Monday, July 26, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Being a Snob

A few months ago, my sister asked if I'd be interested in a guy who read Tom Robbins. I told her I hadn't really thought about it before (truth). Then I thought (to myself), what does that even mean? Are Tom Robbins fans certain types of people, the way Tucker Max boys are? I didn't think so. Then I thought that maybe she was asking me about Tom Robbins because, simply, he's popular. This, to me, was a sad thought.

I admit there was a period in my life where I judged people based on the type of music they listened to and genres of books they read. I'm happy to report that these days of complete and utter superficiality are now behind me. (Well, for the most part: I'm still pretty sure I wouldn't be able to marry someone who listens to Nickelback. But that's just common sense.)

As far as books are concerned though, basically I'm just happy if the person reads at all. You only read Carl Hiaasen? Fine by me. Dante in Latin? Excellent. Candace Bushnell fan? Little weird, but sure, I'll take it. And yet. There was a time when I was a snob, and this time wasn't too long ago. Studying creative writing during Da Vinci mania and James Frey controversy made it easy to turn up my nose at those who read mere commercial fiction. Mostly because everyone around me was turning up their noses too. Just the word - commercial - I mean, ugh. Right? The word was dirty to my liberal arts educated writing community.

Then I made the jump to an even more exclusive literary circle - the MFA program. In New York City. In Greenwich Village. I was doomed.

I was recently out to dinner with two other former MFAers (one from my alma mater, The New School; the other from Sarah Lawrence). We, of course, had a long chat about books and agreed that our MFAs have ruined us, but possibly in a good way. Explanation:

You see, in writing programs, the last thing writers are ever taught is how to get published. It's all about craft, craft, craft. And in order to hone that skill, we must read, read, read. But again, we are not told to read New York Times bestsellers. We are told to read the few masterpieces of literary fiction that publishers were kind enough to took a chance on. Most of these authors are dead. Or insane. Or reclusive. Or have been long since considered "classic" or "genius," two titles that the average student will probably not be able to attain upon graduation.

Literary fiction remains a go-to choice for when I read for fun (that is, when I have time for such things!). However, the David Foster Wallaces, Italo Calvinos, Marcel Prousts, and the Thomas Pynchons are hardly beach reading. Yet writers in MFA programs are told that this is the only form of writing worth doing. To me, there is accessible literary fiction (Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon...) and there's the authors I mentioned I above (let's call them the Uberliterary).

The Uberliterary, to me, are the writing equivalent of fashion designers. There are those who design clothes you buy at the Gap and there are those who design clothes strictly for the runway. Walking art projects made by designers for designers, saying "looky what I can do!" There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But sadly, since I'm not in the fashion club, it all just looks like a mess to me. I am, however, in the literary club. So when the Uberliteraries write for other writers, I smile and wink back.

So, why has my MFA "ruined" me, as I said? Well, remember I also said "in a good way." I can be as snobby as I want because I was practically trained to be. Yet, I couldn't choose not to be pretentious if I didn't have this training. (Make sense?) Working in publishing has de-MFAed me. Not only because high concept literary fiction isn't exactly a moneymaker, but because it's surrounded me with book lovers who love the written word. No matter what it is. So, I left my snobbery at the door and didn't look back. I can choose to pick it up again, but why would I want to?

What do you all think? Any former or current writing students care to share your experiences?

22 comments:

  1. Sarah,

    First of all, Uberliterary is the perfect term. Second of all, as a teacher I think I agree with you on this. When I ask a room full of 20 something college freshman every what they read for pleasure and get crickets and blank stares, I'll take anything. Twilight Series? Sure why not, to each his own. I think sometimes the Uberliterary turns on the fence readers into nonreaders really quick. I try to teach modern stuff when I do novels, Fight Club is one I always do, and the kids love it. Then, if one kid seems really into it, I'll suggest the masters that have come before. "Oh you like Palahniuk? Then you will love Vonnegut, etc." It's really a last ditch effort but it works.
    As for me as a writer? Shhhh...I tend to be an ounce snobby, but hey, that's what an MFA affords me. I would expect an MBA to ridicule my stock picks.

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  2. Dear Sarah,

    I got my undergrad in Creative Writing and chose not to go on to an MFA program, so I kind of feel like I'm one of the little kids watching on the other side of the fence as the Big Kids play kickball, and I don't have much of a right to discuss snobbery. The Uberliterary scene is exactly why I chose not to do an MFA. I always wanted to play there, but never felt like I belonged.

    In my experience as an Undergrad, "Show don't Tell" was carved into the back of my hand like "I will not tell lies" was carved into Harry Potter's. However, while my classmates were writing about disturbing childhood experiences in order to tug at heartstrings in a well-crafted manner, I was turning in stories about vampires in Regency England for workshop.

    I always wanted to be literary because I thought that's how one had to write to get published. However, I never actually enjoyed what I was writing when I was trying so hard to please the professor and impress the other students. I found I got a much better response from everyone in workshops when I wrote what I thought was fun to read. I finally started writing to please myself instead of others, and I feel like my writing has come a long way because of it.

    A good book is a good book, whether it's something you read on the beach in an afternoon, or something timeless for students to study in college classrooms semester after semester. A good book touches something inside us that is universal, maybe a funny bone or a well-honed writer's intellect, it doesn't matter. The joy that comes for me as a writer is when I let someone read something I wrote and they finish it and say, "I want more!" Nothing makes me happier.

    The comparison you wrote about the fashion designer, to me, is spot on. It's exactly how I feel when I read a well-crafted sentence. I can recognize and appreciate the good writing techniques in the literary, and sometimes not-so-literary books.

    But at the same time, how often do you see someone walking down the street wearing those frothy concoctions? I think every good book has a place where it can be appreciated, and if it's a really good book it can be appreciated on different levels by many different people.

    Happy reading,
    Sarah (ha, yeah, I do have the same name as you. And my mom swears my middle name is Lee after my grandmother Rosa Lee, not the pastries)

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  3. I have zero schooling in the art of writing. My college degree is in Floriculture Merchandising. I started writing because I enjoyed it and I enjoyed creating my own world. And my world was filled with romance, heart break, a little comedy, female empowerment, family. I wrote the kind of story I enjoyed reading. I didn't even know what an MFA was.

    But now I do and there have been times where I wondered if I was destined to stay unsuccessful because I hadn't had the schooling that I should have.

    But that thought faded quickly. I know my kind of stories have an audience. And no, they're not literary masterpieces..they're commercial. (that fashion analogy was great, BTW) Publishers are most interested in making money and hopefully they'll want to use my writing to do it!

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  4. I'm still kind of a literary snob, I'll admit, but I am trying not to be. I'm reading more and more other genres, and even wrote my first fantasy fairy tale piece that's coming out in a few weeks. I can do this. I can de-snob myself!

    This is a great post! And I love your use of fashion to explain it. That's brilliant. :)

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  5. As both an MFA and a big genre nerd, I adore this post. For me, the MFA experience was all about rejecting my pretensions--I learned that I really really love books that grip me and grab me and if they're well written, then, bonus. But I realized that I no longer really care what my tastes say about me, and that I'm more concerned with indulging them. Life's too short to do otherwise, I think.

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  6. I think it's a good point that you make: universities point writers to the ones in the past who got published, and a lot of them wouldn't have had that chance today (okay, confession: "Moby Dick". A chapter on rope. Another chapter on the biological characteristics of a whale. C'mon, Melville, you're killing me!). It does somewhat make me wonder about the quality of books that goes out there; what's getting published could be good, or it could also be what's selling, whether or not it's good. But the times are a-changing, and commercial lit can be absolutely fantastic!

    Yeah, Nickelback's unlikeable. And I'm Canadian. : /

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  7. I just finished a course in creative writing in Sweden, and all we read seemed to be high-angst drama. Some of them were real good, but it becomes dull after the 3rd book of the same kind. I would definitely have wanted to see all sorts of writing - from criminal novels and romance to the literary fiction. Every genre takes different skills. I'd love to see Sartre try writing a romance, or Jane Austen a criminal novel.

    On a similar tangent, I would have wanted to see examples of "how not to write". I find it easier to learn by mistakes than successes. Then, of course, there's the question of "what is bad writing?".

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  8. Ah, this brings to mind a very unpleasant experience at a writing conference, where on the last day of class a group of MFA students not only wouldn't deign to comment on my fiction chapters, but some wrote incredibly mean-spirited anonymous comments on the manuscript.

    I didn't write for a year.

    Then I (doggedly or stupidly) went back to the conference - with the exact same material, because, well, I hadn't written for a year, and this time an agent pulled me aside to tell me what a great writer I was and that he wanted to see the finished book.

    Happy ending is that the writing the MFAs sneered at landed me a phenomenal agent and a two-book deal. But it left me with a deep wariness of MFAs.

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  9. I love this post. I had fuzzy versions of these thoughts in college since I was not an English major and was looked upon in scorn for writing a novel. I was like, "Hey, you're writers, or at least you love books. Take me seriously!" Nope. Silent treatment.

    Thank God for the composition teacher (and grown-up English major) who kept telling me my story had promise.

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  10. I think there's room for both, but I'm coming to the conclusion that literary writers, MFA or not, may simply not be capable of turning out commercial fiction. At least, my experience so far is that *I* can't. And I'm learning to accept that.

    I run a literary magazine, though, and I have to be honest, the 'MFA' in the bio is the last thing we ever look at.

    As for Tom Robbins, adore him and would definitely date someone who read him, but the truth is I fell for the guy who apparently doesn't read fiction at all. A real blue collar snob. We have very little in common as far as taste in art, books, music and movies. But at least he doesn't listen to Nickelback.

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  11. Really interesting.

    I too somewhat judge people on what they read (I scoffed when I saw someone on the train reading a self-help book called 'How To Be Happy') but then I am scared of being judged when I read my wind-down books - chick lit.

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  12. The fact that I'm about to quote Stephen King should tell you where my tastes lie, but I think the sentiment is a universal one for anybody who truly loves books. When asked about his priorities when writing, King said, "Story first. Then language. Always story first."

    I think that's where some of the Uberliterary fail. They think a well-crafted sentence is enough to hook readers, when what most of us really want is a sentence that says something. If it happens to be expertly constructed, hey even better, but by and large that sentence better move the story forward. There are great literary writers who do this--Chabon, like you mentioned, might be the best working right now--but there are also non-literary writers like King, Elmore Leoanard, and Dennis Lehane that write some damned fine prose while also telling gripping, involving stories. It does come down to taste, but story first. Always story first.

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  13. Oh, and as for music, I hate to admit that I do own two Nickelback albums. They were purchased around the same period of my life as my two Creed albums. Today, I refer to it as my "Really Crappy Music Period." My current go-to band is a group called The Gaslight Anthem out of New Brunswick, NJ. Sounds like The Clash if they were fronted by Bruce Springsteen. Good stuff.

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  14. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. Glad you liked the post.

    @Michelle - I definitely still can be a snob, but I guess I've learned to keep it in check by realizing good writing comes in all forms. Though, it is sort of nice knowing I can bust out the pretension if someone is really asking for it :)

    @Gregg - Hm... points down for the Nickelback and Creed, but you are redeemed for quoting Uncle Stevie and listening to The Gaslight Anthem!

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  15. On the plus side, thanks to my lapse in musical judgment all those years ago, I now have 4 extra coasters whenever my wife and I have people over.

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  16. I'm the first to admit I'll read anything. Steinbeck - hurray! Twilight series - why not? Captain Underpants - bring it on! Random obscure French author who writes about sheep hearding in Wales (I'm making this up, I don't think this book exists) - sure!

    I'm like a reading shark, devouring anything in my path - books that catch my attention at the library, books recommended to me by friends, lists of "great" books...

    If I limited myself to books that were supposed to be high concept (I seriously have no idea what that really means), I'd miss out on a lot.

    I'm of the school of "reading is reading." I've got a brother 17 years younger than I am and I'd rather he enjoy something silly like Cap'n U-pants than to be forced to read something he finds boring which turns him off from reading forever.

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  17. I was going to talk about the fashion metaphor, but I remembered, oh right, I'm a guy who wears t-shirts and torn jeans like it's 1996.

    I write literary fiction, but I often feel guilty for never pursuing an MFA. I've tried for years to substitute for one by participating in writer's workshops, and even made my own (now defunct) with mostly experimental writers. Many of the people who joined were working toward an MFA. I felt like I was getting a little piece of an MFA of my own by workshopping with them, strangely enough.

    One thing I did notice about that group, (not of all MFA graduates, really just that one very particular group I worked with), many of them triumphed technique over story or character or theme. I definitely dabble in experimentation of my own, but I often asked some of the writers that I read for why they chose to write a story that spanned three months all as one long sentence. The response was essentially, "because it's cool. Also, Ulysses."

    I really appreciate their passion for the language, and their ambition to write things in new ways and be different. I, too, am a nerd for words. But when I started to work with more genre writers instead, it was easier to get back to the basics of plot, character and theme with them. I liked experimentation and fancy descriptions, but I wasn't interested in writing (or reading) a chapter about the spotty paint on the ceiling, either.

    I had never read a "chick lit" book before I started working with writers in that genre, but I was pretty shocked to see how fast those stories can move. They really aren't kidding when they say "tension on every page." So it was honestly even more awesome if I could get those girls to finish my book that, unfortunately, had no dreamy schoolboy in cargo shorts. If my book wasn't too slow for them, well, that felt pretty good.

    I think I've rambled enough. My point is, I try not to be a snob too. Yay for us!

    I also want to pile on the Gaslight Anthem love.

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  18. Ah, the memories. I got a B.S. (apt, no?) degree in English, but with a technical writing emphasis. Still, I took lit and creative writing classes. I was a snob from the other side, Sarah. I told one professor his favorite author sucked, and that "magical realism" was merely fantasy for people afraid to read fantasy, and Ray Bradbury did it better.

    That said, many of the best genre writers have MFAs. Brandon Sanderson, for instance. And I adore the way Shannon Hale writes.

    Also, I just listened to American Slang for the umpteenth time. Heh.

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  19. In a very short time, American Slang has become one of my all-time favorite albums. Which is funny, because I was saying the same thing last year about The '59 Sound. Them Jersey boys sure know how to rock.

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  20. I've heard others talk about this, too. So interesting.

    I graduated in English, then got a French literature Masters. My teachers seemed to love to choose the most obscure works, as though reading anything known might tarnish their reputation as a literature professor.

    Even then, I was reading YA and MG 'fluff' books in my spare time. And I have no apologies about it. I love it! It speaks to me. Isn't that what good literature should do?

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  21. Yeah whatever Sarah, I didn't want to marry you anyway.

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