Saturday, August 21, 2010

Professional “Literary” Writers, and the Federal Reserve

I’ve been working on a book called The Green of the Republic since late-2006.

It’s a panoramic novel set in Dartmouth College, during the academic year 1993-‘94. Each of the half dozen main characters—faculty, administrators and especially students—come to understand the peculiar brand of American conformity and corruption, a rottenness camouflaged by talk of “openness”, “tolerance”, “freedom” and “diversity”.

Actually, the best description of the book is M.C. Escher’s Ascending and Descending:

The endless parade of monks climbing up and down the twisted, unnatural staircase. The three monks who have realized what’s going on—one of them gazing placidly at the endless procession, as if studying it. The other looking away as he sits at the top of the staircase, as if deciding where to go, or if to go at all. The third one, of course, anonymously in line, aware of the futility of the procession he’s in, yet walking up and down the stairs without protest or demurral.

If the monks of the picture are students, faculty and administrators at Dartmouth, then the plot of The Green of the Republic is the story of how some of them came to realize what was going on, and either chose to observe and remain detached; or chose to turn their backs and walk away; or chose to acquiesce and stay in the endless line.

My panoramic novel is absurdly long: I currently have something like 550,000 words—roughly the length of War and Peace. Of the words I’ve written, I’m satisfied with about 425,000 of them. I anticipate the final draft of The Green of the Republic to run about 650,000 words, which I ought to be completing sometime in late 2012 or early 2013.

I wouldn’t bet on it ever seeing the light of day, publishing-wise. Though stylistically it’s naturalist/realist, its length, subject matter, theme and structure are too idiosyncratic. Besides: Publishing—like any business—is about selling what people want. Nobody has the patience for a long book anymore. So The Green of the Republic won’t be published. Then again, I don’t mind—I’m writing it for myself.

But it’s made me think about so-called “literary” fiction, and about the Federal Reserve. (Yes, you read right: “Literary” fiction and the Federal Reserve. And no, I’m not taking drugs. Thank you for asking.)

Recently, one of the last mainstream literary magazines ran a piece about up-and-coming fiction writers—“literary” fiction writers. Envy being what it is, there was a bit of sniping at the selection among New York literati, but nothing major—all of the writers who made the list have been properly vetted. They all went to the “right” schools and workshops, the “right” creative writing programs, they are all producing “serious” work that’s garnered respectful attention—in short, they are all well-regarded professionals.

But that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it: They are all professional “literary” writers.

A professional is someone who is selling something. He’s a salesman. He trims his sails and corrects his trajectory in order to make the sale to his target market—and there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. Everyone has to earn a living.

The problem with professional “literary” writers is that they are selling the illusion of artistry, but with none of the risks of true art. More importantly from my point of view, with none of the insights of true art. And that’s the whole point of art and the sciences, isn’t it: To give us insights into reality, and thus help us make our way through the world. 

What’s regarded as serious literature doesn’t do that—not for a while now. The only way artistic insights can be valid is if they are true, and at the same time go against what we think we know—if the insights are true but disagreeable on first blush. If the insights upset us.

Professional salesmen don’t want to do that. Professional salesmen don’t want to upset their target market’s sensibility—it defeats the whole purpose of trying to make the sale. So professional “literary” writers give us the illusion of insight, but with none of the costs. This is what the professional “literary” author is taught to sell to his audience. 

Currently, the career of most professional “literary” writers follows a trajectory that goes something like this:

The writer-to-be—an English major, usually, at some nice liberal arts college—takes some creative writing courses starting his sophomore year, where he learns to write short stories or poems that appeal to his instructor. The instructor insists—repeatedly—to “write whatever you want, write what you feel”, but everyone knows that’s a lie.

There is the illusion of freedom in the undergraduate creative writing course—but there are only three generally accepted styles of writing: The minimalist, almost gnomic stories in the vein of Raymond Carver in his early Gordon Lish-edited stage. The sloppy, faux-Pynchonesque cartoon style that is self-consciously “Post-Modern” (really nothing more than inept surrealism). Or lastly—and most perversely—the “confessional” style of writing, a style at once so narcissistic and so corrosive that it’s more akin to psychotherapy than mere literature.

(BTW, it’s astonishing how casually the term “Post-Modernism” is flung around by people who don’t have a clue as to what it means. Most so-called experts cannot give a viable definition of the term even if you paid them—and they are paid, actually. If you want to have a cheap laugh at your next cocktail party, ask some pompous literati to define “Post-Modernism”; push him a bit, really get him talking and don’t let him wriggle out of defining the term. The flood of crap that’ll gush out of his mouth will put the BP oil leak to shame.)

If he’s a bright student, the undergraduate writer-to-be deliberately tailors his work to make his instructor happy. A happy creative writing instructor is important, because he’ll be sure to write a strong letter of recommendation for the next stage of the professional literary writer’s career: The graduate writing program.

The actual prose or poetry of a student—even if it’s been published in some little literary magazine somewhere—is not so important in getting into a graduate writing program as personal contacts. So quite apart from the application process, the dilligent writer-to-be will arrange through his college creative writing instructor to meet with someone on the faculty of the graduate writing program he is applying to.

This won’t be a formal interview—far from it: It’ll be an informal get-together, over drinks maybe. The writer-to-be will be sure to flatter or flirt with the graduate school professor as they discuss the writer-to-be’s work; the more ruthless applicants of either sex won’t hesitate to sleep with him, if he’s a man. If she’s a woman, they know better. (For some reason, women involved in academic creative writing at all levels are notoriously brittle, unlike women in the real-world business of publishing, who are more confidently relaxed, and nowhere near so knee-jerk hysterical.)

With one (or more) of the graduate school’s faculty duly impressed and saying a word or two to the admissions committee, the writer-to-be gets into the graduate writing program, along with a dozen other students, all pursuing their MFA—their Master’s in Fine Arts. It’s a fairly useless degree: All it allows the recipient to do is to teach other people creative writing—in effect, the students pursuing an MFA are studying and working to become a part of a self-selected monastic order.

The graduate student in the writing program diligently works on his manuscripts. There are group readings, often on a weekly basis. The graduate student rapidly learns that whatever he’s writing has to fit in with the prevailing tastes of the class and the instructors. Their fiction can’t ever bite—it has to be smooth as the lick of a dog on a shoe.

Occasionally, there’ll be a “superstar” in the class—a student who, by fluke or design, is identified by the professors as a “rising star”, often on the basis of minimal or even invisible work. The other students in the graduate program might well envy that “superstar”, and the more “rebellious” will probably disparage him or her—but none of the students will seriously question the assessment as to the worth of the “superstar”. (Just like no one seriously questioned The New Yorker’s selection of the “Top 20 Under 40”.) The students will accept their professor’s judgment without hesitation—obviously: To question the validity of the assessment is to cast doubt on the instructors making the assessment. And the graduate students are fearful of doing precisely this—fearful of questioning his judgment, and thereby offending him or her. After all, they need the graduate school professors’ recommendation, in order to go on to the next stage of their career: Landing a job teaching creative writing.

Because that’s all that they are trained to do: An MFA degree is literally worthless for any other job, save creative writing instructor. And an MFA degree is expensive—that mountain of student debt has to be paid, y’know.

So after all this time, effort, expense and debt, the writers-to-be have their MFA and little else. In the two years spent in academia, they’ve produced a batch of manuscripts—poems and short stories and such, probably a hundred pages or so of a memoir of their oh-so-brief-and-uneventful lives (which is why often these “memoirs” are either boring or fabricated), maybe even a partial of a full novel. But nothing saleable—nothing that will help them pay off their student loans.

So they have to go get a job—they need a job now.

So the few creative writing jobs open are given—naturally—to the MFA graduates who have most successfully toed the line. Those who get the junior creative writing instructor jobs at colleges are the ones who decide who gets admitted to the sophomore writing courses and who does not.

Lather, rinse, and repeat this cycle over the course of thirty years or so, and you get what we have now: A stagnant literature.

Of course, some of these MFA graduates do manage to write and publish books, some of which garner acclaim. Some even win some prizes. Some even manage (very rarely) to become best-sellers.

But if you sit down and read all these writers all at once, you can’t help but recognize a peculiar blandness to all of this “literary fiction”—a sameness to the work. Much like murder-mysteries, or “chick-lit”, or “techno-thrillers”, or any other commercially viable genre, “literary fiction” is just one more subset of the book-publishing business. It’s not literature—it’s a standardized form of commercial fiction. It’s either politely minimalist, or cartoonishly exaggerated (“Post-Modern”), or nauseatingly confessional. All of it is very well written from a technical standpoint—polished to a very pretty shine. But it’s all bland and soulless, without much of a point of view—like plain oatmeal, served with a side of white-bread and a glass of water.

Like I said before: “Literary” fiction licks your shoe—it doesn’t ever dare bite you in the ass. The reason is obvious: All the “literary” writers are professionals. They aim to please the marketplace—but their marketplace isn’t the reading public. Their market is the job market: The creative writing job market.

In a professional, corporatist job market, you don’t get ahead by having an independent point of view. You get ahead by toeing the line. That’s why none of these professional “literary” writers have much of a unique or cutting point of view. It’s been systematically expunged by the profession, and replaced with corporate buzzwords straight out of a McKinsey consulting manual. (Which was probably written by one of these MFA’s.)

Occasionally—less and less every year—someone will point out the sorry state of contemporary literature.

When that happens, inevitably, someone manning the ramparts of the creative writing establishment—one of those ascending and descending monks—will deign to give you a response.

Often it’s a non-response. They’ll give you a snide little smile—you know the kind: contemptuously condescending—and pretend they don’t hear you. But if they realize you’ve got the mental ammunition to make their life difficult, they’ll get all huffy and puffy, and argue that you don’t understand contemporary fiction, that you don’t understand that it’s all irony—that it’s all meta: “Meta-epistemic, meta-ontological meta-fiction”. (I swear to God, someone once said these exact same words to me.)

The implication of all this bullshit, of course, is that you’re too stupid to “get it”. You’re too stupid to realize that they have the knowledge, while you are a barbarian fool who doesn’t know squat, and who should therefore keep quiet. Occasionally, someone on the inside of the establishment will speak up for the establishment, and against the barbarians at the gate.

Like that Fed economist—Kartik Athreya.

(And you thought there was no way I'd ever hook up the creative writing establishment with the Federal Reserve—shame on you, ye of little faith.)

Poor dumb bastard, Athreya wrote an incredibly stupid open letter, basically telling everyone who blogs about economics, and everyone who is not a Ph.D. in economics, to shut up about economics, already—and particularly to shut up about the Federal Reserve’s handling of the Global Financial Crisis. He was even dumb enough to get snooty and snobby about “decent” universities—this from someone who went to a State college in fucking fly-over cow-country!

Fairly sensible people really went to town on the poor dumb bastard: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Mark Thoma, Bruce Krasting. Of course they went to town on this third-tier Federal Reserve drone: Arguably, the Fed’s sins of commission (easy money) and omission (casting a blind eye on the banks) created the shit-storm we’re living through—and enough people saw it coming to render the Fed’s claims of God-like economic competence ridiculous.

I’m not going to get into a spiel about what the Fed’s role should be (if you believe in regulated-but-not-directed markets—as I do—then you believe that the markets, not the government or a government agency, should set prices—even the price of money, i.e. interest rates).

I'll only limit myself to pointing out the obvious:

Modern academia is structured the way it is because it is the best and most efficient way of producing results—in the sciences. In the sciences—with peer reviews, replicable experiments, and quantifiable results—it’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s right and someone’s wrong. Those who are right advance to University tenure. Those who are wrong teach high-school chemistry. 

But in creative writing—and economics—that’s not the case. Economics especially falls into the trap of thinking it’s a “science” because of its willy-nilly rip-off of math: The math they’ve shoplifted gives economists the fake sheen of scientific respectability.

But economics isn’t a science—at best it’s a branch of philosophy, and a minor speculative branch at that. Certain aspects of finance in particular (which we could treat as a subset of economics) can benefit from math—much like, say, symbolic logic in philosophy benefits from math. But math is of little use in macro-economics, which resembles more a psychological narrative than a science—really closer to an art.

Academia has confused both literature and economics. Because academia is so successful at fomenting the sciences into delivering actual new discoveries, the academic method has been applied to that which is properly art (in the case of literature) and properly speculative inquiry (in the case of macro-economics), in the hopes of delivering certainty.

But instead of certainty, the academic structure has delivered drivel in literature, and more drivel in macro-economics—plus boatloads of fools like Kartik Athreya, who fervently defend this drivel, and beat back us infidels who point out that it’s drivel.

Just as hermetic fictions that alienate readers does a disservice to the art, practice and enjoyment of literature, economics that seeks to seal itself off in its own ivory tower, blissfully contemplating mathematical equations about the way the economy ought to work—while down below the real economy blows up—helps no one at all, least of all the wider world.

Now, no one really gives a shit if some self-consciously pretentious “literary” types write their foolish little fictions. But Kartik Athreya represents people who have actual sway over the real economy.

That’s when I start to get worried. 

I have no doubt that Kartik Athreya’s pathetic screed was speaking for a whole lot of disgruntled, embarrassed Ph.D.’s inside the Federal Reserve. I think it’s actually quite likely that Bernanke himself gave the go-ahead to Athreya to put out this open letter. I mean, really: Does anyone honestly think this third-rate drone from fly-over cow-country put out this letter all on his lonesome? 

Nevertheless, regardless of all the online bitching and the ridicule Athreya’s screed has invited on them, the Federal Reserve’s monks are going to continue ascending and descending, just like Mr. Escher drew them. Just like the creative writing drones are going to continue churning out students who write the “right” sort of fiction that only they will read, and nobody else. And both breeds of acolytes—“literary” writers and “mainstream” economists—will dilligently keep out anyone and everyone with a divergent point of view, since everyone knows that that educated talk about diversity is really diversity of that most superficial of issues—race and sex—and not diversity of the deepest of issues—thought and point of view. 

That’s what I’m writing about—that’s what The Green of the Republic is all about: The education of corporate cogs, sealed off in their machines, as homogenous as polished brass gears. 

The connection between the creative writing profession—of which I know a lot—and economics as a profession—of which I know enough—is that both of them in their current state are self-selecting vocations which inevitably and quite systematically exclude those whose points of view directly challenges the orthodoxy. In other words, they’ve become religions. And like all religions that refuse to accept reality, they will either endure in an isolated enclave, slowly degenerating as time passes—as has been happening to literature for the last 40-odd years. Or they will be shattered by that reality they refuse to accept or acknowledge—as will happen to macro-economics. 

So the best one can do is to do as Escher’s disillusioned monks: Either watch, detached, as the true-believers go round and round, or sit on the steps and start mulling over where to go from here. 

21 comments:

  1. I understand perfectly what you are saying about MFA programs and the LitFic genre, which, to me, is mere pretty writing.

    But in your analogy to the Federal Reserve, you're going after an open letter published on scribd, a self publishing site, where almost no one reads anything. If this letter were so important what is it doing on scribd? So what is the point?

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  2. To answer Tim Chambers: Perhaps I didn't make it clear, but Athreya's letter was widely read among economic commentators and bloggers. Though it might have been published obscurely in scribd, it garnered a disproportionate amount of attention, and was widely perceived as having been released with Bernanke and the Fed's at least tacit endorsement. GL.

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  3. Actually, and perhaps regretably, I am more of a writer than a reader. Yet, I most certainly would read your book. It might make a better movie for after the dust starts to clear.

    Sunflower
    Tess of Kansas.

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  4. I really enjoy your point of view as you cut through the smog of the mess that is the USA today. I would love to read your book please do self publish if necessary.

    Kathleen of Virginia

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  5. Thank you both Tess of Kansas, and Kathleen of Virginia—you are both very kind to say such nice things about my foolish ramblings. I hope you enjoy what I'm working on in the future. As always, if you have a question you want answered, feel free to e-mail me, and I'll do my best. GL.

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  6. " In the sciences—with peer reviews, replicable experiments, and quantifiable results—it’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s right and someone’s wrong."

    That is generally true - but there are cases where the government puts its thumb on the scale for political reasons (most notable example: "climate change"). The fact is that the scientific establishment in the universities is hopelessly corrupted by its addiction to government money.

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  7. I'll make a donation to read it.

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  8. I've just discovered you and your blog after listening to your interview on Alternative Right. Please do publish your book - I'm not very knowledgeable about the publishing industry, but I think that it is pretty easy to self-publish and sell e-books...Best wishes from Italy.

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  9. I love your writing. Please publish your book. If you believe in the veracity of the market place, then put your book out there. We are starving for good writing of clear thinking. Please. Publish.
    Rita

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  10. I'd love to read it also! I really enjoy your blog... your commentary on economics, as well as the other topics you tackle.

    (I'm not afraid of a long book!)

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  11. Gonzalo,
    The brainiacs at the Fed realize that their pseudo-science methods of duping the public about the true nature of their activities has lost its effectiveness. To counter this, they have created a blog that masquerades as a personal finance blog. http://www.PopEconomics.com/

    A few minutes of perusing some of the posts reveals that it is a Fed wolf in sheep's clothing. It is easy to see that it is written to encourage those in their 20s and 30s to adopt ideas that will allow the Fed to continue its fleecing of our wallets. It is not a coincidence that the blog icon is a drawing of Ben Bernanke.

    I began following this blog and posting comments in February. It soon became obvious that the comments I left that pointed out contradictions and circular arguments were being used to create new content. One of my comments, which pointed out several glaringly contradictory personal finance recommendations, was deemed too confusing to readers to be posted.

    The latest idea being peddled there? Don't save too much money. If you do, you are a miser and a tightwad. You are also abnormal and mentally unstable.

    The emperor has no clothes. In the age of the internet, they can't hide what they are doing any more.

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  12. Again, good stuff. You say explicitly a lot of things that are in the back of my mind. I have a M.A. in English/creative writing -- and a Ph.D. in the humanities. During my M.A. I learned to stop turning in experimental fiction, because I couldn't get decent feedback on issues of plot, character, etc. So I started writing what I termed "creative writing class short stories." The result was that Frederick Barthelme (the chair of my thesis committee) said of the final story I turned in to him that it was "technically perfect." The difference between me and everyone else, though, is that I continued to write what I wanted on the side. Others completely succumed. And I saw that again during my Ph.D. Fortunately, I worked with Frederick Turner during my Ph.D., so I was really challenged, made rebellious with encouragement. I only began writing plays after I graduated. Verse plays -- often rhyming. (Hopefully) Universalist. Very not-creative writing program. Naturally, I have been having a hard time getting them performed, even though the one play that was performed, for a playwrighting festival, won the audience award. That's right, a cominc rhyming verse play based on The Iliad won was most popular with the audience. Go figure.

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  13. I'd like to see your novel on Kindle's marketplace.

    anarchyland

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  14. I have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and I think it ludicrous the way the economists use math. (I love your description "shop-lifting.")
    I have recently written a novel "The Opposite is Equally True." In it I have compared economics with astrology as it is practiced in Dr. Athrey's native India. It contains planets, stellar constellations, zodiacs and mathematical equations (I am not kidding) that govern man's fate. Needless to say, they never work, but astrology boasts hundreds of millions of believers. Maybe our economists can learn something from them.
    One other note: Although my novel is not anywhere as long as yours, I still can't find an agent, let alone a publisher.

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  15. Do self-publish, if necessary - I've bought several self-published print-on-demand books recently and have no complaints.

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  16. "Modern academia is structured the way it is because it is the best and most efficient way of producing results—in the sciences."
    Huh?
    I just finished a science phd at a Research I university, and trust me, academic science works in exactly the same way as academic creative writing. You might think that "it’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s right and someone’s wrong," but with the vast majority of what gets funded and/or published there's a great deal of judgment involved, and the judgment is made by the fossilized professoriate. It might be the "most efficient way of producing results", if the "results" that you're referring to are trivial, incremental "me too" papers and billions spent on massive "interdisciplinary" research centers to churn out more of the same.
    If you think about how government-grant-funded academic research works, you'll realize that no other outcome is really possible.

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  17. Ah, like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bradzone/5454589448

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  18. 100% Agree with Anon at November 27, 2010 5:26 PM.

    There are hard sciences and there are soft sciences. Economics and Biological sciences are not that far from each other in their softness.

    If you think whatever they are recommending you to eat is based on real science, then you are in for a very painful life, as most of the people are suffering.

    It is a bit better in the hard sciences, only because it is much more difficult to fudge there. But even in physics there are horribly contrived theories which will earn you a scholarship. You may have heard of (Cold) Dark Matter and Dark Energy. These are both so out of touch with the reality. Then there is the whole String Theory business.

    Heard of the Surfer Dude, the physicists who is not part of the establishment, and gave the exceptionally simple theory of everything. This guy was forced out because he would not work on string theory.

    Before I forget, thanks for your beautiful insights into the financial world. It has changed my outlook on investment. I guess you have made me richer in the financial sense as well.

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  19. As the holder of an MFA who woke up, went to law school, and made an actual living (yes, spare me, lawyers do actual work), and a former stockbroker and avid student of markets and today's faux-economics, I agree with every single word.

    For what it's worth, my advice is to self-publish the novel. Traditional publishing is as dead as the U.S. dollar.

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  21. Gonzalo, do you not think the bane of the hour is this drive for professionalism via the Academy? One goes to college to become a chemist or a lawyer or a poet, overlooking that chemistry can like law be taught and poetry needs to be nourished. Instead of the creative act being nurtured the attitude of the actinng as if one were something is nourished. It is as if all of us are living in Paris after World War I playing George Plimpton flourishing our cape as we sail from bar to bar. This has to be the result of the creation of a mass market in education, and a mass market in everything. Gresham's Law operates.

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Whether you agree with me or not, thank you for your comment.

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If you have a question or a private comment, do feel free to e-mail me at my address expat229@gmail.com.

GL