Thursday, March 24, 2011

a lost novel

Yes, I'm reading the "lost novel" of Roberto Bolano, or at least the first quarter of it, as published and translated in The Paris Review, Number 196. Because I purchased this single copy in a bookstore along with the latest issue of Boulevard, I'm somehow reminded of Bolano's "Vagabond in France and Belgium" from Last Evenings On Earth, a story in part about searching for the only author listed in an old issue of a literary journal whose name B does not immediately recognize. It nags at him and leads to something of a quest but also the classic sad Bolano story. What is it about that man's writing that is so intoxicating?

In the issue of Boulevard, there is a scathing Anis Shivani piece about the MFA programs. He basically destroys them with ridiculous generalizations which are also at times entertaining and rather clever. Although I'm hardly an insider at AWP (I have been a member for the past few years, but I don't have an MFA, and I teach business writing and contemporary literature, not fiction writing), it seems worth noting that his main argument about MFA program writing as mediocre and "standardized" (he uses the term "house style") is an unoriginal one, and also that there are some writers who teach and learn in these programs who are absolutely amazing. Would John Gardner or Irving be better writers without advanced degrees in creative writing?

One of Shivani's main points is that the "guild" of creative writing programs prohibits extroverted political display in fiction although I'm not sure this is accurate. Or, rather, I suspect common teachings could include "showing" one's politics as opposed to "telling" of them. Another point he makes, seemingly to disparage writers earning their living from teaching, is that they have withdrawn from the marketplace. It seems worth noting that although some great writers were commericial successes at the height of their literary careers, many others were not (Melville, Kafka, Svevo, Nietzsche, and so on).

But I like some of the international writers Shivani wants to recognize as superior; Joseph O'Neill and Chinua Achebe are two he names, for example, and I suspect many professors of fiction writing might fess up to enjoying these two and many more. And yet in recognizing his preferences, Shivani feels a need to bash the programs in one fell swoop. He creates a binarism, a false one, and that's far too easy for any of us. Silly, really. And yet Shivani's invective is fun to read, and I suspect most of us who will read the essay in Boulevard are somehow attached to the programs. I've also read his attack on the "Kirby poet" in the South Carolina Review, and I must say he can draw you in and aggressively lead you to his conclusions.

Ecrasez l'infame, Shivani! I have a feeling that Anis would enjoy Fight for Your Long Day.

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