Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."
“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

p-1: The Evil Hill on Mariposa

n+1 vs The BelieverIf print does disappear, I will be only partially responsible. I’m doing my part to keep a few print publications healthy. But I can’t subscribe to everything. The question is always the same: what to read and how. A loyal subscriber to The Believer, alas, my subscription has lapsed, and just prior to the 2013 music issue, which turned out to be jazz inspired. Bummer.

I’ve been comparing the cover changes over time of the New Yorker with the cover changes of the Rolling Stone. “Time is real,” Cornel West reminds us. But a few weeks ago, finding myself reading, with interest, no less, in the New Yorker, a “Tables for Two” eatery review of a restaurant I’ll never eat at, I decided I’d better augment the New Yorker and replace The Believer with something new. Meantime, I had discovered Kirill Medvedev, and noticed that n+1, which I follow, sporadically, on-line, was giving away the Medvedev “It’s No Good” book with a new subscription, so I went for it. And last week, the Fall 2013 n+1 print issue arrived, red dressed, calling itself the Evil Issue. Evil? Really? I felt the proverbial wince of buyer’s remorse.

I sat down and opened my n+1. I glanced guardedly through the table of contents, not one for haunted houses, horror films, that sort of thing. Something here by Marco Roth on politics, on drones – ok, that’s evil. A drama piece titled “sixsixsix.” Why do folks think Satan evil? Consider Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Uberty [a lot] when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Still perusing the evil issue’s table of contents and glancing through the articles to see what I might want to start with, I came to something from the Stanford Literary Lab, titled “Style at the Scale of the Sentence.” I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve decided it’s at the heart of the evil issue for a reason. Then I saw this, which took me by surprise: Alice Gregory’s article titled “Mavericks: Life and death surfing,” and soon found myself into the evil issue in earnest.

If the entire evil issue was instead titled “Mavericks” and filled with Alice’s writing about surfing I would be a happy reader. The only problem with the article is it’s only ten pages, which means back to the Literary Lab’s “Sentence” article too soon. Maybe I should have renewed The Believer, after all, seen if they’d send me the music issue I missed. On jazz! Jazz in the evening can turn an evil day good. Wondering about the etymology of the word evil, I found this in Wiktionary: “from Proto-Indo-European *upo, *up, *eup (“down, up, over”).” Ah ha! That’s a definition of surfing. One of the best pieces of journalistic writing on surfing I’ve ever read came in the New Yorker, back in 1992, written by William Finnegan, himself a surfer. “Surfing is not a spectator sport,” he says in the second of the two-week, long article. In the first week, Finnegan had said, describing the surf at Ocean Beach, off San Francisco, “The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore.” Conditions in the water, often fast changing, are difficult to read from the shore. Waves always seem bigger to the surfer in them than to the spectator watching from the beach or from a cliff high above the water. I read the long Finnegan piece twice before mailing my two copies with the articles to an old surfing buddy, not much of a reader, who later called me, totally stoked.

Preparatory to surfing, back in the day, hey-hey, kids growing up in South Santa Monica Bay rode skateboards: literally, the wheels removed from old roller skates and nailed to the bottom of a two by four, crude vehicles compared to today’s boards. I lived on Mariposa, at the bottom of a long, steep hill, followed by a short straightaway, then an easy hill ending at my house on the corner. The houses on Mariposa backed up to railroad tracks (since removed). Between the railroad tracks and the back fences was a path the local kids called “Devil’s Path” or “Devil’s Pass,” a shortcut toward downtown. We regularly rode skateboards up and down the mild Mariposa hill, but to ride a board from the top of Mariposa was considered a daredevil feat.

One day, my friend Pete Ponopsko, a few years older than me, took a skateboard to the top of upper Mariposa. He was going to ride down the big hill and would pick up enough momentum to carry him through the straightaway and down the lower hill all the way to the bottom. A small crowd of skateboard aficionados positioned themselves mid straightaway, where we could watch Pete whiz by on his way to the lower hill.

One of the problems with early skateboard technology was shakiness. At fast speeds, the boards wobbled side to side. Another problem had to do with the metal, roller skate wheels. A pebble might catch under a wheel and brake it, stopping the board and throwing the rider forward. We never knew for sure what went wrong with Pete’s ride down the upper hill. Some said the board shimmied so severely he simply could not keep his balance. Others said he hit a rock and pearled. Still others said Pete chickened out and tried to jump off. Whatever the cause, the effects included a startling array of raspberry red scrapes and bruises along one side of Pete’s body, from his ankle to his ear. It was said Pete slid on the sidewalk a distance equal to the length of a 1956 Ford station wagon. It was an evil wipe out, and it was a long time before anyone tried to ride upper Mariposa again, but by then skateboards were wider and thinner and longer and fitted with smooth rubber wheels and stable wheel bearings, and Pete was already an old-timer.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.
Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Follow Up: n+1 has put the Alice Gregory Mavericks piece on-line, 9 Oct 13.

Evergreen Review, Volume 1, Number 3, 1957

At a campus library book sale this week I bought for $1.00 a copy of Volume 1, Number 3, of the Evergreen Review. The price new was $1.00 in 1957. It’s a 5 and ¼ by 8 inch paperback, 160 pages. It’s in good condition. There are four black and white photographs, in the middle of the issue, of Jackson Pollock and his studio. Pollock had died in a car wreck the previous year, 1956, on August 11. The opening essay is by Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” an argument against capital punishment (ironic, considering recent events in our own time). Camus says, “As a writer I have always abhorred a certain eagerness to please, and as a man I believe that the repulsive aspects of our condition, if they are inevitable, must be confronted in silence. But since silence, or the casuistry of speech, is now contributing to the support of an abuse that must be reformed, or of a misery that can be relieved, there is no other solution than to speak out, to expose the obscenity hiding beneath our cloak of words” (7). Camus would die, like Pollock also in a car wreck, three years later.

The issue contains poems by William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso, including Corso’s delightful “This Was My Meal,” and also a prose piece by Beckett, whom Evergreen Review and Grove Press editor Barney Rosset introduced to the US.

I stood at the table of jumbled books at the book sale looking through the issue, wondering what it might have been like to read it new, in 1957 (we didn’t have books in my house yet, and certainly no subscriptions to anything, save the daily newspaper occasionally, and anyway, I was just a kid in 1957, though I might have been on the road, with my parents and sisters, driving to the west coast, around the same time as Kerouac, Corso, and some of the others).

And I wonder what today approximates the Evergreen Review of 1957. In what publication will we find today’s young Robbe-Grillet, or Frank O’Hara? n+1? The Believer? McSweeny’s? Yet Beckett was born in 1906, Ionesco in 1909. Camus died at 46, O’Hara at 40, Pollock at 44. There’s a letter in the Evergreen Review issue from a young Gary Snyder, who was “…do[ing] Zen” in Kyoto. The letter begins with a quote from Snyder’s friend Will Petersen: “You know, we got nothing to worry about.”

How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities

LiberationsAt the bottom of her n+1 review of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, Amanda Claybaugh laments that Lamont “fails” to answer the promise of her book’s title. Claybaugh appears to buy into the title’s assumption, that professors think differently than others. But why would professors think any differently than anyone else? Indeed, from the professor quotes offered in the review, they appear to think exactly like everyone else: “so sick [of hearing]”; “it’s hard to articulate”; “nothing is perfect”; “just still didn’t get it”; and the ubiquitous “[don’t] be an asshole.” 

Claybaugh reads in the field of English; Lamont, sociology. It’s assumed one’s discipline amounts to a special pair of spectacles, and only through the lenses of the discipline can one fully appreciate, or aspire to, or do at all. Specialty is the extreme license: “…disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method….” And to the extent that “English is seen as having no method of its own,” it also has no discipline, and its “…proposals …are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines.” Blame it on the essay, on Montaigne, all that wandering, those long trials. One English professor advances that close reading is a method, but in an apparent lack of self-confidence worries “…whether historians might not ‘know how to do this better’ after all.” Too bad; she might have mentioned Louis Menand and his American Studies or his The Metaphysical Club, or Caleb Crain’s American Sympathy, examples of English folks wandering afield successfully.

Consider the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, on the run and under the influence of the former English professor Faber, joins the radicals living outside the city, memorizing books. They become the book they digest, the ultimate specialist. That’s a cool ending, but for a professor, why wouldn’t, as Buckminster Fuller gives us, specialization lead to extinction?

In his preface to Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, Ihab Hassan asserts the professors have climbed out of their boxes: “The discomforts of the academy are already too much in the public eye. Yet how many see, I wonder, that we now strike past the college administration and campus guard, past the curriculum, past scholarship itself, at an older idea of man? The famous drawing of Leonardo, arms spread and legs apart, giving the human measure to circle, square, and universe, no longer takes our breath away. A post-humanism is in the making. What will be its shape?” Alas, that was 1971; the revolution is now in crisis.

“For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaatoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz, where would their practice be or where the human race itself were the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all the fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 116).

Where, indeed.