THE FICTION MACHINE The Workshop and the hacks. : "This is but fancy; however, I was reminded of Narayan's machine recently while reading the Best New American Voices 2006, an anthology edited by Jane Smiley. The book gives such a desultory vision of the future of American letters that one can only hope its title is wrong. Without ignoring the occasional flashes of verve, the stories included are so monotonous that they seem to have been written by a single person of middling talent. All but one of them are written in the first person; a similar percentage hinge upon the narrator's difficulties with dysfunctional or deceased members of his or her family, or with ex-lovers. The tone is always confessional and saturated with self-pity. The plot and action are always negligible"
There's much commentary aroundabout this article by Sam Sacks in the New York Press. And with good reason. Whenever someone sets himself up as an authority about something which many people have opinions, he/she is liable to say something to upset many. I will say this from the outset: Sacks is not all wrong.
I haven't had a chance to peak at the Best New American Voices yet, but I suspect what Sacks says is correct. So much of what I read of what is being published lately fits this mold. Autobiographical, first person, limted epiphany/resolution. This is the reason I tend not to read these collections. But it should be noted that this is an edited collection. These are stories chose by a particular editor, this time Jane Smiley, and I don't think that they in any way represent what is being produced out of today's MFA programs.
I am a product of one of these MFA programs, and it is natural to take offense when someone accuses the workshops of only being a mill to churn out teachers for other writing programs. Sacks's portrayal of the workshop seems misplaced and a tad resentful, but if he's looking for mentorship the workshop is the wrong place. As Rick Moody pointed out in his Atlantic article in this year's fiction edition, mentorship is entirely different than what we see in today's workshops. The workshops I experienced were filled with other writers whom I respected (those who couldn't be respected could be ingnored), and were led by professors (writers) who took their responsibility and their own writing seriously. These professors faced the same limits that anybody, any mentor, might in their ability to communicate their vision or understand the vision or intent of the workshop participants (of course certain professors held it against me when I wouldn't alter a story to suit their ideals and punished me with a lower grade than I believe I deserved, while at the same time rewarding other less involved in the class who also happened to be of the same gender as the professor--but that's a rant for another time).
Sure, anyone who teaches is liable to hand down doctrine, liable to attempt to bundle what they know into digestible chunks. It's for those on the receiving end to understand what to do with it. And maybe it is dumbed down to help everyone find a way to take something away. I simple believe that the system is inteded to nuture writers and help them develop their own style, while teaching the value of revision (which I'll be writing more about soon) and the community of other writers.
I went to graduate school to become a better writer, not to feel better about myself or to justify myself as a writer. Not to network and not to prepare myself to teach writing. And the program did not put too much emphasis in publication, even though Sacks seems to think that anyone can get published anymore because, of course, of the overabundence of writing workshops. Oh, and of course, what is greatness as Sacks sees it? Tolstoy is great, but can we truly judge what of the things be written today will be seen as great in the future? It just might be one of those stories that Sacks has just written off.