Tuesday, March 31, 2015

You Have Nothing To Say At Your Age

So many budding young writers are arriving on the literary scene as graduate programmes churn out these masters of the fine arts. They know the angst of youth, and still recall the misery of their teen-aged years. They think they have so much to say, possessed as they believe they are with keen insight that must be shared with the reading public.

A life lived in the safety of academia, however, is not really one that anyone cares to read about.

Cynthia Ozick sees the relative lack of value in the work of a young writer, a person unformed because their wings are not yet dry.

Ms. Ozick knows a thing or two about writing. She has an impressive resume of work to her credit, and her voice resonates as she calls on new writers to go back to the old way of doing things. An apprenticeship must be served before the new writer can take their place at an equal level with the old writer. The current trend of MFA worship is only encouraging the young to flood the market with drivel that lacks the maturity needed to create great works of literary art. What would be better for these potential authors is time. Time to get out and live, to observe life and make a personal study of human nature and man's many foibles. To study what was done when literature was great and writing had the power to move people.

After all, neither Charles Dickens or Dashiel Hammett ever earned an advanced degree to learn how to construct a novel. George Sand never sat through a course on narrative arcs, nor did Edith Wharton study the finer points of plot development. Tolstoy was no student of creative writing in his Russian youth, yet he managed to compose some very complex novels that are still popular today.

As Ms. Ozick sees it, MFA graduates go on to become MFA instructors teaching other MFA students so that in time, they, too, will teach others how to write. The degree is no guarantee of literary success and tends to produce more failed writers. So what good is all the money spent to acquire the degree when you'd be better off sitting at your kitchen table of an evening, writing in your spare time?

Considering how difficult it is to land a job these days, why not just set up a writing area in your childhood bedroom and crank out some prose? Chances are, you are living with your parents and you need something to do to fill the time. Go to the local library and read the great books that were assigned reading in secondary school, and really read them. All the coursework you need is right there, and it is available at a greatly reduced price when compared to the cost of graduate school.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy takes exception to Ms. Ozick's thesis, noting quite correctly that the sorts of publishing jobs that put an aspiring writer into contact with an actual writer have become unpaid internships, so the old pipeline has dried up. New writers can't be like old writers.

Except that the writers Ms. Ozick mentions did not work in publishing. The pipeline to publication does not run through New York City.

It is also true that the business model for publishing has changed since the days when an F. Scott Fitzgerald could expect an editor to work with him and tweak a manuscript. When was the last time that anyone heard of a publisher taking on an author because an editor saw potential or raw talent that could be cultivated?

The publishing industry is in decline, it is said, and book sales are down. There are those who blame a weak economy and the numerous distractions, along with fierce competition for the entertainment budget.

Could it be that the publishing industry has been chasing the wrong trend, and has left readers behind? That a writer has a degree that shows they know how to construct a novel and edit the manuscript to decrease the publisher's costs does not mean that the writer is creative enough to entertain readers with a story cleverly told. Readers have not changed that much over time, to desire a novel that is structurally sound but not esthetically pleasing.

Are we bringing up the next generation of writers to believe that the business of publishing no longer has room for the art of prose? With investors running the show instead of leaving things to the old-style publisher, are we left with books that lack art because because there is no guarantee of profit in fiction?

No comments: