disintegrates into cliché: the cession of existence and being ‘let down’ again. I have read this selection to a number of people while writing this essay, and all agree the first paragraph is quite bad. I tell them that paragraph two is even worse, much worse, and they steady themselves.

 

The very first phrase written is both an uttered and narrative cliché. How often are children held up, in the PC mindset, as avatars of some lost wisdom? In reality, we all know that children, even the best of them, are naturally deceitful, manipulative and almost wholly selfish beings. The reason that we say we matured or ‘grew up’ is because adults ‘improve.’ No, it’s not a fashionable idea, and when one looks at the mess made of this world it’s hard to believe there could be worse. But look at kids in schoolyards or trying to divvy up something given to a group. Were these wee beings given access to nuclear or biological weapons the human race would have long exterminated itself. In short, childhood basically sucks for most children because of other children, not the occasionally abusive parent or rare pedophile that traipses into one’s life. Not so in the world and mind of the PC Elitist. In that world, children are the perpetual victims and possible saviors. It’s uncouth to point to Noble Savage racial or ethnic groups so the modern Noble Savage is the tot. Naturally, they suffer such things that stick with one through life, such as the diminution of the self, aka the control of egoism, often a good thing, except when it is ‘irreparable.’ Plus there is the bonus of the writer showing off their vocabulary by bigwordthrowingarounding (see ‘diminution’). We then get an old but bland trick to force a double take of a point the writer feels important, and this is the use of an appositive- a word or phrase that slightly alters or expands upon something while fundamentally reinforcing the point. When done with a banality, of course, it shows the utter cluelessness of the writer for having to condescend in explication of a cliché. Witness: each instance, large and small. If one is setting up a series with the adjective each, all sizes will be represented, so large and small is redundant. Were this a heroic line in a poem or an especially interesting point, the rhetorical effect might have muted such redundancy, but given that the following series is yet another string of clichés, this appositive is not only redundant, logically, but nastily condescending. It’s as if the writer, while using the pained child metaphor, believes they are actually writing for children.

 

Once we get past the series of clichés the writer re-emphasizes the concept of ‘children,’ as if the reader had forgotten, like some ditzy kid. To further emphasize this belittlement of the reader we then get a re-use of the same trite appositive from a few lines earlier- disappointments, large and small- with one crucial difference; the earlier cliché is made even worse with the substitution of the banal disappointments for the merely mundane each instance. This act of writing seppuku is recapitulative of the whole excerpts getting worse from paragraph one to two by showing that within the second paragraph the writing, itself, is getting worse with each sentence and phrase. We then get a third appositive wherein adults are not merely older children, but ‘survivors’ of the presumed horrors of youth; survivor being that PC code word for pain yet triumph. This is also the old PC trick of ‘naming’ the pain to defeat it. Yawn. I always chuckle over such notions, as if the follies of youth: rejections, peer pressure, bullies, etc. go away in adulthood. No, they are merely replaced by the grown up equivalents- unemployment, lovelessness, conformity, and moronic bosses. Is there really a one of us, dealing with the drabness of modern adult life, who would NOT want to have the relatively simple issues of childhood to deal with? Many is the time I look back and wish all I had to do was crack open a bully’s skull to brighten my day. Alas, life is not like that.

 

The rest of the paragraph is merely a recitation of some of the most abysmal clichés one will read: the above mentioned and dread ‘conformity;’ hurt which must be ‘swallowed,’ not ‘conquered’ or even ignored;’ self-improvement in the guise of forgiving perceived ‘infractions;’ the descent into self-made folly; the drizzle of ‘hope’ by admission that success is possible, except that even that triumph comes with the concomitant loss of memory of disappointments (heaven forfend!); losses that cannot be ‘undone;’ losses that remain ‘gone;’ being lost because of all the ‘losses,’ which makes us lose most of ourselves; which, in turn, serves us right, thus we now expect ‘nothing;’ deserve almost nothing; and bring in ‘strangers’ (ooh, scary) to ‘fill the void.’

 

Simply put, this writing is indefensibly bad, in thought, in theory, in philosophy, and most manifestly in execution. But, enough of this garbage now. I will return to it in a bit. While this was the final thing that made me so apathetic as to not want to even renew Poets & Writers, there were other horrors in the magazine. Let me turn to them.

 

On page 56 there is a profile of a writer named Darin Strauss. He is a novelist turned memoirist, and the title of the piece is The Ever After. The lede for the piece is this melodramatic piece of advertisement: In a new memoir, best-selling novelist Darin Strauss tackles the tragic event that he has been forced to live with- and learn from- for more than half his life. The title and lede are clearly in the same vein as the excerpt of writing I quoted. First off, to call Strauss a best-selling novelist is a bit of a stretch. Yes, a few of his books have sold so-so, but, recall how television shows become ‘smash hits’ after one episode has aired to middling ratings? In this metaphor, that’s what Strauss is. The Tom Clancys, Stephen Kings, and Dan Browns of the world need not fear. And like most writers, his first novel, Chang And Eng, sold best, and each subsequent book he’s published has drawn less readers than the last, sort of like James Frey or Dave Eggers, the very hack whose book imprint, McSweeney’s, is publishing Strauss’s memoir. In the opening paragraph we learn that the ‘tragedy’ of Strauss’s life is that he accidentally ran over and killed a friend of his when 18. Granted, a sad thing, but hardly a tragedy, since that word is so overused, and really applies only to the falls of great people. The accidental death of a face in the crowd can be genuinely sad, but tragic? No.

 

But, never let it be said that P&W does not milk anything they can. Here is a sample from the essay, by Allison Yarrow: If a writer’s ultimate victory is to illuminate emotional truths of worlds we can’t know- the dramas of being attached to a sibling by a band of flesh, of effortlessly peddling many identities, or of slowly taking someone else’s life- then Darin Strauss battles for every last word. The rest of the piece is similarly ill-written and laudatory of the man for nothing more than writing about the accident in his memoir. What goes unstated is that, in a suburban life of relative ease, the one negative thing of any depth in the man’s life is the one thing that makes him ‘marketable,’ for it certainly is not his writing. Yes, there is another lousy excerpt from Strauss’s memoir, but I’d rather go directly to the source and give you two excerpts from the writing of this ‘up and coming’ 40 year old novelist, who, ‘coincidentally,’ happens to be a creative writing professor at NYU.

 

From his first novel:

  Now and then the little innocents sprang from the dust cloud chasing our carriage to cry my name and Chang's. The path we traveled cut through a droughty careworn field, and to either side of us a fast-passing scene of blond grass and dead milkweed thirsted under the burnt sky of sunset. My ear tingled with the nearness of my brother, who picked lint off of my shoulder and knew not to bump my head as he did so. His dark eyes showed little reflections of me. I was thirty-one. My life was about to begin: I was entering North Carolina.

  My brother and I did not know that love was soon to deliver us. But twenty-one children and three decades later, how obvious it seems that everything to follow was a consequence of that evening. When you know you are dying, self-deceptions fly from your bedside like embers off a bonfire. Alone in the dark with a final chance to bind together circumstances that have made you a peasant who sells duck eggs on the Mekong one day and the South's most famous temperance advocate the next, you see a curtain open onto the landmark moments of your past.

 

While not quite as bad as the first excerpt in this essay, there are still at least a half dozen clichés in these two paragraphs that any self-respecting and competent editor would have easily amended.

 

Here is another excerpt, from The Real McCoy:

  Here was a champion before he closed his hand into a fist. The boy's gumption was like the full steam of a locomotive. Plus he was a born liar.

  In flat Indiana his father told him, "Falsity's in your blood"-with a voice deep and dark like a thief's pocket. "Go and make yourself someone finer." Before too long the boy made himself several someones finer.

  However.

  When we pick up his story, he liked to think he'd never been Virgil Selby, and he certainly wasn't yet St. Corkscrew LeFist, or the other empty title he'd come to call himself. In December 1899, on the happy morning he earned lasting fame, this top-notch fibber, "scientific" brawler, future political hopeful, sometime poet, jewel thief and movie star was just about always McCoy.

 

Both pieces have long pieces of banal and dull dialogue, but these two excerpts show just how reliant Strauss is for clichés as descriptors. Hell, in this excerpt, in one brief paragraph of three short sentences, three flat-out clichés are used: the closing of a hand into a fist, ‘full steam of a locomotive,’ and ‘born liar.’ And these are not used in conversation, so the colloquialism is not part and parcel of the realism of how dialogue goes. The fact that both Strauss and the unnamed writer are MFA hacks (for being an MFA graduate is the only definitive thing one can state about the unnamed writer) shows how sadly lacking in cogitative or creative powers the two are; after all, the use of banalities is a de facto admission of this lack. Hardly the proof that the man is battling for ‘every last word.’ Hell, he’s merely writing the first thing that comes in to his head; or, heaven help us, if these word choices are the result of deep contemplation I do not want to know what horrible triteness is his first thought. All in all, the essay is nothing but an advertising puff piece for an upcoming book’s release. There is nothing in the piece which even purports to show how or why Strauss is a writer of quality (and, let’s face it, no one could). Thus, P&W has become that dreaded thing: a magalog, a catalog disguised as having real articles but whose only purpose is to sell, not enlighten.

 

Page 63 sees the magazine profile a black poet, who was part of the horrid Cave Canem group of poets, named Major Jackson who, coincidentally, just also happens to have a poetry book forthcoming. The piece and interview is titled Exalted Utterance, and claims that Jackson has developed a ten line poetic form that ‘corrals the ecstatic.’ Now, you know the fellow is just asking to be kneecapped, especially after this q & a:

  Poets & Writers: As an editor at Harvard Review, what do you see going on in contemporary poetry?

 

Ok, not exactly the depth and challenge of the questions I pose in The Dan Schneider Interviews I conduct with some real thinkers and artists, but, maybe he has something to say.

  MJ: It all just strikes me as utterly and overly familiar- the mom poem, the father poem, poems about family that seem overly wrought. The poems that I’m attracted to, at least as an editor, are those that make me swallow my cynicism, that make me go, ‘Here is a mother poem, but it’s doing something else either with the language or the form that allows me another doorway into that topic.’ I can bring it to my chief editor, Christina Thompson, and say, ‘Okay, this person is alive.’ [Laughter.] The language isn’t dead. The perspective, the point of view is unique….

  

He then says nothing of depth about experimental and middle of the road poems, yet, revealingly, says nothing at all of technique, skill, craft, nor depth of ideas, for he, himself, is clearly incapable of such. Here is the excerpt poem P&W provides:

Aubade

 

Beyond the limits of myself, there is you, a wind-wave

of fading light on a square of cottage pane,

a final mix of golden prairie in my mind.

I am the impoverished heir of blackened gum quarters,

your crosswalk & roofline of foul pigeons. Dear Sibilant Stir & Kick:

see that tall grass on the ceiling, that burst of dusted corn,

that sky advancing its phalanx of irritable clouds?

I rest my hand on your thigh beneath its silk chemise,

so like a mid-surge surf of turquoise sky stilled.

Whichever way your shoulder moves, there’s joy.

 

From the trite title and predictable themes, this morning poem is not exactly corralling anything ecstatic. It’s not exactly Carl Sandburg, either, as it unleashes four major clichés in its first three lines, hollows out to a dull middle then returns to cliché in the final three lines. Like the two prose excerpts above, this writing is generic MFA bad. One might argue that at least this black poet is not writing bad ‘black poetry’ which would double his worthlessness, but, sometimes, one is more than enough. Here’s a thought: to all readers of this who want to discover a new poet to read, one who not only writes ten line poems, but invented his own, unique form, the ario, read the poems of Bruce Ario. At his best, Ario towers above the stuff Jackson writes, and, trust me, this poem is typical.

 

Yet, here is the man, being interviewed, and condemning poems that are, predictably, the very same things he writes. His Aubade is utterly familiar, thematically, he does nothing with it to have fun or play with the language, the ending is wholly predictable, especially with the mix of the morning with sex. Clearly, the language in Major Jackson’s poems are dead. [Giggle.] His claims are much like the big brouhaha, stirred online, this past summer, by Huffington Post blogger Anis Shivani, an MFA hack who condemned bad writing he ‘disliked,’ all the while steering clear of objective technical issues of writing, for his own poetry and prose was exactly like those he ripped. In other words, Jackson is not even unique in his views and how they ironically describe why his own writing is bad. For sake of comparison, take another look at the poem, Siamese Reflection, I linked to, above, when I mentioned Darin Strauss’s novel on Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins. Has Poets & Writers ever published a poem in the same qualitative universe as this? But, could anything more really be expected from a writer who compares hack poet Gerald Stern favorably to Rainer Maria Rilke and Hart Crane?

 

By page 72 we get to the lengthiest feature, a grading of the best MFA programs in America. Not a thing, naturally, is stated about writing as an art, just its zero sum business aspect. The sad thing, though, is that the issue deals nothing at all with the utter scam of MFA programs, wherein graduates go into debt (10-15,000 a year of them), with no real talent nor marketable skills to show for their degree. Yes, a few dozen of them, like a Darin Strauss, end up with book deals or sinecures, or in his case, both. But the vast majority (99% or more) find their degrees are about as worthless as a degree in Human Resource Management, and end up slaving at the same sort of menial jobs the relative handful of real skilled writers of talent are doing, sans the debt. This is why it’s a scam, folks!

 

By page 86 we get a listing of notable new hires at MFA programs. There are the same usual suspects that pop up, such as Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, Anne Carson, and Charles Simic (i.e.- not a single name of a writer who will be read in 2110, and these are the only semi-recognizable names to me, a well-informed reader of modern writing), and page 88 sees an article about The Dos And Don’ts Of MFA Personal Statements. Now, imagine this, a writing magazine that devotes an entire article on how to write the most banal sort of letter so one can spend years  getting in debt for a degree that will help less than 2% of the people who even eventually graduate from a program. Could not the magazine’s resources better be served by writing about writing, critically and philosophically? Apparently not, and articles like these, as well as those mentioned, are why my money will no longer go to fund such.

 

Other articles, after that one, include a myth-laden piece on the positives of independent booksellers vs. corporate behemoths like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Of course, Just as small presses are no better at producing quality writing than the big boys, neither are indy bookstores any more receptive to pushing quality writing and books. Another article is an answer column from a noted agent who, surprise, surprise, says not a whit bout writing quality nor editing, but gives the same banal advice that she does in her rejection letters. The rest of the magazine is the usual collection of ads, calls for manuscripts and the rest of the information almost all the readers of the magazine get it for, but which is now available for free, in the magazine’s online form. Aside from that, there are also a few other articles of no real intellectual merit, grouped under the title The Literary Life. They are easily and predictably summed up via their inane titles and subtitles: The Porn Star Who Came To Dinner: My Dad And The Great American Memoir; Face The Fear: A rallying Cry For Writers; First Readers: The Crucial Critics; and Why We Write: Notes From Reconstruction. Anyone compelled to seek out these articles?

 

Ok, let’s return things to the beginning, and why I was moved to let my association with Poets & Writers lapse. That initial horrid two paragraph excerpt was written by a woman named Monique Truong, a 42 year old Vietnamese Yale grad with a BA in English, and larded with workshops, fellowships, and grants from writers colonies and MFA mills littering her past. The novel it’s taken from is called Bitter In The Mouth, from Random House. Naturally, apart and aside from reproval of Poets & Writers for highlighting this pap, and proffering such a pallid excerpt, a special condemnation must be reserved for the once venerable Random House, for publishing such wholly generic tripe. As I stated:

  The only thing one can tell about the writer is that he or she is an MFA graduate, so replete it is with the tell tale markers of that. Other than that, one can not tell the sex of the writer, nor the age, race, politics, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, nor any other marker of individuality.

Not that a writer has to follow the dictates of their group, as in so much de rigueur PC writing ( such as those ethnics who ‘blend in’ (Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri) by piling on pointless descriptions of their dull characters’ existences, or interminably listing ethnic spices), but what in this writing is Truongian enough to mark it as her writing alone, and not that of tens of thousands of other MFA writers? Nothing; and this is the crux of why the writing mills have such a baleful influence- they strip one of selfness, and one of the very markers of greatness in any art is the amount of individuation that artist has from his peers. With time, all artists end up becoming their artwork: Picasso is now the paintings, not the ugly little misogynist; Shakespeare is the plays, not the stiff under Stratford. But, if so, then what does that make Truong, save a cipher? Ask yourself: could you ever mix up the writing of Oscar Wilde and Eugene O’Neill? Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes? Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse? William Kennedy and John Steinbeck? Sylvia Plath and Marianne Moore? Of course not. But, Truong’s writing could just as easily be Stephen Elliot’s, or Julianna Baggott’s, or James Frey’s, or Dave Eggers’? In fact, this is the very reason so many MFA writers who luck out and get published either bomb, and never get another nibble, or if they do score big with a first book, never come close to the same sales level again, because their writing is not good enough to merit a second read from even their fans, who move on to the next generic writer with a tale. Dave Eggers became Dave Eggers, as example, due to random luck. Truong’s excerpt could be one of 10,000 + others churned out in workshops and writing mills. If I told you the excerpt was written by Eggers, a generic white male, would that be a stretch? How about the aforementioned Darin Strauss? Or Julianna Baggott, or [insert your favorite hack MFA writer]?

And this is what starts the downward spiral of bad writing producing more of the same, for the next batch of cookie cutter MFA writers see how bad Eggers/Elliott/Strauss is and then say, ‘Hey, I could write like that,’ and truthfully they, and most people, can write that badly, precisely because it is so bad and generic, in that MFA graduate’s writing stylelessness. But no one can write like me or Wilde or Kennedy because we are individuated. And because it requires no intellect to appreciate, emotionalism reigns, which is why so many agents or editors (really their college-aged intern readers) end up deciding what adult aficionados of art are left to read, and why so many agents and editors do not look for quality writing (which they are unable to discern), but instead want to ‘fall in love’ with something they cannot intellectually defend. And this is the sort of tripe P&W quotes, as if its an example of good writing. If anyone is editing this it’s a professional disgrace, and if there are no editors it puts to lie the claims many agents and editors make about how picky and competitive the business is. Imagine if really great writing were proffered against all this dreck? But the industry does not want to nurture writers of quality, whose works might only start turning a profit after a fourth or fifth published book. Instead, like Hollywood, they have fallen into the blockbuster trap. They want big sellers right away, even though clueless to the vagaries of the market, which only makes the sane course of proffering quality (which always rewards long term, financially, and short term, artistically and reputationally) that much more economically feasible. Instead, they lose big money after many hoped for blockbusters fail, which they feel necessitates them going even harder for blockbusters to recoup the lost money on the failed blockbusters. All the while, both quality writers and readers suffer.

And this is why I will be letting my P&W subscription lapse next year (and yes, I’m so apathetic over it that I’m not even willing to outright cancel it, or even state I’m not going to renew it, for that implies volition). I’ll still use the P&W website (and others) when I occasionally send around, but they’ll be getting no more of my money for the access. Why should they? They charge $5.95 an issue; but for what, to promote scams? To be the People magazine of the MFA set? For articles like this, which start out in cowardice: ‘A few months ago, I was at lunch with a literary agent who shall remain nameless, and the conversation turned to the subject of our favorite movers and shakers in the industry….’? An interview with an agent who claimed she’d accept any writing that made her cry three times? Where is the intellect, the objectivity, the professionalism? Agents, after all, are merely salesmen- they need not like nor even understand something in order to sell it. Do you think that telephone solicitors actually like the garbage they push? And, oh yes, she’s the author of a children’s book herself. Any celebrity or wannabe writer thinks they can write children’s books. Then there’s this interview, with the literary agent who represents novelist Charles Johnson, and this cringe-worthy exchange:

So there's nothing specific that you're looking for in a piece of writing?

No. I just want to fall in love with it. Ask an eighteen-year-old kid who tells you that he wants to fall in love, "What do you want to fall in love with?" What is he going to tell you? You don't know until you've found it. But when you find it, you know. How, and why, I don't know.

Is there any wonder he ‘desperately wanted’ to represent the aforementioned Jhumpa Lahiri? That he thought she would have been ‘perfect’ for his agency? No, to hell with all that; I’m saving time, trees, and wasted words. Poets & Writers has become almost totally irrelevant to the art and promotion of good writing, and is just another tool, another resource in how to play the game, in the vast arsenal of the MFA network.

But, all is not lost. History shows that art runs in cycles, and a good cycle should be coming in the next 10 or so years. The bar to having small presses, run by people of intelligence and discernment, be able to release books of quality to the mainstream, has always been money. They do not have access, right now, to the bevy of e-readers out there. But, they will, as soon as the already falling costs reach a certain level, and then the oligopoly held by the big monied publishers, like Random House, will be broken, and smaller publishers can compete. I predict it will go somewhat like what has happened to the newspaper and magazine industries. The newbies will eat away at the dinosaurs, and do so by nurturing their own in-house writing ‘stars,’ like the once relevant New Directions did in the middle of last century. My bet is that by 2025, at the latest, technology will so change the current playing field that 4 or 5 of the top 10 publishing houses, by sales and awards statistics, will be held by innovative companies that have, as of this essay’s writing, yet to be formed, for the mythical ‘financial risks’ that the lazy publishers of today claim will simply not exist to be claimed, and nurturing a writer through a few well-written but unpopular titles will pay off when that one book (which now never sees daylight because earlier books did not turn a profit) takes off, and creates the demand for earlier works, of that author, which can then become money makers.

Of course, the lowered costs of the new technology will mean even the many bad books of the current crop of MFA ‘usual suspects’ will not lose as much money as they currently do, so it’s likely that, while more quality work sees publication, so will even more garbage, by publishers big and small. But it’s a tradeoff that, long run, will benefit society, as time and mind always prune the bad works from cultural import. The Monique Truongs and Darin Strausses and Major Jacksons of the world are chaff, slough, penumbral detritus, at best. And the reality is that all the claims in this essay are not even remotely disputable nor controversial, as you who read this decades hence can attest. In writing this essay I found that I had to take quite a few breaks from it, every thirty to forty minutes because writing about and reading such bad ‘art’ strains and drains a well functioning mind. The same applies to reading Poets & Writers. Be part of the future, readers, and do the same with your subscriptions to that magazine, and any of the many others like it. In a decade or two you’ll be thanking me.

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Comments

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Wow. Yikes. Tell us what you really think? Never visit my blog? (Just kidding - and I can take criticism.)
I find this whole essay very interesting, illuminating and topical; just today I was thinking of writing a post asking OS writers advice about MFA programs. And then you came along!
I also subscribe to P&W - mainly, if I recall, because the subscription was $10 and makes me think I'm going to actually enter a contest, although I haven't yet.
There's a lot here to take in: I agree with much of your criticism of the writers mentioned, although I liked a few of the poems by Major Jackson. I loved your parsing of the excerpt, and share a loathing for some of the writers you mentioned. I'm a much more recent subscriber, so it's good to know that P&W has become a "magalog" - do you think the listings for contest and grants are worth ten bucks a year?
It will take me some time to fully explore all of your links.
It looks like this is your first post here, so welcome to OS. I doubt you will find much writing (including mine) of the calibre you seem to seek here, but there are flashes of brilliance.
I'll be back.
Aim: The links and open calls for writing are all available for free on their website. Save some trees and if their funds dry up maybe they'll go away: a twofer.

Some fans of my website pointed this place out as a place to post. I had sent this piece to the Huffington Post, along with some others, but the Books and Arts editors refused it. It's actually intelligently written and does not have nipple shots galore.

Yet they'll post crap like the Anis Shivani crap about Overrated writers. Wait till he does his underrated writers post- it'll be qualitatively indistinguishable from the Overrated because he's an MFA hack who just likes certain writers, with no understanding of why the writing is good or bad.

Most blogs and websites post crap, which is why my website, Cosmoetica, exists.
The Huffington Post doesn't publish articles more than 1,200 words long. That's probably why they rejected your piece.
"Were these wee beings given access to nuclear or biological weapons the human race would have long exterminated itself." Thankfully there are many children's books around to placate them.
While not familiar with the magazine and the writers cited, I enjoyed your observations.

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