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Nick Mamatas

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MFA: Not Quite Right [Dec. 2nd, 2010|10:49 am]
Nick Mamatas
Am I really trolling HuffPuff again for a session of counterpunching? I am. Ming Holden ruminates on teaching writing workshops that The goals of the creative writing classroom as (a) a space wherein political, incendiary, sexual, and/or disturbing pieces of work are welcomed and workshopped as pieces of literature (as those characteristics are often traits of great literature); and (b) a space wherein students of a more conservative nature and background feel safe sharing, writing, reading, and critiquing, might be incompatible goals right now in America.

Holden, like many people who don't pay very much attention to the world around them, locates the difficulty with reconciling a) and b) in the left-right "culture war." There is certainly a left-right culture war, though both sides are on the right. In my experience in the classroom however, the gap between a) and b) boils down to the simple ability to read on a sophisticated level, which conservatives and liberals tend to share in equal amounts.

That is, my workshops I've been in and in workshops I've taught, the "conservative" objections against "incendiary, sexual, and/or disturbing pieces of work" come not most often from political conservatives, but from people who just can't read well enough to tell the difference between portrayal and advocacy, and in the case actual (or close seeming) espousing-of-the-disturbing lack the sophistication to approach a text as text. Basically, the struggle in the classroom is the cosmopolitans versus the conventionals. There are right-wing cosmopolitans—Celine and Gene Wolfe aren't exceptions to some broad and otherwise universal rule, and there are many left-wing conventionals. Plenty of people who identify themselves as some species of "left" involve themselves in linguistic activism—my own first workshop experience in my MFA program involved a good Hillary Clinton-supporting liberal denouncing a story I workshopped and soon after published, even going so far as to suggest that no woman should read the story. (The several women in the class didn't object to this man declaring my story off-limits to them, interestingly enough.)

Many on the left worry about being "offensive" and indeed worry even more when other people are being "offensive." Many on the right—conservatism being a sort of machismo these days—are pleased to offend, of course. This doesn't make them any good as readers or writers. I'm always amused when I run into a young conservative fellow who signed up for a class or writing program after reading a left-wing and homoerotic book like Fight Club. It touched them somehow, but not in any way they could understand, so they just take the stuff Groundlings always take away from some piece of art: spectacle and antinomianism. Antinomianism is part of why so many middle-class white dudes see themselves as victims; they can't be tough rebels if they acknowledged that they're actually already Empire.

There are plenty of instances when aesthetic and political conservatism dovetail. One friend of mine told me about a workshop she was in that was plagued by "A man named..." stories. Do you know it? It's about a woman with many troubles: a man who has done her wrong, poverty, perhaps disease, oppression, and personal problems as well with drink or anger. And then she meets a man who loves her for what she is, and that man helps her make it all better. And that man was a man named...Jesus. I guess that throughout the semester several people handed in more or less the same story, with the major innovations being just how awful the woman's predicament (AIDS being an aesthetic WMD) was at first before Jesus saved her. Then, in the horror field we have the "child molestor" story—a young girl with curly and brilliant blonde hair is accosted by a smelly gross stranger with molestation on the mind, and then she uses some supernatural means to consume him utterly. The moral here for readers in need of such instruction is: don't rape children. I hope you've all been persuaded.

But the left's brand of conventionalism is hardly any different. Whenever the big book of the day—Left Behind, Twilight, etc.—has a right-wing theme plenty of leftists go into a tizzy over it, sure that it is brainwashing the people reading it into conservatism. They're immune to such things, of course, of course, and can read anything without fear of influence as all their ideas are already fixed. (Would Jon Stewart lie to you?) This same ethos shows up in conventional left-wing writing—one can't discuss the Bad Things because someone out there might be persuaded by it. When I edited West Bloc Dissident, a memoir, its author was pleased that I didn't try to make him excise the discussion of his hiring of prostitutes as other left-wing presses that had considered the book wanted him to do. It was a perfectly interesting part of the story and the author's personality, but was just somehow considered bad to have in the text.

Right-wing conventionals see moral instruction as paramount in a story, and left-wing conventionals see immoral instruction as paramount to avoid in a story. Both positions can only come from the heads of poor readers. It is useful to point out "preachiness" on the one hand and potential offense on the other, especially when the author may not even realize that they are either preaching or offending, but conventionalists rarely stop at the text. Every story in a workshop is some sort of ethical litmus test, and even when there is no outrageous content there is often outrageous aesthetics. Is first-person fascist because it TELLS the reader WHAT TO THINK?? Certainly not, but I've heard this declared from liberal nitwits. Is anything other than third-person objective point of view in past tense told with "plain language" somehow sign of a homosexual/Communist plot? Anyone who has ever read one of the rambling semiliterate editorials in Tangent knows the answer to that! And let's not forget the tyranny of "story" which conventionals always chirp abut. The morons even go on about Shakespeare as some sort of populist cartwheeler, as if people still look at Romeo and Juliet for the plot, which is "spoiled" by the author himself anyway in the Prologue. ("From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.")

Amazingly, this crisis in the workshop continues despite it being a very simple one to solve. Exclude dummies who can't friggin' read from the classes. If I wanted to take a music performance class in school, I'd have to audition. If I wanted to take advanced studio art classes, I'd need a portfolio. But really, any moron can wander in to most creative writing classes, and a fair number of MFA programs, thanks to both demand and competition, have thrown open their doors to anyone with the ability to write...a check. One might ask how it is possible to tell the cosmopolitan from the conventional, and the answer is that like knows like: if one's MFA program is full of nitwit conventionals, look to the instructors and you'll find King High Nitwits, generally of the P.Q. Obamavote hand-wringing variety. So first kill all the workshop instructors...
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: desperance
2010-12-02 06:54 pm (UTC)
There is certainly a left-right culture war, though both sides are on the right.

Heh. I once heard Gore Vidal say (on British radio, for context): "Of course, America's been a one-party state for years. It's just that with typical American extravagance, we have two of them."

It's that "of course" that makes it. Oh, and the Gore drawl, which I'm sorry I can't reproduce, but you know it: equal part arrogance and privilege and insight.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2010-12-02 07:22 pm (UTC)
I'm glad I'm not a workshop instructor.

*Contemplates invitation to Clarion West.*

No, wait ...
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[User Picture]From: intertribal
2010-12-02 07:23 pm (UTC)
"they can't be tough rebels if they acknowledged that they're actually already Empire."

I love this sentence.
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[User Picture]From: whiskeychick
2010-12-02 10:20 pm (UTC)
Agreed.
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[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2010-12-03 01:47 am (UTC)
...I got through the free chapters, which I read online and thus had no book to throw across the room. Does that count?
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[User Picture]From: radiumhead
2010-12-02 08:55 pm (UTC)

just curious

are you saying that just because cp is gay that fight club is gay?

im not arguing either way. i dont care.

but i can imagine that there are people who still dont know, who would freak out.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 09:02 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

Partially, and I did get to see one person totally freak out when he found out!
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[User Picture]From: kehrli
2010-12-02 09:07 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

There are people who read Fight Club and don't notice anything homoerotic about it?
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 09:13 pm (UTC)
Oh God yes.
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[User Picture]From: kehrli
2010-12-02 09:18 pm (UTC)
Awesome. I wish to someday witness one of those freak-outs.
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[User Picture]From: radiumhead
2010-12-02 09:17 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

i knew the writer was gay.

i dont find guys beating the shit out of each other erotic. but im not gay.

there was emotional stuff that seemed kinda gay, like sometimes the way the guys talk to each other, they seem like a couple.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2010-12-02 09:58 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 09:59 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

Couldn't you find one with the guy wearing CondomDepot.com shorts?

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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2010-12-02 10:05 pm (UTC)

Re: just curious

I forgot to include the subject line:

REAR. NAKED. CHOKE. Nope, nothing gay about that.
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[User Picture]From: kadath
2010-12-02 09:13 pm (UTC)
That goddamn Chorus is always spoilering everything!
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[User Picture]From: rfrancis
2010-12-02 09:44 pm (UTC)
Is first-person fascist because it TELLS the reader WHAT TO THINK?? Certainly not, but I've heard this declared from liberal nitwits.

Shouldn't that accusation be aimed at... second-person, I guess?

Baffling.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 09:45 pm (UTC)
Second-person is too rare to be a FASCIST threat.
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[User Picture]From: pomo_drunkard
2010-12-02 10:51 pm (UTC)
You'd think they'd want to condemn it ahead of time, just in case.
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[User Picture]From: autopope
2010-12-03 09:56 am (UTC)
I'm working on it! I'm working on it!
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[User Picture]From: whiskeychick
2010-12-02 10:35 pm (UTC)
I always hate to get in the ring here...

But, I do understand underneath that which Holden is talking about is the caving to the pressures of education as a business. If those with the ability to write...a check, as you say, protest too much -- the backless adminisration of the halls of academia are more apt to crucify the educators, not tell those who object to, "Deal," or at minimium, "Go out of your comfort zone and fucking learn something."

I have seen many times where its obvious that the writers in class have self-edited themselves to not offend particular classmates' sensibilities (the lame readers you may say). My suspicions confirmed during questioning in small-group work. As I moved into the higher-level classes, those writers are no longer participating...fortunately. There is no room for those types of half-hearted writers.

If anythihng, I think Holden brings up a good point -- we can't let those pressures -- financial, political, cultural (a self-censoring, really) -- from telling the story we should be telling.

:: waits for the return punch ::

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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 11:02 pm (UTC)
Classroom generalship can defang along of the complaints of the conventionalists. It means actually engaging more than lots of people want to do, but it works. Sometimes it's as simple as announcing, "There will be porn" which I've done, or turning an objection into a Socratic dialogue.

Also important, doing away with the destructive myth that the artist has some responsibility to society. That gets conventionals all hot and wet. An educator does have the power to actually educate, don't they? And the educated are much less likely to go running to Authority to crush the Bad Thinking, no?
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[User Picture]From: whiskeychick
2010-12-02 11:04 pm (UTC)
Right, like Neil's Blog about not being some hose-head's bitch. My tubes are stalling or I'd link it, but I'm sure you know it.

I like the idea of "there will be porn" announcement or whatever...

In my January writing class when we do the prefunctory introductions, I'll be sure to say, "my writing will probably piss all of you off, and if I do, thank you."
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-02 11:21 pm (UTC)

In my January writing class when we do the prefunctory introductions, I'll be sure to say, "my writing will probably piss all of you off, and if I do, thank you."


I'd advise against that. Plenty of right-wing conventionals promise the same. They ain't politically correct heheh, you know.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-12-03 03:13 am (UTC)
Evening Nick,

I failed seven student today. Four of them were actually in class when I broke the news.

Day one, I said they had to: A) attend class punctually and participate and B) turn work in on deadline and C) write in standard written English.

It's been a rough term.

I like language. I enjoy helping others communicate. I had five awesome students, and I think two will publish very soon (as a direct result of this class), but I'm frustrated otherwise.

There are many, many, many, many, many idiots...

Dan
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2010-12-03 03:30 am (UTC)
Two published authors a semester is a great record! Writing ain't for everyone, after all.
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[User Picture]From: lightning58
2010-12-03 12:33 pm (UTC)

Idiots

God loves'em; as he does make so many of'em.
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