Anti-Snob

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/08/090608crat_atlarge_menand

Please follow the link above for an interesting, occasionally scary, article about post-graduate programs for creative writing.  I confess that parts of this article irritated me–smug assertions that the state of “literary” fiction has never been better, mostly due to MFA programs churning out the cream of the wannabe writer crop.  Give me a break.  Of course, I tend to be a bit crabby on this subject.  Both my parents were successful artists who spent very little time in a classroom learning the technical stuff.  Too poor to afford tuition to MFA programs, mom and dad picked up their skills from books and the occasional class at the local Art Colony, an eclectic summer art school that had no university or college affiliations.

So . . .  if a character can be an anti-hero (somehow still being a hero without possessing the standard heroic qualities) can I be an anti-snob?  I remember a few years ago an excellent short story writer joined one of the critique groups I belong to.  After this writer shared one of her many great stories, another member of the group turned to us and said, his eyes aglow, “She has a MFA, you know.”   The way he said it made it sound like her talent was mostly due to her attending a prestigious masters program in creative writing, that the masters program had somehow made her a “literary” writer instead a hack. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to masters level programs for writing–in fact, I’m attending such a class this fall.  Like the author concludes at the end of theabove  linked article, I feel that anything that helps more people write and then share and improve their writing can only be a good thing.  However, being a snob about it isn’t a good thing, and we have far too many university- and college-minted snobs in all fields of study these days.  I call it the tyranny of those educated just enough to be dangerous. 

Probably no surprise here, but I take offense to the designations literary and genre.  This started in my childhood, when I dipped into every novel I could get my hands on, no matter style or content.  I just loved to read.   It was in these early years with Nancy Drew, the Borrowers, Narnia, and many other unforgettable lands and characters, that I came to the unconscious (at that time) conclusion that writing should entertain, first and foremost, because if it doesn’t accomplish this basic feat, then why should the reader care about theme, symbolism, and the other abstractions that the literati salivate over? 

This nebulous discontent with the designation “literary” solidified into outright rebellion when I read A Reader’s Manifesto  by B.R. Myers.  I can picture many talented writers in my acquaintance rolling their eyes at the mention of Myers, but for better or worse, his Manifesto has irrevocably influenced how I approach writing.   Instead of putting some of our best storytellers into neat little genre boxes that forever assign them a lesser quality than their “literary” colleagues, let’s ask ourselves two simple questions whenever we read a book.  First of all, no matter the writing style, is the story entertaining or boring?  Second, if it’s entertaining, is it entertaining like a television sitcom that you’ll forget as soon as the TV goes off or is it entertaining in a way that resonates with you?  If it’s entertaining and it resonates, it’s good literature, no matter if it’s fantasy, romance, thriller, or God forbid, “literary.”

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6 Comments

  1. graylor

    July 13th, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    If a story isn’t entertaining, no one but literary snobs will read it. Who wants to write for them? ;-p

    Seriously, the story/characters/whatever it is the writer wants to convey comes first. The artificial disinction between genre and literary are imposed from outside and probably shouldn’t even be on the writer’s mind in the first place. Tell the damn story, let other people work out what it “means”.

  2. David Carrott

    July 14th, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Well Amen Sister! I am going to be a great programmer and I will not be going to college to get there, although it might be fun to go to some college parties.

  3. Karen

    July 14th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you–I love your distinction between what comes from outside versus what comes from inside. Sometimes the stuff from outside is good stuff, and sometimes it’s just meaningless noise that will add nothing to your work and in fact, if you listen to the meaningless noise too much, it may detract from your work. Good point, well-stated.

  4. Karen

    July 14th, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Amen yourself! And I only want to go to the college parties if there are cool people like you there.

  5. Yugo Lalla

    July 15th, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Is an anti-snpb a snob that doesn’t possess the standard snob qualities?
    I just read a poem by Ferlinghetti (“Constantly Risking Absurdity) that compares writer’s (poets) to tightrope walkers. He encourages the idea that the artist/writer performs with an eye to not “mistaking any thing for what it may not be.” While performing this balancing act he/she strives to catch Beauty in her death defying leap. So, the art of writing (or any art) is not educated but learned from practice where developing that skilled balance that allows the writer/poet to be a presence that captures beauty in the process of walking the tightrope with all its truth and daring, trucks and pirhouettes, and “sleight of foot” – all without the mistake of too much concern for the audience and too little concern for the truth of the task. Education can give you examples and techniques, but it can’t make you an artist. And yes, there is an audience that must enjoy and appreciate what you’ve done.

  6. Karen

    July 17th, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    You are correct in your interpretation of anti-snob (or at least how I meant it to be interpreted). I choose that particular term tongue-in-check, since I have a fondness for anti-heros, and I felt that I was being just a wee bit prejudiced in the other direction from the MFA worshippers in my post. Anyhow, thanks for you intelligent comment. I particularly like the sentence “Education can give you examples and techniques, but it can’t make you an artist.” I think this captures the truth I was trying to get at.



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