Oh, how small my little PhD world is, and how little it has to do with the swarm of people I saw stampeding Books-A-Million yesterday, where Twilight coasters lord over experimental flash fiction, lyrical essays and poetry.
Which inspired me to respond (although a bit late) to this article in Slate, which declares “two distinct literary cultures,” that of New York publishing and MFA programs. My first reaction was that the article was another dig at MFAs—those grad school writers can’t hack life in the big city. My second idea was that I could think of writers who were clear counterexamples to the argument.
Last year (for instance), I met Rebecca Skloot, who came to read and talk with our workshop. This was as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was blowing up. During lunch she had to excuse herself because Oprah called. THAT’S RIGHT THE BIG O. Skloot has an MFA from Pittsburg, freelanced for glossies, (but also published in lit mags), and was a nonfiction professor at Memphis, before writing the best-selling book. Montana grad Aryn Kyle published short stories in lit mags such as The Georgia Review before writing a book that wound up on the Costco table. Or what writer could be more esoteric, brainy, and MFA-ey than David Shields? Who was on The Colbert Report.
On the flip side, MFAland can get a bit small town. At Montana, you would have thought our workshop was the next turning point in literature the way we acted, even though it was the ten of us sitting around an oak table. You start to assume everyone keeps Alice Munro bedside. My cautionary, is that MFAland can feel so immediate that the larger picture is ignored. Hey MFAers, when’s the last time you read a book off the (current!) NYT bestsellers list? You begin to think that the entire writing world consists entirely of poetry, short stories and lyrical essays. And I've seen where artsy is rewarded over comprehensible to a wider audience.
Which means this post has now devolved into the unsolvable debate of “high” (Wallace Stevens) versus “low” (Twilight coasters) art. Which means maybe it’s time to go open gift-receipted presents and eat Paula Dean French Toast casserole like a normal person.