Literature

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part IV: The Sadia Shepard Incident

This is the final part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part Three can be found here.

The New Yorker was founded in 1925 as a humour magazine with an arch, self-consciously sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. It soon evolved into a general-interest weekly with a focus on fiction, literature, ‘high culture’ in general, and what is now known as long-form journalism. Under William Shawn (1907-1992), who edited the magazine from 1952 to 1987, the New Yorker became the best-known, most prestigious venue for short stories in the English-speaking world. Writers still aspire to have their work published there, even though fiction now rivals the poetry as the element of the magazine most frequently skipped by its 1.2 million readers.

Occasionally the New Yorker features stories by authors of genuinely classic stature: Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Alice Munro (1931- ), Sir V. S. Naipaul (1932- ), and – most recently – Primo Levi (1919-1987), whose “Quaestio de Centauris” was published in the annual Fiction Issue in June 2015. More typically, the magazine’s finest short fiction has been by writers such as John Cheever (1912-1982), John Updike (1932-2009), J. D. Salinger (1919-2010), and Raymond Carver (1938-1988), to name the most famous contributors from the Shawn era. These are minor masters at best: in general, their stories do not survive translation, and are ultimately most valuable as glimpses of American life in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Recently, the New Yorker has started to slant towards superficially experimental, critical-theory-driven ‘postmodern’ fiction. The range of concerns has shifted somewhat to reflect the magazine’s increasingly progressive stances on social, political, and economic issues; though the intended audience remains the same as it always has been: upwardly mobile, socially insecure professionals. Such people usually enjoy a high level of education and liberal or left-leaning political views, and wish to associate themselves with cultural élites in New York City and/or the more prestigious universities, if only in their imagined lives. A high proportion of New Yorker readers appear to be schoolteachers, college lecturers, or postgraduate students; or at least this is the target audience for the fiction, now that this part of the magazine has been taken over by institutionalised Creative Writing.

New Yorker short stories rarely have an obvious impact on the broader culture; though there have been recent exceptions, most notably Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” (11 December, 2017), which went viral online shortly after publication, and swiftly became one of the magazine’s most widely-read pieces of 2017. The story describes a brief, failed relationship between a 20-year-old girl and a 34-year-old man, and has been described by numerous online commentators as emblematic of Millennial women’s bad experiences with dating. Whilst not as compelling or well written as Katie Way’s blog piece for Babe.net on an anonymous photographer’s one-night stand with the comedian Aziz Ansari, it seems a feature of the same general cultural phenomenon. This is an isolated case of a New Yorker story with relatively wide appeal.

Latterly, New Yorker fiction has often centred around Creative Writing, although social issues are occasionally mentioned as a means of reassuring readers that the magazine’s writers and editors do indeed continue actively to oppose Donald Trump in various ways. John Edgar Wiseman’s story “Writing Teacher” (22 January, 2018) is narrated by a Creative Writing instructor. Colin Barrett’s “Whoever Is There, Come On Through” (1 January, 2018) features a would-be writer in Ireland who is discharged from hospital two weeks after Trump’s election; his first words are “Who won the US Election?” “Texas” by David Gates (15 January, 2018) is more generally institutional: one character is an artist who advertises a house for rent in the New York Review of Books; his tenants are a couple consisting of a husband who is a composer subsisting on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a wife who earned her MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia. Rachel Kushner’s “Stanville” (12 and 19 February, 2018) boasts as its main character an isolated man (probably a writer) who ends up teaching literature (rather than Creative Writing) in a women’s prison.

It would be instructive to count the number of recent New Yorker stories set in institutions that look like writers’ colonies and university Creative Writing departments. Many of their writers seem unable to conceive of life outside of a closed system controlled by a large bureaucracy.

Another recent New Yorker trend has been the essay-story. In Nicole Krauss’s “Seeing Ershadi” (5 March, 2018), the main character is a member of a dance company who watches a great many art-house movies; the story is essentially a fictionalised essay on the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016). The life of a dancer is made to sound remarkably like that of a procrastinating Creative Writing instructor’s; early in the story, the narrator develops tendinitis, and so has a great deal of time to watch films and reflect on them at length. Zadie Smith’s essayistic story “The Lazy River” (18 and 25 December, 2017) is set at a luxurious all-inclusive resort hotel in southern Spain instead of (for once) a hospital, university, or arts organisation; the setting enables a few guilt-inducing brief encounters with African migrants, which seem to be the point of the story. “The Boundary” by Jhumpa Lahiri (29 January, 2018) is not quite an essay, but a writing exercise: the author learnt Italian whilst on a writer’s residency at the American Academy at Rome; this is only the latest story that she has written in basic Italian, then translated faithfully into English, for whatever reason.

The New Yorker has not abandoned conventional literature entirely. If a certain kind of pretentious, self-consciously ‘highbrow’ manner is increasingly prevalent (for example, the Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee’s “The Dog,” 4 December, 2017), entertaining traditional short stories are still published sometimes. Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Bronze” (5 February, 2018) is the most aesthetically satisfying piece of fiction published in the magazine for some time. The narrative unfolds in 1978, and explores some of the nuances of New York’s gay culture through a meeting on a train between a stoned, flamboyantly queer-seeming undergraduate and a jaded thirty-eight-year-old actor who recognises something of his own former self in the lad’s narcissistic posturing. Eugenides overdoes the literary references somewhat (the material involving Latin poetry could have been handled with a lighter touch), but on the whole this is an absorbing story with convincing characters and a finely judged sense of atmosphere.

Mrs. Crasthorpe” (26 February, 2018) is one of the last stories written by William Trevor (1928-2016), the distinguished Irish writer who first contributed to the magazine in 1977. Whilst nowhere near Trevor’s best work, “Mrs. Crasthorpe” typifies the ‘classic’ New Yorker short story. The fussy tone, precious language, and fixation on gentility might annoy many readers; but status obsession has always been part of the magazine’s appeal. There will always be an audience for snobbery, even at this shabby-genteel level.

Perhaps the most controversial New Yorker story of recent years is Sadia Shepard’s “Foreign-Returned” (8 January, 2018). Shepard, a documentary filmmaker, producer, and memoirist, has taught at Wesleyan University and in Columbia University’s Creative Writing program. The daughter of a white Protestant father from Colorado and a Pakistani mother, Shepard has written a book about herself and her identity, (The Girl From Foreign: A Memoir, 2008). As a filmmaker, her oeuvre is split between personal explorations of religion, identity, and Indian and Pakistani culture (In Search of the Bene Israel, 2008; The Other Half of Tomorrow, 2012; The Education of Mohammed Hussein, 2013) and a documentary about Vogue magazine (The September Issue, 2009), which she produced. “Foreign-Returned” is her first published piece of fiction.

Sadia Shepard in 2009 (Source: YouTube)

The main characters in “Foreign-Returned” are all Pakistani Muslims. Hassan and his wife Sara are immigrants from Karachi who lived in New York for seven months until Hassan lost his job in an investment bank. Now they live in Connecticut in reduced circumstances. Hassan works as an analyst, and shares an office with Hina, the 22-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Unlike Hassan and his wife, Hina is a practising Muslim. Her headscarf is a prominent feature of the narrative.

Hassan and Sara are isolated, bored, and lonely in Connecticut. For a few summer months they are regular weekend visitors at the home of the Ahmeds, a successful Pakistani-American family who throw Sunday-afternoon parties where Hassan and Sara feel compelled to lie about their financial status and relative success to people who call Hassan “H-man” and call one another “bro” despite being Pakistani immigrants in their fifties. Hassan is particularly humiliated one afternoon when he is asked to help barbecue some chicken and it turns out that he doesn’t know how to do it.

In the autumn, Hassan and Sara stop receiving invitations to these parties, and later find out that Hina has replaced them as a regular guest of the Ahmeds’. At this point politics intrude: one day in October, Hina (a volunteer for the Democrats in her spare time) goes canvassing for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and is harassed by some teenaged Trump supporters. In the aftermath of this mild assault, Hassan and Sara invite her for dinner. Sara has not thought to buy halal meat for their guest; Hina refuses to eat the steak Sara prepared. The evening is not a success.

After the election, Hassan and Sara find themselves back on the Ahmed’s guest list, at least for their “holiday party” during the Christmas season. Hina is also invited, and bothered by the fact that alcohol will be served at the party. She attends anyway. Hassan feels particularly out-of-place, as the least successful, worst-connected Pakistani immigrant among the men, many of whom are Trump supporters. Hassan goes to the kitchen and catches his wife in the middle of telling a face-saving lie; before he can expose her fabrication, Hina interrupts the conversation, claiming that she feels ill. Hassan is asked to take her home, even though he is too drunk to drive. He accompanies her home in a taxi; there are a few awkward not-quite-sexual moments; then Hina disappears into the bathroom and Hassan goes home, long before there is a threat of anything happening.

On Monday morning at work, Hina expresses her remorse that she spent time around people who were drinking, went home alone with a man who wasn’t married to her, and took off her headscarf in front of him. Then she tells Hassan the story of her life, and how she turned down a prospective husband when she was twenty. Two weeks later she is promoted to a managerial position, and Hassan never sees her again. He and Sara end up moving back to Karachi.

“Foreign-Returned” is not an impressive story. The dialogue is stiff and awkward; the characters and situations are under-imagined; there is a certain smoothness to the writing, but individual scenes are choppy, and little of the action is emotionally convincing. The New Yorker appears to have published this work for its ideological correctness rather than any obvious intrinsic qualities.

On 1 January, 2018, the New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman published a revealing interview with Sadia Shepard entitled “Sadia Shepard on the Nuances of Immigration and Cultural Identity.” Shepard’s motivation for writing this story seems to be entirely political. This discussion is not nearly as interesting as the one sparked by Treisman’s second-last question about literary influences.

Shepard claims to have been influenced by Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) and Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007), famous Pakistani writers whose names are vaguely dropped as lip-service to “cultural identity” issues. Shepard’s only visible influence is the Paris-based Canadian writer Mavis Gallant (1922-2014). She admits as much to Treisman:

This story owes a great debt to one of my favorite short-story writers, Mavis Gallant, and specifically to her story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” “Ice Wagon” is a story that I return to year after year, trying to put my finger on what the peculiar alchemy between her characters is and why the story works the way that it does. I remember reading Gallant’s story—which is largely about Canadians working in Geneva—and thinking, This feels so Pakistani. Gallant’s ability to create a fictional world that conveys a sense of truth that feels universal, or that might be applicable to a completely different context, is incredibly exciting to me.

This praise does not quite ring true, and demands investigation.

Gallant is arguably the archetypical writer of ‘classic’ New Yorker short stories. She is keenly observant when it comes to social nuances and status anxieties; her work tends to fixate on isolation, thwarted ambition, and people whose reputations are at best precarious. It might be most convenient to think of her as a less gifted cousin to Alice Munro. Gallant’s stories often feel like extended series of impressions; she gathers the materials for an excellent story, but then fails to organise it into a proper narrative. Her stories have come to be thought of as exemplary in Creative Writing circles, even though they have failed to captivate many readers, except for writers of shabby-genteel autobiographical fiction. Her work is comforting to would-be authors with limited aspirations.

The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” was first published in the New Yorker on 14 December, 1963. The main characters are Peter and Sheilah Frazier, a couple who spent nine years in Europe and the Far East. Peter comes from a once-prominent Toronto family; Sheilah is an ex-model from Liverpool whose family were “rat-poor.” The story unfolds as an extended flashback.

Peter and Sheilah spent a few months in Paris squandering a small inheritance; then they settled in a dingy flat in Geneva, where Peter found a mediocre job as a filing clerk. During their first summer there they were regular weekend guests of the Burleighs, successful Canadian emigrants who eventually dropped them. Peter ended up sharing an office with Agnes Brusen, an awkward, silent, devoutly Protestant girl from Saskatchewan who turned out to be friendly with the Burleighs. When Peter and Sheilah invited her for dinner at their flat, she stubbornly refused to eat the lobster Sheila prepared. The evening was not a success.

At a Mardi Gras party at the Burleighs’ home, Agnes embarrassed herself, and Peter took her home. There was a not-quite-sexual encounter; Agnes shared various details of her home life in Saskatchewan. The following Monday, Agnes expressed her remorse to Peter that she went to a party where alcohol was served. Again she dwelt on her former home life. Her memories of waking up early and seeing an ice wagon go down the street stuck in Peter’s mind, even after he and Sheilah left Geneva.

“The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” is by no standard a masterpiece; thus it seems strange that Shepard has essentially copied it scene for scene in “Foreign-Returned.” Agnes Brustein becomes Hina; the Burleighs become the Ahmeds; Peter and Sheilah from Toronto transform into Hassan and Sara from Karachi. Agnes’s Bible and framed degree certificate from the University of Saskatchewan become Hina’s Koran and accounting degree from the State University of New York at Albany. Some of Gallant’s dialogue is even lifted almost verbatim from the original. The only original element of Shepard’s story is the scene where Hina is “assaulted” by Trump supporters; otherwise Shepard has taken “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” and crudely changed settings and incidental details, often without stopping to consider whether these transformations make sense.

Francine Prose, a novelist well-known in the Creative Writing world, drew attention to Shepard’s apparent plagiarism in a series of public Facebook posts on 7th and 8th January (here, here, and here). She also wrote a letter to the editors of the New Yorker and this gets to the heart of her concerns:

Shepard, in an interview with the fiction editor Deborah Treisman, acknowledges a “great debt” to the Gallant story, but the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt,” and even of “homage,” or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period. Is it really acceptable to change the names and the identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?

The New Yorker does not seem to have shared her worries; beneath Prose’s letter they published a response by Shepard (“Prose’s assertions reflect both a profound misrepresentation of my work and a refusal to acknowledge the central role that cultural identity plays in my story”), as well as the following words by Jess Row, a Creative Writing instructor at the College of New Jersey:

As is usually the case when a literary debate erupts, we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige. Shepard’s critics have accused her of plagiarizing Gallant’s story, while refusing to admit that to transpose a work’s cultural setting, or racial perspective, while preserving its plot is a long-standing, valid, and increasingly vital extension of Ezra Pound’s command to “make it new.” This denies both Shepard and Gallant the respect they deserve. Gallant wrote a masterly story that embodies a certain time, place, and perspective; Shepard, who discovered it decades later, found a way to bring it to life again, putting the same human frailties into a different context. The real scandal here is the proprietary rage of Shepard’s critics, who insist that she has no right to this material. As if they were the ones in charge. [emphasis added]

The published replies are harsh enough in their accusations; the comments under Prose’s Facebook posts are shocking, and worth reading in full for what they reveal about an ugly, hysterical literary culture.

The fiercest attacks on Prose come from Creative Writing instructors: Randa Jarrar (Professor of Creative Writing at California State University, Fresno), Porochista Khakpour (MFA faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts), and Alexander Chee (Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College), all of whom cry racism, several times, at great length. They may have vested interests: in a tetchy response to comments by the writer David J. Clarke on 8 January, Chee notes in passing that he and Khakpour helped Shepard “workshop” this story through multiple drafts over several years. This likely helps explain why Chee insists on comparing Shepard to famous writers such as Zadie Smith, whilst Khakpour reminds Prose that “I have a long history of being inexplicably bullied by older white women with very excellent reputations, no matter what they say or do.” Jarrar’s comments are the angriest; Chee’s, the most insidiously passive-aggressive; Khakpour’s are the longest and most self-pitying.

Anti-Prose rhetoric spilled onto other Facebook pages. The novelist Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize in 2015 and teaches Creative Writing at Macalester College, did not find the courage to name the object of his attack, although there seems to have been little “self-righteous venom being dished out on Sadia Shepard’s story” other than Prose’s measured comments. Most of the “self-righteous venom” was directed at Prose. The writer Lincoln Michel at least had the grace not to insult Prose as he absolved Shepard of blame or guilt in an article for Lithub entitled “Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Remix.” Gina Apostol’s article “Francine Prose’s Problem” in the Los Angeles Review of Books on 17 January, 2018 begins with this:

Certain people are ill-read, and maybe they need a brown saviour to tell them how to read. This is the conclusion I have come to after looking at this non-controversy boiled up by writer Francine Prose — on Facebook, of course, where perhaps one should let non-controversies lie.

Apostol does not appear to know what ‘sui generis’ means; nor does she quite understand the term ‘trope.’ Both are used in her essay anyway, which also makes the claim that Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” composed in 1939, is a “classic explication of a poststructuralist theory of reading” of the sort which was not actually developed until the mid-1960s (Roland Barthes’s essay “La Mort de l’Auteur,” which introduced poststructuralism to a wide audience, was published in 1967). (NB: Apostol is not a Creative Writing instructor, or part of a writers’ colony or university-based literary institution. She teaches English at the Fieldston School in New York, which charges $48,645 USD per annum in tuition and fees.)

It is difficult to find anyone in the world of institutionalised Creative Writing who will defend Prose’s criticisms of Shepard, at least in public. The people at the heart of this scandal all know one other, and are the only real audiences for each other’s work. Prose appears to have accidentally laid bare a system that is as absurd as it is incestuous, tyrannical, and corrupt. Luckily she is over seventy years old, otherwise charges of “racism,” “bullying,” and “exploitation of white privilege” might have ruined her writing career, were it not already essentially over. She will probably never be published again by the New Yorker.

 

The Guardian, 24 February 2018

Institutionalised Creative Writing at first glance seems like Paradise to the aspiring writer: a secure teaching job; a guaranteed comfortable place to write, along with ample leisure time; access to literary agents, publishers, fellowships, grants and prizes; health insurance and an excellent university pension plan. If only this system had not been swallowed up by the modern bureaucratic university, with its lax admissions standards, lack of critical or aesthetic standards, low skill levels, ignorant personnel, exhausting discussions about critical theory, frightening ideological lynch mobs, and overall tendency towards mediocrity. Institutionalised Creative Writing has helped make contemporary literature as irrelevant and pointless as the study of contemporary literature, to the point where it is roughly as appealing to general readers as works of postmodern academic research.

Award-winning professional writers are now reduced to defending talentless peers who rip off the work of predecessors who weren’t particularly appealing to begin with. Any attempt to expose misconduct on the scale of Sadia Shepard’s will inevitably end in scream-rage and vitriol, as the Creative Writing ‘establishment’ desperately circle their wagons, subjecting whistle-blowers to vitriolic assaults by angry women and passive-aggressive men. All this for books that have no readers, or any possibility of lasting importance; literature within this little world is reduced to autobiographical memoirs, idle speculations that leave no trace on the broader culture or in society, and work designed to offend as few social-justice witch-hunters as possible. This must be what Hell is like.

A sign of how irrelevant even the New Yorker’s short stories have become in the age of university-based institutionalised Creative Writing: nobody in the real world has heard of Francine Prose, Sadia Shepard, Mavis Gallant or any of this controversy. Nobody cares. This whole system is rotten, toxic, and fundamentally useless. It needs to die.

 

The author works at an American university. ‘Sandra Kotta’ is a pseudonym.

35 Comments

  1. David says

    DAZZLING. Please keep going with this series. You have only just begun.

  2. Remote Control says

    Those last 3 paragraphs…WOW. Kind of sums it all up. Well done on this 4-part tour of the wreckage of American contemporary lit.

  3. Shannon says

    What is recommended for young aspiring writers of literature? What books/resources are recommended to them and everyone else?

    From Sandra Kotta’s series, these are the recommendations I gleamed: Do not even touch a Creative Writing program (no MFA). Take responsibility, aspiring writers, and learn the great Western canon. Write not for other writers, but for readers. Remember what literature is for—it’s for everyone (not just writers and Creative Writing staff). Do not perpetuate Modernism and Postmodernism, both are mostly pretentious and exclusionary (the latter might just be toxic). Aspire to write literature that will last. Write for a disinterested audience. Ask why a given piece was written, determine its meaning and wider purpose. Fuck the current literary system and find or create something new.

    I don’t know if Kotta would at all agree with this list, but it’s a start for those who, like me, are at the beginning of their writing careers. I’m very curious as to the literature she might recommend. I have a feeling it is all or mostly pre-programme. I’m going to openly recommend Lauren Groff’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” and the criticism it might attract. This story was included in The Best American Short Stories of 2014 and Groff went through the programme.

    I’d love for anyone to take the ‘gleamed recommendations’ and Groff’s story to task.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure that it’s possible to “learn the great Western canon” in a lifetime, and that might not be the first priority for a writer. Particularly one who hasn’t been trained from an early age in the necessary disciplines and languages (and these days a vanishingly small proportion of the population enjoys that sort of education, outside of Italy and France). It’s probably much more important to have a clear idea of whom specifically you’re writing for: after all, the audience ultimately get to decide whether or not a writer will have a career.

      Once the audience is identified, then questions include: what they will willingly hear, what will attract them and what language ought to be used to communicate with them. Also, in what forms will they listen to a writer? A villanelle (for example) makes for a nice writing exercise, but such a thing might not be of interest to the audience you’re trying to address. In that case would you try to find ways to make them listen, or find another form — or carry on composing villanelles for yourself?

      The tradition you want to work in might be the only one you need to know well. A playwright in Chicago (the best city in the world for new plays in English) doesn’t necessarily need to read very much: the theatre itself is a teacher there. Also, no playwright can afford to ignore just how good modern TV writing can be: after all, it’s the competition (cf. the career of Martin McDonagh — the sadism and nihilism of his work is wearying; on the other hand he can be magnificently entertaining).

      A playwright can get by without knowing a thing about Elizabethan revenge tragedy, or late-Victorian drawing-room comedy, or federally-funded regional theatre of the 1930s. None of this will likely be relevant to theatregoers or the playwright. But Shakespeare will, and Molière will, as the two greatest professional dramatists since antiquity. Nobody else has appealed to so many audiences over such a long period of time; playwrights, in Chicago and everywhere else, would be wise to spend at least a bit of time trying to learn how they managed to do this. Neither was, by contemporary standards, much of a scholar; but it would be a mistake to presume that they didn’t have an impressive grasp of the books they knew.

      [NB: perhaps the best thing I’ve ever read about American theatre: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/02/03/the-chitlin-circuit . August Wilson must be the most prodigiously gifted American playwright since Eugene O’Neill. His attitudes towards tradition and culture are well worth grappling with: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone. His views might not cohere with mine; then again, I didn’t write ‘Fences’ or ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’. I am, by the way, aware of the irony of my citing two ‘New Yorker’ articles in the comments below this essay.]

      You may have zero interest in the theatre; but perhaps the above might be instructive for your purposes nonetheless.

      I’m reluctant to provide a reading list for aspiring writers. In a previous comment I listed:

      1. Samuel Johnson’s ‘The Lives of the Poets’ (paperback abridgement: Oxford World’s Classics 2009);

      2. Gilbert Highet’s ‘The Classical Tradition’ (Oxford 1949; newest ed. 2015);

      3. Ezra Pound’s ‘ABC of Reading’ (New Directions 2010).

      In truth I have no idea how helpful these would be to anybody else. Most of my reading has been shaped by these, even though I’ve come to see their shortcomings in some ways. Still, all three of these books are inexhaustible as guides to reading. Though a writer might have other hard questions to ask before beginning any program of self-education.

      The only essential resources for literature, so far as I can tell, are something to say, someone to listen and (ideally) something to record the results with. The rest is up for argument.

      I don’t share your taste for Groff’s story, which I read a while back. And I leave it to others to quibble with your characterisation of these essays. But if you’ll permit me to take you to task for something else: the word is ‘glean’, not ‘gleam’.

      • Shannon says

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. Also, thanks for your correction of my embarrassing misusing of ‘gleam’.

        I take these reading recommendations quite seriously. I especially enjoy your distillation: “The only essential resources for literature, so far as I can tell, are something to say, someone to listen and (ideally) something to record the results with. The rest is up for argument.”

        I have a lot of reading to do!

  4. Graeme Sutton says

    This series was very interesting as a study of institutional dysfunction but aside from the waste of money I’m not clear on why I should care about the crappiness of creative writing departments. Granted I mostly read ‘genre’ fiction but there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of books to read, just the opposite.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thank you for this. The fact that there is a marked difference between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction is an important part of the problem, of course. Even more telling is the fact that one wouldn’t read the former for pleasure. I do wish ‘literary’ fiction were produced, distributed and circulated as ‘genre’ writing is — with the tastes, needs and desires of the reader always in mind (at least among those who manage to enjoy something like a career). The reason for you to care? I don’t have a concise answer: any attempt at a satisfactory response will inevitably lead into questions of what the purpose of literature is and why one reads it (a long discussion, to say the least).

      • Peter says

        > what the purpose of literature is and why one reads it

        I’ve been trying to answer this question for myself in relation to different work in a different field (math) and it’s truly difficult to communicate to people who don’t take the value of the liberal arts per se for granted. So your answer (“a long discussion, to say the least”) is spot on.

        I’ve been anxiously waiting for each new part of this series to come out (something I almost never do), and so I for one would love to hear your answer to this question. I suspect the audience for such a meditation would be smaller than the audience for this series. Regardless, it’s an important question.

        Offhand, I will say that I have been mentally noting connections between your points in this series and what I see in the larger world. In that sense, these four articles are perhaps serving the role that literature itself does, or should, play—pointing a finger at the world, as if to say “see this thing I’ve chosen to write about? It’s out there, writ large elsewhere in life.” The incestuousness and rootlessness that you’ve sketched out in this series resembles phenomena I’ve been observing first-hand in education, technology, and elsewhere.

        • Sandra Kotta says

          Thank you for this. I think I still have quite a bit of work to do before even thinking about trying to answer these questions in a useful way. By ‘useful’ I suppose I mean ‘prescriptive’. For writers these are currently urgent, even existential questions, in this climate where they can’t take the usual structures and institutions for granted.

          I began thinking systematically about contemporary literature in autumn 2015, when I started to see just how dangerously alienated our whole literary culture had become from everything other than itself. Clearly there was a problem when all this was visible even from inside the university bubble. I began to spend as much time as I could find studying institutionalised literature, which seemed to be driving this push towards memoirs, ‘personal history’ and autobiography as the dominant forms of élite literature (which I defined, tongue only slightly in cheek, as the sorts of books that you feel compelled to read if you subscribe to ‘Harper’s’, ‘the New York Review of Books’ and ‘the NY Times Book Review’). Certain trends and patterns began to emerge.

          The project was abandoned in November 2016: it was obvious that the election of Donald Trump would have repercussions in the literary world as in every other, only it wasn’t obvious what they were or would be. This is still something I’m trying to figure out; though it seems to me that what I have described in these essays is not likely to last very long now. Creative Writing culture will survive as long as instructors’ contractual obligations do, and no further; university administrators will not preserve the system once enrolments start visibly dropping.

          My prediction is that institutionalised Creative Writing is in a position not unlike that of the newspaper industry in the 1990s. It will not respond well to a major shock. This isn’t a very good time for mid-career professional writers, particularly of ‘literary fiction’; on the other hand I envy those who have a genuine vocation for literature, because this might turn out to be as favourable a moment for them as there has been in many decades.

          I’m sorry to have started to go off on a tangent here. As you see I’m already trying to work out where to direct my attention in the future. It’s not easy to guess what the most productive direction will be.

          • Peter says

            Thank you for your response.

            I will lead off by saying that I look forward to whatever you write next (hopefully under the same pen name, so I can find it!) regardless of the topic; it’s clear you have both the skill and the desire to address institutional issues that can still resonate with non-institutional readers.

            I would suggest (or challenge) you, as a person in this position and with the knowledge you seem to have, to at least make a sketchy attempt to gesture toward an answer. After all, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and perhaps somewhere in the dialogue triggered by, or responses to, an initial post would emerge a deeper and more accurate answer. I can understand why you might not want to go this route, though.

            > My prediction is that institutionalised Creative Writing is in a position not unlike that of the newspaper industry in the 1990s. It will not respond well to a major shock.

            This observation is troublesome to me. I believe there needs to be a place for things like newspapers and writing programs, and their disappearance marks a larger trend of people not understanding the role of the liberal arts and humanities in responsible citizenship (or, well, whatever.) In short, if these parts of our society are sick, I’d hope we could find ways to bring them back to health instead of letting them die completely. Otherwise, I fear what might fill the void created by their absence.

  5. Alex Milton says

    Would have been a nice essay, but how very snarky. Apparently the New Yorker is not a cultural touchstone, and a place where great articles, investigations and critical reactions flourish, but instead a venue for the socially insecure and readers of “shabby genteel” writing. These passive aggressive attacks undercut what would have otherwise been an interesting piece (and, curiously, make me believe the author is dying to get into the New Yorker.)

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Speaking as both socially insecure and shabby-genteel I’m not sure where the problem is….

  6. Sandra — This whole series is wonderful. Quillette should honestly just have you be their literary editor. If not, you should start a “little review” like in the olden days — I’d be willing to donate for the seed money, and I bet others would too.

  7. @CraigColgan says

    Tour de force! Burst: The gaseous balloon of the self important Post Moderns. Soulless, predictable, self consciously prowling for tenure, boring anyone who dares risk 20 minutes they can never get back by slogging through any of these short stories which are nothing but performances, really, of theory and pretension. What is incisive about Kotts’ thinking here is the realization that much of this relies on the efforts of the New Yorker to play to the self regard of many of its idiot readers: “Such people usually enjoy a high level of education and liberal or left-leaning political views, and wish to associate themselves with cultural élites in New York City and/or the more prestigious universities, if only in their imagined lives.”

    Their imagined lives. It’s all about soothing the bored pretensions of The Imagined Lives People. This magazine’s fiction has become a performance, really. A reassuring little blankie on a cold night. A reality described in other contexts by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s. But the cultural trend line since has taken a deep dive. Straight down. Great piece.

  8. @CraigColgan says

    Of course, Kotta, not “Kotts.” Sorry!

  9. redpony says

    Excellent! Also, John Edgar Wideman, not Wiseman.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Sincerest apologies for the slip — I blame Auto-Corrupt [sic].

  10. James Ackhurst says

    Another excellent piece on the currently dominant literary culture. I just wanted to add – probably needlessly – that Jess Row’s intentioned stinger ‘As if they were the ones in charge’ makes no sense. You don’t need to be in charge to make a criticism. Indeed, if you are in charge you don’t need to criticise from the sidelines – you can just take action and punish people. The people who need to make comments on Facebook obviously aren’t the ones in charge. If anyone is, it’s the people who control magazines like the New Yorker and the Creative Writing programmes – a network of privilege and corruption that’s finally been exposed in this very necessary series.

    • James Ackhurst says

      Also, it strikes me that describing these people as ‘anti-Prose’ is appropriate for more than one reason. (Actually, they’re even more strongly ‘anti-verse,’ but that’s a topic you’ve already covered).

  11. Keir Plaice says

    I studied literature at university and was generally disappointed for many of the same reasons covered in this series. However, a minor in creative writing was the one bright spot in my whole time at school. Instead of being focused on theory and politics, as too many of my other classes were, we actually had the chance to examine how literary works were made and to make them ourselves, which was far more instructive than any approach from abstractions. For the first time, we were actually encouraged to think for ourselves, and not through a particular theoretical lens. So, I don’t think it’s quite right to blame our present literary malaise on Creative Writing. I also don’t believe that the market is a panacea at the moment either, considering how little the general person on the street reads today. So, instead of trying to do away with Creative Writing, would we not do better to try and make it a part of the basic curriculum? That way, the general person would gain an appreciation for literature and its challenges in a way that is engaging, and the self-selected and insulated coterie that dominates the literary world today would be forced to engage with the tastes and concerns of common people.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thank you for your suggestion. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed your experience of Creative Writing classes, though am sceptical about introducing an element of this into any basic curriculum for schools, colleges or universities. As far as I can tell, general readers are likelier to benefit from training in syntax, grammar, rhetoric and other such technical disciplines, so that they have the tools to analyse, not just literary texts, but all forms of verbal/written expression. Instruction in at least one foreign language — any one — also helps, provided there is some attempt to introduce students to the literature in that language that has proven over time to attract sustained attention from the widest range of intelligent readers.

      You learn more about literature from memorising a few sonnets by Shakespeare (with correct scansion) and paying close attention to vocabulary, phrasing, metre &c. than you do by attempting to write your own poems. This type of basic study, more than self-expression, is how you learn to love literature, and become inspired to read, write and discuss it in your own free time.

      At this point readers and writers alike often lack the basic tools even to talk about books with one another. Common ground for discussion is also essential; I mention Shakespeare in these comments because I can still just about take for granted that every educated person has at least some exposure to the plays (even if English literature graduates, never mind anyone else, increasingly lack the ability to talk honestly and knowledgeably about his work).

      You see why I’m so wary of institutionalised self-expression, I hope. Yet I fully appreciate how refreshing it must have seemed to you compared to indoctrination sessions with politicised Critical Theory. I agree that ‘the market’ by itself won’t necessarily halt the decay of English literature. How readers are educated really is at the heart of this discussion; though to approach this matter would demand a whole new series of essays.

      • Keir Plaice says

        Thank you for beginning the discussion. I fully agree that training in the basic practical details of composition ought to be more rigorous. That is exactly what appealed to me in our creative writing courses. Before we wrote anything of our own, we had to write quite a few 5000-word essays, in which we analysed the form of particular stories, novels, and poems.

        Of course, memorising Shakespeare’s sonnets will teach you a great deal, but writing a sonnet yourself will only enhance your appreciation. That is why I believe creative writing courses can be so valuable. They should not be about ‘self-expression’ at all. In principle at least, they should teach you to write better.

        The greatest painters surely benefited from technical instruction and practice. Why should literature be any different? I’d even argue that the meaninglessness of most contemporary art has a lot to do with the loss of that tradition.

        As for common ground, if there was one thing that my classmates shared, and they were from all over Europe, it was a love of Harry Potter. It is easy to turn up your nose at such books, but you shouldn’t forget that university students are just a few years on from being young readers. For the most part, our time at school seemed to be aimed at stamping out our enthusiasm. I’m afraid that an exclusive focus on analysis would have the same impact.

        If more Harry Potters get written, so be it. They would probably have more to do with great literature than what gets passed off as such by many of today’s magazines and presses.

        • Sandra Kotta says

          Thank you for this; it seems to me that we disagree less than you might think, on some points anyway.

          George Steiner famously talks about memorisation as an important part of his education; he also mentions just how important composition exercises were at his various French lycées. He owes much of his sensitivity to poetry to being forced to write classical-style French verse at school. This in addition to the usual demands for expository and analytical prose. There is definitely an argument for Creative Writing exercises as a means of gaining confidence in another language, in prose anyway (for these purposes verse translation is more effective than attempts to compose original poems). In that sense (and likely others) we definitely agree about ‘self-expression’ as an unwise aim. Where we seem to disagree most profoundly is whether Creative Writing is a good idea at undergraduate level.

          Since the advent of mass higher education, many students have arrived at university without even a basic grasp of the fundamental elements of language, and a weak acquaintance with English literature. This is nothing new, though it may be that the situation is getting worse. University teaching staff are, for a variety of reasons, ignoring or even exacerbating the problem. I don’t quite see how formal Creative Writing instruction will help with any of this, or improve the situation with contemporary literature generally. The roots of these particular problems surely lie in the curricula of teaching colleges, and trends in the academic study of English literature. Though for students who don’t suffer from these weaknesses, some systematic training in essay writing, at least, is invaluable.

          What we seem to be talking about is how to learn how to write prose now that assessed work in the humanities has degenerated into a system of indoctrination exercises. You were lucky to find classes in Creative Writing where you could write analytical/expository essays (as undergraduates go to university to do) and have them marked in a sensible, constructive manner. Would you say that those exercises in prose narrative and verse were a suitable replacement for a more conventional training in composition, or would you have preferred simply to practise writing prose without fear of being punished for disagreeing with the instructor?

          Your suggestion of a parallel with the old academic and atelier-based systems of instruction in painting and sculpture perhaps only goes so far. Life drawing, cast drawing and copying Old Masters have more in common with an old-fashioned humanistic education than the conventions of institutional Creative Writing that have developed over the past century. Artists can only learn these techniques after an immersion in tradition: a painter whose eye has been trained exclusively on photographic images, digital media and computer screens will struggle to learn the visual language of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and so on. Though I agree completely that the destruction of these old systems has impoverished contemporary art. Theorists have ensured that artists have nothing to say; art schools have made sure that they can’t say it.

          JK Rowling evidently did something right: the proof is in the book sales. The same applies to consistently successful popular writers like Stephen King. Those of us brought up in First World countries since the 1970s (or in wealthier enclaves elsewhere) tend to know the same movies, TV shows, pop music etc. as everyone else whether we like it or not. Thus it would be foolish automatically to turn up one’s nose at Harry Potter, or pretend not to know anything about pop-culture ephemera. Though I am sceptical about the value of introducing any of this material in schools, or to undergraduates. I don’t see what is gained by attempting to teach students material that they already know very well, or could pick up by themselves. It seems wiser to leave these things outside the classroom.

          I’m sorry that your schooling killed your enthusiasm for what was taught. That’s most people’s experience of school, of course. Still, I’m not sure that we go through the trouble of an education for the sake of enjoyment. If we do, then we’re all wasting a lot of time and money. I hope your teachers weren’t so sadistic/nihilistic as to aim consciously to destroy all interest in what they spent their lives studying and teaching. Yet such people do exist, as we all know.

          Let me join you in hoping for more Harry Potters. The fact that we don’t necessarily want to re-read and study what we already have possibly suggests that those books might not be ‘great’. Certainly I doubt that JK Rowling’s books will age very well. ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ is already over 20 years old, and its age may be showing. All the same, it would be nice to have more books that are so absorbing the first time through.

          You might be interested to read Louis Menand’s 2009 ‘New Yorker’ piece on Creative Writing: I didn’t mention this essay in Part I of this series: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/06/08/show-or-tell . Menand’s views likely tally more with yours than mine here.

          Final point: attempting to write sonnets can enhance your appreciation for Shakespeare — but only if you’ve actually studied some Shakespeare first (or better, memorised a few of his efforts). These days we can’t take that sort of background for granted, even in the brightest, most capable students from the most prestigious schools. This is a problem beyond the scope of this series, alas.

  12. Keir Plaice says

    Again, thank you. We do seem to agree on the whole.

    It is not my belief that creative writing should replace traditional composition exercises. Rather, I think that creative work can be a very valuable complement to that sort of training.

    My own experience certainly was not similar to what was described in that Louis Menand article. It was much more focused and rigorous. Creative Writing in America does sound as if it’s a bit of a racket. It cannot be good for writers to become the wards of institutions.

    That said, I did have an outstanding teacher. We certainly weren’t punished when we disagreed with her in our essays. The only thing that was forbidden was to stray into politics or philosophy when you were supposed to be addressing the specific formal characteristics of the work at hand. Doing so would result in an automatic failure. Otherwise, if your argument was sound and backed up with evidence, you were fine. She was demanding, but constructive.

    Regarding Harry Potter, my point was not that it should be taught. I was merely observing that it has inspired a whole generation of readers, and it is a shame that universities are ruining their enthusiasm for literature. Personally, I’ve read far more broadly and deeply since I graduated, which I think cuts to the heart of the problem: the curriculum, at least in my experience, does not include enough good books.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Again, thank you for a thoughtful and productive response. It sounds like you were blessed with an unusually good Creative Writing instructor, and I’d be happy to hear more about how she taught you, if you can spare a few moments for another response. If possible, I’d also like to press you a little further on the question of ‘good books’. It might be asking too much to demand a definition (I certainly wouldn’t be confident about providing such a thing myself); though can you give a few examples of works that you wouldn’t want to do without? Better yet: can you suggest a few that you would definitely want to include on a standard undergraduate curriculum for students of literature? No need to explain or defend your choices, of course — these things are tricky to articulate particularly when one feels strongly about them. I ask this in part because I’m not sure what I would propose myself.

  13. Keir Plaice says

    It is good to encounter someone who clearly cares about literature and how it could be better taught, so thank you.

    Our creative writing course was limited to five months, so its scope was quite limited. I would say that I learned more about literature in those five months than I did in the rest of my time at the university. The course was broken into blocks, each of which was focused on a particular aspect of writing. The block that dealt with ‘plot’, for instance, began with a lecture and readings about narrative structure (Aristotle, Freytag etc.). We then had to write a 5000-word analytical essay about the structure of a certain work. Mine dealt with Ali Smith’s ‘How to be both’, which uses a number of interesting techniques to try to escape being understood in any one order. It is not an entirely successful attempt, but it was good to think hard about the decisions that Smith made when she was composing it. As an exercise, we then had to write a story that followed a given structure–The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell. It could be about whatever we wanted, so long as each stage was present. For each block, we received feedback on our essays and exercises, and then had the chance to revise them, before we handed them in at the end of the term along with two original works of fiction to be graded. Besides plot, I remember that we covered characterisation, point of view, setting, theme, dialogue, and style, as well as the translation of poetry from our other languages into English and vice versa. We also had regular in-class exercises to do, such as transcribing conversations and turning them into dialogue or creating characters in five minutes. It was all good practice. More importantly, it seemed to transform my classmates. We did more work than we were ever assigned in our regular classes, but it was not a chore. People seemed excited to learn.

    My remark about ‘good books’ was a little flippant. I certainly don’t think that there is any one definition. Reams of excerpts from second-rate secondary literature, which is only obliquely relevant to any novel, play, or poem wouldn’t be included in any definition however. That’s what I spent most of my time forcing myself to read at school, and it was demoralising.

    If pressed to make a choice, I think I would have liked to have begun with a much-loved book, say ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Outsider’, and done a very close reading of it, aimed at understanding what makes it work. This would have seemed manifestly useful and provided me with the basic tools to better understand works that come from out of my comfort zone. I do think that university should teach students to understand literature from other eras and cultures, but it’s easiest to learn on familiar works first. Otherwise, I really wish I had read Aristotle’s Poetics, before I was subjected to 21st-century ‘literary theory’.

      • Keir Plaice says

        That is a course which I would have loved to have had the opportunity to take. I also believe that most of my classmates would have been drawn to it. Those who opt to study the humanities mostly do so because they believe that books have something important to say about what it means to be human. They’ve been introduced to literature as kids and are seeking a richer understanding. When they enter university, most are keen and open-minded. Unfortunately, a great many leave disappointed.

        It seems to me that one of the major problems is that literature does not offer ‘scientific’ understandings. My professors often seemed to be possessed by a sort of physics envy, which induced them to approach books through the lens of abstract theories, which provided them with the illusion that their interpretations were definite, but robbed the works themselves of their meanings. The programme was designed to teach us to do ‘literary research’, i.e. to learn what we could say about books at a university. It taught us almost nothing about what books might say about us.

        • Sandra Kotta says

          If I may make a suggestion for further reading (as opposed to a constructive comment): you may be interested in Cardinal Newman’s ‘The Idea of a University’. My own copy is much defaced with underlinings, dog-eared pages and arguments in the margins of the pages. Cardinal Newman’s conclusions you can take or leave; but he writes magnificently. James Joyce thought him one of the greatest prose stylists in English. ‘The Idea of a University’ is still provocative in many sections. I have a feeling you would get a great deal out of it.

  14. WordPress Reader says

    I again offer thanks for this series and hope for more.

    Personally, after having been inculcated in Barthes, Sontag and Benjamin at an expensive university, I became disillusioned with them as part of disillusionment with the larger progressive view of things.

    I tend to enjoy literature that illuminates some aspect of the world that seems important for me to know something about, for example Houellebecq (materialism and the sexual free market) or Coetzee’s Disgrace (postcolonial white guilt). I also start to pay attention to authors (e.g. Kipling or Waugh) who are frequently cited but Dissident Right authors such as Steve Sailer or John Derbyshire.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thanks for this. I haven’t heard of the ‘Dissident Right’ authors you mention, though of course I’m familiar with the others. I wonder whether a new literary movement will arise soon. No doubt you too hope to see one, but aren’t necessarily holding your breath.

  15. stephen harrod buhner says

    Thank you for this, a breath of fresh air. You might enjoy Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique. As a full time writer, I found long ago that there was no place for me in the academy for i wanted to do one thing, irrespective of the type of writing (nonfiction, fiction, or poetry): tell a story that the child in me would want to read. That is the point of it all and if it is informative, stretches my existing world, opens my eyes to wonder, allows me to access the aesthetic dimensions that only art can reveal, so much the better.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      I’m grateful for this and your other comments. Now I have ordered a copy of Rita Felski’s book, and look forward to taking up your recommendation. Of course institutions will never have room for writers like you (or as you describe yourself); you were wise — and lucky — to realise this early.

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