Faulkner Wouldn’t Stand a Chance

Over at Lit Hub, Lorraine Berry writes about “How the literary class system is impoverishing literature“:

One of the panelists, an editor, offered that the first thing he looked for when skimming through the cover letter was whether the writer possessed an MFA. He did this, he hastened to qualify, not because it guaranteed that the submitter would be a better writer, but because taking a year or two off out of one’s life to dedicate oneself to writing proved that one was serious as a writer. I came off my chair in anger—how could he assert such a thing? My friend pulled me back down, but I continued to fume. Who has more dedication: the person who has the financial wherewithal to spend time in a writing program, or the writer who writes despite having to work full-time, early in the morning, with absolutely no one but themselves for motivation?

Working class novelists: who ever heard of such a thing?!

The recently deceased Jim Harrison, a truly great writer, slipped the point into one of his novellas that the same sort of elite arts program networking that has steadily diminished the visual arts is having the same effect on fiction writing via the MFA. The taste-makers select from their narrow social world those “talents” with a similar background to their own. One can see this sort of wagon-circling in academia and likely in the political world as well. It’s not that anyone is consciously elitist- it’s just exceedingly difficult for people from outside that world to break in. In fact, one starts to notice how the professions that traditionally attract liberals are one by one becoming these cloistered and airless sinecures that are shut off to people who don’t come from a narrowly privileged background. They still define what is “serious” and “culturally significant”, at least to NPR. And yet, their importance in the eyes of the larger society is less and less evident.

(Note: When educated progressives ask themselves why so many working class Americans vote Republican “against their economic interests”, they assume it must be attributable to racism or a lack of education.)

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

55 thoughts on “Faulkner Wouldn’t Stand a Chance

  1. I find your note here hilarious:
    When educated progressives ask themselves why so many working class Americans vote Republican “against their economic interests”, they assume it must be attributable to racism or a lack of education.

    The funny part is that the oh-so-serious people can’t seem to grasp that anyone and everyone might not be a single-issue voter who attributes economic concerns above all others, in spite of all evidence to that effect.
    Which, in turn, speaks volumes as to the value of said oh-so-serious persons.

    Report

    • Oh, but the single issues voters are FUN to fleece!

      Seriously, who do you THINK came up with all the ads showing Obama’s Jackbooted Thugs coming to take your guns??

      And what sort of paranoid moron gives out their mailing address in order to get ammunition?

      Report

    • Those people also, likely, are surprised that other people “don’t think like they do”. It’s a special failing of those that live in a bubble, be that geographically, social-economic, etc.

      Report

  2. In fact, one starts to notice how the professions that traditionally attract liberals are one by one becoming these cloistered and airless sinecures that are shut off to people who don’t come from a narrowly privileged background.

    Hmmm. How does Chuck Palahniuk fit into this description? His social background was vernacular and scruffy, he got a J-school degree at age 24, quit journalism after two years and worked as a mechanic for eight years, and then took up f/t writing when some of his works proved to be bestsellers.

    Report

    • I know little about him aside from reading Choke while living in Williamsburg, Virginia, because it takes place in a fake colonial village. I would say it’s very impressive that he got published without an agent, which is exceedingly rare now. It used to be common. Now, agents are another layer of gate keeping. I’m also amused to hear that he wrote Fight Club with the intention of horrifying publishers.

      Report

  3. One big and unforeseen problem with an expanded education system is that it leads to situations that enforce a hierarchical class system. Journalism used to be something that people used to do after high school. You would start on some local beat and move on up. You only needed to demonstrate class, education, and polish if you wanted to do high journalism. Now nearly everybody who wants to go into journalism needs to go to school. The same meritocracy is effecting other careers like writing as Rufus mentioned above. Meritocracy is expensive though and the biggest beneficiaries are the people whose parents can afford the fancy expensive educations and subsidize non-paying or low paying internships. There was always extra benefits for the wealthy in the past but there were also alternative paths to success.

    The thing is that there is a catch. The past system where you can get a job because the boss liked your moxy was based on a lot of what we would call white privilege. It really was only true for white people and most likely only white men at that. Women, anybody of non-sufficient whiteness, the entire LGBT population, and even many white men were effectively excluded from either formal or informal paths of advancement. A white person who could write well might get a job at newspaper or doing something else by sheer moxy but an African-American could not. Making everything about having the right credentials and connections has some very big disadvantages but it might be the only way to have an elite that is really diverse rather than limited to one race.

    In other words we can have a credentialized but open system or we can have moxy based but closed system but we can’t have a moxy based open system.

    Report

      • It could be worse without the credentialism. Art Deco provided some counter-examples bellow but these were really the exceptions that prove the rule. Three famous women and two famous African-American men compared to how many white men were making it. Credentialism makes it easier for non-white men to overcome previous barriers because it gets harder to justify saying that this African-American woman from Yale is less qualified than this white high school boy with moxy.

        Report

    • In other words we can have a credentialized but open system or we can have moxy based but closed system but we can’t have a moxy based open system.

      Actually, in public employment and in recruitment to large enterprises, you can have an exam based system. Provided, of course, that you don’t have lawyers second guessing the examiners.

      Report

      • Exams are better than the “good ol’ boy” network, but we should be at least AWARE of what sorts of cultural proficiencies they are testing.

        (Inner city test for cops maybe ought to look a little different than rural test for cops, yes?)

        Report

  4. The thing is that there is a catch. The past system where you can get a job because the boss liked your moxy was based on a lot of what we would call white privilege. It really was only true for white people and most likely only white men at that. Women, anybody of non-sufficient whiteness, the entire LGBT population, and even many white men were effectively excluded from either formal or informal paths of advancement.

    1. Whites in 1948 constituted 87% of the population.

    2. Erma Bombeck got her first newspaper job as a high school student ca. 1945. Nina Totenberg had some college but has never earned a BA degree. IIRC, Linda Ellerbee also has no degree. Both women broke into journalism ca. 1965.

    3. George Schuyler broke into journalism in the 1920s without a degree. Alex Haley did so in the 1950s.

    Report

  5. Lee, you do realize that it other than a few eccentrics like Gore Vidal or Quentin Crisp, homosexual men did not in 1955 make a point of telling people about their extracurriculars when talking outside of certain social circles? Explicit discussion of that wasn’t done when I was a young office worker thirty-odd years later, and I was working in a sophisticated Rustbelt city in a government job. To say that ‘LGBT were excluded’ is weirdly anachronistic. (And, by the way, Joseph Alsop had a sterling career).

    Report

  6. Is the MFA v. Non-MFA thing that new? N+1 had a whole to MFA or not MFA symposium a few years ago.

    Lee brings up some good points. Meritocracy has its problems but the old white boy network is what ruled the day when people became journalists after high school. The MFA does probably promote a significantly similar literary type of style that appeals to a specific market. The SF community has been raging against literary fiction for years on this lines.

    That being said, I need concrete evidence on the types of people who are in MFA programs. I have seen people damn our current system because it requires people to take on a lot of debt for all degrees. The charge that you highlighted makes the opposite claim by stating on the middle class and above go into MFA programs. Which is it? Are universities and MFAs now just for the rich or are too many people taking on debt to attend?

    In general, there are a lot of scams in the artworld beyond the MFA. I have seen plenty of people pay good money to attend weekend writer workshops or week-long writer workshops which are kind of like short versions of MFA programs but you get your writing critiqued by authors you admire.

    A six-week workshop at Clarion (which specializes in speculative fiction) costs 3800 dollars plus application fee. The 3800 only gives partial board. You are on your own for lunch and dinner on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Plus there is the cost of taking that much time off from work and travel to and from the workshop location.

    Is Clarion more or less scandalous than MFA programs?

    http://alexbledsoe.com/2016/01/15/thoughts-on-clarion-privilege-and-gaiman/

    Clarion is not the only version of this. There are lots of writer’s workshops for all genres and equal or greater levels of expense. There are Master Classes for would-be actors or even just brush up classes to keep your technique alive between shows or auditions.

    Report

    • For people who are supposed tone stereotypically bad at business, artists certainly seem to run some grant scams. The entire ball room competition The entire ballroom and Latin competition seen is something of a scam to. The entire thing is heavily weighed towards Pro-Am competitions, meaning you have to pay your professional for their time. The gowns and costumes that are required could cost in the thousands of dollars. Swing competitions are a bit more honest.

      Report

  7. Spot on Rufus. I was talking to my wife about this the other day, when Harrisons death came up (we are both fans) When one looks at much of the English/American literature of the 20th cen. one sees a lot of writers who were active outside the writing craft, and war was one of the big activities. The number of British writes who found themselves in the war effort is staggering. From Waugh (royal commando) to Van Der Post (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence), Gavin Maxwell taught commandos frogman skills, Patrick Leigh Fermor captured a German General in Greece, Greene was a spy, they all had to face the reality of life at its most horrifying, war. This infected the literature in ways that we (hopefully) will never see again, but at the same time shows us the drivel the latest Booker or National winner is putting out and calling literature, which is for the most part totally forgetable crap only concerned with things writers find interesting.

    To be sure, not every good writer was in the war, but that type of outside the writing-field work was the influence of serveral generations of writers. The current generation seems to only have the MFA programs to use as the basis of what the world is. Journalism is good, if they actually do journalism, learn the trade, go out and actually talk to people and get a feel for what they are actually thinking and doing. How they talk, what they actually drink. What caluses are, how they are formed.

    When educated progressives ask themselves why so many working class Americans vote Republican “against their economic interests”, they assume it must be attributable to racism or a lack of education. Nails the thesis to the gate.

    Report

    • The various writers who went to war did do some great stuff. But Faulkner or Twain or a hundred others didn’t. So i agree that maybe writers should live a full life and write about instead of just writing. But the war writers had their limits.

      The “educated progressives think…” thing has some truth but is becoming it’s own simple stereotype or trope. Because all libs think the same and have never know R’s or rural folk or etc.

      Report

      • Twain very briefly fought in the Civil War. And had a lot of interesting adventures out West, as chronicled in Roughing It. Faulkner joined the RAF in Canada, though WWI ended before he completed his training. Still, he wrote several stories and one novel about flying.

        Report


      • Was mostly using the war as an example, as Twain worked on the Mississippi, etc. Very few writers were able to straight write such as Faulkner did, although he did volenteer for the British army in WWI (too short for the US.) But mostly I feet that the culture of writing was such, through most of the 20th, that it could absorb the few such as Faulkner.

        The educated progessive bits was Rufas’ line, as I would leave out progressives, and simply use some varient of educated. I know enough members of most political groups to realize that this is more of a class issue here in the US, R’s and D’s both do it, and it shows.
        /Shrug

        Report

        • I do agree about writers should do things and live interesting adventures to write about them. Twain lived plenty. It takes extra galactic talent to be Faulkner or Conrad who probably could have been great in any age although they may not have been in fashion. Most people are super gifted so they better have something really good to write about.

          Report

          • I wonder if anyone in this thread realizes that they are doing exactly what the editor looking for MFAs in submissions was doing: Judging writers not on what they write, but on what their lifestyles and backgrounds are.

            There are a lot of academics, ex-soldiers, adventurers, teachers, mechanics, and cooks, and stay-at-home moms who have written amazing things. There are also a lot of academics, ex-soldiers, adventurers, teachers, mechanics, and cooks, and stay-at-home moms who have written crap.

            Great writing should stand on its own, not what you think of the life choices of its writer.

            Report

            • My problem isn’t with someone on the MFA/internship path producing crap. It’s with the notion that a postal clerk or cab driver might have written something amazing and I’ll never get to hear about it because they couldn’t get anyone to look past the query letter.

              Report

              • My nephew is finishing up a Masters in some cinema field (sorry, Jon, I’ve forgotten the details) at U of Chicago this spring. One of his internships was at a production company in Omaha which is apparently one of the few that considers screenplays from people who lack an agent. He spent the summer reading. When I asked if he found things that weren’t dreck, he said that there were two that the company would probably make offers on.

                Makes me suspect that the odds favor my own small efforts at fiction fall into the dreck class…

                Report

              • Oh, I understood that, and I agree.

                I just thought there was some irony that in the threads below making that point, there was a conversation about what kind of life someone had to have led in order to be able to write well.

                Report

              • Well, yeah. One does not have to go to war or have a life filled with adventures to understand the human condition.

                As I said, there are a lot of academics, ex-soldiers, adventurers, teachers, mechanics, and cooks, and stay-at-home moms who have written amazing things. There are also a lot of academics, ex-soldiers, adventurers, teachers, mechanics, and cooks, and stay-at-home moms who have written crap.

                Report

    • Harrison always struck me as a really good writer. His novellas and shorter works are outstanding; his longer stuff is pretty good too. My wife, on the other hand, thinks he writes women terribly (Dalva…) and is overtly misogynistic. Thankfully, my white male privilege insulates me from such onerous and distracting judgments. :)

      Report

      • You know, that is a really good observation, and one that I am not sure I would have picked up on, being WMPed myself. My wife has always liked him, but that may be more for his naturalism than his presentation of women. Dunno. But yeah, the novellas and early novels are his best, such as Revenge and Wolf. I don’t know if I have read any of his shorts. None come to mind.

        Report

        • Maybe it’s just my wife’s influence on me…., but I’ve always viewed Harrison’s presentation of women as a particular man’s idea of how women think, or (even worse) a particular man’s idea of how idealized women think. Dalva, for example, is an interesting character, no doubt, but her internal life is never addressed outside of motivations that a man (a male!) would find interesting.

          Personally, I don’t fault the novel or Harrison for that. He presented his views and wrote about them quite well, warts and all. What more do we want from our artists? Iowa School MFA training????

          Report

          • I can kinda see that. I felt like I knew the main character in The Farmer’s Daughter. She was certainly an interesting character. Idealized? Maybe. I’d have to reread it. I will say that I would gladly cut off my pinky finger if it meant I could write a story like The River Swimmer.

            Report

  8. One of the panelists, an editor, offered that the first thing he looked for when skimming through the cover letter was whether the writer possessed an MFA.

    I was so hoping that this would be followed by “If he does, I immediately throw his submission in the fire.”

    Report

  9. Spot on Rufus. Especially this:

    one starts to notice how the professions that traditionally attract liberals are one by one becoming these cloistered and airless sinecures that are shut off to people who don’t come from a narrowly privileged background.

    The irony, of course, is that all the MFA-types are studying Faulkner to figure out how they can mimic produce “good writing”.

    Report

    • Urm not really to sure about that. The broad category of social services/mental health has plenty of liberal types and definitely does not take a privileged background to get in. A basic BA can get you a job and we all know how everybody can go to college now. I’ve known lots of people who grew up poor who built themselves a career in some part of social service system at homeless shelters or case managers or various other jobs.

      Report

      • C’mon, greg. A description that includes “cloistered and airless sinecures” sounds so right it just has to be true.

        More seriously, you’re probably right on the margins (or in the main) with the reversie being true of what I’m suggesting up there. I DO think liberals tend to operate in something like an intellectual vacuum frequently enough. Which isn’t to say that the other side doesn’t operate in a vacuum as well. But rather that the difference resides in the meaning of “intellectual”.

        Report

      • Social work and volunteering were the main exceptions I could think of to the thesis, which was really more of an observation I’ve been making from the margins of academia lately. I’ve a friend who’s a superb painter who made roughly the same observation about the sort of people who succeed in the fine arts as I saw in the humanities grad school scrum and that got me thinking about it. To be fair, it’s also a point that Chris Hedges makes in Death of the Liberal Class. Hedges also forgot about social services, but I agree that that’s still an option for a working liberal!

        Report

  10. I’m with you on this one Rufus. Getting a writing job is ridiculously competitive, so people will look for a way to cut down the field. But that’s always going to let affinity bias do its work.

    There is an alternate path, though. There are tons of authors out there publishing e-books and getting paid for it.

    Report

  11. Can I just go right ahead and say that one editor doesn’t make a publishing world?
    I know someone who is theoretically still screening books for Amazon to publish.
    He reads the slush pile — not the cover letters. And there’s a lot of slush pile.

    Report

Comments are closed.