So You Have a Real Degree

What if it wasn't the Writing Program's fault?

Imagine you’re a farmer of something simple like cattle. They are living, at first at least, and require things such as their own food, shelter, even socialization to an extent. In order to care for them you contract out farm hands, whom you pay a fair wage. You contract someone to build and then repair the shelter as needed, you find ways to ship in food (lest, god forbid the cattle eat grass), you pay for gas for your truck, or trucks if you have a larger operation, and any other number of expenses you may incur all to simply bring either the cattle themselves or their milk to market.

By bringing them to market, I of course, mean selling the dairy or beef to someone you’re contracted to, a larger corporation like Tyson or Purdue through which you sharecrop. There are very few independent farmers remaining in America after all, but the yeoman dream lives on. The dream of an artisan, or a person working with their hands persists, even though you are yoked in chattel no different than an office drone. Even in our world of the “gig economy,” the media through which those cultural or service products are brought to market is no different than the ways in which Tyson or Purdue operate for farmers. The specifics may vary but the upshot is the same: these organisms collect and then funnel products to consumers, often skimming some percentage off the top.

Think then of our modern artisans, if for once you have a moment to think of the dreary world of Media People and more specifically, think of fiction writers. I only connect our fictional farmer to that of fiction writers to address a term I’ve used to describe a group of writings bemoaned by “serious” thinkers (like me). That term, “Program Fiction,” labels something extant in our literary culture but I have been thinking it perhaps places too much onus on the MFA Program rather than the actual producers of such fiction.

Program Fiction is defined using circles rather than words. You can find some of the circles here, here, here, and here. Essentially, and to get more to the point, “program fiction” comes from MFA programs (mostly) and possesses the neurotic self-awareness of its author. If you’re really in the know, you’ll blame the CIA for funding programs during the Cold War. None of the origins of this fiction, nor the actual definition matters to me, mostly because it doesn’t define a genre worth worrying about. As far as I’m concerned, MFA Programs are fine in that they can often professionalize something previously reserved for only people with the family finances or resources to enter the arts. The concept of whether or not the arts should be “professionalized” is a separate issue and one that I waver on the efficacy of. Most of that opinion comes down to if we are discussing the structure of that professionalization or the culture of it.

But for fiction, literary fiction to be more exact, this professionalization, to me is not the purview of the Programs per se, but the Publishing Houses. This then brings a new term to the fray “Mainstream Fiction,” which presupposes both “Indie Fiction” and/or “Counter-Cultural Fiction” as opposing genres. I don’t believe that unbinds us from the problem posed by Program Fiction. Plenty of Indie writers are also Program alumni, both of the Iowa-stripe as well as smaller programs. Something like American Dirt was Mainstream Fiction but probably not Program Fiction, while Her Body and Other Parties is Program Fiction, successful, but probably not Mainstream.

Thus, it may behoove us to follow the money in order to identify where Program Fiction lies. MFA Programs accept writers of certain aesthetic type, that much I am willing to concede. Those types vary of course, after all Vonnegut and Cisneros both have MFAs, and who those people are (both in terms of identity and aesthetic type) changes program to program, year to year, program director to program director.

That aesthetic type then gains access (better as “social capital”) to whatever resources that program possesses. This social capital can be anything from agents and editors, to literary magazines and job or teaching opportunities. Who takes that social capital and turns it into money is narrower than the number of people in the program. Those select few end up with publishing contracts or teaching jobs, whatever they find to be their “next step.” Some graduates of the programs stop writing all together; some, notably George Saunders, stop writing for a while and achieve success eventually. It differs. The particulars aren’t something that concerns me so much as the structure of this market.

From programs to publishing houses. Publishing Houses produce literature, writers write it. Writers put words onto a page, but they don’t produce anything, unless they self-publish and then, back to our farmer from the beginning, they have to use some platform or mode to do so. The production of literature follows simple social reproduction. What sells, will sell again because we are the sellers and people will buy it. Placing the onus on Programs rather than Publishing houses for the literary paucity of our current moment elides the way the market is structured. Further, it obfuscates the cozy and myopic world that allowed American Dirt to be reviewed twice by The New York Times and garner a place in nearly every front display of bookstores across the country.

Market forces (things like the desire for profit) made bookstores culpable in that mess, but then to imagine the literary market as guided by the Silent Hand rather than as a thing constructed and worked for by Publishing Houses, by the Producer Class of American Literature misses the discussion entirely. And of course, in this structure, the makers of value are the writers.

But the Houses have so much power and money to wield, things like huge advances for debuts and former or current politicians, or PR Departments designed to generate something called “coverage” from “critics.” In my view, to extricate ourselves from the aesthetic limits of Program Fiction requires fiction writers, the folks who labor and create value in the art, to come together, as a collective group, to protect both art and more importantly, money. Imagine the beautiful literary art we would have if Whitehead, Groff, Saunders, and Ward teamed up with writers from the small presses scattered across the country to have a Writer’s Guild for the Literary Arts. It’s no wonder, that following the Writer’s Guild Strike in Hollywood in 1960, which saw increases in minimum wages, even healthcare and pension programs paid for by the Studios, we have two decades of some of the best films ever made.

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  • I enjoyed this Alberto Toscano piece about Adam Curtis from The New Left Review “Sidecar.” I think it continues to identify what I found frustrating about his latest film and his use of the archive

  • A friend line edited a piece I’ve been working on for a while and told me I couldn’t use the word “snout” more than once. He was right (especially since I used it twice in the same line), but I re-named the playlist I used to write that piece after that word. You can listen on Spotify here.

  • I read Whitehead’s Sag Harbor and Moshfegh’s Eileen the past week. I think for both writers, they’re not their best work, but worth a read as both were straight forward and interesting. Whitehead’s work, in general, is always worth it, not least because he’s producing books every 15 to 18 months or so and winning prizes. Moshfegh, the same, though I’ve always found discussion of how “gruesome,” “material” or “real” her work is to be overblown. She likes to have her characters shit; so cool! I think that stuff is “revolutionary” or whatever for the New York-set who are equally amazed at Bodegas and breakfast sandwiches.