Why you should hate the creative writing establishment (…as if you needed any more reasons)

md-iceland
The Jonathan Franzens of the fictional under-14 international hockey circuit.

I used to hear it said that, demographically speaking, science fiction readers skewed working class and literary fiction readers skewed middle class. And I never believed it. After all, reading is a pretty effete, high-brow activity, no matter what book you’re holding. And, furthermore, SF seems very closely associated with engineering and coding and other middle-class technical professions.

But then I came to the Writing Seminars and realized that there is a substantial class divide between the two. I’ve been to both an MFA program and to the Clarion Writer’s workshop*, and met very different types of people. At my MFA, most of us are very young–rare is the person who is over 30–and most of us didn’t have careers before coming here. And almost all of us went to an elite college: Stanford and Yale are overrepresented; most others either went to a top 10 public university or top 10 liberal arts college. Almost all of us have degrees in English.

Furthermore, despite our actual class background, everyone I’ve met in the creative writing world has had that upper-class polish. It’s something I noticed at Stanford: no matter your class, race, or country, within a few semesters we all started sounding the same and acting the same and operating according to the same values and principles. Top colleges whitewash you by teaching you how to ape the mannerisms of the managerial (note, I didn’t say ruling) class—it’s pretty much the main thing you’re buying with your $50k a year.

Additionally, the people in the creative writing world tend to be very good-looking (also a class marker!).

Whereas if you meet science fiction writers who are at the same level of their careers as us, there’s something very different about them. They always have jobs: often career-track jobs. Their degrees are generally not in English. They tend to be older. Oftentimes, they didn’t pursue writing seriously when they were in college. They’re not as polished and don’t seem to be from as affluent of a background.

Interestingly, the literary world  (to my eyes) seems to have many more women and people of color than the SF world. But even this has something of a class-based tinge to it. In America, there’s a long history of working-class whites-only populist movements (i.e. the Progressive Party, the Tea Party), and I feel that the SF world draws heavily from the same populations that fed movements like those. Furthermore, there are, of course, commercial genres (YA, romance, women’s fiction, chick-lit, and [I believe] mystery) that are composed almost entirely of women.

 

Doesn’t this sound awful to you guys? A major university—the recipient of tons of federal research dollars—is paying very privileged people (including me) tens of thousands of dollars to do work that is of little value (since we’re not yet that good) to mankind or society. And beyond that, there’s a whole system of grants, fellowships, professorships, etc, that only go to people who exist within the creative writing industry (i.e. not science fiction writers).

Obviously, those things are very hard to get. I will probably never get any of them. But that’s not the point. The point is that the people who DO get them tend to be people like me: very privileged, very upper-class people. Which is absurd. And it seems like exactly the wrong way to design a system that’s meant to support art which isn’t commercially successful.

Because, beyond even the genre / literary distinction, the creative writing industry systematically shuts out would-be literary writers who are from less-wealthy backgrounds.

For instance, the fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

And those people are shut out of the other goodies, too! They can’t go to summer conferences or take off two months for Yaddo or move to Wisconsin to take up a Creative Arts Fellowship. And without those markers of distinction, it’s much harder for them to publish in journals and get professorships.

 

And if that wasn’t sickening enough, there are also so many other hate-worthy aspects of this system. Like, literary writers pretend that their lives are so difficult and that they’re so underappreciated. But it’s actually not as emotionally difficult to be a literary writer, because you get praised at every step of the way. Your undergrad professors say you’re good, so you go to grad school. Then your grad school professors say you’re good, so you send out your stuff. The journals start accepting it, so you apply to fellowships. There are so many tiny little ways to be validated.

In genre fiction, it’s not like that. People usually begin their careers by having their writing rejected by their undergrad creative writing professors. Then (since they don’t get paid by MFA programs), they must write in silence and obscurity—choosing to write even when it means taking time away from their jobs and their families—for years! Since genre workshops tend to be self-organized, even if the writer does go to a regular workshop, their validation usually only comes from their peers (rather than from authority figures). Oftentimes their first real validation is when they sell a story: something that often comes after five or more years of constant rejection, with only extremely infrequent pats on the back (as opposed to the creative writing student who gets some praise at least three times a semester, when they turn in their stories for workshop.)

Like…if we gave even a moment of thought to it, we’d realize that the insurance claims adjuster who finally hits it big with their novel where Bigfoot falls in love with Dracula is a much more—one hundred times more—heroic figure than the Stegner Fellow who uses $43,000 a year from Stanford University to pen a sensitive novel about what it was like to be a sensitive kid who grew up in insensitive surroundings. For the latter person, their travails were substantially decreased once they got to college. Whereas the insurance adjuster’s struggles increased day by day—as everything in their life conspired to pull them away from their writing—and it was only through major force of will that they persevered and kept going.

 

But here’s the worst part!

No one is even willing to admit that the claims adjuster has it harder.

The claims adjuster will get mocked and denigrated, not just by the creative writing establishment, but also by the sort of higher-toned SF writer (like me) who has spent a little time within the creative writing world.

And then, to make matters even worse, a tenured professor of creative writing will get up and give an interview where they publicly complain about the tragedy of their lives: no one wants to read them, literature is dying, etc.

Which, alright, fine, the publishing industry is obviously not the healthiest thing in the world right now. What I just want to point out though is…the complainant is often a person whose writing won them a job that pays $60-100k for life. Whereas even extremely successful genre writers will, most probably, fall out of fashion and eventually die in poverty. Like…if anyone should get to go off on those stupid rants, it should be someone like Michael Cisco. Unfortunately, the really obscure writers are too obscure to be able to spout off in major newspapers and magazines. There’s a glaring contradiction built into the whole “woe is me” literary fiction pose…which is that you’re obviously powerful enough to still be able to broadcast to the world about how awful your lives are.

 

Whether you are rich or poor or black or white or Democrat or Republican, this whole set-up is probably, on a visceral level, quite repulsive to you.

The creative writing industry is so colossally unfair that it’s staggering. And I don’t just mean how privileged kids don’t need to work as hard or suffer as much in order to become writers. If that was all this was, then it wouldn’t even be worth writing about: privileged people always suffer less…that’s what it means to be privileged. What I’m talking about is how the privileged kids are then celebrated more. Like, if we’re gonna shove down and ignore the whole crowd of aspiring Bigfoot <3′s Dracula writers, then we should at least have the decency to be impressed when one of them breaks out and succeeds.

But we don’t.

Ugh.

While there are many parts of the SF world that I don’t like, I have to say that it continues to hold my emotional sympathies. Siding with literary fiction is like watching The Might Ducks 2 and rooting for Iceland.

 

*Re-reading this entry, I realized that the comparison between an MFA program and Clarion might not be exactly correct (although there’s no real MFA analogue for commercial writers–the closest might be certain low-res programs like Stonecoast), and that the better comparison might be between the Sewanee Workshop and Clarion. Still, when I went to Sewanee, the demographics were still pretty similar to what I described here, with the exception being that it skewed slightly older than the MFA.