I must admit, I'm getting kind of sick of seeing author bylines that make mention of their graduation from MFA creative writing programs. There's an overabundance of books being published that use this bit of information as a marketing tool, as if I should be significantly impressed enough by the author's schooling history to pick up their debut short story collection. "Yeah, I get it, you went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop & therefore I need to read your flowery new experimental novel." An MFA in creative writing seems to be a person's ticket to publication more often than not these days, which can do nothing but dilute the quality of the writing that gets produced. That said, there are some very competent, incredibly talented new writers out there who happen to be products of those programs & we - both critics and readers - shouldn't dismiss them due to the degrees mentioned in their jacket copy. It's a tough decision to make as a reader - do you scoff at the degree or should you pick it up anyway & give it a try? (So in the span of a paragraph, I've managed to argue both sides of this discussion. Good night everybody!)
The impetus for this post is Ruth Fowler's recent piece of criticism in the Huffington Post, The Orange Prize Has Let Us Down (June 10, 2011). Recently, Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize - an annual award that "celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing." Fowler took umbrage with this, to say the least. Some choice verbiage from her post:
A plump, blonde, smiling MFA-product, Obreht's debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, has resulted in some astonishingly pretentious bullshit from the critics, to rival the content of her own book.
...it's unreadable: turgid, overwritten, self-indulgent...
...my god is it boring.
Worthy, insufferably dull, and an ordeal, it's the kind of book that one reads only because a sibling or loved one wrote it...
It's like gagging down spinach when you hate it.
...competent, assured, boring-as-fuck prose.
...we should make 10 years in the real world compulsory for all writers who have graduated from an MFA course before the age of 25.
I'm going to admit now that I haven't read all of The Tiger's Wife.
Now, again, I don't completely disagree with Fowler on the MFA issue in general, but to assume that everyone under a certain age is incapable of writing a story that reaches beyond their own life experiences is ridiculous. (In fact, it was actually this ability of Obreht's to write beyond her years that so impressed me with The Tiger's Wife.) It's easy, I would assume, for Fowler to complain about a writer not having enough life experience to be able to write a well-crafted story, as she made her bones (so to speak) writing a blog - Mimi in NY - and a book - Girl, Undressed - about being a stripper in New York City. Not everyone needs to have the same resumé or narcissistic, sociopathic tendencies as that in order to be able to write a novel.
I think that what bothers me most about this, is that Fowler actually got paid to write a snarky, bullshit piece like that - a piece where she admits to not finishing the book she was paid to review! Alright, so you were bored by the book, you thought it was overwritten, I get it - but all credibility you might have as a critic is lost when you admit to not finishing the book. It's one thing to pan something so heavily that the reader assumes that you threw the book across the room at some point or walked out of the theater in disgust, but you shouldn't ever admit it. Hell, it's not like I follow any sort of rules when I write reviews here - it's not that I adhere to some list of stodgy guidelines that I learned in some writing course. So it's fine that Fowler writes with such honesty in her post - what do I care? What I do have a problem with, is that she wrote this - for pay, one would assume - in a widely-read format like the Huffington Post. If anything, I think by having a critic with a tone like Fowler write for Huffington, they've done nothing but compromise their own journalistic integrity. Such as it is. Did I mention that Fowler became a "famous" author by writing about stripping?
I'm not saying that you should only read reviews from the New York Times (far from it, actually, especially since they've started charging to read their online reviews) but I think there should be a sort of unspoken professionalism in criticism to avoid having pieces published with tones like Fowler's. For the most part, there is that level of professionalism in criticism. While the tone may be different from the Times to The Millions, the New York Review to Publisher's Weekly, to the New Yorker to The Morning News, there is always a degree of professionalism in the writing. Write however you want on your own website, who am I to judge? But as soon as you get paid to write a review elsewhere, you need to get your shit together, tighten up your prose, and ditch the personal attack jobs.