Monthly Archives: September 2010
So after yesterday’s rant about writers getting abused the short end of it in the professional field (and in coverage of them by the WALL STREET JOIURNAL), the first assumption you might be tempted to make is, “He got that off of his chest and can’t find anything else to complain about, can he?”
So comes the dawn, and soon thereafter this piece on GAWKER about an MFA professor at Columbia who sent her former students back at University of South Carolina an e-mail that calls into question the whole concept of creative writing programs. While there’s a lot Ms. Hospital says in her note that can be found offensive, this part in particular made me reach for the cutlass and scream as I charged:
Columbia’s MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don’t just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.
I’m really, really tempted to warn readers from this point forward that the language might get saltier than a SEAL’s on liberty; I’ll try and stay calm, but no promises…
It gets worse from there:
Sixty theses have been submitted for fall graduation (approx. 35 fiction; 15 poetry; 10 nonfiction). On average, each year from 5 – 10% of these will be failed, and the student will be advised to try again for spring graduation. If the thesis is failed, the student will not meet with the committee but will receive the detailed reports. In the two weeks from Oct 4 – Oct 15, all those who pass will meet with their committee for the “thesis conference.” Since pass or fail has already been decided, this is not a “defense” but a conference in which the committee discusses positive and problematic issues with the student and makes recommendations of what should be done before submission to a publisher.
So let’s get this straight: Your thesis has at worse a 90% chance of passing, and a fifty percent chance of being picked up for publishing before graduation…
…which means if you pay your tuition to Columbia for their MFA program, 45% percent of you are guaranteed a professional contract…
And yet vanity presses are sneered at…
Ask yourself: What kind of books come out of MFA programs? Take a few minutes, see if you can pick those out of the NY TIMES Bestsellers List or Amazon’s Top 100 Books. Odds are, they are much like the works cited in Elif Batuman’s essay, “Get A Real Degree.” Not exactly Stephen King, any of those…
Whatever you may think of creative writing MFA programs, there’s definitely one thing that’s missing here: the working writer. No, not a writer making a living at the craft; we all know that’s about as likely to be out there as an American automobile factory job you can get right out of high school to raise a family on. I’m talking about the person who starts submitting pieces in small markets, then works up the ladder and getting noticed for practicing the craft before getting enough of a rep to make Publishers Row and the agents that feed it willing to talk to you. The folks who try, maybe get it wrong a few times with the public at large watching before the make or break point is hit, the ones who sweat and grunt as they put words together.
That’s the kind of writer that’s missing here, which having some dumb-ass mother-lovin’ pays-your-money-for-access writing program spoilt bugger making for the trough with serrated elbows flaying everyone in sight denies us. How’s the voice of real experience supposed to get out there if these “writers” are sucking the air like a fire below decks consuming the ship around it?
And by the way, in addition to everything else Ms. Hospital says, making me spew like I did above, she comes to the close of her piece with this:
And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning.
To be quite frank, this is not how most people live in Manhattan. Doing Broadway on a regular basis means having at hand the equivalent of the GDP of a small Euro-Zone country to draw credit on. The Met’s no bargain either; damnit, I have trouble getting my whole family into a movie in the city. And bistros, really?
Where’s the mention of the more accessible amenities? How about getting a couple of franks at Gray’s Papaya and watching the folks go by on 72nd Street? Making a special trip to H&H Bagels because for one f’n’ morning you want a little indulgence. And a trip down to Strand Books would for folks wanting to get literary as all hell without forking over the tuition to Columbia. (I’d offer going to Murder Ink or Shakespeare & Co. if you wanted to get even more involved with literature, but both are sadly gone, soon to be joined by the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble; trying not to get maudlin here…)
Most of all, towards the top of the list for fun things, taking a sandwich and a drink with you onto the campus of Columbia University and having an impromptu picnic on the lawns there, enjoying the view of sturdy buildings and stressed students around you…
Today the WALL STREET JOURNAL had a front page piece about how writers and publishers dealing with the changing business thanks to e-books. Like a lot of articles in the WSJ (at least the ones not demonstrating through poor efforts at faux impartiality where their hearts lie come November…), the main focus is on the money, and principally how the economic model for those doing it the ‘old way’ was failing a lot of folks who want to be full time writers.
Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone who considered what it means to be a writer ever since THE GREAT GATSBY has considered the Publisher’s Row-based environment to be a great pool to swim in. And it might still have been thought of that way, had there not been a lot of folks over the years who did more in the water than just swim in it…
The sad truth is, everyone bitches about the business model. Hell, there’s too many links to cite that go on about how bad a business this is, but just to add one more screech to the choir, here’s the basics:
- Writers give content to a publisher which may or may not care about the quality of the material they typeset, because having content to offer is the principal objective here
- All a publisher really provides a writer is a means of distribution; your contract with the publishing house gets you copies of the book and the publisher’s name on the cover that means someone other than your immediate family thought enough to work with it, and if you’re lucky maybe some publicity as well
- The writer is expected to make or break the book through self promotion and producing a quality product that sells itself, although a lot of folks signing contracts with the publisher don’t seem to get this
- The reason the money a writer gets in a contract is called an “advance” is that it’s a loan against the portion of sales the writer is supposed to earn back through sales of the book; if you have a huge advance and the book for some reason doesn’t earn anything back, it makes you a less desirable source of content for the publisher
No, there’s not a lot of new info in the above. And frankly, the WSJ piece doesn’t have that much really new information either.
It’s what’s not said that makes the piece stand out and started this bitchy rant has some voluminously silent points:
- It’s not until late in the piece that the issue of whether the writer is getting a fair share of the profits for the labor performed is touched upon, and after a cursory tap the piece moves on; typical for the WSJ…
- The tone of the piece seems more to mourn the old way of doing things than considering what the new rules are; also typical for WSJ…
- The piece begins and end with the travails of the literary agent, appearing to diminish the focus on the actual writers themselves; funny way of covering the story, that…
It’s times like these that a writer can despair at what’s out there, wondering whether it’s worth it to keep going…
…until someone whacks me upside the head and says, “Hey Doofus, you’re writing a books about pirates, right?”
Which may not be immediately relevant until the pain from the whack subsides, but when it does it suddenly becomes a lot clearer: What better role models for new writers to emulate?
Pirates were considered seamen who sailed under no flags, doing it for themselves; why should writers in the future be signing up to crew under another, who may not have that person’s best interest at heart?
Pirates who worked for their booty got a fair share of it; why do we need to sign over that much of the treasure to a ship’s master we feel we must follow?
It’s becoming clear that the only way to make a go at it if there’s a bad business model is to abandon the bad business model and head in new ways.
It could be ugly, abandoning a system that’s pretty badly out of whack. Consider this statement about potential change, “The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and to write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.”
Stated by someone, BTW, who probably doesn’t get as much attention in the WSJ…
Arrrr, Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Thar be plenty o’ speachin’ like seadogs an’ such other jawin’ bein’ done. Aye, an’ thar be plenty o’ lads and lasses tryin’ t’ catch t’ headwinds o’ t’ day from other souls mountin’ t’ head o’ a barrel o’ rum. Arrr, and they all be tryin’ t’ summon t’ spirit o’ t’ buccaneers t’ come forth from their mouths like Henry Morgan’s fleet descendin’ on Panama, Matey.
And there’s very little of what I can say next in favor of the holiday that can be done well in the vernacular, so please forgive me for shifting out of discours a la mode.
Because frankly, we owe the plunderers from the Golden Age of Piracy a lot more than just an excuse to talk like Robert Newton over our drinks.
It’s easy to see why we continue to think fondly about these pirates some 350 years after the first ship was seized in the Caribbean. The pirate ideal is a seductive one that would probably spur quite a few modern people to go on the account if given a chance; Pirate Master still managed to get a lot of attention despite being a ratings disappointment. What would make someone take up the Sweet Trade is obvious:
- The Excitement: There is a constant drive in the narrative of those pirates we think about and watch (and write about), the kind of high adventure some of us desire to be enrobed in constantly
- The Sense of Freedom: Being an entity unto yourself, you and your crew against all flags, has been a strong appeal to humans for years. And unlike what motorcycle gangs deal with, pirate ships are a little quieter…
- The Booty: Aye, the main reason for taking up the Sweet Trade. All one requires to get rich in this line is a little luck, a bit of effort and a willingness to roll up your sleeves when the time comes.
Mind ye, the fact that part of the duties of a pirate career included mayhem, grand theft and homicide probably keeps most of us from seriously pursuing this line of work full time…
So despite the supposed fun of being a pirate (discounting the murder and all), why do they deserve a day of honor? There’s got to be more to it than the lingo. And the clothes; yes, those are important too…
Seriously a second, why honor these buccaneers?
For a few damned good reasons, thank you:
- Their Contributions to Settling the New World: While most people think of the coming of Europe to the West in the form of soldiers and settlers, the role of smugglers and brigands cannot be underestimated. The presence of pirates forced those powers with dreams of empire to pay attention to them, spurring on new advances in naval technology and committing them to building up their presence in the New World in ways that would spur development and bring many European descendents to the Americas. And as the new naval technology found its way into the hands of pirates, further advances were greatly encouraged; it was an effort to avoid hanging for piracy, after all, that led Drake to circumnavigate the globe, succeeding better than Magellan by surviving the voyage and bringing his single ship back to port.
- The Culture of Capital Pursuit: At a time when the mercantilist economy ruled and assets were only thought of tools of kings, it was the pirates that fully embraced individual ownership of vast wealth. The fact that all such buccaneers were essentially self-made men (with a few self-made women amongst them) was more than just a simple redistribution of wealth; it was a philosophical revolution that made material the ideals that the Enlightenment thinkers were discussing. And who better to embody the core ideals of the social contract envisioned by Locke and Rousseau than Black Bart Roberts and Calico Jack? Which leads nicely into discussion of…
- The First Functioning Democracy for Many New World Europeans: Most of those coming to the New World from Europe (and everyone coming from Africa, sad to say) did so under terms of indenture or slavery; not everyone who showed up here had the benefit of living under a system like the Mayflower Compact. The deprivations on land and especially at sea encouraged those going into the Sweet Trade to adopt the tradition of parley, where all would have a voice in the state of affairs. And with such a tradition so widely adopted, is it any wonder that over a few generations others in the New World would soon come to expect that in their affairs ashore?
The result of the pirate culture exhibited above is easily seen in the Western tradition practiced in the New World, and ultimately adopted by degree by the rest of the planet during the 20th Century. Our traditions of the bold pursuit of capital with a direct voice in how we govern ourselves owe much to the pirates that plied the trade routes of the Caribbean and the coasts of North and South America; we would not be the society we are today, for good or ill, without them having set the pace.
So aye, we do indeed owe a debt t’ Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket for givin’ us a day t’ think of buccaneers and dream o’ bein’ like them. So let us be hoistin’ our grog as we wish t’ raise anchor and go on t’ account.
And if ye have a moment between rounds, give t’ pirates their due, if not ye thanks and blessin’s, for brin’in’ us t’ modern world!