Monday, October 27, 2008


In the LA Building, I had exchanges like this everyday:

“Hey, Aimee Bender is in Tin House!”
“Awesome! I’ll check that out. Gotta run. Speaking of 'devolution' , it's time to teach Comp.”
(Mutual chortles).

Don’t try this in public.

Perhaps the greatest trauma of post MFA life is having to (re)realize that writers you love and strive to emulate, whose books you have gently caressed in the night are, in a general public sense, nobodies.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to form a writer’s group and one woman, a potential member, said she didn’t know how to describe her fiction. I prodded her a bit and determined she is probably writing Magic Realism.

“You should read Aimee Bender!” I was pretty excited about my suggestion. The woman nodded absently and the conversation drifted. But no way was I giving up on this. I loved Aimee Bender before I went to Montana. Then I had the chance to work with her and wound up loving her more; I followed her around like an imprinted duckling. I’m going to apply to the USC PhD, a complete long shot and probable waste of cash, because she is on the faculty.

“No really,” I said. “You should read Aimee Bender.”

I realized what I expected was for this woman to leap up, grab a pen, and feverishly tattoo my suggestion on her face.

Or at least act like she might check it out.

Nothing highlights the brutal chasm between the MFA bubble and the outside world like teaching Comp. Especially when you have no one to clutch in the hallway. Right now I’m teaching online, so I’m in it alone. One exercise my students have is they write a brief essay about writers with whom they have or have not “experienced rapport.”

Observation: Over half of my students mentioned Stephen King. I’m not here to debate the literary merits of King, at least, not at this moment. As for my students, most felt a “rapport” while a few didn’t, calling King “stuck up and facituss.” Either way, they have read him. This coming from a population who has no qualms telling their instructor they hate to read.


52 Faces said...

Uh oh. I'm one of those writers who can't name check anybody and find people who can pretentious - but probably because I'm intimidated. AND I'm thinking of being MFA bound. WAAAHHHH!

Laura said...

Yeah, actually I did quite a bit of nodding and smiling in the beginning of my MFA. And it WAS intimidating. Part of what's fun, though, is that you all discover those amazing, but not mainstream writers together. And then you wonder how you ever woke up in the morning before Joy Williams.

David E. Grim said...

Music aficionados can listen to so much music that they're driven to discover and praise only the obscure.

David E. Grim said...

To expand, music and literature enthusiasts take pride in being able to categorize things. (This is why the things that are hard to categorize, the cross-genre stuff, typically gets praised the most.) As writers, however, I don't see the benefit in trying to pigeon hole someone's style or themes. I appreciate being turned on to authors I didn't previously know about, but having someone give me a "recommendation" simply because what I happen to be writing sounds a little like an author they once read is usually less than helpful.

This is why I think classifying literature any further than "fiction," "non-fiction," and "poetry" is meaningless.

ann said...

oh, baloney on it being pretentious or pigeonholing.

i read both for the pleasure of reading and also to see how other writers make it work. i appreciate recommendations generally and also when someone is like, "hey, your piece reminds me of so-and-so, you should check them out!" - i find it useful. one of the benefits of having a community is sharing resources - that's what a book recommendation is, within a community of readers/writers.

i think if the recommendation was "hey, the nostalgia theme in your piece really reminds me of proust, maybe you should check him out," i would probably be annoyed. but even then, you can sort of tell when someone is being a blowhard and when they're being sincere.

the other thing is that, yes, once you have gotten what you can out of bestseller writing (i was partial to pat conroy in early high school) and then mainstream literature (margaret atwood in college) - there comes a time when you can no longer find the books you're looking for at barnes and noble, where they stock, say, one lorrie moore collection, but not the whole catalog. and at that point you're probably looking pretty hard for new awesome people to read. and at that point, when someone is like, dude, "girl in the flammable skirt," check it out - i am like yessssss and i go add it to my amazon wishlist immediately.