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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My husband, Damien, recently read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, which I had read for my book club last summer and spent, no doubt, more time than I ought to have complaining about its many faults to Damien after I read it. It’s a very poorly crafted book, to say the least, and since it’s the only Dan Brown book I’ve ever read (and probably ever will read), I find it’s mere existence kind of grating since there are so many good writers out there who aren’t getting the attention that writers like Dan Brown receive.
Damien, though, is an unapologetic Dan Brown fan, so I was anxious to hear his thoughts on The Lost Symbol. Would he think it was a good book, I wondered? Were what I was calling its weaknesses really just subjective things that I personally didn’t like while another well educated writer/reader could see those things as strengths? Or was, perhaps, this book not a good example of Brown’s abilities? Damien has read most of Brown’s books, and while he’s always the first to admit that Brown seems to have some sort of template that he just plugs names, locations, and other details into for each new book, Damien also firmly believes that they are enjoyable books and worth reading because of their entertainment value.
It was interesting watching Damien make his way through The Lost Symbol. He did notice many of the same lousy writing issues that I had, and joked around with me about the crappy sentence level stuff, or the ridiculously amateurish repetition—characters in the book are constantly doing “a double take,” or their “gaze” finds something, and they “chuckle” a lot. Damien also felt like the plot was predictable and kept stopping to tell me, “I hope I’m wrong, but I think X is going to happen, and if X happens, I’m going to be very disappointed with Dan Brown.” Indeed, in almost every case, X did happen, and Damien was accordingly disappointed.
When Damien finished the book, I asked him what he thought overall. He of course first had to point out how long winded the ending was, and how a couple hundred pages should probably have been cut from the entire book (both points which I agree with), but then he said something that kind of surprised me—I honestly think it’s kind of a brilliant observation. He said, “There’s a difference between thinking a book is good and liking a book. The Lost Symbol,” he admitted, “is not a good book. But I liked it anyway.”
This point really resonated with me in part because while Damien was reading The Lost Symbol, I read a couple of small press novels I’d picked up at AWP. Both books had been good, in that they were well written and carefully crafted, and they explored interesting ideas in subtle and new ways. Yet, I have to admit, I didn’t like them. I found them interesting, and I felt like I gained something as a writer from having read them and analyzed the techniques they were using, but I didn’t enjoy them as a reader. I didn’t get sucked into the plots. I didn’t really care about the characters or feel invested in what might happen to them. So when Damien pointed out that there’s a difference between liking a book and thinking it’s a good book, I had to agree.
This is an interesting realization as a writer. I suppose I would have assumed that these two things should go hand-in-hand—and certainly, sometimes they do, but not always. I think for many readers, maybe even most, what makes a book pleasurable to read is a very different set of things than what makes it a worthwhile piece of literature. It’s the same, I think, for most types of art. What makes a painting artistically worthwhile is a different set of criteria than what makes the average Joe want to hang a print of it on his or her wall—consider how commercially successful Thomas Kincade is, in spite of the fact that educated artsie types think he’s a hack. Thomas Kincade probably is a hack, but his paintings are still pretty, don’t you think? Dan Brown is a hack, too, but man, wasn’t that chapter that takes place in the pitch black pod intense?
I can’t picture anybody in their right mind (to be fair, I should say I can’t picture anybody who is very well educated about literature) considering Dan Brown a “good” writer, but I can and do understand people “liking” him. Damien’s right, the two attitudes are not the same, and even snooty types like me, who cringed my way through most of The Lost Symbol, can still recognize the value in a good mystery, a little adventure, just something to distract you from the real world for a while.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Last week, I read Stephen King’s newest book, Full Dark, No Stars. Those of you who know much about me know that I’m a hopeless Stephen King fan. Stephen King (along with J. D. Salinger—I read The Catcher in the Rye in middle school and I still remember thinking, “Oh, I didn’t know authors were allowed to write the way people actually talk!”) is one of the authors who really got me into reading when I was young. I checked out The Bachman Books from the library when I was a kid—it was probably the first book I ever checked out from the adult section—and I’ve been an avid fan ever since.
This is in spite of the fact that, the older I got and the more I studied literature and writing (a B.A. in English followed by an MFA in creative writing, and several publications and a published book behind me now), the more I began to understand why so many literary types—you know, not the average reading public, but the people with advanced English degrees and subscriptions to literary journals and Poets and Writers—consider Stephen King sort of a hack. I don’t think he’s a hack, mind you . . . but I understand why other people do.
He has published a lot of crap. For every one really good Stephen King book or story, there’s at least one that you wonder how it could have possibly been deemed publishable by the editors. Full Dark, No Stars, then, was kind of a gamble. Overall, I ended up really enjoying the book, with the definite exception of the horrible story, “Fair Extension,” which is so unoriginal and boring I feel almost irritated that the publisher wasted my time by allowing it to be in the book. Without it, the book would have been much better, and they could also, then, have called it a collection of novellas, since every story except that one is of novella length.
The three novellas, however, were pretty good. The first one, “1922,” was by far my least favorite of the novellas, but it definitely felt worth reading. “Big Driver” was my second favorite; it had me engaged enough throughout the story that I was willing to overlook the phoned-in, incredibly contrived, and poorly paced ending. But the final novella in the book, “A Good Marriage,” I really, really enjoyed. More on that in a minute.
In the Afterword—King’s obligatory note to the “Constant Reader”—King discusses, briefly, the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, as he sees it (although he refers to genre fiction as “story-fiction,” an interesting shift in emphasis, I think). “I have no quarrel with literary fiction,” King says, “which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
I don’t agree at all with King’s definition of literary fiction. In fact, I would argue that most genre fiction is about extraordinary people in extraordinary situations, while most literary fiction is about ordinary people in ordinary situations, although literary fiction has certainly been known to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations. What good literary fiction doesn’t do, in my opinion, is deal with unrealistic characters. King’s view of his own work, though—that he’s focusing on ordinary people, putting them into unusual situations, and then letting them react as real people would—does seem a fair assessment of what the better of his pieces are doing, although I believe that’s what separates Stephen King from other genre writers. Much of King’s work, I would argue, is actually literary fiction. Dark literary fiction, but literary fiction, nonetheless.
My favorite piece in Full Dark, No Stars is a good example of this. I would certainly not classify “A Good Marriage” as genre fiction, even though there are some very horror-like elements to it. But this story, at its core, is about a character, an ordinary woman who discovers a very dark secret about her husband, and is struggling with what to do about this new knowledge. The novella is not driven by events, but by the slow unfurling of her daily life following the discovery, as she battles with both her husband’s and her own inner demons. Seems pretty literary to me.
“A Good Marriage” actually reminded me of David Crouse’s literary fiction story, “Torture Me,” which is the final story in his award winning collection The Man Back There. Both stories deal with ordinary characters dealing with the same sort of “extraordinary situation”: a happily married man who is haunted by his own sadistic sexual desires, and who has been keeping those desires a secret from his wife. In “Torture Me,” the main character is the man himself, putting the readers uncomfortably close to understanding a person we would always have told ourselves we could never understand. In “A Good Marriage,” the main character is the wife, who discovers the secret and doesn’t really know, anymore, how to feel about the man she’s been married to and loved for twenty-seven years.
Now certainly, in “A Good Marriage,” the husband’s secret is far more grim and extreme than the main character’s secret in “Torture Me.” “Torture Me” could arguably fall into the category of ordinary people in ordinary situations; whereas “A Good Marriage” definitely does fall under the “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” umbrella, like King says. Still, I would probably group both in that same second category, and I would say that, while in “Torture Me,” we’re close to the husband and in “A Good Marriage,” we’re close to the wife, both stories are about character. Both stories focus not on events and extraordinary plot points, but on believable characters who are struggling in very believable ways with their believable lives.
Which is what makes both pieces literary fiction, as far as I’m concerned. My definition of literary fiction goes something like this: Literary fiction focuses on character. The characters have to feel real, and they have to react to their circumstances the way they would if these things actually happened; the plot, although it should be present and it should be compelling, is of secondary importance. In genre fiction, I believe, plot is more important than character, and when you make plot more important than character, the result is often that the characters are forced to follow along with the plot. The story ends up feeling contrived, and the characters’ actions feel phony.
Stephen King does write some genre fiction—those pieces that I think aren’t any good—but “A Good Marriage,” and many of his other stories and books, I would say, are character, not plot, based, and therefore should be classified as literary fiction (whether King likes it or not). And for the record, Full Dark, No Stars is worth a read, even if only for “A Good Marriage.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I talked last week about the great MFA/PhD debate, and came to the conclusion that it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the end, as long as you have a great publication history and lots of teaching experience. I do think that some schools probably lean more towards one degree or the other, and of those schools, there are probably more that lean towards the PhD than the MFA. Still, I don’t believe the two degrees are very different from each other (depending, of course, on the specific requirements of the specific program you attend), and I’d like to give the English professors who make up hiring committees enough credit to assume they’re aware of that and that they don’t put much weight on which degree you have, as long as you have a terminal degree.
However, there is another type of PhD that is a different beast altogether: the lit PhD. Now while a creative writing PhD is not much different than a creative writing MFA (depending, again, on the specific program), a lit PhD, naturally, is very different from both. You have to write a critical dissertation—a lengthy, scholarly work that requires a lot of research and a thorough understanding of the criticism that has been published about your topic prior to your dissertation. (It is, in fact, the difference between dissertations that causes some scholars to doubt the validity of the creative writing PhD. A PhD, in most people’s eyes, is an advanced research degree. If you don’t have to write a dissertation dependent on research, many people feel the degree you earn shouldn’t be called a PhD.)
Now if the question is, What will help me land a job,, a creative PhD or an MFA? I would guess it doesn’t make much difference either way. But if you want to know, What will help me land a job, a creative PhD or MFA, or an MFA and a lit PhD? I’d have to guess that the latter option is going to make you stand way apart from both the MFA and creative PhD job candidates. Yes, if you want to be a creative writing professor, you need a creative writing degree, but if you want to make yourself really marketable, an MFA and a lit PhD is probably the best way to go.
I’ve been noticing as I’ve been perusing AWP’s Job List the past few months that most full-time, English faculty positions—and mind you, I’ve only been looking in the “general creative writing” and “fiction” categories—state that what they really want is someone who can do more than one thing. Some of them want creative writers who are prolific in more than one genre (many specify that they want someone who can teach screenwriting or non-fiction as well as their main genre), while others want somebody who can also teach advanced lit courses (many specify exactly what type of lit they’re looking for, and I was pleased to see that children’s lit, the focus I would want to go for if I ever did decide to try for a PhD, often made the list).
Lots of people have MFA’s and lots of people have creative writing PhD’s; fewer people, I think, have an MFA and a lit PhD. That’s certainly not to say it’s unheard of—in fact, many professors that I’ve met who currently teach in graduate level creative writing programs hold an MFA and a lit PhD. But I think people who hold an MFA and a lit PhD are less common than the droves of job candidates who just have a terminal degree in creative writing, be it MFA or PhD. It makes sense to me that the people who have a terminal degree in creative writing and a terminal degree in lit are going to stand out from the pack.
This is not to say that only having a terminal degree in creative writing is a death sentence (I certainly hope not, since that’s the only degree I’ve got). All I’m saying is that it’s hard out there. It’s really, really competitive. For every one open full-time position, hundreds of qualified people apply. Being able to land a job in this field requires more than just that you meet the base level requirements and are a good teacher. Most everybody applying for the job can say those two things about themselves, so in order to get to the interview stage, you’ve got to find some way to stand out.
Crazy success in the publishing world is the best way to do that; having several years of teaching experience, especially having taught a variety of different courses, also helps. If you don’t have both of those two things, you probably won’t stand a chance of landing a good, full-time job, unless you just happen to get lucky. But assuming you’ve got those first two taken care of, being capable of teaching advanced level lit courses as well as your creative writing genre certainly couldn’t hurt. I’m sure if you’ve got the first two categories and the third, you’ll stand out from the creative writing PhD’s, who have a much broader education in lit with no specialization. Those people can teach lit courses, as can an MFA, but the person with the lit PhD can teach way more advanced and specialized lit courses, and, as a result, has that much more to offer.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The issue of the difference between an MFA and a PhD with a creative dissertation is once again at the front of my mind. Many of my husband Damien’s fellow MA students at Ohio University have decided to go on to PhD programs after they graduate, while Damien has decided to go the MFA route. Having watched me earn my MFA and get a book published shortly thereafter, yet still be in a position where I haven’t found a full time job, Damien finds himself, I think, worrying about the value of the degree once he earns it. Is he making the right choice? Should he, instead, have applied to PhD programs like so many of his colleagues decided to do?
I’ve been looking around at various blogs and articles where people tackle this issue, and I’ve also, in my own quest to find the answer when I was trying to decide whether I should try to earn a PhD, compared degree requirements for specific programs, but a concrete answer to the question sill eludes me. One thing I have noticed for certain is that people who seem really adamant about one side of the issue or the other appear (to me) to be suffering from cognitive dissonance, where they are trying to justify whichever choice they themselves have made.
People who have gone the PhD route, for example, often swear that hiring committees prefer PhD candidates over MFA’s, yet if you look at job postings, hardly any creative writing positions seem to distinguish at all between MFA’s and PhD’s. People who have gone the MFA route, on the other hand, often suggest that MFA’s are more valuable because they are more prestigious (especially if you go to a highly ranked school) and the degree focuses more on writing than on literature, but I’m not sure I buy that, either.
Indeed, both PhD proponents and MFA proponents alike agree that the difference between the two degrees is that a PhD offers you a more scholarly, literature focused education, whereas an MFA is really just about writing. Having earned an MFA myself, I have to say I think this distinction is inaccurate. In my MFA program, we had to take several literature courses, and we had to take a comprehensive exam, as well. In fact, the requirements to earn my MFA degree were pretty much the same as the requirements to earn a PhD at many schools: you take some creative writing courses, tons of lit courses, and a comprehensive exam, and at the end of it you have to have completed a book length work that your committee deems of publishable quality.
There are only three real differences between my MFA and many PhD programs that I can see: most PhD programs require that you write some sort of scholarly supplement to your creative dissertation, most PhD programs require that you are fluent in at least one foreign language, and most PhD programs give you an extra year or two to write your book (while MFA programs require you to do all the coursework, take the exam, and write a full book at the same time, usually in a period of three years). Those differences seem pretty slight to me, and it doesn’t really seem like one degree has much intrinsic value over the other—the question, though, of whether one looks better on your CV than the other doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the two degrees’ intrinsic value, though, so perhaps that’s all beside the point.
However, I think most hiring committees know that there isn’t really much difference between the two degrees, although I’m sure it’s true that some places lean more towards one or the other. In fact, I know that some MFA programs are most interested in having MFA’s teach for them because they don’t want to call their own degree into question. I imagine the same might be true for PhD hiring committees. And some places might figure it just looks better in general to have a doctorate over a master’s degree. Even so, when you look at job postings, creative writing faculty positions—whether for the graduate or undergraduate level—tend to make no clear distinction between the two degrees. What they seem most interested in is years of teaching experience and publication credits. Many of them require that you have at least one book published, whether you have an MFA or a PhD, and many of them are looking for people with a lot of experience teaching college English.
And it’s the experience issue, actually, that I think is causing the confusion over which degree hiring committees are generally looking for. If you compare two job candidates, both who just graduated from their respective programs, there will be a distinct difference in amount of experience between the MFA, who was probably only in school for three years, and the PhD, who probably went through a master’s program for a couple of years first, then spent four or five years in his or her PhD program. That means that if you’re just comparing fresh graduates, the PhD will have six or seven years teaching experience, while the MFA will only have three. That probably is something that will make the committees pay extra attention to the PhD.
However, this is kind of an unfair comparison. The person who earned his or her MFA can just as easily teach adjunct for those extra three or four years to build those teaching credentials, and will probably, at that point, be just as hirable as the new PhD graduate. Time-wise, there was actually no difference; both candidates took six or seven years to build up their CV’s. Financially, one or the other may have been living more comfortably during that extra three or four years, depending on how many classes the post-MFA adjunct was able to land per semester, and depending on what kind of stipend the PhD student earned. Either way, the two options are pretty comparable, if you ask me.
So then the most important factor in who is going to get hired seems to be publication credits, and for that, it really doesn’t matter whether you have an MFA or a PhD. All that matters is that your writing is good, you’re doing a lot of it, and you’re persevering and sending a lot of stuff out there. There are all kinds of other variables, too, which can make or break your chances at getting a job, none of which have anything to do with which degree you earned.
So it seems to me that it just doesn’t matter. Go to the program that seems to suit you the best. Go to the place where the faculty consists of writers you admire, or the place that offers you the best funding, or the place that seems to have the course offering that best matches your interests, or the place where you’ll be able to work for a good literary journal.
Whether you earn an MFA or a PhD, landing a tenure-track job is going to be very difficult. It’s competitive out there, and it seems that what matters more than anything is that you get a lot of teaching experience under your belt and that you publish. A lot. Preferably in big name venues and preferably at least one full book. I would worry way more about those things than which degree to earn. As long as you have a terminal degree, you’ve got the base credentials. Think about it, the degree itself is just one tiny part of your CV, and every single applicant will have one or the other of the two degrees. It’s the rest of your CV, really, that will allow you to set yourself apart from the other applicants.