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July 30, 2006

Fad Writing and Morality

Regarding "Strunk and Light" fussiness, I do feel, strongly, that bad language affects all readers at a deep but subtle level. For early readers (and by "early, I mean both young readers and adults who haven't read very much and are therefore as susceptible as young readers to the power of written language), poor or lazy usages become elevated in their minds as "proper" or even "literary" usage, and teaches and/or confirms them in bad habits at a time when they should be learning good ones. (I think now more than ever, it's not so much an individual's lack of education that makes his/her writing bad as it is the lack of education of the bloggers and novelists s/he reads.)

More experienced readers will be more sensitive to language fads, without being at all critical about them. These will pick up on the fads even more readily and propagate them in their own speech and writing, as well as in their patronization of writers who use these faddish techniques. In fact, language-sensitive folks who collect enough faddish chops often feel empowered by their usage of faddish techniques to become writers in the first place. Their sensitivity towards the shape and sound of their own writing tells them that they are writing fashionably, which they will articulate to themselves as "beautifully". Feedback from others confirms this.

Disclaimer: this is as much, or more, self-accusation as anything else. Reading over my blog entries from a year and two years ago, I'm finding massive usage of Strunk and Light-prohibited items. I know that faddishness is a phase of adolescence, and writers have a writing adolescence they must get through as well. Pray it be short.

Unfortunately, writers themselves, who should be the most sensitive to such errors, are often the most susceptible. This is, I stronlgy believe, because of creative writing programs, which have come to substitute an MFA as a writing credential in place of long years of hard publishing experience. (This refers to me as much as most. I have one "legit" publication and an MFA. Apparently, this entitles me to teach seven writing classes.) Too often, writers receive an MFA at a still juvenile phase of their writing development (I don't think I'm a writing juvenile anymore, but if I'm wrong, who gets to debate my MFA?)

But the MFA and the finished thesis are enough for a publishing world more fixated on comforting novelty than on challenging maturity. So you have a literary world flooded by writers of all ages whose writing minds are still in teenagerhood: delighting in and flaunting linguistic fads, ignoring the style, simplicity, and elegance of maturity, some elements of which will always be of their era, and others of which are timeless.

Like teenagers who see their elders settling into a personal style of dress, these writers miss their elders' subtle, but constant, experimentation with style, structure, music, etc., and see maturity as a sort of death or "mellowing". In this description, I can see myself still; my experimentations are still fairly wild, brazen, and completely predictable., like teen piercing her nose, shaving her head, or getting a tattoo.

In the visual and time-based art world this is called "student work". Curators recognize it instantly. That phrase is a dismissal, both contemptuous and tolerant, understanding that if the artist persists with integrity, this phase will pass.

Because the elements of student work in the fine arts appear to be less easily catalogued, less easily articulated, it is, or should be, much easier in the art world to use accusations of jejunity to dismiss artwork for reasons other than immaturity---reasons such as racism or sexism, for example, work that challenges prevailing ideas too much. I said "should be" easier in art than in writing because the literary world is absolutely obsessed with formal writing education; hundreds of books are currently in print taxonomizing the crafts of fiction, poetry, memoir, playwriting, screenwriting, etc. No one should have any trouble identifying what is supposed to make up "good writing", according to the literary establishment.

My guess, from experience, however, is that no one is actually reading these books. My MFA workshops had their own vocabulary about writing, but no one actually discussed (using any vocabulary) structure/plotting, characterization, or setting. Excuse me, from my position in realizing-too-late-land, but how the fuck do you learn fiction writing without directly addressing how to plot, populate, and set your stories?

I have both a BA and an MFA in creative writing, from two of the most respected (if not competitive or revered) programs in the country (University of Arizona and San Francisco State) and I did not learn a single solid element of craft from any of the many classes and workshops I took. Everything I know about the formal craft of fiction writing comes from my own experience, books I've read (especially Goldman's Writing Down the Bones, Orwell's essays, and Delany's About Writing), watching a few of my talented classmates teach their own classes (Ali Baker in particular), and having to codify formal writing by teaching myself.

I've also had to invent my own vocabulary, because no commonly understood vocabulary exists to discuss writing in English. There's the workshop vocabulary, a variety of popular critical vocabularies, the academic vocabulary of the post-structuralist scholar and the other academic vocabulary of the obsolete (if only they would know it) New Criticism/close reading scholar. Then there's whatever you make up and use on your blog, which last one, scarily enough, is beginning to prevail.

Thus, it's not the smartest or most educated voices that are heard about writing---it's the loudest and most fashionable. In the writing world, right now, it is the teenagers who are taking over the school. The indy and online journals and blogs that tell you what to read are run by twenty-- and early thirty-somethings, those unmarried and childless souls (guilty!) who have the time to throw away unsalaried, for the love of it. Needless to say, they do not name their school of thought, nor explicate their critical sources. Good for them, and all that, but if I'm naked, I want to be led by someone who's ... well, not blind.

And our blind guides? Still, despite internet freedom and anarchy and democracy and all that, predominantly white, middle-class, straight, and, as things progress upwards, male. And the writers they are drawn to? With the exception of the always and perennial usual suspects like Zadie Smith (the Whoopi Goldberg of lit fic), Monica Ali, and um ... um ... well, with the exception of the usual, nonthreatening suspects (who are always Brits anyway), the writers they discuss are always like them: white, straight, middle class, and male in the upper parts of the parabola.

It is, in fact, easier to dismiss threateningly challenging, or merely culturally unfamiliar, writing than it is to dismiss the same qualities in visual art. The internet revolution in writing is mirrored by the street art revolution in visual art ... and so the democratizing of visual art has genuinely made it more public, whereas writing always does, and always will, have a skin around it that indifference will make the reader bounce off of. This skin around writing is what makes literary gatekeepers so important. Our contemporary lit gatekeepers are getting more and more ignorant---in fact, they seem to be getting more ignorant in indirect proportion to their decibel level.

I'm leading into all of this because these seemingly craft-related issues I'm raising here have implications for writerly integrity on many fronts: that of artistic integrity, of integrity in social responsibility and ethics, of moral integrity, and so forth.

And let me be clear here: I'm not one of those people who is going to curry favor with an American public operating on received ideas by discounting the importance of my art. Most writers---even expressly political writers---start by saying that they don't expect their novels to set the world on fire. Well, why the fuck not? Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, and Salman Rushdie did expect it, and guess what?

In all reality, I don't expect my current nobble (may it ever be published) to set the world on fire because, although it's critical and, I hope, challenging, it doesn't address really controversial subjects, so it's not going to piss people off, or inspire them all that much, no matter how good it might be. But, not at all secretly, and not at all deep-down, I'm hoping it does just that. And my next novel? Will be written to set the world on fire. Because this writing is what I've chosen to be my life project. This is what I've been putting, and continue to put what my yoga teacher calls my "best self" into. I'm in love with my nobble, and it's not just a teenage crush. This is how I"m participating in the world, and I'm trying to do it as an adult.

If I didn't hope to, desire to, and (let's be honest), however ridiculously see the potential for me to set the world on fire with my writing ... then I wouldn't do it. Why the fuck would I give myself to something less than that? Why would I demand less of myself than that? And why would I claim the attention of an intelligent reading world with less than an attempt to engulf my world in flame, in flame?

All of which ecstasy brings us back to the issue of fad writing, writing which, Orwell tells us, obscures the meaning it appears to seek to convey. Through faddish usage, writers can express their literariness without actually having to tell a story or produce an image, or offer a rational thought. Faddish writing isn't about communication at all. It is ultimately only about the writer making him/herself look/sound good. It's disposable, despicable, immoral. Fad writing will not set the world on fire.

So I'm going to address writing fads I've been noticing the last few years in the next few posts. That is all.


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I just had to write and say that I really enjoyed reading this post. You addressed some lingering doubts I had regarding MFA programs and issues I have with immature writers (myself being very much one of them). I'm excited to read what you'll have to say next on the topic. ^_^

Burn baby burn. I look forward to both your fad lit flamewar and your fiery next novel. In fact, I can feel the heat already.

space and lauren: thanks for the support ;)

now that i've put the nobble on the back burner, i hope i'll be able to address these ol' writin' fads soon.

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