Wading through the elitist BS
One of my favorite news sites posted an article by Ryan Boudinot, an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher, about writing students. The article is an incredibly good example of both clickbait and elitist BS. And the writing blogs have reacted in a manner which is just increasing the traffic to the article, making it likely the site will put up more of the same. If you haven’t seen it, yet, here’s a link using the excellent Donotlink.com service: Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One – The Stranger, which will get you to the article without increasing its search stats.
A lot of people have posted rebuttals, I provide regular links to some of the best at the end of this post. The point I most disagree with is Boudinot’s definition of “serious reader.”
If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more… I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.
You know who else never read The Great Gatsby? Charles Dickens. William Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde. William Blake. Lord Byron. True, those are all famous authors and poets who died before Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, but my point is that you can’t claim someone is incapable of becoming a writer if they haven’t read any one specific book. You also can’t deride them for thinking of “the classics” as a single monolithic thing out of one side of your mouth, then deride everyone who hasn’t read and enjoyed the exact same books as you out of the other.
My own reaction to Gatsby was summed up perfectly by H.L. Mencken in a review shortly after it was published, “in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.”
It is true that in order to be a good writer you must also read, a lot. And what you read needs to be diverse. It needs to include both the difficult and the comfortable. If your favorite kind of book is post-modernist magic realism, you need to read some gritty detective novels at least once in a while. If you are into hard science fiction you need to read something like Ullyses or The Grapes of Wrath or The Razor’s Edge from time to time. And so on.
Style or genre of book isn’t the only type of diversity you should aspire to. K.T. Bradford, in I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year lays out the case for diversifying the authors you read, as well as the type of stories you read.
Boudinot has another point buried in there. A writer should love language. You can’t learn how to wrestle your own sentences into conveying the idea you want without regularly wrestling other people’s writings to see what can be done with the language. Also, you don’t have to love a book to learn from it. If Boudinot explained that to his student who didn’t like stories that made her work hard, and afterward she still refused to read challenging work, then he’d be justified in being disappointed.
Buried in a lot of his paragraphs are some nuggets of truth. If you can’t find the time to do the homework for a class you’ve signed up for, you’re wasting your time and money, as well as the time of the instructor and the other students in the class. In the broader sense, if you want to be a writer you have to write. That means you have to make the time to write. No one else can do that for you.
And yes, no matter how good or important or interesting your idea is, if you can’t write it well enough for readers to understand and care, you’re not going to succeed as a writer.
All of which brings us to the biggest gripe with Boudinot’s article. He doesn’t explain himself well, at all. He presents provably false statements as if they are facts, he buries the pith of his argument inside a lot of snarky griping about the students, and the main purpose of the exercise seems to be to pat himself on the back for being better than said students. A direct contradiction of one of his other pronouncements.
Anyway, I promised links to some other replies to Boudinot’s article. Here you go:
Lots of people are linking to Chuck Wendig’s acerbic (and somewhat potty-mouthed) takedown: AN OPEN LETTER TO THAT EX-MFA CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER DUDE. While I agree with a lot of Mr Wendig’s conclusions, I can’t endorse his tone any more than I endorse the original article.
Laura Valeri (herself a double MFA and still teaching) wrote a more politely phrased take down, Those Who Teach, Can – A Formal Reply to Ryan Boudinot’s Post on Teaching if you’re interested in a point-by-point response from a teacher who thinks it’s the teacher’s responsibility to actually, you know, teach.
Update: I’ve written a few follow-ups:
Running about with lit matches about the ways people are discouraged from reading.
Apologist shovels more BS on the elite pile about people making excuses for the original op-ed.