I left the world of creative writing behind long ago for various reasons. I won a few poetry awards in college, then took a few workshops as a graduate student. One reason I gave it up was because of a book entitled The American Poetry Wax Museum by Jed Rasula. It’s a long book with tons of documentation, but the basic argument is that American poetry died around 1970 or so. Or rather, it became completely irrelevant because it became a racket — “poets” had well-paid jobs as English professors, and they taught students how to emulate their style, and then they gave these students awards, and then later hired them as English professors. The whole thing became a scam, basically, and American poetry dwindled into the boring, self-pitying, post-confessional style that you, as a reader, have every right to ignore (cough Billy Collins cough).
So the recent debate over the state of fiction and creative writing programs (“MFA vs. NYC”) is interesting to me. Basically, American fiction is going the way of American poetry:
“Thus the fiction writer’s MFA increasingly resembles the poet’s old Ph.D.; not in the rigors of the degree itself — getting an MFA is so easy — but in the way it immerses the writer in a professional academic network. She lives in a college town, and when she turns her gaze forward and outward, toward the future and the literary world at large, she sees not, primarily, the New York cluster of editors and agents and publishers but, rather, a matrix of hundreds of colleges with MFA programs, potential employers all, linked together by Poets & Writers, AWP, and summertime workshops at picturesque make-out camps like Sewanee and Bread Loaf. More links, more connections, are provided by the attractive, unread, university-funded literary quarterlies that are swapped between these places and by the endowments and discretionary funds that deliver an established writer-teacher from her home program to a different one, for a well-paid night or week, with everybody’s drinks expensed. This system of circulating patronage may have some pedagogical value but exists chiefly to supplement the income of the writer-teacher and, perhaps more important, to impress on the students the more glamorous side of becoming — of aspiring to become — a writer-teacher.”
As someone who interned for one of American’s most prestigious literary journals as a college student, this is 100% true. In America poets write only for other poets. And it sounds like fiction MFA graduates now only write for other fiction MFA graduates.
I still read a hell of a lot, I just no longer feel obligated to wade through “serious” novels if they bore me (cough Jeffrey Eugenides cough). And I don’t think I shy away from difficulty either (my favorite recent novels are by Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Amitav Ghosh). But a book is a time commitment among others, and the pay-off has to be worth it.
That little voice in my head that used to tell me I had to read so-and-so’s latest, or that a certain writer wasn’t god-awfully boring but actually “provocative” or “important”? Dead and gone and my life is much richer since it wilted away.