The Real Deal Isn’t

NMS cropA 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.

Jeffe Kennedy
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.

Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera, which released beginning January 2, 2014. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and has been nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose, has been nominated for best fantasy romance of the year. A fifth series, the highly anticipated erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, released starting with Going Under in July.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog, on Facebook, and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.

15 thoughts on “The Real Deal Isn’t

  1. Thank you, Jeffe! I often live under the cloud of not reading enough. Every person I meet asks me if I’ve read this or that book, and to my chagrin, most of the time I have to answer “no.” There are people who can read 1,000 words a minute or more. I’m not one of them. But while I read slowly, I truly enjoy each word that comes to the fore. And because I have interests beyond writing and reading (making a living and building family relationships come to mind), I cannot commit to the volume of reading Bitter Rant would have all writers do. Nor will I read something just because some critic deemed it a “classic.”

    And I really appreciate your catch of Bitter Rant’s sexism. So often people are steeped completely into mindsets that they can’t see the smallness of the thinking they express. That’s part of why writing new works is so important to me. As writers, we reflect and think about the world around us, hoping to expose issues and “correct” things we see as wrong. We help people (the few that read us 🙂 open up to new ideas, revisit old ones, and act on our belief systems.

    Hoping Bitter Rant found cathartic finality with his words. Sometimes we all just need to sound off, I guess. Best wishes to you, and thanks for opening up these important topics.

  2. Wow! So much to say about this. First of all, just because you love to read and love to write essays doesn’t mean you are a serious writer. When I was in grad school, I loved writing essays. I knew I would ace a course if an essay was assigned. But it took me years and taking workshops that pointed me to what “serious” meant before I settled into becoming a writer. Don’t get me wrong, I “wrote” for years. At work, when everyone else was eating lunch, I’d find someplace where I could write. But it wasn’t serious writing. It was writing for my entertainment.

    I’m with you. I hope he doesn’t discourage anyone who hasn’t found her voice yet. I wonder what wonderful things he has written?

  3. Brilliant thoughts for a sunny day, Jeffe! I suffered under a pompous, haughty professor in my critical writing class. I hope you’ll excuse me when I note that I knew I was in trouble when I saw he wore elevator shoes. Nope, not shoes to correct a hip or leg imbalance, but perfectly equal elevator shoes. Yep, he was short in stature, but tall on ego. I learned a lot in spite of him, but it was a long, l-o-n-g semester! And what’s this about a good book making the reader work hard? Nonsense! A good book immerses the reader so that s/he forgets she’s not living the story! Itg’s my opinion that words should enhance understanding, not leap from the page like annoying crickets that distract the reader, break the spell of the story and force one to turn to another book to unearth the intended meaning of the sentence. A good book transports you and, in the process, the well-drawn characters and their struggles inspire the reader to think. As an author, I know who needs to do the hard work, and it isn’t the reader. If I want to “work” in my free time, I’ll arm myself with a duster and track down dust bunnies.

    • I think we ALL had that guy as a teacher at some point – but HYSTERICAL about the elevator shoes! Somebody (was it Nora Roberts?) said that easy reading is hard writing. I think that’s so very true, as you so eloquently describe here. Thanks!

  4. I love this post. I always hated being told I had to read something, then afterwards, told how I was supposed to interpret it based on a teacher’s concept – not on what the author made me feel or think. I wasn’t supposed to like anything that wasn’t “literary” or “deep” enough. Teachers should be opening our minds to writing, not telling us to shut all the doors and windows save the one they think we should use. Thanks!

  5. Spot on, Jeffe.

    I actually just had an interesting discussion along these lines with my 12 y.o. We were discussing my solid belief that most ‘classics’ are only appealing to those who prefer to browbeat others with their own erudition.

    But to be fair? You were the one who introduced me to Anne McCaffrey back in elementary school – so I know you have always been a voracious reader even if you were once set on a scientific career. You may not have chosen to venture into writing until your second act – but you have always been a polymath.

    I agree completely about teachers like this being the proverbial straw for most frustrated lit students. He sounds very much like a frustrated writer who should never have been a teacher.

    • What a funny memory! I do remember telling you, John and Chris Malatchi all about the fire-breathing dragons that burned spores from the skies on an alien planet – and you all looked at me like I was crazy! But you’re right, that the reading was there first. I also love “polymath” as a great word for me. Now I want it on a t-shirt! 🙂

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