Friday, April 29, 2011

In which I argue with the Bookslut

When Henry James minted the phrase “loose baggy monsters” he was referring to 19th century Russian novels. Which ironically, are less loose and baggy than most of his own work, The Golden Bowl, for example. But “loose baggy monsters" really best describes some blog entries (my own included), which being not subject to any editorial (or generally renumerative) forces, are free to wander all over the place. Such is the case of Jessa Crispin’s recent column in The Smart Set (she's the book slut, apparently, of Bookslut).

Whole article here:

Reading a loose baggy monster puts a lot of pressure on the reader to ferret out what’s interesting. But mostly a loose baggy monster will just send a reader to another link, or, optimistically speaking, to a physical text.

Crispin’s “A Sea of Words” is about a lot of things, among them: a complaint that there are too many books, a snarky review of Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness, as well as various books about writing, a complaint about the MFA degree, a complaint that people don’t read enough, a complaint against the work of writers who have an MFA.

It’s a depressing damned piece of writing. Why do I respond at all? Unfortunately the truth within it compels me to weigh in on her more ludicrous statements.

Her first paragraph is absolutely sobering: she lives in Berlin where she receives 30 books a week, unbidden, for review. Down from 15—30 per day. “Now,” she says, “they have landed here with a clip-art book cover, a cheap binding, and a $12.00 stamp to send it to critic who doesn’t even review fiction anymore.”

I return often to this line from Walden, usually in reference to some undertaking of my own: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?”

In fact: I myself had been looking at clip art for an idea I had for a cover of one of my own books. When I read that line, I felt that I recognized my own desperation. And I didn't like it. I hereby renounce desperation.

Further on Crispin observes:

“The books disappear as quickly as they are released, unable to cut through all the noise. And there are those that might not even bother anymore. Does one dare to raise one’s voice above the commotion, try to draw some attention away from those taking up the spotlight? Who gets in that rarified space is still determined by the writer’s gender, connections, beauty, nepotism, youth, or “platform.” Not even the most idealistic among the cultural critics bother to argue that the system is merit-based.”

(Well, Prufrock may not have dared, but it's a rhetorical question and the answer is "yes.")

Thinking about it, that’s an interesting, and sort of uneven, list. Gender–we’re given (although some even mess around with that); connections–well, actually you make those yourself; beauty–yeah, it probably helps, I wouldn’t know; nepotism–see connections; youth–arguable; “platform”—completely self-determined. I think her list is not so depressing as she is (to paraphrase Thoreau again).
But it is definitely true that the system is not merit-based. Yet by complaining about this she is implying that it was merit-based at some earlier un-debased time. Not. Same as it ever was.

Nonetheless, talk about an example of a bestseller not being merit based: when I learned (i.e. became obsessed with) the Greg Mortenson fiasco, all I could dwell on was the fact that his donation financed non-profit spent 1.75 million in the year 2009 promoting his book Three Cups of Tea. Oh! So that’s how you stay on the NYT bestseller list for over four years. Now I get it. (The pisser is that the profits of the book went to GM himself, not to the non-profit. Oy, what a mess!)

I won’t comment here on what Crispin actually says about the books she purports to be reviewing, except to say, she’s probably right about them.

I am moving to the red cape she has waved in my face. I must charge. “ . . . because everyone is now invited to be a writer we have an industry built up to teach writing to the masses. I’m not alone in thinking of the MFA industry as predatory.”

First, of all: she can’t really be aware of how elitist that first part sounds, can she? Secondly, “predatory?” Please. She seems to base this on unstated assumptions about what an MFA “promises” its students. Her assumptions, whatever they might be, are wrong.

We don’t promise publication, or employment. We only promise to improve a students’ writing as much as it can be improved in whatever amount of time it takes to get the degree. Fuzzy, I know. But that’s the “contract.”

Furthermore, I would like to point out that basically MFA degrees are only predatory in the way that any university humanities program is predatory. Does she really think less literacy is a preferable state of affairs?

She makes me laugh (with her, this time) when she asks, “what could the appeal possibly be? Writers are the social embarrassment in our culture, generally portrayed on television and in movies as sexually hapless, overweight, balding, constipated bores who can’t dress themselves properly.”

That cracked me up, although I have absolutely no idea to what portrayals she refers.

She concludes: “Those taking their money [MFA programs, presumably] probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them in on all the other ways to go about things.”

And that’s where I think she exactly does not know of which she speaks. We do exactly what she thinks we don’t.

Dear Jessa, we are sorry you’re depressed. Why don’t you take break from your blog and read a book for pleasure. Or get way from language for a while (even though watching television and movies don’t seem to be working for you either). It’s spring in Berlin, right? Get out of that apartment, take a walk, it might do you some good. Peace--ds

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