June 7, 2009

Literary Impressions: MFA Programming

One of my co-group bloggers, poet and teacher, Alison Moncrief has offered a very thoughtful response to Louis Menand's New Yorker review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era, in which Menand offers, among other things, his understanding--apparently limited--of what students who enter writing MFA programs are expected to have accomplished.

I won't rehash Alison's response, except to note that she focuses rightly on the fact that criticism of MFA writing programs ought be leavened by the recognition that they are essentially apprenticeship programs. There is no more reason to disparage these than those that instruct painters how to paint, cooks to cook, lawyers to lawyer, and doctors to doctor.

Interestingly, McGurl's book itself bypasses jaundiced criticisms about the poverty of what is produced from these programs, as noted here:

However, McGurl doesn’t back away from the question of the aesthetic consequences of the rise of the program; in fact, he uses the two main charges against creative writing, “that it is self-involved, that it is unoriginal,” as his main analytical categories—in what ways, he asks, are the works produced by writers associated with programs not so much self-involved as reflexive—interested in expressing ideas about the nature and grounds of their creation—and in what ways are they systematic—that is, how do they bear the traces of a common (but changing) set of ideas about what counts as good writing?

According to Alison, however, Menand still manages to slip one of those sly questionings of the MFA program's purpose. As I pointed out in my comment on her piece, which I reproduce here, what often irks about this species of criticism is not its rightness--I'm agnostic on the matter actually--but the motivations that underlie it. Here is an abridged version of that comment:

The problem with most criticisms of MFA programs is the insistence on mystifying the writing process and a general beholden-ness to "great" writers--Melville, Dickinson, et. al.--who did not reap the benefits of any such organized program of instruction. The irony, of course, is that there are today many, many more writers of quality today than there were then. This is in part the result of sheer numbers--more people, greater literacy, more time to write, more venues to have one's writing distributed (publishers, websites, etc.), and, yes, more instructional programs focused on the art of writing.

Images of MFA degree programs as group therapy sessions or a mistaken byway for those seeking to be the next Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood completely misapprehend them for what they are: structured attempts to refine the practice of a craft, which may or may not become one's vocation. Too often criticism of MFA programs feels like academics looking from the outside in with little respect (and a touch of envy) for the motivating force of the participants, who simply want to write finer essays, better stories, stronger poems--and not more literary criticism!

I could go on and on in this vein, noting, among other things, that there really are many fine writers today, any number of whom graduated from an MFA program; that during any "great" period in American writing--the American Renaissance, the American naturalist period--there were swarms of utterly crappy writers who would have benefited from the training an MFA program would have delivered, even a bad one.

In fact, the problems afflicting most MFA programs stem not from the programs themselves, but the publishing industry, where works of literary merit have enormous difficulty finding a purchase outside the world of the small press, a world I have come to respect more as I dive further into it. Thus the biggest problem affecting MFA graduates is not the quality of their work but how much they must modify it for the purpose of commercialization, something some of their professors, with their professor salaries, do not have to sweat as hard. The best example of this are the well-known challenges facing poets, who must depend on the constellation of university-subsidized literary journals as well as chapbook and self-publishing operations for their works to see light of day. Any publisher in the business for the money is not their best friend. With brute realities of this nature confronting would-be writers, is it any surprise that the "best" work of MFA graduates must often be buried or abandoned altogether? It's enough to suggest that if not for the MFA program--and the support it indirectly provides to literary journals and small presses, our literary culture might actually be in worse shape.

June 3, 2009

Digital Libraries: Googles and Our Discontents

Readers here will find a very nice summary of an April 4, 2009, "Library 2.0" conference at Yale University. There my New Haven Review colleague and Yale instructor, Donald Brown nicely summarizes points made by the conference attendees. However, it is not surprising to see some of the issues glossed over by those who spoke (or perhaps simply not recorded by Don).

Don also offers his own points regarding the threats posed by Google and its ilk to libraries, per se, all worth the reading. However, I thought a few points ought also be made regarding the seemingly onerous burden placed upon us by Library 2.0.

Let me take on some of the issues Don mentions in the spirit of Plato...

Don: "Michael Zimmer of Univ of Wisconsin-Milwaukee…offered a few caveats to the collective zeitgeist of online ├╝ber alles with the notion, picked up from Neil Postman, of technology as always offering a Faustian bargain….Zimmer had reason to wonder if ‘Library 2.0’—the library as modeled on Google, essentially—will continue to provide a ‘safe harbor for anonymous inquiry.’ Not simply ‘who owns the content’ of what we post—but who owns the documentation, who gets to data-mine, and so forth."

Bennett: "Agreed, this problem of privacy of our inquiries is a serious problem. On the other hand, "datamining" is, in a very real sense, what every scholar already does. The question is not the activity but the nature of the data and the purposes of the mining. I’m actually grateful when Amazon recommends books to me of related interest based on the buying habits of previous customers. In a pre-Internet world, there was no way to have gotten that type of information."

Don: "Frank Pasquale, Visiting Professor at Yale Law School, spoke of the possible consequences of putting all our searches for information in the hands of ‘proprietary black box algorithms subject to manipulation.’ Wikipedia is always the first or second entry in any Google search. The first ten are apparently all anyone looks at. Everything that gets buried by the algorithm is as good as not there. This is not how research is conducted."

Bennett: "Actually, in some ways, this is how research is conducted. Before there was Google, there were—and still are—all sorts of 'shortcuts' in the research process: encyclopedias, reference guides, anthologies, textbooks, library catalogs (once card, now digital). I'm not certain what 'subject to manipulation' refers to here since there is always some form of sorting and re-sorting of data that occurs in secondary tools. Google—indeed, any search engine, is just one of these. The fault lies less in Google than in ourselves and our research habits."

Don: "[T]he notion of open access to all information, via the internet, of complete ‘transparency’ of provider and user, was more or less the mantra of the day. But what the Faustian bargain came to seem finally was not with the technology itself, but with giants such as Google and Amazon as the Big Brothers playing Mephistopheles, offering us the interconnected, easy access world of our dreams, but a world where we sacrifice something of our own intellectual curiosity, restlessness, and desire to see outside or beyond that black box algorithm that makes things so easily manageable for us."

Bennett: "Kind of covered that already, Brutus."

Don: " Wolpert pointed out that what made the MIT professors move for Open Access was their realization that, in the world of electronic text, libraries only ‘lease’ access to online work, rather than owning it like all those printed copies they store in perpetuity. If something happens to the provider or to the lease, all that material is no longer available. And now the publishing world seems poised to turn over all electronic control of out-of-print materials to Google to broker for us, and to disseminate to us according to its lights."

Bennett: "Wolpert has probably overstated the case. Libraries don’t lease all of their online content. Some of it is in fact purchased through “digital archive” arrangements, where libraries own digital copies of their books in perpetuity. These typically affect collections of historical books (not from Google but other major library vendors) and certain journal collections. The fundamental problem is not lack of ownership; it’s the ability of libraries to host the data on their own. And while I'm not one defend Google, on this front, again, I think the case is overstated since I believe Google turns over digital copies of books from any library to that library. (E.g., Harvard gets digital copies of its books alone; Stanford gets theirs, etc.) The problem is not ownership of that data: it's what happens when the current distributor of it goes bust or ceases offering that service. Now all the libraries, whom hopefully did get digital copies of their books, have to figure out a new way to get all that content up on the Web and strung together."

Review: Fledgling by Octavia Butler

For years I’ve known of the achievements of Octavia Butler who carries the distinction of being one of the few, if not only, African-American, female writers in the otherwise all-too-white and once upon a time all-too-male genre of science fiction. Butler’s reputation, moreover, is stellar. She cleaned up in science fiction awards for her novella BloodChild landed a Nebula for Parable of the Talents and even had the rare distinction for a science fiction writer of receiving a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died from a stroke at the relatively young age of 58 after authoring some thirteen books in a writing career that spanned nearly 30 years.

Her last work before she died was a science fiction vampire novel, Fledgling described by her as a “lark.” At a minimum, let us say that it is any number of cuts above such fare as Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, which I only know from DVD since I refuse to plow through the many thousands of pages of teen vampire angst run amok in the halls of our nation’s high schools. Indeed, one wonders if Butler was not responding in part to this one of many in a genre that I have lovingly dubbed for my teenage daughter as the “hickeys with holes” brand of fiction.

Fledgling is compelling. A child awakens in a cave, badly injured, in terrible pain, with no memory of her past and struggling to survive. Ravenously hungry, operating only on instinct, Shori discovers that she is a 53-year-old vampire in the body of an 11-year-old child, a member of an ancient, anthropogenetic race known as the “Ina,” who live alongside human beings. Shori’s amnesia is a literary device that just borders on the trite for pumping up readers’ feelings of suspense. But it’s also an opportunity, in Butler’s deft hands, to reimagine the human-vampire relationship as one of mutual symbiosis instead of formal parasitism. What we get is Butler’s latent utopianism in which the idea of the family is reconfigured into a mixture of physical addiction and mutual dependence, open sexual relations and Western ideations of the village family unit.

But there’s an added wrinkle: Shori, unlike all of her vampire relations, is black, purposely so, the result of experiments in skin pigmentation and Ina-human gene mixing. Presumably this should raise Fledgling to the level of social novel a genre I generally favor when done right. But the material seems to get away from Butler, and what appeared so promising at its opening simply doesn’t deliver on the possibilities suggested, an unfortunate result for a work that—as vampire novels today go—still surpasses its peers in depth and invention.