From The Nation I truly enjoyed this great, "everything" essay by Miriam Markowitz that covers a lot of ground in an entertaining way. It deals with the publishing trade, VIDA's campaign against women's continuing subordination in the literary world, MFA programs, their pros and cons, somatic dysmorphia, Jonathan Franzen temper tantrums, moldy old mossbacks in English departments who won't teach writing by women and so many many more topics. She ties all this material together quite neatly. A few quotes:
On Twitter, Miley’s missteps and Syria’s death toll seemed to occupy nearly the same space.
It's all entertainment.
It is not uncommon for writers without a graduate degree in writing to blame MFA programs for the conventional dullness of much of today’s literary landscape, but given the number of our best and most original working writers who have emerged from or now teach in these programs, this criticism seems misguided. What is certainly true is that these programs have promoted the proliferation of the A-student writer: someone who has learned early to write fiction that sounds professional—to write stories that look a lot like good stories. Some writers, like Lorrie Moore, left school with inchoate original voices and manuscripts that would become stunning debuts. Far more writers end up with a novel or six-pack of short stories that are decent but unremarkable; they are essentially exercises in good writing or, if we are less gentle, facsimiles of it. The more that agents and editors and publicists applaud their work, the less these writers might develop, organically, as writers, but they do learn a lot about professional success.
I've seen a lot of work by MFA grads and teachers that "dresses up" conventional plotting with "ethnic" features. This could be related to the "low life" short fiction that the New Yorker publishes so much of. Some of this work I actually enjoy while not finding it ground breaking in any way. The difference between work of this kind, which could almost be called a genre, like "MFA exotic," and, say, Doris Lessing's Summer Before the Dark, which explores the existence of an ordinary but intelligent upper middle class woman rebelling against her fate, is quite striking. When I read Lessing I feel that I'm in dialogue with a person that I have a lot of disagreements with, and I argue things in my head with her. But her way of thinking is familiar to me. These other novels seem to be presenting a version of reality that I am supposed to be instructed on. They tell me about conditions: poverty, disfunctional families, what the youth is up to, political turmoil, war, bodily deterioration, immigrant anomie, exotic travel, drugs and so on. Often very entertainingly, don't get me wrong.
But where does an old upper middle class female reader with a thoughtful cast of mind get her reads? (In America, you are not even supposed to mention social class. For are we not all the same but just a wee bit better than average though becomingly modest about our accomplishments?) Am I supposed to regard my life and the lives of women like me as trivia? I guess I do like novels that explore character. There must be others out there who feel the same.
As she says:
In the end, good writing can be professional, but great writing is, almost by definition, amateur. It does not necessarily know itself or its audience.
So Virginia Woolf, composing in the solitude of her own room, would not know me, her reader, or how I would receive her work. That would be the last thing on her mind.
God I miss John Leonard. Another exact contemporary, by the way.