Literature, With Stories Like These

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part III: The Spirit of the Age

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

Ben Lerner is arguably the most distinguished young writer in America, equally well-known as a poet, critic, essayist, and novelist. His oeuvre may be the single most critically-acclaimed, award-winning, institutionally-validated body of work by any living English-speaking writer under the age of fifty.

Lerner was born in 1979 in Topeka, Kansas. His parents are well-known psychologists; his mother Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger (1985; revised 2005) has sold millions of copies. Lerner earned a BA in Political Science from Brown University, as well as an MFA in poetry from the same institution. He won the Hayden Carruth Award for Emerging Poets for his first book (2004); a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Spain to write his second book of poetry; the Believer magazine’s Believer Book Award for his first novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011); the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Prize (2011); a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2013); the Terry Southern Prize from the Paris Review (2014); and a $625,000 “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2015. Since 2016, he has been a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College (part of the City University of New York). He has been selected as one of the judges for the 2018 Griffin Prize in Poetry, one of the world’s most lucrative literary awards.

Ben Lerner in 2015 (YouTube)

Lerner writes poetry in the tradition of John Ashbery. One of the more coherent poems from The Lichtenberg Figures (2004) runs thus in its entirety:

True, a great work of art takes up the question of its origins
and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch
sold on the strength of its signatures, a sketch
executed without a trial. Inappropriately formal,

this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as “unpronounceable”, or

Polemical, depressed, these contiguous blank planes
were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas,
a generation of pilgrim smokers
has arrived and set off the sprinklers.

True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world.
But then again, neither will changing the world.

On paper this almost mimics the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, except that there is no regular rhythm or line length, or rhyme scheme, or formal discipline, or anything other than its arrangement on the page to distinguish it from a few sentences of prose. Inexperienced readers who do not instantly see the merits of this should be aware that this is what prize-winning English poetry looks like in the Creative Writing era.

Lerner’s 2016 volume No Art collects his three books of poetry, along with a handful of more recent poems (including “No Art,” which was published in the Paris Review’s Winter 2012 issue). There is a definite (if faint) development in his work, as his phrases gradually lengthen and his trains of thought become more elaborate. Angle of Yaw (2006) contains a great many prose poems, and Lerner’s first published attempts at overtly political poetry. His 2010 collection Mean Free Path gains by being read straight through in a single sitting, because there is a great deal of repetition, which is meant to form a pattern of motifs. Though his earnest, straightforward approach does not lend itself well to the type of theoretical, abstract, intellectualised poetry he aims to compose here. Of course, by 2010, Lerner’s energies were no longer focussed primarily on poetry. He had decided to become a novelist, of sorts.

Lerner’s manner of writing fiction involves creating a narrator based almost entirely on himself and then using his voice faithfully to transmit thoughts, observations, and memories in order to create an illusion of consciousness. This is done at the expense of narrative development, character, and formal structure; the result succeeds only insofar as the illusion maintains the reader’s interest.

Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), Lerner’s first novel, is mostly indistinguishable from an autobiographical memoir. The story is fairly simple: a professional American poet named Adam Gordon wanders around Madrid during the 2003/2004 academic year. Having won a prestigious fellowship to complete a literary project that he has no intention of even starting, he tries to ingratiate himself with a group of cultured left-wing intellectuals, whilst not quite having a love affair, failing to learn Spanish, and ruminating a great deal about Topeka, Brown University, John Ashbery, and film.

In chapter four, a bomb goes off at the Atocha Station; this grounds the novel in contemporary history, and (perhaps) the author’s experience, because Lerner was likely in Madrid on a fellowship on 11 March 2004, when 192 people were killed in the worst terrorist attack in Spanish history. Though this event also has a literary resonance: “Leaving the Atocha Station” is the title of a poem in John Ashbery’s 1962 collection The Tennis Court Oath.

The few invented elements in Leaving the Atocha Station can usually be distinguished from memory-based material by a certain clumsiness. Towards the end of Chapter Two, Adam Gordon chats over instant messenger with a friend in Mexico who watched a girl die during a swimming trip. The conversation inevitably turns into a discussion on novel-writing and “real experiences.” This may well be based on a real incident from Lerner’s past; though the instant-messenger exchanges are unconvincingly ‘literary’ in rhythm and tone, and read too much like Lerner’s verse. Of course, Lerner does feel free to fabricate elements of his past: at the beginning of the same chapter, Adam Gordon reads out a poem which sounds like it came from Lerner’s 2010 collection, rather than his choppier 2004 book.

Lerner’s second novel 10:04 (2014) is written in a smoother, richer prose than that of Leaving the Atocha Station. The author tries harder to shape his memories artfully, though this is still an attempt to download the author’s experience into the reader’s mind with as little editing as possible. In 10:04, the narrator (“Ben”) struggles to complete a second novel after his first is excerpted in the New Yorker, leading to a six-figure advance from a publisher and unprecedented public attention. In 2012, the New Yorker published Lerner’s story “The Golden Vanity” (18 June issue); this text is unsurprisingly included in the body of 10:04.

By the standards of contemporary critical theory, English literature studies, and Creative Writing conventions, it would be naïve and unsophisticated to identify the narrator of 10:04 as a barely-fictionalised version of the author. “Ben,” unlike Ben Lerner, is neither a husband nor a father. Yet Chapter Four describes experiences during the narrator’s stint as a writer-in-residence at an artists’ colony in Marfa, Texas, where Ben Lerner also lived as a writer-in-residence in Marfa in 2012. The main conflict in Lerner’s ‘autofictions’ lies in the distinction between real-life events and made-up ones. Lerner does not obviously think too hard about this distinction, or why it might interest the reader.

Lerner is likely working on a third novel, an excerpt of which was published in the New Yorker as “The Polish Rider” in the 2016 Fiction Issue (6-13 June, 2016). Again, this is less a short story than a ruminative essay in the form of a short story. “The Polish Rider” may be Lerner’s most accomplished attempt at ‘autofiction’ so far, and it gives a fair idea of what his longer pieces are like. His essays are like this too. All his work, in fact – prose or verse, fiction or non-fiction – is written in the same voice, and interspersed with similar-sounding thoughts about aesthetics, popular culture, left-wing politics and a Topeka childhood.

The title “The Polish Rider” refers, not only to Rembrandt’s painting of that name (held by the Frick Collection), but also to Sonia, a Polish artist who accidentally leaves all of her paintings in the back seat of an Uber taxi the night before her exhibition opens. The unnamed narrator, who has written an essay for the show, tries to help Sonia locate the paintings; they visit the Uber offices, the police, and finally the Uber’s driver. “The Polish Rider” terminates before a conclusion is reached, though it seems that the paintings will in fact never be recovered; instead the narrator will write a new essay about them. The basic premise of this story is potentially farcical; but Lerner insists on making it a vehicle for his narrator’s internal monologue.

Whilst the narrator of “The Polish Rider” is a writer, and the other named characters include an artist and an art dealer, there is no sense that any of these people is more ‘cultured’ or better-informed than the policeman, the Uber employees, or the Uber driver with whom they interact. The narrator spends a great deal of time talking and thinking about American mass culture, and in particular the 1970s TV sitcom Taxi, which starred Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch. These reflections begin with his comparisons of the Uber offices to the garage where most of Taxi is set, and of Uber staff members to the character played by DeVito; but his reflections soon take on a life of their own:

…Then I realised how ridiculous it was that my nostalgia for a previous mode of labour and travel was actually nostalgia for an earlier moment of TV, and the image of New York it had introduced to me in Topeka in the form of reruns I watched with my dad, who looks a little like Judd Hirsch. (I asked Sonia if she’d ever seen Taxi.  “Yes,” she said.  “De Niro.”  She pretended to produce a gun from her sleeve.) By the time Miles was before us, smiling, my head was empty except for Taxi’s melancholy theme song, composed the year before Honecker and Brezhnev kissed, before Sonia and I were born, and I thought that the tone of the theme song, the range of feeling it could hold, was wider and deeper and messier around the edges than anything we heard on television now. In fact, wasn’t television supposed to be better than ever before?  Wasn’t I always envying the HBO miniseries, its ability to depict systems?

Sonia’s confusion of the TV series Taxi with the 1976 film Taxi Driver is meant to be a significant joke, which will of course be lost on any reader unaware of these references. Traditional ‘high culture’ is not one of Lerner’s usual preoccupations; he would appear to prefer discussing films that he watched as a child, such as Ghostbusters.

For all his obsession with mass culture, Lerner maintains some pretension to a conventional intellectual status; this is manifest in his narrator’s frequent attempts to philosophise about Sonia’s situation:

As [Police Sergeant] Kingdom and I waited for Sonia’s response, I thought about how the missing paintings were undergoing change as we chased them. The paintings would be different in some essential sense if we found them discarded in an alley or hanging reverently in someone’s home. I mean that the story attached to the paintings would inflect them conceptually from now on, at least for us: if Sergeant Kingdom frightened a member of a heavily surveilled population into yielding information that led to the paintings’ recovery, then the paintings would depict false fraternity propped up by secret police; if some benevolent stranger returned them through Uber, then the kiss would have a new glimmer of sociality, at least suggest the possibility of communal spirit instead of its evacuated image.

For Lerner, the experience of art is intensely personal: a work of art or a literary expression can best be understood by its creator, and only comprehended fully within his own milieu. His private references are not necessarily self-indulgent; but he does not aim to communicate with an especially wide or diverse audience. Lerner’s intended audience likely consists of other writers; in this sense he represents a logical development of institutionalised Creative Writing, where literary work is shaped by, and specifically composed for, the context of a writers’ workshop.

Lerner’s fullest attempt to articulate his thoughts about literature will be found in his 2016 volume The Hatred of Poetry, which is an expansion of a 4,000-word ‘Diary’ column for the London Review of Books (18 June 2015). The extended version runs to fewer than a hundred pages, even in a small format with large type and generous spacing on the page. It is not obvious that the essay needed expansion, or that Lerner has added much to his original insights.

Lerner’s starting point is the work of his former mentor Allen Grossman (1932-2014), who was also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellowship in his day. Grossman’s 1997 book The Long Schoolroom is mentioned on the acknowledgements page of Leaving The Atocha Station, and also supplies much of the inspiration for Lerner’s thoughts on poetry generally.

Insofar as The Hatred of Poetry has a focussed purpose, it is to rehash Grossman’s argument that no single poem can ever live up to a poet’s ideal of what poetry should be, or do. Lerner does not himself argue the point, so much as quote Grossman’s assertions of this idea, or paraphrase sections of Grossman’s essays that seem to support the point. In the middle of a discussion of the Scottish poetaster William McGonagall (1825-1902) he mentions, in parentheses:

I just got off the phone with my friend, the poet and critic Aaron Kunin – also a student, not coincidentally, of Grossman’s – and mentioned my reading of the “Tay Bridge Disaster,” only to be told by Kunin that Grossman obtained his job at Johns Hopkins by giving a talk on McGonagall and the Tay Bridge poems.

The literary critic Michael Clune, whose thoughts on Keats Lerner is honoured to appropriate, also turns out to have studied under Grossman. Lerner finally interrupts himself in the middle of a political discussion about Walt Whitman (“In many ways ‘Walt Whitman’ is less a historical person than a place holder for democratic personhood”) to admit:

To quote Grossman’s brilliant essay on Whitman – as I write this monograph I come to realise with greater and greater clarity how central Grossman’s thinking is for me.

Later on, he notes: “Today, June 29, 2014, Allen Grossman died.” The book ends shortly thereafter.

Lerner’s knowledge of poetry appears to be almost entirely second-hand: when not rewriting Grossman’s thoughts, he quotes at length from Claudia Rankine (also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”), Beth Loffreda (author of Losing Matt Shepherd in 2000, and co-editor with Rankine of The Racial Imaginary in 2015), the modernist poet/critic/scholar/essayist Guy Davenport (1927-2005), Peter Bürger (1936-2017, and author of the once-influential 1974 study Theory of the Avant-Garde), and the postmodern poet/critic/scholar/essayist Susan Howe, whose thoughts on the poetry of Emily Dickinson are borrowed without being credited to the original author.

When Lerner attempts to discuss Plato’s Republic with relatively minimal help from Grossman et al., he ends up dwelling on his memories of reading Plato as a teenager in a library in Topeka, then quotes himself from the beginning of Leaving the Atocha Station. He helpfully points out that “in college at the end of the last millennium the coolest young poets I knew were reading Rimbaud and Oppen,” before finally confessing with a blush: “I was reading Rimbaud on the green, careful to be seen, but I was also reading, savouring, the worst poets in English.” The Plato digression was spliced into the original London Review of Books essay with little evident thought for whether it would cohere with the rest of the discussion.

Lerner’s own original ideas about poetry are conspicuous by their absence; there is a single perfunctory attempt at a close reading of McGonagall, which is scattershot and unconvincing, because Lerner fails to grasp why McGonagall has been ridiculed for a century and a half as one of the very worst poets in English literature.

McGonagall was a deluded autodidact who was convinced of his own greatness as a poet, and oblivious to criticism or mockery. His reputation only makes sense within a culture where a poet can gain genuine public acclaim thanks to a large audience of informed, discerning readers. Modern readers in the English-speaking world have, as a rule, so little exposure to poetry that McGonagall’s lack of talent is no longer self-evident. He simply seems old-fashioned because of his high-flown diction, air of solemnity, and insistence on rhyme. His work only reveals its poverty in comparison with poems by figures whom he strove to emulate. If you do not know Shelley, Wordsworth, or Tennyson well, McGonagall’s failure as an artist might not be immediately obvious, despite Lerner’s claims to the contrary.

A Creative Writing workshop-style criticism of McGonagall’s inept prosody does not seem a particularly damning indictment. For all his technical incompetence and shockingly tactless, tasteless bathos, McGonagall does not in fact look so bad compared to most contemporary institutionalised poets. At least his work is memorable in its way, and could once command some public attention. But Lerner is not interested in McGonagall except as an excuse for rambling free-association around the theme of poetic ambition.

Why does Lerner not risk a critical discussion of a poem he thinks genuinely important – one of John Ashbery’s, say?

Lerner’s citations are not uniformly reliable. The Hatred of Poetry features an intemperately angry response to George Packer’s 2008 New Yorker blog post in which he questioned the wisdom of commissioning a poem for President Obama’s inauguration ceremony. Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African-American Studies at Yale, as poet laureate for his inauguration. Lerner implicitly accuses Packer of racism and misogyny, and makes snide remarks about Packer’s suggestion that the Nobel Prize-winning Trinidadian writer Derek Walcott (1930-2017) would have been ideal for the ceremony (as he would indeed have been, if audience appeal and literary merit were among the selection criteria). Lerner does not mention that Packer felt compelled to write an apologetic retraction to his original post to answer charges of racism and misogyny; nor does he accurately characterise the substance of Packer’s concern.

Packer is not a “poetry hater” or (as is insinuated) a nostalgic reactionary with a deludedly romantic vision of what poetry was once like. He simply thought it would be a bad idea to invite Alexander to read her work in front of an audience of millions, given its self-evidently limited appeal. Lerner does not think to read Alexander’s inauguration poem or watch video of her reading to check whether or not Packer’s concerns turned out to be prescient. It is hard to figure why Lerner chose to put so many words into Packer’s mouth, since he is used mainly as a means to link Peter Bürger’s thoughts on the avant-garde with Allen Grossman’s reflections on Walt Whitman.

However, his unfairness to George Packer is nothing compared to his defamatory attack on Mark Edmundson. Edmundson, a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, made the mistake of publishing an essay on Creative Writing poetry in Harper’s in July 2013. He criticised institutionalised poets’ self-absorption and solipsism; he ridiculed the MFA system; he made fun of “theory-induced anxiety” and poets’ craven fear of identity politics; he singled out John Ashbery for particularly harsh censure.

Edmundson’s essay contains a few questionable points and debatable judgments. But on the whole it seems convincing. Lerner represents it, incredibly, as a philistine right-wing rant. He accuses of Edmundson of being unfamiliar with the contemporary poets mentioned in his essay, and claims that Edmundson “considers speaking for everyone the exclusive domain of white men.” He sees paternalistic, patriarchal misogyny in Edmundson’s reading of Sylvia Plath, and patronising racism in Edmundson’s discussion of Amiri Baraka. This is nothing short of libel. It reflects badly on Lerner’s publishers that they allowed this material to be published. In the current climate it could have serious consequences for Edmundson, who does not deserve to be punished for disliking John Ashbery’s verse.

The Hatred of Poetry is valuable chiefly as a document of just how degraded literary culture has become in the age of Creative Writing. Lerner is not obviously outstanding as a poet; as a novelist he has a certain gift for describing himself as a self-pitying, self-hating neurotic; as a scholar and literary theorist he is helplessly reliant on the research and opinions of other writers; as a critic he combines slander with passive aggression. The overall impression is of a compulsive autobiographer who is not particularly learned or original, and whose character is far from admirable.

The Hatred of Poetry effortlessly reveals why contemporary poetry is no longer popular with readers, and remains the subject of widespread disdain (where anyone pays attention to it at all); though not in a way that the author intended. There is nothing to learn from Creative Writing poetry, and more pleasure in it for the writer than the audience, which is made up mainly of others who want to have their turn inflicting their poetic thoughts and feelings on as much of a public as can be made to pay attention. Why would any normal person want to read this sort of thing?

 

The author works at an American university. 

25 Comments

  1. Jake says

    I don’t know exactly what is being accomplished by using single authors as representative for the entire writing culture.

    I mean, I could play the same game with movies and make the entire industry look as though it lacked seriousness or artistic merit. It’s not hard to do. I could point out Transformers or Avengers. Or some pretentious, overwrought indie film. Or maybe just point out Woody Allen’s cancerous career. But the truth is, as is the case with contemporary literature, 90% of film is crap; if you want to make a valid critique, look at the best stuff the hardest.

    But the author isn’t just avoiding the good stuff; she isn’t just looking ONLY at the 90%; she’s looking at just a single example. As if we’ve never seen a person like Ben Lerner get awards and opportunities that they don’t deserve because of an inexplicable fame/power bubble.

    Frankly, the author sounds an awful lot like Ben Lerner himself in The Hatred of Poetry; criticizing a thing she clearly doesn’t love or understand. These essays would be much better if the author could name a single contemporary poem that she considers to be halfway passable. Because it’s patently absurd to contend that all literature produced “by the MFA system” is lacking in skill or merit. I’m wondering if the author thinks that the only way that a poem can be considered “good” is if it uses traditional form or meter.

    And the complaints the author is making about the MFA system are neither new nor measured. The community itself debates these issues with much more nuance and insight on a regular basis. Allen Grossman, for example, who was badly misused by Lerner, wrote fervently about the problems of writers underestimating their debt to the poets who came before them. I promise you, this complaint about contemporary writers not reading enough is not new. Or accurate–at least not when leveled at the entire community.

    And it’s not like Ben Lerner is some universally praised god-like figure. You’d probably have a hard time finding writers who would defend him. The poet Mark Halliday wrote a very popular essay that raged against The Hatred of Poetry, for example. (http://www.pleiadesmag.com/sneak-preview-mark-halliday-on-ben-lerners-the-hatred-of-poetry/)

    In other words, if the author actually understood the way any artistic community functions, they would know that there is a huge gulf between the “big-name” authors who everyone is “supposed” to like and admire, and the authors that everyone actually DOES like and admire–not that there aren’t problems with those writers, as well. Contemporary politics raging in the community tend to distort and confuse skill with identity.

    That might be a valid critique the author could’ve made, among many. But instead these essays have that old, frustrating problem: “what’s new in [them] isn’t true, and what’s true isn’t new.”

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thank you for your comment.

      I subscribe to ‘Poetry’ magazine, ‘The Paris Review’, ‘The New Yorker’, various other general-interest magazines with a literary element (‘Harper’s’, ‘The Atlantic’), and the major intellectual review journals (TLS, NYRB, LRB) plus as many smaller literary journals as I can reasonably afford. Since 2009 I have tried to keep up with institutionalised literature by buying annual anthologies including ‘The Pushcart Prize Anthology’, ‘the Best American Poems’/’Essays’/’Short Stories’ and (latterly) the volumes put out by University of East Anglia Creative Writing program. Thus I can at least claim a reasonably complete grasp of contemporary English and American literature.

      My conclusion, after all that time and expense? Within the Creative Writing system there is not a single author I’d enthusiastically recommend to ‘Quillette’ readers. Indeed I can think of nothing produced by an active member of these institutions that I’d happily read a second time.

      You write: «I’m wondering if the author thinks that the only way that a poem can be considered “good” is if it uses traditional form or meter.» Of course, to dismiss free verse would be to dismiss the whole Modern movement of the 20th century, from Pound and Eliot onwards. Then again, the most famous and influential Modernists could often produce memorable arrangements of words without relying on traditional conventions such as rhyme. Most poets simply don’t have that degree of talent. In fact, not even Pound did, as his ‘Cantos’ tend to demonstrate after 1928. “Good” poems without mnemonic devices certainly exist; but they are rare. I do wonder whether this sort of work should be encouraged in writers of limited skill or gifts.

      As for Allen Grossman: I am sorry not to share your admiration for his work. ‘Quillette’ readers might not be familiar with him. In 1969 he appeared on ‘Firing Line’: https://youtu.be/KIz9vqMVVpw . His delivery here is such that even William F. Buckley Jr’s seems natural by comparison. For those not willing to click on the link: throughout the program Grossman scowls and grimaces like a teenager in a school play performing a bit part as an Oxford professor. Perhaps he was simply nervous in front of the camera; then again he had been teaching at Brandeis for almost a decade at this point, and had accepted an invitation to appear on TV. His performance style is regrettable not least because he had such a beautiful voice; yet the affectations only grew more pronounced as he got older (cf. Grossman’s poetry lectures from 1990 — available on YouTube). Grossman’s writing (critical as well as literary) is marred by similar eccentricities and defects, to my mind anyway.

      Mark Halliday might not agree with the above: he completed his doctorate at Brandeis when Grossman was still teaching there, and also co-wrote two books with him (a 1981 book of conversations with Grossman, and a 1991 updated version of the former).

      You may well be right that I have no idea how an artistic community functions. But speaking as a mere reader with no MFA degree or Creative Writing position, I have slightly different interests as far as literature is concerned.

      Please feel free to point out individual authors, books &c. that you think I might have missed and would likely change my mind, on institutionalised literature generally, or other subjects that you touch on above. I do hope you’ll forgive me if I leave certain points unanswered for the moment.

      • Jake says

        Sandra,

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

        I maintain my critique that spending so much space on a single, over-exposed author is a misrepresentation of a large and varied culture. Lerner is emblematic of the attitude of the elite journals that you name: The New Yorker, Paris Review, POETRY, Harper’s, etc. The word I regularly use for this aspect of the Creative Writing world is “incestuous.” You might also go with “narcissistic” or “self-celebratory”. Lerner is a type, and he is certainly worthy of criticism.

        But the bigger concern, for me anyway, is the fact that you can’t think of a single author you’d recommend to readers of Quillette. That’s perfectly legitimate, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder if that doesn’t disqualify you from being able to make a reasonable critique on the topic. I can, after all, explain thoroughly why I think Ska music is the worst. But if someone wanted a thoughtful critique of a Ska band or Ska culture, I’m definitely not the go to guy–I never understood Ska in the first place!

        Personally, I think Quillette readers might thoroughly enjoy the poets Larry Levis (Winter Stars), Lucia Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant), Tony Hoagland (Donkey Gospel), Richard Hugo (Death of the Kapowskin Tavern), C.K. Williams (Flesh and Blood), or David Clewell (Taken Somehow By Surprise). I think they might enjoy the essays of David Foster Wallace (“Consider the Lobster”), Eula Biss (“Time and Distance Overcome”), or Elena Passarello (“How to Spell the Rebel Yell”). I’m less familiar with/interested in literary fiction, so I don’t have much to add there. I did recently enjoy Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. In terms of literary journals or presses, I’d be more inclined to recommend The Normal School, Granta, or Graywolf Press over the sadly stale outlets you named.

        I have no idea if these are books/authors that will change your mind. Frankly, from what you’ve indicated about what you enjoy, I doubt it. But I think there’s a difference between taste and quality; I dislike plenty of things which I know are excellent/not meant for me. I think it’s also fair to say that you might have an overly limited impression of what Quillette readers might enjoy. At least, I very much hope you do.

        None of this makes the Creative Writing/MFA culture above criticism. The environment is distasteful, counter-productive, unfocused, narcissistic, and many other negative things. I feel grimy making any kind of defense of it. And yet I am. I guess I find the blanket demonization of it almost as silly as I find the internal, masturbatory celebration of it.

        I agree with much of what you’ve been talking about regarding the Creative Writing culture; there is, very broadly speaking, a lack of appreciation for what humans have always loved about the written word, there is often a blatant contempt or disregard for a popular audience; and there is an insular culture which rewards nonsensical bullshit. But I’d really like to see a more comprehensive examination that also looked at the MFA writers who are killing it in the face of all this nonsense. They’re out there, and it doesn’t exactly help things to throw them out with the bath water.

        • Sandra Kotta says

          Thank you for this, and especially for the list. We may be talking slightly at cross-purposes if I don’t make explicitly clear that my main concern is institutionalised writing of the twenty-first century, and the past decade or so in particular. Thus David Foster Wallace, CK Williams, Tony Hoagland et al. are outside the scope of these essays; and some of the poets you mention are no longer alive.

          It might be instructive to try to come up with a similar list of writers under 40, or writers who have emerged since around 2008. You have Jesmyn Ward, Eula Biss and Elena Passarello above as young-ish prose writers within the MFA/Creative Writing system; can you come up with poets under 50, or poets who have only been publishing since around 2005? If not off the top of your head, then might you ask friends and colleagues to help come up with some? This would be particularly valuable in this discussion.

          Of the publishers you mention, I would say that ‘Granta’ has gone into serious decline over the past decade, both as a journal and a publishing house. We will have to agree to disagree about the merits of ‘The Normal School’. Of Graywolf writers whom ‘Quillette’ readers might have already heard of, there are Claudia Rankine, David Szalay and Per Petterson (Geoff Dyer will not likely be a familiar name to anyone under 40). Of course they also published ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’, which was a bestseller in 2016.

          It speaks well of Graywolf’s editors that they can find ‘literary’ writing that appeals to a large audience. Graywolf, as a non-profit organisation, has every right and reason to use the proceeds from successful titles (‘Citizen’, &c.) to subsidise the publication of poetry chapbooks, and other works with small audiences. Given their book sales (most presumably due to the authors and titles mentioned above), I am surprised that they solicit donations, which make up a substantial proportion of their annual revenue (https://www.graywolfpress.org/about-us/financial-transparency). All this to publish books that have already been subsidised by grants, and/or the writers’ teaching/fellowship positions. If these books are produced at a loss, and sell fewer than two hundred copies, then this amounts to vanity publishing underwritten by private donors and government funding. You might see why I am reluctant to buy books from Graywolf, particularly when the works in question have already enjoyed considerable financial support from institutional patrons.

          In general I fail to see substantive differences between the journals and publishers you name versus the ones I list above. The difference might simply be that people you know and like are associated with ‘Granta’, ‘The Normal School’ and Graywolf; whereas I have no personal connection to anyone at ‘Poetry’, ‘The Atlantic’, the NYRB &c. and so am less inclined towards instant sympathy.

          To my mind the best small literary journal in America is ‘The Point’ (which doesn’t publish short stories or poems). I don’t often agree with the writers, but take great pleasure in the frankness and freshness of thought encouraged by the editors. Even ‘n+1’ in its heyday (before 2014 or so) was nowhere near as good as this; perhaps it’s as good as ‘Granta’ used to be when Ian Jack edited it. Though I still recommend the journal itself rather than any single writer published in it: none is particularly outstanding.This is not necessarily a problem (cf. the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ for most of the 20th century). A consistently high level of intelligence among all contributors is heartening. Still, I wonder at the lack of a forum for poets, writers of fiction and so on that can sustain the originality and high quality of something like ‘The Point’.

          «I’d really like to see a more comprehensive examination that also looked at the MFA writers who are killing it in the face of all this nonsense.» So would I….

          • Sandra Kotta says

            NB: Graywolf’s financial transparency statements really do reward attention: it seems that most of the money raised from ‘operating contributions’ (sc. donations) is eaten up by salaries for ‘development’ (sc. fundraising). Nobody is getting rich here; still, I wonder whether most donors are aware of this curiosity.

          • Jake says

            Sandra,

            You’re right about it being harder to name poets under 40. I don’t know how much of that is due to my own ignorance–I’m not actively seeking out poetry by a certain demographic. And you’re right about several of the poets I named being dead–all relatively recently, and some far younger than I’d prefer.

            I enjoy Kevin Prufer, although he’s 48. Natalie Diaz is a favorite of mine. Kaveh Akbar. Tracy K. Smith. There are definitely poets who are doing good work, though I would argue it’s only natural that it’s harder to find great writers under a certain age–it takes some time to get good, after all. And, perhaps more importantly, it takes a while for great, new work to find an audience. Especially in a crowded marketplace.

            As you point out, lit journals are always rising and falling in relevance and quality. There was a time when n+1 was churning out incredible work. It still does, but, as you say about Granta, it has slowed down. I’ve heard good things about The Point, but have not spent any time with it. As Managing Editor for a nonfiction-only journal, I spend most of my time reading essayists, memoirists, and journalists. Frankly, I think these genres are the strongest material coming out of MFA programs by a long shot, at least on average. But that may just be my prejudice–I am, as you may have guessed, a product of the Creative Writing system.

            Still, my connections to the journals, presses, and authors I recommended above are nil. No friend or colleague of mine has ever been published in Granta, Normal School, or Graywolf Press (although a friend of mine did have an internship at Graywolf and he loathed the place–I still maintain they produce good work). And my prejudices are entirely AGAINST the MFA system, at least as far as I can perceive my own prejudices–I’ve had pretty terrible experiences (yes, quite a few programs).

            I suppose I could talk through my experiences more, but it seems to me that the conversation is about the material produced from these programs. And I’d defend about 5-10% of it. Whether or not that work is produced as a result of or despite of MFA programs, I don’t know. I’d leave that up to the authors.

          • Jake says

            Regarding Graywolf’s alleged sketchiness, I think there’s almost always room for critique in terms of how editors or publishing companies treat their authors/donors. I spend a great deal of time railing to anyone who will listen about predatory and/or abusive practices by literary presses. My limited knowledge of Graywolf wouldn’t really include them on that list, although I’m sure they can do better.

            The number one journal on my “despicable” hitlist at the moment is Narrative Magazine. Those folks are scum. They’re not just raking in donor funds, grants, and so on: they’re also charging $26 for writers to submit their work to be *considered* for publication (which they won’t be compensated for even if they do publish). That sort of behavior is actually pretty common for a bunch of similarly “well-respected” presses. So that may be why a relatively well-behaved press like Graywolf escapes my notice.

          • Sandra Kotta says

            Jake: many thanks for the list: if you have more to add in days to come, do pile them on. Other further contributions to this discussion would also be most welcome.

            Unquestionably poets develop, in various ways; though I do wonder about poets whose work isn’t fully formed by the time they’re forty. Particularly if they devote their twenties and thirties to literature. I have a feeling that this MFA fetish for the relentless ‘development’ of work is suffocating. Also, I’m not sure that every artist or writer benefits from standard concepts of a literary ‘career’. Successful professional writers do, when they have loyal, receptive readers eagerly awaiting the next production — it tends to stimulate them towards better work; but most writers I can think of aren’t wise to go beyond the first two or three books. Poets, even the best of them, tend to burn out pretty fast.

            I see the point of ‘workshopping’ for stage plays, at least if they are definitely going to be performed. This is no different than previews and test screenings for movies. Collaborative art forms involving a large, fickle audience naturally benefit from this sort of process in many cases. I’m sceptical about ‘workshopping’ for other literary forms, most notably poetry and fiction. For these, writers surely need a sympathetic editor and an alert, intelligent audience more than they do a self-selecting circle of ‘professional’ peers.

            Your observation re. memoirs, essays and what is now called ‘creative nonfiction’ is VERY striking. This, perhaps, is the elephant in the room as far as contemporary literature is concerned. Do you think you could comment further on this? One of the comments below suggests (rather sharply) that readers want above all to immerse themselves in a narrative as a source of comfort and relief; the implications of this difference between MFA writers and what used to be known as ‘common readers’ are likely far-reaching.

            Charging $26 simply for the privilege of submitting a piece to a journal? I’m not sure what one can even say about that. Let me try to persuade you to write something (perhaps for Quillette?) on literary journals: I suspect you will start some much-needed discussion on the topic.

            Please forgive the scattershot nature of this reply: I write under extreme time pressure today.

          • Jake says

            I definitely agree about the literary “career” comment. I’m currently phasing out of the academic portion of my career right now, as a matter of fact. I hope to teach again in the future, but “creative” writing is never going to be my “career”. And I think a major source of the problems for the writing community is their lack of sincere interest in actually living lives outside that bubble. I can’t think of anything more shudder-inducing than living my life primarily among “professional” writers.

            I understand your thoughts about workshopping. It’s often misused or overused or left unexplained in these programs. My mindset as a participant has always been to try to tune into the author: what are they interested in? What are they trying to accomplish? Do I have any ideas on how they can accomplish their own goals better? (it’s no coincidence that these are the questions of an editor) If I don’t, I just ask probing questions.

            The worst mistake that gets made by participants is just telling all the other participants “here’s what I would do with the same material,” as if that’s helpful at all. Most professors I’ve had do their best to warn against this and correct for it. But there are plenty of participants who just don’t “get” the difference, which is where you get the problems you’re talking about. Generally speaking, these people would never be writers at all, but the programs trick them into thinking they’re doing “well”. If there’s a disservice being done with these programs, I’d argue it’s to the people in them as opposed to the general reading public.

            As for feedback on my own work, I ignore it completely from 90% of the workshoppers. I use the workshop to find people who will function as good editors for my work. Sometimes I don’t find anyone and continue alone. This is the same attitude I communicate to students in workshops I’ve run. Frankly, the skills you gain from GETTING workshopped are much less than the ones you get workshopping others. That’s just as well. Towards the end of my time in the programs, I would bring in things just to see what a *particular* audience (MFAers) would think of it. If I brought anything in for more concrete feedback, it’d be in some vastly new style or format (think of doing “author imitations” to try out different voices, prosody, etc.). In those situations, I could get some idea of what portions of the imitation I was pulling off well, and where I’d probably failed somehow.

            Much of the prescriptive feedback of workshops is incredibly wrongheaded or assimilative. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Knowing what other people don’t understand or like can tell an author plenty. For example, if a standup fails to get a laugh on a new bit, it doesn’t mean that the bit isn’t funny, it might mean he fucked up the premise, or told it to the wrong audience, or phrased it wrong, or any number of other problems. Writers will have audiences, so using workshops as a limited simulation of an audience is still useful.

            The reasons for engaging in narratives are as widely varied as the reasons for listening to music: relief, empathy, celebration, titillation, humor, education, escapism, etc. To prejudice solely towards escapism seems to me as big a problem as the MFA prejudice against escapism. Count me as someone who LOVES Game of Thrones. And I think there are plenty of programs who hold that against their students. I was fortunate to attend a program that encouraged popular fiction writing. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, young adult, screenwriting, and so on were all part of the program.

            Strangely, most of the students engaged in that part of the program were made aware that there likely wasn’t a writing “career” ahead of them. It was treated more as a place to get better at your favorite hobby. That may sound dismissive or condescending, but I thought it was a lot healthier than the literary parts of the program. I found myself wishing the attitude across the MFA was as honest and humble.

            I’m not entirely certain what part of my interest in nonfiction you’d like me to address further. I suspect it may be related to people’s general impression of it as narcissistic, self-serving, or “self-expressive”. There’s definitely plenty of that. As always, it’s easy to dismiss things by looking at the worst possible example of them.

            My obsession, as a human being, is in the vein of “understanding”. I want to understand things. So I read science, history, philosophy, news, and memoir. All of those things are nonfiction, and they all have something to say about the state of the world. Science is the best form of determining an objective truth about the state of the universe. History is the best way to understand the patterns of civilization and humanity. Philosophy is the best way to think about how we should behave or have behaved. News is the best way to keep a pulse on the current state of humanity and the world. And memoir is the best way to engage with the crazy idiosyncrasies of individual human beings which escape the grand narratives of science, history, philosophy, and news.

            That’s as well as I can explain it after having given it about only a few minutes thought. Haha. I’m not even certain if that was what you were asking. So, if I’m asked to explain why literary nonfiction is prospering these days, I’d say that it’s probably something to do with the fact that more human beings have more access to more understanding than ever before. And essayists get to/have to wrestle with all of it.

          • Sandra Kotta says

            It’s heartening to hear that you are leaving the institutional system, and have come to see since entering that its potential benefits might be outweighed by serious disadvantages. In any case it’s clear that for the moment you’re in it with open eyes.

            You have given perhaps the strongest defence I’ve encountered of the workshop process precisely through your frankness about its real benefits, and where it goes wrong. It may have its uses for writers who haven’t yet developed relationships with people who can give them constructive criticism. Perhaps it also helps those who initially regard criticism as mere humiliation to develop a healthier attitude to their work. Even so, its benefits are entirely those of a one-on-one, editor/writer relationship.

            A writer’s workshop as an initial audience for work: of course this is an important part of the process as designed. Yet it’s by no means a disinterested audience. The comparison to stand-up comedy is an important one. I think poets in particular ought to seek a less protected, protecting audience. In my experience poetry ‘slams’ are only enjoyable when you’re very drunk, and the pleasure there might not be in the poetry. Still, at least some elements of the idea are worth borrowing.

            I wonder why there aren’t more poets who don’t take part in (for example) fringe festivals. Not necessarily to engage in spectacles of fake hip-hop (as is too frequently the case) but as a means of finding a relatively sympathetic and open-minded audience of strangers. Putting together a fringe show and publicising it is ultimately less expensive and time-consuming than producing and distributing a poetry chapbook, and I’d suggest that the benefits would be greater. There is even potential for profit.

            You had the good fortune to become part of a Creative Writing program where some proportion of the teaching staff encouraged students to think of their course work as coaching for a preferred hobby. This is probably the right attitude; on the other hand it’s alarming to see such an activity given institutional validation when on the other hand it’s treated as a harmless pastime. We have latterly progressed from MFAs to doctorates in Fine Arts at many institutions now. This is a development that only benefits university administrators, who make work for themselves at everyone else’s cost.

            As you see, I struggle to find reasons to preserve or salvage this system. If there are writers of unusual gifts or talents within it (which must be inevitable) then clearly this is poisoning them, fatally. I say again: in a decade or more of diligently trying to keep up with what is being produced in Creative Writing institutions I have found nothing that I would gladly read a second time. There are also examples of writers who entered the system, not simply with potential, but substantial achievements already behind them, and instantly lost their touch. I have not found a counter-example to this since at least the turn of the century, and there might not be one at all. God willing, those who leave the system can escape it fully and (as it were) get it out of their systems.

            As far as non-fiction is concerned: you might be interested to look into the ‘Times Literary Supplement’. Until Spring 2016 it was (for the most part) worth reading cover-to-cover. Then a new editor was appointed (Stig Abell) and the journal decayed at frightening speed. For over a century successive editors maintained a scrupulous balance and breadth of coverage in reviews; now the TLS is indistinguishable from other once-venerable journals and magazines that have gone rotten in the current climate (the ‘London Review of Books’ and ‘The New Republic’ have also been wrecked by activist editors, probably beyond repair — TNR might be the saddest case of all). Anyone who puts together something to take the place of the pre-Abell TLS will do us all an immense favour.

            It goes without saying that I’m grateful for this answer. Our views diverge rather less than one might have initially thought.

  2. YouplaBoum says

    Many thanks for this three-part piece; I have read it all and, despite being unfamiliar with most of the modern writers you review, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The pace, measure and poise of your writing style is extremely pleasant, and as a result your points and opinions were flawlessly conveyed.
    (I don’t usually comment on articles, even those I liked – but I couldn’t refrain my praises this time.)

  3. David says

    Another great article! I hope you do a second series!!!!

  4. V 2.0 says

    I guess for me it comes down to one question. After a day of frantic meetings and server deployments gone wrong with a trip to my cancer ridden husband’s oncologist thrown in why should I bother to read any of these people instead of Game of Thrones which, for whatever reason, resonates with me a whole lot more in spite of George Martin’s rather pedestrian writing style?

    • Sandra Kotta says

      I am very sorry to hear about your husband; having spent time in oncologists’ waiting-rooms under similar circumstances I marvel that your eyes could stay on a page for very long at the end of a day. Stress, exhaustion and anxiety drive many (the present writer included) straight to Netflix — God bless those who seek to entertain us instead of indulging their own desires to express themselves.

      Even under tranquil conditions your basic question stands. Perhaps the only reasonable answer, from these writers’ point of view, would be that it somehow improves you to engage with their work. In that case: how? Of course we don’t ask this in a hostile spirit. But if we have limited time and energy, then it seems reasonable to ask why a given writer (or anyone else) wishes to make demands on our attention. Particularly if his work is less obviously fun than ‘Game of Thrones’ (which I have never read or watched — thus I can’t comment on the prose, or any other feature).

  5. Thank you for these essays! I hope Part 4 will venture solutions or alternatives to the contemporary state of literature. The phrase “Creative Writing” has always deeply annoyed me, being possibly the least creative name for craft—so broad as to be inclusive of any act of mashing words together, so vague as to gently stroke the ego of every prospective poet or storyteller. But where is the rigor and the risk in being merely “creative”?

    As for “show don’t tell”—why not shoot for a showy telling or a telling show? (The answer perhaps lies in the amount of failure and learning required to find new lines to paint inside). And as for poetry’s jettisoning of pattern, story, and wisdom: this was perhaps meant to last a generation or two—all the energy released from that transgression seems to have been spent, proving how anemic verse becomes when it’s reduced to half-ordered/ haphazard snapped twigs trying to summon profundity from the surrounding negative space instead of using that space to give the reader a necessary area to absorb the potency arduously concentrated within each line.

    If possible, I would like to interview you for my youtube channel—if anonymity is an issue, there are ways that I can assure it. Looking forward to the finale. You can contact me on twitter @BenjaminABoyce

  6. Sandra Kotta says

    Thank you for this. Alas I don’t use Twitter (or other social media); for obvious reasons I’d prefer not to post my personal or professional e-mail addresses (not even for the discerning readership of this website). But please feel free to contact me privately through the editors (to whom I apologise in advance for the minor annoyance). My pre-emptive apologies for a potentially slow reply: the next two months will involve a blizzard of paperwork (enough to make me a bad correspondent, or worse than usual, rather).

  7. Julie Gould says

    Now that Garrison Keillor no longer reads poems on the radio, I would love for Jordan Peterson to take his place. Let Jordan choose new poems he thinks are good. I’d pay to listen.

  8. Jeffrey Quackenbush says

    Ms. Kotta–

    I would recommend to you a perusal of the work of my friend, Richard Cureton, a professor at the University of Michigan who has pioneered an exhaustive method for analyzing and understanding poetry. One thing that keeps poetry obscure, in this age of loud & bright entertainments, is our failure to comprehend how it works, down to an observational level.

    https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/rcureton/

    You can email him if you have difficulty accessing any of the articles linked in his CV.

    Regards,
    Jeffrey Quackenbush

    • Sandra Kotta says

      Thank you very much for this; I shall look at Professor Cureton’s work with great interest. Without at least some some grounding in technical disciplines — linguistics, grammar, syntax, metrics/prosody and rhetoric — literary critics degenerate into essayists &/or political catechists. In turn, let me draw your attention to two highly stimulating (and controversial) studies:

      1. ‘How To Kill A Dragon’ by Calvert Watkins (Oxford 1995)
      2. ‘Indo-European Poetry and Myth’ by ML West (Oxford 2007).

      Both works fuse anthropology, comparative linguistics, comparative philology and comparative mythology to provide, in their different ways, wholly engrossing and provocative approaches to the study of poetry. Not everything is convincing; it would be fascinating to know what your friend Professor Cureton makes of them, being a trained linguist (and poet).

      I enthusiastically recommend both volumes to those who have a gift for poetry. There is no such thing as a how-to guide for creating a masterpiece, but these two books together possibly come as close as anything will. As neither is cheap, the poets among us might as well also buy Samuel Johnson’s ‘The Lives of the Poets’ (paperback abridgement: Oxford World’s Classics 2009), Gilbert Highet’s ‘The Classical Tradition’ (Oxford 1949; newest ed. 2015) and Ezra Pound’s ‘ABC of Reading’ (New Directions 2010). All are highly stimulating, and none quite agrees with the others.

  9. Jeffrey Quackenbush says

    Ms. Kotta–

    I’ve read Watkins book (and am aware of his contributions to historical linguistics). Scattered in it are some nice, original observations about the thematic material of Indo-European epics. He complements work in psychology and anthropology by Jung, Campbell, Eliade, etc. However, I found his approach to laying out his observations to be a bit garbled, and I think if he were less of a pure Indo-Europeanist, he could have taken these ideas in a more striking direction. I’ll have to check out the book by West you referenced the next time I’m up for reading material on this topic.

    In general, the problems with our understanding of poetry are much more extensive and technical than just the topicality of the critic’s point of view. Poetry can employ, with a creative formalism on par with music, a huge range of linguistic structures from rhythm and paralanguage up to narrative and visual representation. Many of these things are not well understood, even by those who study these them professionally, and yet, in order to appreciate the art form as something other than a naif, one must needs some paltry awareness of all these levels. I’m glad you can sympathize.

    Of all that was yanked from sight
    When the sun, in his daily refusal
    To burn, and burn himself raw,
    In light over back of the land,

    It was not what we’d seen so plainly,
    The hand of the sun, the shape
    Of the sun, his colors, the very
    Face, as one, his so many

    Children: of all the bodies
    Blessed, in the earth, in the sky,
    And then cursed to become unknown.

    Fix in the hand an eye,
    For night, for the dirt and the blood,
    A model of everything going.

    Regards,
    Jeffrey Quackenbush

  10. AC Harper says

    Sturgeon’s Law ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law) is often quoted as “90% of everything is crap”.

    The trick is, I think, to work out what is in the 10%, whether it is poetry, literature, film, song, pizzas or car valeting. Regrettably (or not) people no longer rely on critics to determine what is in the 10% –
    probably because many people also think that 90% of criticism is also crap. It’s a conundrum.

  11. WordPress Reader says

    Thank you for this series, and I hope you will write much more.

    I frequently enjoy the poetry that is featured in Micah Mattix’s Prufrock newsletter, for example the poetry and criticism of A. M. Juster and Aaron Poochigian.

    Also that featured in Ken Myers’s Mars Hill Audio Joirnal (i.e. specifically Christian), for example Malcolm Guite.

    • Sandra Kotta says

      What splendid suggestions. Thank you very much.

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