7:40 am Nov. 23, 2010
Last Wednesday night, as National Book Award attendees collected around their $12,000 tables at Cipriani Wall Street, a few dozen literary acolytes gathered in a fifth-floor classroom on 12th Street for a forum with the author Sam Lipsyte. The event cost $5 for the general public and was free for students enrolled in the New School’s creative writing Master of Fine Arts program—the price of which, before university fees, was $12,015 for the current semester.
In benign blue jeans and a blazer, the 42-year-old author recently called “a fine microbrewer of bitterness” was introduced by Helen Schulman, a novelist who coordinates the program’s fiction department. She gave an overview of his most recent novel, The Ask, a “witty paean to white-collar loserdom,” which came out in March. Its protagonist, Milo, is a sublimely cynical failed artist who works in a development office at “a mediocre university” in New York City. “Not ours,” Schulman quipped. The audience laughed—but only a little.
New York City is renowned all over the world as a great place for writers. But it can be a terrible place for M.F.A. students, at least those at programs that don’t offer much by way of funding, with its prohibitively high cost of living and famously anti-ascetic temptations. (By way of disclosure: I still owe the federal government $37,300 for my four-year-old New School M.F.A.) With their eminently strokable beards, cowboy boots and Nalgene bottles, today’s New Schoolers are well primed to bask in Lipsyte’s lyrical satire of white-people problems. Because, provided they’ve been paying attention to the world outside the workshop, they’ve noticed that the conversation about what it means to be a certificated “writer” has shifted away from the literary, and even the lofty, and is now taking place in the rather harsher language of political economy. It’s beginning to sound, in other words, like Lipsyte’s narrator is onto something when he writes: “Hopes were stupid. Dreams required quarantine.”
In its just-released issue, the journal n+1 reckons, among other decidedly more gracious things, that “the MFA beast” is a late-stage capitalist specter in liberal arts clothing: “an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.” In early November, Salon book critic Laura Miller made an impassioned plea for the death of the compulsion to create crappy novels—a pointed attack on the feel-good feat of endurance known in twee acronymese as NaNoWriMo, but for you: National Novel Writing Month, the logic of which was easily expandable to anyone with an unpublished seminovel and its attendant insecurities. Miller lamented that “the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.” And last week, New School students who optimistically replied to a call-to-arms from James Frey’s YA-lit-packaging venture they received in September had their dreams of skyrocketing to Stephanie Meyer status dashed by Suzanne Mozes’s New York magazine exposé of the outfit’s factory-farm labor practices (“they get $250 upon signing and another $250 upon completion of a book”). If they didn’t get it then, they had only to read Elise Blackwell’s recap, in which she notes that Frey specifically targeted students who are “paying their own way, garnering no teaching experience, and living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.” When it comes to law school, another famous home for young professionals complaining about their student debt load, one of the reasons the proposition appears acceptable is that on the other end of the line are jobs—sometimes, not always, satisfying jobs—that at the very least give the J.D. the financial power to return to solvency.
It's difficult, reading about online content mills like Demand Media and the theoretically more "creative" Full Fathom Five organization formed by James Frey, to draw the conclusion that there are not jobs out there for people who are willing to write. What is difficult is to understand why anyone should pay upwards of$40,000 to get them. With respect to Laura Miller, America will have its crappy novels, and lots of crappy writing besides. America wants more, in fact. To be a writer today is not impossible. It just might not be good. And that is the dream that will continue to propel the M.F.A. program: avoiding the dark, Satanic mills.
“ONE OF THE MAJOR THEMES OF THIS NOVEL IS TURKEY wraps,” Lipsyte said, by way of introduction to a passage detailing the protagonist’s lunchtime visit to a New York City deli. Defeated by the dizzying array of comfort food options and the threat of digestive distress, Milo defers: “I bought an energy bar, and as I ate it a great weariness fell over me.” Later in the book, Milo goes to stay with his intern, who for reasons of bohemian poverty, lives in one cage among many packed kennel-style into a Bushwick loft, which to Astoria-dwelling Milo is like “a homeless shelter for people with liberal arts degrees,” where “voices rose and fell, rippled about the room, a dozen conversations going at once, or maybe one conversation replicated over and over by feral and beautiful children.”
Another of the themes is the double-edged sword that is modern class consciousness: where one side is complacence and the other existential dread. “In America, we labor under the delusion that if we were all just a little more highly effective, a little more focused, we could ascend into a realm of first-class check-in, enviable real estate, and unruffled contentment,” Michael Agger wrote on Slate in his review of The Ask. “And should we fail? Well, that's your fault now, isn't it?” That may be true of white collar culture in general, but it’s a particularly bitter pill for anyone who aspires to make a living, a name or anything at all for himself out of art. Because in that case, success is not quite enough. And in fact, success might well be failure.
Something everyone with an M.F.A. eventually learns is that it is not enough to submit years of one’s life and thousands of one’s dollars to the development of one’s writing. For the student who stumbled blindly into the M.F.A., conditioned by decades of schooling to think that good grades translate into success, that realization might come at graduation, which happens whether or not one's novel is "done," or later, when the first student loan bill arrives. Programs like the New School’s, in contrast to smaller, more exclusive and better funded programs of renown at large universities in less glamorous locales, function a little bit like the notorious for-profit technical institution in the disadvantaged neighborhood: only instead of luring the unwed mother into debt promising lucrative skilled positions in medicine, they attract like bees to honey the waylaid liberal arts postgraduate working an unsatisfying advertising job, certain he’s got a novel in him if only someone else will drag it from him. (Bitterness, after all, is the emo cousin of entitlement.)
Which is not to say such programs fail to address practical issues of craft nor hammer home the 40-thousand-dollar maxim of monastic hard work; the author forum series is designed to be an accessible look inside the work habits and hobbies of a successful writer. Lipsyte, attendees learned, is a former student of Gordon Lish, a fan of Stanley Elkin and Moby Dick. He is “not smart enough” to outline and also bored by outlines, and so he constructs stories by carefully placing one sentence after another. He remembers a pre-Internet era in which out of print books were photocopied and traded for beers. He is not on a quest to be a “funny guy” but finds that that funny is how his material comes out, and anyway, the best writers have always been the funny ones, from Beckett and Kafka to Amy Hempel and Katherine Mansfield. He works slowly, revises much, and, as a onetime singer of a noise-rock band called Dungbeetle, is attentive to the acoustics of his prose. “Somebody said once that it should be 50 percent music and 50 percent meaning,” he said. “But I get confused when numbers come in to it.”
These sorts of ruminations aren't the ones M.F.A.'s entertain. M.F.A.'s, rather, dream of being able to make such ruminations. When the floor was opened for questions from the audience, a young woman in the second row was the first to raise her hand. “Have you had a day job?” she wanted to know. Lipsyte replied that, though he’d never worked in development, he had, indeed, passed days in cubicles.
In fact, he was employed 9 to 5 at an online magazine while he was working on his first short story collection, which he got done only by becoming a quasi-hermit, emerging only for the erstwhile pizza and a video with a friend. So, yes, he is familiar with the grind. “It’s a misery we can all share.”