If art is about invention, why are so many artists inventing themselves into a corner, where they have few options to thrive and particularly to earn?
I recently attended the Las Vegas Book Fair, a weirdly sinless event for that city. An MFA student from UNLV read a short piece to an audience of about four, and felt compelled to acknowledge two others for their contribution to her work, as if the tepid applause she received from the four of us was too much glory to accept all to herself. The next reader, also a student, apologized in advance for having published his work in only minor literary journals, displaying the kind of massive ego that will only grow with the lack of recognition over time. Never the less, he read well.
I was introduced to Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres, Moo, Greenlanders, our headliner for the afternoon. From the podium, speaking to a full room of people, Smiley paid homage to writers’ blind ambition, saying that you know you’re a writer if you just sort of keep at it no matter what, against all odds, against all evidence that you’re getting nowhere, etc.
You hear this exhortation in some form or other at every writer’s event. The trouble is that while it’s sincerely true for Ms. Smiley, it’s patently untrue for the vast majority of those listening. For them, this is merely delusion without a clock.
The real question shadowing MFA programs isn’t whether great writers can be taught or not, which Luis Menand knocked around in the New Yorker in June of 2009. That’s like the mystery of the afterlife, you’ll only know when you get there and it may well be too late. The more tangible question is what are all these aspiring writers with their MFA’s going to do when they graduate?
Their degree qualifies them to do what? Teach in MFA programs. That’s like having the number one prospect for law school graduates be teaching in other law schools. Why are all these writers, these inventors of stories, these articulators of the human imagination, imagining themselves into jobs that don’t exist, when they could be preparing for work that does–ghostwriting, copywriting, technical writing, grant writing.
And while I’m at it . . . why are literary readings so boring? Even in Las Vegas! In every case, including Smiley, the writers’ comments off the cuff were considerably more interesting than the readings themselves. The moment the authors’ eyes left the audience and went to the page, all energy fled the room.
Here we are in a city seemingly zoned for excess, where no architectural idea is too absurd to get approved, funded and built, and supposedly the real creators, artists, and their dedicated fans, are in a room staring at the ceiling or the back of the bored head in front of them. Can’t we do better than this?
I was left pondering these questions, as I walked the Strip with my host, author Kris Saknnussemm, our literary torpor finally lifted by the sheer exuberance and un self-conscious vulgarity of it all. Las Vegas saved me from literature.