Today I’d like to discuss some of the snobbery that exists in the literary world. I’m happy to say that I haven’t encountered any in a while. What I’m speaking of is a sect of writers I discovered in my first MFA program–not Fairfield University. Fairfield University was nothing but supportive of all manners of writing. This first MFA program will remain nameless, mostly because they scare me, and I’m not entirely confident that they aren’t watching.
This is an MFA program that, when I registered, asked me for my gender preference pronoun–I had to ask what that was. The workshop given by the director of the program included channeling our dead relatives in an effort to encourage us to transcend earthly limitations and tap into heightened creativity. At night, the students held seances (I much preferred Fairfield U’s nightly entertainment of music and wine). And when I chose Nonfiction as a concentration, I was asked, “Nonfiction erotica?”
However, none of these were the reason I left the program.
For my first packet, I mailed in a light-hearted essay about my tragic performance in a basketball league when I was eleven. I thought it was at least mildly funny, but my mentor’s response was, “What does this really mean? I’d like to get to the heart of your anger. Perhaps your parents were getting a divorce at the time?”
My second packet included an essay about my mother’s hostility toward Christmas traditions, a version of which is in my FFLD U thesis. My mentor responded, “Why are you so damn happy all the time? I need to see your dark angry tendrils, your raw sadness. Why does your mother really hate Christmas? Did somebody die on Christmas? Did she experience childhood abuse?” (For the record, there was no naughty Santa. She just doesn’t like putting up and taking down decorations).
In the response to my final packet, my mentor finally broke down and wrote, “If you are trying to be a successful commercial writer, you have no business being in an MFA program. Perhaps you should rethink your enrollment.”
If this were true, who exactly would have business being in an MFA program? Those who aspire to be unsuccessful writers? Yes, I’d like to spend my life starving and bemoaning my torments, so please accept this $1,000 deposit so that I may be in debt to your academic institution until I die.
This mentor was part of a breed of writers who despise bestsellers, thinking of them with the same distaste that elitist indie musicians think of pop songs. These literary connoisseurs knot their lips at the idea of reading Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, or Nicholas Sparks. Those aren’t my favorite authors either, but it’s unfair to discredit their talent. They too wrestle with structural choices, plot gaps, and flat characters, and aren’t these struggles what we train ourselves for in MFA programs? Don’t we study… writing? So who is anybody to claim that just because these writers are profitable that they aren’t Masters of Fine Art? Because they appeal to a mass audience, even those who aren’t academics?
The question is the value of pure art versus entertainment. Do readers of Dan Brown pick up his novels for the thrill of language? I would guess not. Admittedly, sentence mastery is not his selling point, as evidenced by this very funny Telegraph article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6194031/The-Lost-Symbol-and-The-Da-Vinci-Code-author-Dan-Browns-20-worst-sentences.html. But, my goodness, his plots! He is a crafter of the pager-turner, an artist of anticipation, and that is enough proof of skill to validate him. If you don’t believe me, talk to the millions of people who have purchased his books in over 40 languages. On the other hand, there are literary writers, like Fairfield University mentor Kim Dana Kupperman, whose sentences are show-stoppers–the kind of language that forces you to set down the book, close your eyes, and relish its memory. Then there are the writers who manage to blend both categories, like Wally Lamb. Is he not a successful commercial writer? Oprah thinks so, and I had the privilege of listening to him speak at my MFA residency, so obviously he had business being associated with graduate studies.
Why can’t we just appreciate all writers for their styles and strengths? Aren’t Pixar animators artists even though their work is commercial? Yes, commercial fiction has different draws than literary fiction–one you go to if you want a leisurely, entertaining read while the other is better suited for an inspiring and intellectual escape. But does that make one more worthy than the other? No, they both have their place, their purpose.
I’m happy to see many of my fellow Fairfield U MFAers on the road to becoming successful and (could it be??) commercial writers. So although I wasn’t able to disagree with that wayward mentor at the time, I can now say that, yes, if you want to make a career as a writer, studying writing is an appropriate choice.
*Bloggers note: my gender preference pronoun is “she”