A couple of weeks ago an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher published a - I'm calling it a bitter rant - about how he can tell the "truth," now that he's no longer teaching. I think that's a fair representation, given that the article is titled "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One."
The article annoyed people on a number of levels, largely because the author makes so many sweeping statements that he asserts as absolutes, but that are really a matter of opinion. For example, he says that writers are born with talent - either you have it or you don't - and if you don't, you might as well not even try. We could have along debate there about talent vs. work, but I think most people will agree that having talent helps, but it's far from a guarantee of success. And the concept of "talent" means different things in different aspects of life.
On of my fellow members of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Kyle Aisteach, asked on those forums how we all felt about the line "if you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it." He conducted an informal poll of the membership - and in SFWA, you have to meet a publication standard to be a member - on who felt they were serious about writing as a teenager. I'm one who was serious about being a doctor or a scientist as a teenager. That's me in the high school yearbook photo for those of us who qualified as National Merit Scholars. Yeah - we hammed up our nerdiness. It's can be a long story, but suffice to say that it took me many years to see a non-science career as a worthwhile pursuit. I didn't take writing seriously as a teenager because I didn't see it as valuable.
I think that's an important point in responding to the part of this article I want to address. In case you don't want to click to the article (really, who could blame you?), here's the bit I'm talking about.
If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.
Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters. Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity's Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.
Conversely, I've had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren't into "the classics" as if "the classics" was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy "all sorts" of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books "that don't make me work so hard to understand the words." I almost quit my job on the spot.
I have a number of issues here. Yes, I totally agree that writers should read. Reading is key to our understanding of our own work and the work others are engaged in. I object, very much, to the idea that a serious reader is one who reads books that are 1) "Hard," 2) "Big," 3) Not short, 4) "Classics" 5) Full of hard-to-understand words. That kind of arrogance rubs me the wrong way. The idea that more-difficult is more valuable is part of what kept me focusing on a course of study and career that I didn't love.
The worst part of this, however, is the unconscious sexism here. At least, I HOPE it's not consciously done! Note that the student he dubs as "The Real Deal," is male. It also seems he's quite privileged, as he spends his school break reading huge tomes and writing extra-credit essays. Not, say, working 12-hour days at a job to pay tuition. Note also that all three books the author suggests as "serious" reading are by white, male authors. Conversely the student he disdains, who - GASP! - had never read The Great Gatsby, another book by a white, male author, about white, privileged people, is female.
Could be a coincidence? Except his reported response to her is to want to quit his job on the spot, not the special effort he gave The Real Deal Guy, by suggesting specific books that might work for him.
(I also think it's funny that he decries the assumption that "'the classics' [are] some single, aesthetically consistent genre," when I could probably assemble a decent argument for that very thing.)
In the end, it's clear that this guy is Disappointed. He tries for the claim that it's not important that people think you're smart, when he's spent the entire article convincing us how smart he is. Certainly far smarter than the chick who'd never read The Great Gatsby. I don't really care about him - but I do care about the aspiring writers he may have wounded in his vanity. I wish I could reach out to that young woman and give her some reading suggestions. I'd like to tell her that talent means little compared to hard work and perseverance.
Most of all, I want to tell her - and that author - this: There is no such thing as The Real Deal.