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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 07:25 pm:   

I wanted to throw out here this theory I've been goofing around with, and see if it has any legs.

Mainly, that one of the reasons that speculative and fantastic tropes have had more traction and shelf space in the "literary mainstream" in the last, say, ten years can be directly tied to the advent and rise of creative nonfiction and literary memoir as its own genre. Or at least, why there has been more receptivity to unrealistic tropes.

Or let's put it this way...people who would be more inclined to turn out semi-autobiographical fiction now have a "recognized" genre where it is in fact encouraged to be "true" to life, where you dont' have to deal with those oh so messy fictional conceits, like making things up, at all.

SUDDENLY, there are MFA programs devoted to creative nonfiction...space in literary magazines devoted to memoir-like stuff, whole issues of magazines, its own shelf space in bookstores...and you don't have to be old and looking back on your life to crank out an autobiography...

So this might siphon off some of the writers who normally would focus on purely straight up "realistic" "fiction" (with names changed perhaps, but of telling things that Really Happened) into its own separate genre. These writers can bypass the whole fiction aspect altogether, and instead of thinly veiled "novels" involving [insert childhood crisis here], he or she can write less thinly veiled memoirs (even if they are only 25 years old) regarding [insert childhood crisis here].

And so the impact on fiction is that it can be more, well, fictive. And SF/F fits the bill nicely regarding that. To use a metaphor, if there is flight away from the core city of fiction by the sincere-lit folks, then there's room for the freaks and oddfellows to move in. We have found our Bellona and oddly enough it is Mainstream City.

I'm sure there are plenty of holes in this argument, and anyway I only think it's one piece of the puzzle. and there certainly ARE tons of realistic "fiction" writers, still, working on the fiction side of the tracks. But I think there are some gradual changes along the edges of the mainstream, and this might be one reason why -- who knows?

ps. I have no idea what this smiley face connotates. A little hazy.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 08:08 pm:   

Interesting. I think, though, it works both ways. Personal experience as a basis for fiction now has a place in the genre. Which was not the case, say, fifteen years ago. I remember back in the '80's, George Alec Effinger proposing, as rather a novel and radical idea, that the personal could be used in SF. He carefully explained how he had used New Orleans where he lived as the basis for the Arab cities he was then writing about.

Twelve years ago I began writing first person stories of a personal nature. Even though the subject matter involved, dopplegangers, ghosts, angels, both the remarkably unimaginative man who reviewed for LOCUS in those days and a sometimes brilliant, though often unfocused SF writer, suggested that this was somehow cheating and unfair and that I shouldn't be in the genre.

These days, while I'm not exactly mobbed at conventions by adoring fans, those stories and the books they became fall well within the boundaries of spec fiction.
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KJ Bishop
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 08:32 pm:   

I'm wondering if fantastical books are taking the place of religion. Maybe we used to go to church and pray to gods to give us a sense of there being more to life and the cosmos than is readily apparent. Now that people don't do that so much, perhaps they're turning to speculative books - and films - for a similar fix.

This is a bit tangential, but at the moment I'm reading 'Our Lady of the Flowers' by Jean Genet. It's a sort of fictional memoir, written while he was in prison. It's very realistic in some ways, but also quite fantastical. He states that his characters are only figments of his imagination, that the whole work is one of imagination, written for his own pleasure, and therefore why shouldn't it have fantastical qualities? His imaginative treatment of the real works wonderfully. I'd almost say that the book is a work of fantasy with real personal experience as its basis - and surely no one would suggest that Genet was cheating or unfair.
Rick, maybe if you were French, people wouldn't have minded you mingling the real and the unreal...
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 09:18 pm:   

They wouldn't mind only if Satre said I was my generation's savage artist. When I was a kid and Genet's stuff was very large - a production of THE BLACKS ran forever off-Broadway - I used to kind of envy him for all the slam time he'd done.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 10:01 pm:   

Alan,

An interesting hypothesis, except that I'm not sure if it's the reason why there is more room for the fantastic tropes in mainstream literature now. Perhaps there are some connections, but I'm not sure if they're that closely connected, but signs of a general movement in the mainstream, and assimilation of new kinds of codes, in general. Even in the creation of a nonfiction, fictionalizing occurs. I'm a firm believer that as soon as pen hits paper, as soon as we begin to shape memory through some sort of craft, the practice of fictionalizing experience has begun. Whether or not those who practice memoir and creative nonfiction believe this doesn't necessarily mean anything, at least for me. I just don't think realistic renderings of actual experience excludes the fictive process from entering into the making of the piece.

And as Rick says, it seems that now personal experience has become a space in which the fantastic can play, and that the fantastic spaces we write from can also include the personal.

I'm not sure what I'm saying anymore. Goodnight.

Chris
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - 10:27 pm:   

Who was that ghostly figure?
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Doug Lain
Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2003 - 12:30 am:   

I think we may be premature when we talk about acceptance for sf in the so called mainstream.

What could really be going on is that a few committed editors and writers are simply creating a space for interstitial fictions. In fact this is clearly happening in places like Polyphony, Leviathan, and best of all the excellent Rabid Transit.

Now why do these people want to create a space for interstitial fiction? Because they are smart and good and right.


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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2003 - 07:30 am:   

I'd suggest a split in the mainstream, over the question of the future.

There are more fantastic tropes in maintream fiction and have been since the Cold War entered its final phase in the early 1980s. At the same time, however, realist writers are exploring their own pasts -- lots of books these days take place in the 1970s, I've noticed, which is handy as this decade was the last hurrah of the emergent middle class. Thanks to the oil crunch and the end of the post WWII-boom, we're all proletarians now.

Writing in the past also helps the realist avoid thorny issues like cell phones, email, IM chats, etc. Realist material that has characters using this basic technology is still fairly rare and often fetishized as the "point" of the work. Even avowedly tech novels like Ellen Ullman's _The Bug_ or explicitly fantastic novels like Sebold's _The Lovely Bones_ stop short of really exploring their own implications. The past is a gilded cage. Thus, Ullman sets her work in 1984, and Sebold freezes her narrator at age 14 so that the moral/real voice of her novel can be estranged from the future.

Those not in the cage are free to explore the future or the world of possibility, and the tropes are hardly unknown to the general public, so they use them.

I don't think creative non-fiction/narrative journalism is the issue, really. Certainly, as frequently as an SF writer is asked "Where do you get your ideas?" a realist is asked a subset of that question: "How much of your work is autobiographical?"

I've also noticed that creative non-fiction writers tend to come from different sensibilities and often different class positions (lower middle class, upper working class) than the ideological hardcore of realists, who tend to emerge from the lower echelons of the ruling class. I've been fairly successful with creative non-fiction and it is, in my experience anyway, emergent from journalism rather than creative writing. The cnfers I'm familiar with and who have published me come out of J-school, not MFA programs, and love the field rather than the mindscape.
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Forrest
Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2003 - 10:48 am:   

I'm wondering what effect the works of Angela Carter might have had on the present surge of literary fantasy? I know that many of her "grandchildren" (ie, those trained by some of those she trained or influenced) are producing a great body of American surrealist fiction right now. Amy England, Rikki Ducornet, Mary Caponegro, Catherine Kasper, Joanna Howard, and others are following in the Carter-esque tradition and consistantly publishing in venues like Mid-American Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, and other well-respected literary reviews. Though Carter's legacy can't explain all of this surge, I think it is a significant factor.

I'm wondering what other writers from the 60's - 80's might have been an influence on literary fantasy? Robert Coover, perhaps (though he is still actively writing)? Others?

Forrest
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2003 - 01:21 pm:   

Nick> "...emergent from journalism rather than creative writing. The cnfers I'm familiar with and who have published me come out of J-school, not MFA programs, and love the field rather than the mindscape. "

I think this is a different crowd from what I'm talking about. A different aesthetic. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing. But I've run into tons of people who have MFAs in Creative Nonfiction, wanting to write their life stories, rather than investigating the world (the narrative journalism you talk about vs. the Mark Doty school of memoir). Maybe the terminology isn't precise enough yet to make these distinctions.

You make a great point Nick about the lack of now-ness in contemporary fiction.

Chris> my take was on the institutional changes rather than the creative process itself -- a quantitative argument, although maybe I should have made that clearer. There are works in this vein which I like, such as Delany's The Motion of Light in Water. Which investigates the very idea of capturing truth in a narrative at all.

KJ> I read The Thieves' Journal by Genet in college. I remember the book being funny and depressing at the same time. Kind of hard to explain what was going on in that work. But it had that metaphorical unraveling throughout that you were talking about.

Doug> I'm thinking of recent writers like Amy Bender, Stacey Richter, Adam Johnson, Ben Marcus, Marc Nesbitt, George Saunders, even Colson Whitehead who have their works published by major publishers but who aren't working in realism on any consistent basis whatsoever, or at all. Whether these works are good or not is up for the reader to decide (I like most of these writers for the most part), but it is something different at least from a publishing standpoint.

Rick> "Personal experience as a basis for fiction now has a place in the genre. Which was not the case, say, fifteen years ago."

I agree with you for the most part, that this is being more and more fertile territory for writers. The inner emblems as a landscape to explore. Although I think PKD was doing this for a long time as well, and the boundaries between personal life and art became a sticky wicket particularly with the later books (ok, really mixing my metaphors there).

Forrest> I haven't read much Carter, actually, so I'll have to punt on this one.

Random thoughts on my part. Back to mowing...
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barth
Posted on Sunday, June 01, 2003 - 08:32 pm:   

rick said: "Twelve years ago I began writing first person stories of a personal nature. ....
These days, while I'm not exactly mobbed at conventions by adoring fans, those stories and the books they became fall well within the boundaries of spec fiction.""

i think you've really nailed what i feel about the ratbastards generally. i would say all of the 9 writers in our two chapbooks write from a personal core (as do the lion's share of the folks here in nightshade-land). the stories might be quite different from one another, but they share a very similar creation.

to me, it feels like soul.
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Deborah Layne
Posted on Sunday, June 01, 2003 - 09:28 pm:   

Good hypothesis and discussion..a couple of thoughts I have...

First, I don't know how anyone ever avoids writing from personal experience -- it's all we have when the rubber meets the road. We can't feel what other people feel so any time our characters feel something, it's us, you know? And what makes a story engaging, even when it's about gadgets, is human feeling, imho.

Second, if all the doomsayers are right about book sales taking a backseat to videos, games, cable, etc, then we must be having a demographic shift in who is buying and reading books -- and maybe that new group of readers is more educated, more interested in weird shit, I dunno, I'm totally speculating here, but if the Easily Amused have turned away from print, shouldn't we see more demand for something other than formula fiction? (Of course, the Romance and Mystery categories are going to be outliers here).

Third, if we figure SF/F is relatively new in literature, wouldn't we expect some people who grew up with it in some sense to now be faculty in the MFA programs and stuff? Even if that's not what they focused on, maybe that also accounts for its seeping into the literary world?

My few cents' worth.

Deborah
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barth
Posted on Monday, June 02, 2003 - 08:28 am:   

deborah,

i agree with what you say about personal experience being integral to any form of self expression. but don't you think that some fiction nurtures that part of the process more consciously than others? in my humble o, sf/f aesthetic was built on an emotional detachment that lingers today, where tropes are valued over personal elements in the creative process. consequently it's more likely that the average sf/f writer will mine other genre stories for inspiration before ever turning inward.

but then, you read far more slush than i do, so you'd have a better feel for this, i think.

-b.
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barth
Posted on Monday, June 02, 2003 - 08:45 am:   

one more thing. i don't intend my comments to be a slam on genre writing. i think balancing/blending the personal with the fantastic is such an extraordinary set of tensions that *most* writers naturally end up veering one way or the other. this phenomenon happens in slipstream and edgy post-modern experimental writing, as well as genre fiction.
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Deborah
Posted on Monday, June 02, 2003 - 12:01 pm:   

Barth,

I think you're right that some writers look other than inward, and I think the result is a kind of detachment. And lots of people really respond to those kinds of stories -- nothing wrong with that, but my preference is for stories that fall, oh let's posit an artifical continuum or something, that fall further along that continuum in the other direction. Back in the old days of the Women's movement we used to say funny things like, "The personal is political..." and I think you can say the same about art. Or you can say some variant of it that makes sense. I don't seem to be articulating this at all well, but I hope you get my point.

And I didn't take your remarks to be a slam on genre writing.

Deborah
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Tuesday, June 03, 2003 - 03:25 pm:   

The genre does seem to have shifted toward the personal. Unlike 'The New Wave's' DANGEROUS VISIONS and NEW WORLDS, there doesn't seem to be the one or two well publicized events to herald this. More a process than a coup. Maybe, it being personal, everyone has their own particular benchmark story, novel, collection. (For me it was a couple of the recent YBF&H's.)
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2003 - 07:05 am:   

Rick (belatedly),

Were there any particular stories that keyed you into this?

Alan
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JeffV
Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2003 - 07:24 am:   

I'd have to say another name to throw out there is the superlative Shelley Jackson. Her work just blows me away on all levels.

JeffV

PS Just got the latest Rat Bastards chapbook--looks great! Thanks.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2003 - 08:51 am:   

I've been on vacation, so I'm jumping into this belatedly: My own experience with an MFA program has not been at all that they are more open to speculative fiction. Even the profs who supported me in theory claimed to have no tools with which to judge my work when it veered from strictly realist, so they didn't want me to write it. It went down to even the intro to fiction writing classes. When the kids found out a TA was willing to let them write fantasy in her class, I had hordes of kids crying at my door (sometimes literally; ick) to get in. No one in the entire University of Minnesota seemed willing to take their fantasy or sf or horror seriously.

-- Haddayr
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2003 - 09:28 am:   

Ah but Haddayr, your own singular openness to sf/f/h was probably a sign of how far (not very far, but far enough) MFA programs have come.

In olden days there would not have been a TA willing to look at SF, not for long anyway, as a hammer would have come down. In olden days, the undergrads themselves would have totally integrated the ideology of realism into their own work and there would have been no tearful hordes at the door.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2003 - 12:50 pm:   

Nick: maybe you're right -- I hope you're right, but I think in my particular case perhaps not. As the U of MN is a public university, a lot of my kids are the first in their families to go to college, and they hadn't had a chance to become indocrinated yet. Most of the kids crying at my door were working-class kids and kids of immigrants who were the first in their families to go to school. I think they would have been reading fantasy/sf even years ago, with no knowledge that it wasn't highbrow. Also, the reason I got away with what I did was that no one was paying attention, not that anyone really supported me. As a matter of fact, several of the profs made it clear to me (and I duly made it clear to my students) that if folks wanted to get into their Intermediate and Advanced classes, they had better have a realistic piece to turn in for admission, and none of that fantasy stuff.

One thing, I think, that _has_ changed significantly, however, is the acceptance of Magical Realism. My Mexican and Hmong students were able to get away with it in some other classes, and did it quite well. So maybe they'll lead the way for the rest of us.

And I met Alan because he was teaching a course on Fantasy writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, which generally only teaches realism and creative nonfiction workshops. I think he said (correct me if I'm wrong, Alan) that he had to do some arm-twisting to get the class offered, and I'm betting his success in lit mags helped his credibility, but at least it got taught.
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Douglas Lain
Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2003 - 02:37 pm:   

Haddayr,

What do these profs at your University think about Franz Kafka or Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut or Pynchon or Don Dellilo or Shirley Jackson or Charolette Perkins Gilman or so on and so forth ad infinidum?

Putting the question another way, is it really that they prefer realist fiction, or do they simply dislike the usual tropes of SF and Fantasy?

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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 12:28 am:   

Hey Doug, I'm jumping in on the question you asked Haddayr, because I teach at a university (a public one like Haddayr, which allows me some of the same freedoms in my teaching that she had, for the same reason, because no one is really paying attention too closely).

At my school, I think that when they have an aversion to fantasy and science fiction, it's not because they prefer realist fiction, because they, too, read Kafka and Dellilo and all the others you mentioned, but because of some other things:

They avoid what I call blatant scifi and fantasy because of it's cultural baggage as being somehow, well, trashy. This is due to the history of bad cover art and the tendency of scifi and fantasy to be written in a well, I guess they'd say an adolescent manner, in that it didn't feel very grown up. Not the tropes, that is, because a trope really can't be grown up, but the treatment of the tropes. The writing in a lot of ways was heavy handed and atrocious when it came to characterization and even though scifi has a supposed historical strength in plot, when you look at those plots in the golden age, they actually weren't really fully realized and mature visions of worlds, ours or alien worlds.

This all, of course, is my guess at what I've gleaned when talking to those profs that seem to have some hesitation when it comes to genre materials. I want to emphasize that there are actually lots and lots of profs that really like scifi and fantasy at my university, and we have reading courses here devoted to studying it as a literature, and those courses really look at a lot of contemporary genre scifi, not just scifi from the literary world like Huxley or 1984, or Frankenstein, etc. Our reading list has LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson and William Gibson, and lots of other really recognizable centerstage genre writers.

I do think that my university is representative of a certain kind of university though. It exists in a working class city that was de-industrialized in the late seventies and early eighties, so there's actually no work here anymore, but lots of people with working class values, and this literature is traditionally a working class literature (as Gardner Dozois pointed out in an essay recently) and the university has been affected culturally by the culture of the city in which it's located. In that way, I feel lucky to have both an academic experience rooted in traditional academic culture and working class experience, so there isn't as much of the oft-noted snobbery here that I hear you find on other campuses.

Chris
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 08:12 am:   

Doug and Chris:
I must preface my response by saying I haven't been at the U of M since 1999, and possibly things have changed, but I have not had the same experience as Chris.

Of course we taught Kafka, Pynchon, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, etc. And I did have a visiting writer who seemed pretty calm when I veered off into a fantastical direction in a story. She was a Hispanic writer who did her own Magical Realism stuff, though. I also remember a story by a fellow MFAer which was allegorical fantasy and really well-done which the prof received well. Significantly, she was from an immigrant, working-class family. Also, feminists at the U got away with re-writing fairy tales, etc., and in theory, lots of the profs were appreciative of speculative fiction, as long as it was painfully highbrow, self-consiously political and/or culturally based, such as that written by my Hmong and Mexican kids.

What they were completely and utterly closed-minded about was the more definitely genre-based fiction, such as sword and sorcery, or sci fi. Very few of them had ever _heard_ of Ursula Le Guin, which I found jaw-dropping, and they scorned even Tolkien. Even some of my students flat-out refused to finish reading a story I assigned for them to read because they thought it was about "Star Trek." (It wasn't, but so what if it was? It was well-written and interesting.)

I think that Chris is right about why, but I think it goes further: there _has_ been a lot of fairly unpolished stuff put out there that became enormously popular. But I cannot count the number of lame-ass "literary fiction" stories and books I've read which had no interesting characterization, zero plot, and, if you were lucky, a faint, smug ending instead of a vague trickling away. Yet the vast ocean of crappy "literary" fiction doesn't seem to infect the acceptance of the genre in general. Why is that?

I think it's class. Crap in the New Yorker is still in the New Yorker.

I think, also, that intellectuals grow very envious and uncomfortable when folks actually make money writing, and that somehow, if Xena, Warrior Princess fans love their work, they must be doing something terribly wrong.

I don't mean to bash intellectualism; I am from a pretty educated family and have a Masters myself, but I think that we still have a long way to go before folks can look at writing quality and judge it on its merits. Right now, at least, I still see intellectuals discarding huge amounts of work without even bothering to read it.

-- Haddayr
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 10:44 am:   

I think the class issue is very important (as usual).

The pulps were oriented towards the working class, the realist fiction of the New Yorker et al. oriented towards the middle class. And this makes sense: the working class were the ones seeing their life profoundly undermined then changed by industrial and military technology (SF), who were more likely to have a nostalgic view of pastoralism (fantasy) were more likely to face dangers on the street (mystery/detection) and from seemingly random encounters with the rest of life (horror).

The middle class managed to stay in a socieconomic bubble for quite a while, until the civil rights movement and subsequent white flight from the cities at the very least.

It doesn't matter whether lots of SF is good or lots of realism is bad, universities (re)produce class society. Thanks to the post-WWII social movements, the working class got a foothold in some universities like the ones Haddayr and Chris taught at and the one I attended. SUNY Stony Brook's undergrad creative writing classes had no significant anti-SF bias, except among the middle-class students who were stuck there after the "peace dividend" meant that their Grumman employee parents were laid off and they couldn't go to BU -- ah the tales I could tell.

Fiction consumption is a cultural signifier, a class badge. When has quality ever entered into the production of art-commodities?

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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 11:38 am:   

I agree with a lot of what Haddayr and Nick have posted above. Haddayr--I think it's a class thing too, if I didn't make that clear enough (which I probably didn't, because it was three in the morning and I was pretty fuzzy headed). In any case, I spent a good part of the theory side of my Master's studying class and reading culture, and Nick's illustration of how that works is pretty spot on. There's a really great book out there called Ladies Of Labor, Girls Of Adventure, by Nan Enstad, which for those of you who are theorist-phobes should know is really down to earth theory that never allows itself to diddle around in the usual hazy academic fog to make itself look intellectual. It's hardnosed stuff about the consumption culture of working class women around the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, and it talks about how pulp genres were geared for the working class, and as Haddayr stated, it was clear that the crap in the New Yorker was still crap, but had a veneer of being better because it was in the New Yorker.

One of the things academics who are closeted genre-sneerers face, at least in some universities today, is that it's not cool to be classist any longer, and that extends to people's reading sensibilities. Because of this, they can't, at least openly, be smug to students about their writing and reading preferences as easily as they once could. This is, of course, completely from my experience, and I add qualification only because I've talked about my experiences before only for some yoohoo to come in and say I was wrong, instead of saying they hadn't had my experience.

One of reasons why the profs at U of M can't put down the feminist fairy tales and the immigrant culture magical realism is because of the political attachments those forms have. I mean, look at the labels given to those forms, it's obvious: feminist, immigrant culture. As soon as you start using words like that, or have students who exemplify those qualities in some way, it's nearly impossible to tell them not to write those things, because it would suddenly become politically incorrect to do so.

There's also that weird response Haddayr mentioned, in which some intellectuals seem to think something is wrong if you love what you write and actually make money at it. To some extent, though, I'm not sure if they could even articulate why they have that response themselves. I think it's to do with something that intellectuals have been caught up in themselves in our cultural traps here: mostly that intellectuals of a certain kind (the sort who write and read literature or paint, etc.) can't *expect* to make money on those things in a capitolist society, because this capitolist society doesn't have a high value on intangibles like thought. Fiction isn't valuable because it's made up, not *real*. Nonfiction, though, sells like wildfire (anything from Angela's Ashes to Who Moved My Cheese?) because the materials contained within it are based in a "real", "quantifiable", "material" context.

In the sort of cultural structures we exist in, the genres will always have a difficult time with snobbery, because their realities diverge from the one that many of the socioeconomic powerhouses in charge here will try to defend and maintain to their last breath.

Of course I dramatize this a bit, but hey, it's all there, just under the surface, like the closet genre-snobs (amongst other things) who have been closeted by political correctness.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 01:04 pm:   

Not all the genres in their pulp magazine, cheap paperback gaudiness were equal. SF/Fantasy (and Romance) were and are stigmatized. But Crime fiction, from Chandler to Jim Thompson, is not. That Faulkner's SANCTUARY(in mass market editions with art of vibrant luridness) was his most popular work in the '30's and '40's, was considered ironic once he was a Nobel Laureat. If instead of a piece of TOBACCO-ROAD-meets-James-M.-Cain, he had produced a piece of Science Fiction of comparable quality, would he have been forgiven? I doubt it.

Crime fiction and SF were both read mainly by males. But crime fiction was read by men - even by men of good standing. SF was read by nerdy kids. It was something one outgrew. Crime writers - Chandler, Hammett, Runyon, entered the pantheon. SF writers did not.

Has the ground shifted enough for this to change? I don't think so.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 01:20 pm:   

Chris: motion pictures and television make more money than non-fiction. Capitalism certainly valorizes some forms of fiction, particularly the spectacular.

Rick: Crime is certainly less stigmatized than SF, but it ain't being taught in MFA writing programs very much either. Nor have there been very many whodunits in the New Yorker. (There have been some; there have also been stories that take place in space stations...)
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 01:43 pm:   

Does New Yorker fiction still have some kind of significance? I'm curious. Certainly it once did. I live in Manhattan and it seems to have nothing to do with life as I live it. I never read the magazine unless I'm stranded in a waiting room and then I don't read the fiction. It would seem the non-fiction is what gets talked about.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 02:32 pm:   

I'd say it does. Writers like Z.Z. Packer and David Schickler, whose first stories were published in the New Yorker's "debut fiction" issue in 2000, scored book deals with advances of $250,000 and $500,000 respectively.

Nell Freudenberger, who worked at the New Yorker and scored a story in the 2001 Debut Fiction issue, and who apparently hadn't even written any other stories at that point, landed Amanda Urban as an agent and half-a-million dollar offers a few days later.

Akhil Sharma pulled off a similar trick.

Story quality? From "eh" to "blech" for the most part. Will these writers be around for twenty or even year years? Who knows? I doubt it.

I agree that the New Yorker is ridiculous (I live in Jersey City, a few hundred yards from Manhattan) but as an agenda setter for the publishing industry, the New Yorker remains significant.

Would that the rat bastards get six-figure advances.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 02:49 pm:   

Nick: when I was talking about what a capitolist society valorizes in fiction vs. nonfiction, I was particularly thinking of the book consumption culture, rather than TV and Film, which I think falls under a different sort of perception category with the public altogether. There doesn't seem to be the same sort of discrimination between fictive and nonfictive narratives in the world of television and film.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 02:51 pm:   

Among MFA culture, The New Yorker still does hold significance. Outside of academic-based writing culture, I don't think it does so much.
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Kristin Livdahl
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 03:26 pm:   

I think a lot of people, outside the writing world, still look to the New Yorker when they think of short fiction. My parents and their friends are all big readers,but they get their fiction from novels. When someone asks me if I've been published, about a third of the time they ask if I've ever had anything in the New Yorker. It's one of the only nationally-known, non-gender specific publications that still publishes short fiction among its other content.

I should also add that back in 1991, I took a lit class in science fiction at the University of Minnesota. Peg Kerr, who was finishing up her masters, was one of the instructors. We read a novel each from Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, and our other text was Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction 8th Edition. I hadn't read any science fiction since junior high school, and the collection blew my mind. I still thinks it's one of the best years collections. The class got me reading in the genre again and writing in it, too. Of course, by then I was out of the clutches of the English department and free to write whatever I wanted.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 04:01 pm:   

Writers of prior generations got their start on newspapers or in advertising. Forty years ago it was relatively rare to find writers who had taken writing classes. Now they get MFA's. What difference(s) has this made?


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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 04:05 pm:   

I remember the New Yorker when it was widely enough read that the (veiled) suggestion that the heroine of a Salinger story was pregnant was enough to cause parents to cross-examine their daughers. I guess that's what I mean by important.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 05:31 pm:   

   Writers of prior generations got their start on newspapers or in advertising. Forty years ago it was relatively rare to find writers who had taken writing classes. Now they get MFA's. What difference(s) has this made?

Well many MFA programs are little more than fantasy camps for people who want to write one day. They're far more important for people who want to teach in an MFA program -- MFAs are unofficial teaching certificates by way of a peculiar academic Ponzi scheme. The underpublished teaching the unpublished how to teach the unpublished.

The leading MFA programs (Iowa, Columbia, etc.) tend to generate published fiction that reads like Raymond Carver would have if his major life problem was how to best dispose off a big wheelbarrow full of money his father left him.


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Rick Bowes
Posted on Friday, June 13, 2003 - 08:05 pm:   

Writers without ideas are always with us. Once upon a time the world was full of Hemingways without any experiences to boil down into those solid nuggets of prose. Today, the quality of the writing seems very good. In the genre and out of it. We do seem to be producing more writers than readers. But that, I suppose, is a problem that will by its nature take care of itself.

What I meant to ask was whether the MFA programs were responsible for the shift - more personal stories in the genre, more SF/Fantasy tropes in the mainstream. Are the defining lines between memoir and fiction, between spec fiction and mainstream being erased?

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Doug Lain
Posted on Saturday, June 14, 2003 - 11:29 am:   

The question that popped up in my mind as I read the above entries was this:

"What is good writing for?"

It's a stupid unanswerable question, and yet I want an answer for it. Nick's class analysis seemed to beg the question most profoundly. Are these stories we pump out merely various myths constructed to support the delusions of various strata in our society, or do these stories aim at something more? And how can you tell when you're spouting delusions and when you're not?

I don't expect any concrete answers, perhaps these aren't even the right questions...
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Kristin Livdahl
Posted on Saturday, June 14, 2003 - 01:34 pm:   

Doug - It's interesting, but maybe not surprising that you, Mr. Social Activist, would be posing these questions. I've found that friends who grew up in other parts of the country, especially the east coast, were much more aware of class issues than I was growing up. I don't know how much of this is related to growing up in a suburb but I've found that people in general don't focus on class divisions as much as racial and other divisions in Minnesota.

At Wiscon, I participated on a panel about the Literature of Consolation. We didn't end up spending very much time on the difference between comfort fiction and consolation fiction or on China Mieville's ideas on Tolkien and writing, but it seems to me to be very relevant to any discusion on the purpose of writing, especially within the genre.

Here are links to materials on China's views if anyone hasn't seen them.

http://www.bordersstores.com/features/feature.jsp?file=mieville2

http://www.panmacmillan.com/Features/China/debate.htm

One of the things that got me interested in the Consolation discussion was the idea of writing supporting or defending the status quo versus challenging it. I mean the status quo on different levels, society's economic and political status quo and the status quo agreement between a story and a reader that gives the reader what they are comfortable with, for example, characters that are sympathetic or familiar. The New Yorker style of fiction that Nick is referring to, as well as a lot of fantasy, fails to challenge either dimension of the status quo and is an easy target in this discussion.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Saturday, June 14, 2003 - 01:44 pm:   

Maybe the difference in class perception isn't regional but urban versus suburban. A suburb, often by intent, was created for one particular class. In cities, especially older cities, the classes mingle. One ignores the differences at one's peril.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Saturday, June 14, 2003 - 02:11 pm:   

Are these stories we pump out merely various myths constructed to support the delusions of various strata in our society, or do these stories aim at something more? And how can you tell when you're spouting delusions and when you're not?

Not always delusions, there are other things that support different strata or even the collapse of such strata.

Literature doesn't lead the way, even though many people have read stories and books and have had life-changing experiences thanks to them. Literature is more an effect as much as it is a cause. It isn't a surpise that the New Wave emerged out of both social upheaval and in the wake of technological changes and trade flows that created the "paperback revolution" -- the production of books required new words to fill the pages, some of them were necessarily counter-hegemonic.

Same today, with cheap photocopy technology, the desktop, then the web and digital production. The zine revolution, mail art, hypertextual fiction, online zines, and now many small presses coming out with books without needing massive investments in overhead are opening up possibilities. But only possibilities, people have to step up to generate stuff worth reading.

Like ol' goatee-face said once: "art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes. But at present even the handling of a hammer is taught with the help of a mirror, a sensitive film which records all the movement... The deeper literature is, and the more it is imbued with the desire to shape life, the more significantly and dynamically will it be able to 'picture life..."

SF is a good way to picture life, as it opens up endless vistas for metaphors and allows for though experiments that bourgeios realism doesn't. I think that might explain why more SFnal elements are slowly leaking into realism. Colson Whitehead is a good example -- Harvard man, former Voice employee, member of the black bourgeoisie, and his first novel isn't a sensitive bildungsroman about a member of the black bourgeoisie, it's a crazy fantasy about elevator inspectors. He read a lot of Stephen King as a kid, after all, and always took the elevators.

As far as when you can tell when you're spouting delusions, that's hard to say. After all, you can have a perfectly fine text that people will have a delusional reaction to. Just roll with what you know and be open to things. I've read many of your TTA stories Doug and enjoyed them all, I haven't seen you have too many delusions yet.

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Kristin Livdahl
Posted on Monday, June 16, 2003 - 09:10 pm:   

Rick -

That's a good point about the difference between suburban and urban, although I'd guess the difference is much less in some of the first and second ring Twin Cities suburbs, which are only ten minutes from downtown, than that of larger, older cities. I've lived other places, but am back here now, so I tend to reflect what I'm seeing.

Alan isn't a native Minnesotan so I've been knocking some ideas off him. He thinks that a lot of class issues are hidden under what everyone likes to call "Minnesota nice," just like racism, and I agree. What I was trying to say wasn't so much that there isn't classism, but that the way class is talked about is very different than what I've read and experienced in some other parts of the country.

We have a strong mainstream literary establishment in Minnesota that is just as influential on regional writing, maybe moreso because it controls local grants, than the New York establishment. We've seen a huge increase in a type of memoir and poetry that presents a sentimental view of a childhood or ocming of age in a classless society, whether rural, urban or suburban, during the fifties, sixties and seventies. When I read similar accounts from other areas of the country, awareness of class is usually much more apparent. While there are local writers that are bucking this trend, they tend to be people from immigrant backgrounds, transplants from other parts of the country and people of color. I don't know to what extent this type of sentimental fiction is just mirroring current attitudes, but it seems to me that this is the type of status quo literature that needs to be countered. Showing things the way they are may be the best way to counter this, which is a funny thing for a SF writer to say, but I think you are doing it in your fiction and so is Doug, and so are a lot of SF writers.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Tuesday, June 17, 2003 - 04:01 pm:   

Hi Kristin

It wasn't so long ago that different parts of this country differed substantially in custom and politics. I remember that from a distance early '60's Minnesota seemed closer in spirit to Scandanavian socialism than to a stratified place like Boston where, as it was remarked, some people could tell by the way you said 'good-morning' what your grandfather had done for a living.

A genre writer who, at times, displays great awareness of social systems is Stephen King. 'The Body' is a fine account of growing up the hard way in the New England of a generation or two ago. The movie 'Stand By Me' softens that background and suffuses the plot line with nostalgia and trivia games.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Thursday, June 19, 2003 - 12:53 pm:   

I'd like to echo what Kristin said about "Minnesota Nice." I think there's an urban and suburban schism, but I have also never lived in a place where so many people were so unwilling to discuss anything that might make them uncomfortable. I'm getting used to it now, and it's easy to shock people and kind of fun, but at first I found the grim but smiling silence to be overwhelming and intimidating.

Chris: thanks for the book suggestion about class and reading patterns.

Doug: sigh. For me as a reader, good writing is about letting a writer entertain, educate, and satisfy me. As a writer . . . isn't it enough that you do what you love to do and find someone to pay you for it? Is that so wrong? Must it be more than that?
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Doug Lain
Posted on Thursday, June 19, 2003 - 04:14 pm:   

Haddayr: It actually isn't enough to do what you love to do and find a way to get paid. After all, some people love torturing cats.

Orwell had some interesting ideas on this subject.

From the essay "Why I Write":

"Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature – taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult – I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc."

He goes on to say:

"The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects."

I'll write down a few thoughts of my own that take the need for a political or social stance as a given later tonight.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 07:30 am:   

Doug wrote:
"Haddayr: It actually isn't enough to do what you love to do and find a way to get paid. After all, some people love torturing cats."

Ah, but can they get paid for it?

Orwell has skipped the main reason most of us write, if my experience and many interviews I've read are any indication: we write because we need to, because that's what we do, because not writing would be, to us, the same as not eating. This is entirely selfish, if you will -- it's about us. If you think eating or breathing is selfish.

You don't know me, Doug, so I'll give a little background before I disagree with you: my educational background is feminist, Marxist, and literary. I have organized against both of these desert wars, worked for organizations supporting women's rights, fighting poverty, and promoting pacifism, volunteered for political campaigns, published arguments for gay rights, women's rights, and worker's rights. I've been heavily involved in two union organization efforts (not as a paid union organizer, but as a volunteer). I am an outspoken left-wing nut.

But I say writers can write merely to entertain, and there's nothing wrong with it. It's not like Stephen King works for the defense industry, for crying out loud, and although I know you were joking, I don't think writing for a living can be compared to torturing cats for a living, although I'll admit some bad writing makes _me_ feel like I'm being tortured as I read it.

Can writers make political points in their writing? Can they move people to act, or to think differently? Sure. And many of us often do -- Orwell certainly did, and with great success. But to do this in every single thing we write? Puhleaze. Sometimes you just have to live your life and pick your battles, and if I sat down with everything I wrote and tried to give it a "message," most of it would be pedantic shit.

I believe that to try to lead an "unpolitical life" is impossible and generally translates into apathy and/or conservative politics. I believe life is far more meaningful when a person finds a cause worth fighting for and devotes time, money, and energy to it. I just don't think that it has to involve every facet of your life at all times. With no balance, your writing and your life suffers, and ultimately, causes and people you support suffer, because you become burned out and unable to do anything productive.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 07:39 am:   

Nick's comments on MFAs got me thinking: it's true that an MFA is really for getting a teaching job, and I ask you what I asked Doug: "What's wrong with that?" Also, it gives folks three years to finish their first book-length manuscripts, which is worth something. I'm extremely glad I went back to school for three reasons: it gave my writing a kick in the ass, I met a bunch of interesting fellow writers, and I now make more money because a lot of places don't care _what_ your Masters is in, they'll just pay you more. Another class distinction. Certain people get Masters, and they deserve more money, even for doing the same thing as folks without one. I don't agree with it, but I'm sure as hell glad to take advantage of it.

I _do_ wish there had been more support of non realistic writing there, but I'll just have to look to my fellow SF writers for support. I was heartened yet surprised to hear of Kristin's experience. When were you at the U and when did you take this class you refer to? I was there from 1997-1999.
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 08:02 am:   

Haddayr: "Orwell has skipped the main reason most of us write, if my experience and many interviews I've read are any indication: we write because we need to, because that's what we do, because not writing would be, to us, the same as not eating."

To be perfectly honest, I've never quite been able to believe people who say that.

Anyway, as for Orwell's list, I think the desire to be remembered after death merits a category by itself, rather than being slotted under "Sheer egoism". I don't think I'm alone in writing at least partially as a symbolic and psychological defence against an eternity of non-existence, and it seems to me that this is a rather different impulse from the pursuit of fame, being motivated not so much by a desire for something as a fear of something else. Of course, it could be argued that for some people, not being famous is a fear, but I think that'd be bordering on the pedantic.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 10:01 am:   

The issue I have with MFA writers becoming MFA teachers of writing for subsquent MFA students is that the loop is both closed and expanding. It is closed because writing for the MFA scene is valorized over writing for publication. It's a cargo cult of writing with only incidental an epiphenomenal similarities to what is actually being produced for the rest of the planet.

It's expanding because MFA programs are cheap to run -- there is no real capital outlay, there are now tons of MFA grads who'll work cheap as adjuncts or as the lowest status professors in the English department. A few empty classrooms, three hires and a bunch of "visiting writers" (almost invariably Rick Moody shows up, making me wonder how frequently he clones himself) and tada, the English department is transformed from loss leader into cash cow.

Entering MFA students are also changing -- I think the aspiration to actually write for publication was more prevalent; now they are satisfied with entering the closed system and getting what status and income they can from that. Of course, I'm speaking here of the "average" MFA program -- the top programs are able to do something for one's writerly career, but I think MFAism is getting rather ridiculous. Jonathan Ames, for example, took an MFA after publishing his first novel to strong reviews and sales, just in case he had to teach in the future. He was totally capable of running workshops and the like before, but not in the MFA "publication isn't relevant" style necessary for the continued growth of the phenomenon.

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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 11:57 am:   

Nicholas: I'm not lying, honest!
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 12:05 pm:   

Nick: very good points, I have to admit. Much of what you say is why we tried (and failed) to unionize at the U of MN. And the "closed system" problem is one that I was complaining about earlier -- a system hostile to the sort of writing I enjoy most.

So what's an aspiring writer to do? Go to a place that's a closed loop to get some funding and time to write, knowing that her writing may thrive but may also be stultified in the process, or valiantly try to grow as a writer on her own with a 9-5 job and not a lot of time on her hands? It's a real shitcracker, I tell you.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 12:12 pm:   

Nicholas wrote:

Haddayr: "Orwell has skipped the main reason most of us write, if my experience and many interviews I've read are any indication: we write because we need to, because that's what we do, because not writing would be, to us, the same as not eating."

To be perfectly honest, I've never quite been able to believe people who say that.
-------------------

Nicholas: I'm not sure how it is for Haddayr, but let me explain a little from my experience of how I take that phrase oft-used about writing being equated with other normal bodily functions. I, like Haddayr, think writing is something that some people--not all, of course--need to do, just like sleeping and eating. I don't think I would actually die if I didn't write, but I've never stopped writing long enough to find out. I can say that I've gone long spells without writing (in my judgement, at least) and the longer I go without writing, the more upset I become with a lot of other areas in my life. At first I get grumpy, just like if I hadn't eaten or slept in a while. Then I start to get depressed. And the depression gets worse and worse until I find some way to write again (I have been stopped for various reasons--either a block of my own, or else drama in my personal life taking up more mental and emotional energy so that nothing is left for my writing, stuff like that, etc.).

So, in a way, it seriously can affect a person's life, physically and emotionally, if they are kept from writing. I think it's different for every writer. I'm sure there are writers who could go on the rest of their lives without writing. But there are some, too, that would seriously be messed about if they tried to give it up.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 12:17 pm:   

Given the extraordinary cost of many MFA programs, I'd suggest that the better bet is to just write in one's off-time. The state schools are a bargain, but I've met many an MFA grad who was paralyzed by the massive debt they had racked up while studying to...not to write, but to teach a workshop for a few grand.

If one has some money, it may be wiser just to place it in the bank, reduce one's consumption, and live off of it while trying to produce. Or heck, start a workshop by putting a flyer up at the local library. At least then you don't end up having to pay interest.

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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2003 - 02:01 pm:   

Chris: I understand all that, but it seems to me that it's largely due to the reasons Orwell lists (as well as others left out). In other words, the listlessness and depression is a function of one's being prevented from striving for those things through writing, rather than resulting from the lack of fulfillment of an elemental and irreducible Need To Write. I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility of some sort of visceral compulsion being a factor, but I 1) can't say I've experienced any of that myself and 2) don't think anyone could possibly have that as their sole reason for writing, and that few enough people would have it even as their main reason.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Saturday, June 21, 2003 - 12:00 pm:   

Nicholas: I don't think it's a matter of whether or not its anyone's sole reason for writing, or even a main reason. And I'm not so sure it's tied into the reasons by Orwell, listed above. Only because I wrote when I was a little kid, too, and had no real historical or political drive, though perhaps an aesthetic sense of organization, and a little ego, of course, but the ego didn't seem attached to the writing, as no one in my family or circle of friends as a child thought much of writing in general, so there was no particular ego fulfilliment in it. In any case, it's no big deal, but I do think it's another factor for some people.
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Kristin Livdahl
Posted on Saturday, June 21, 2003 - 10:16 pm:   

I have to agree with Haddayr and Chris because I shared the same experience. If I hadn't received the right encouragement, I'd still be writing but without any desire or plan to have anyone read what I was doing. It's been a compulsion and a stress outlet for me since I could hold a pen in my hand. I admit that my motivations aren't so clear cut for me now, but I have a hard time defining my motivations solely based on the four that Orwell lists.

I understand why many people go the MFA for teaching route, because it's hard to find a bill-paying job that's satisfying without it sucking up all the and mental energy that should go to writing. If I'm going to be investing so much of my time away from writing doing something, I want it to be something that makes me happy. I was also taught (programmed?) to never go without health insurance which usually requires full-time work. I'm no longer running a shelter, although I loved the job, because it took too much out of me. I was lucky enough to be able to find something else in the same field that I love and that allows me that space to write, but for most writers I know, this balance is elusive. I don't think teaching is always the best alternative since so many writers I know that teach get no writing done during the school year, but for others it makes sense. Some writers love teaching, and have learned how to teach, not from the MFA program, but through teaching comp. and other grunt work, and would be much happier teaching than doing anything else but writing full-time. God knows that a lot of us would give anything to write full-time, but even with simplifying our lifestyles, it's just not going to happen.

I'm lucky enough to be able to be political and activist in my work and volunteer lives, but I'd like to think I could do something with the issues I care about in my writing, too. That gets me thinking about who my audience is and wondering if it's not just another closed system of other like-minded genre writers and readers or something larger than that. SF can do political exploration very well - I'm thinking of how much LeGuin's aliens tell us about ourselves, but how many genre writers reach such a large audience? Then again, I don't really know who the audience is for a lot of the creative nonfiction and memoir that's coming out now. Around here it seems to be mainly upper and middle-middle class readers, very much the public radio listening crowd.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Monday, June 23, 2003 - 09:35 am:   

I think the best attitude regarding an MFA is to have incredibly low expectations--and not even to expect to get a job from it. If in the off chance you get something that isn't akin to indentured servitude, hey, bonus. But otherwise you can put in your two years, get your time to write and get on with your life.

Why else go to an MFA program? To study with writers you like. This might be more of a big deal in poetry (where I got mine) than fiction, esp. speculative fiction, since the "economy" of poetry is so nebulous anyway.

Also I was very lucky to get a good fellowship and walk away from the whole thing with minimal debt. Which can be a problem. I also went right out of undergrad, so being 29 now, my MFA years seem like a long time ago. Mostly good memories. I had a lot of friends in the fiction program. Not all were adverse to SF/F type stuff. It was in Deborah Eisenberg's reading seminar that I first read Gogol, Bruno Schultz, and Babel for the first time. Freaks all.

I would also say--if you REALLY want to take a crack at the whole teaching creative writing route, try to make a go at it, it's only really worth it to get into a top five or ten school (granted, this is nebulous). From a purely profiteering standpoint. Try for the writers you like, try for the best, and if you don't get it, stay home.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this.

I would also say that I've been thinking about (and I'd be interested to hear what Nick says about this), how Clarion can provide this kind of normalizing function in the genre too. Not in all cases, but some. This isn't a slam on Clarion or the Clarion model; in fact, the exact opposite, in that it has been so successful at what it does that sometimes you literally can't turn a corner at a con and not run into a Clarion grad. But I'm wondering whether, AT TIMES, it creates a type of "workshop story".
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Monday, June 23, 2003 - 09:40 am:   

I think also that I was lucky with my Virginny MFA program, in that it was "easy" from an academic standpoint. With little BS and very little contact for the most part with the actual department. My course load for each semester was: one workshop, one literature class (even these were "easy" in terms of the rest of the department; they threw us MFA types softballs academically). Aaaand...that was it. I didn't have to teach my first year at all, and my second year I taught one class of Intro to Poetry Writing a semester, with bright, eager kids. (Er, ok, who were only a few years younger than me). Still left a ton of time to write. And I ended up writing the equivalent of two poetry manuscripts, about a hundred poems each year. Not everyone in the program wrote this much, of course, but there was enough time that you COULD if you wanted to. You had days and days where you really didn't have anything to do, and if you were disciplined, you could get a shitload done.

Just a data point. Maybe a RARE data point, but a data point.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Monday, June 23, 2003 - 10:20 am:   

In poetry, the apprenticeship can certainly be important. Ginsberg actually made a joke of it. When he taught at Brooklyn College, he told everyone that they were great. Back when I was reading the slush for a small publisher that did some poetry, we even formalized a rule -- if the cover letter or any of the poems referenced Ginsberg, it was bounced. There were dozens!

This is the other weakness of the MFA: a good (or at least famous) writer isn't necessarily a good teacher. A good teacher of writing may not be a good writer. MFA programs don't seem to have a selection mechanism by which to make sure that their teachers are good writer/teachers. The big names, such as big is in the MFA world, are brought in to flog in Poets & Writers ads, and the best teachers have no real way to develop a reputation unless their students start succeeding in the publishing biz, which MFAs themselves aren't necessarily interested in. This is part of what makes the leading MFA programs (Iowa, Columbia, Bennington, etc.) good -- they actually push students to publish.

I don't think Clarion has the same sort of "workshoppy" results of the MFA programs. I'm only noting this from the outside of course, having never been, but Clarion grads are producing material all over the field. Perhaps only a few are in the Analog mafia, but there are certainly enough grads trying to be hard or doing space opera. There doesn't seem to be any sort of bias against that.

One thing I have noticed is a production bias, with many Clarion grads continuing to rely on the same style of workshopping ever after. But there a zillion ways to write a gazillion stories, so I don't think it is harming anything.



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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 06:41 am:   

Nick: people take out loans to get their MFAs? That's horrifying. I would have never in a bazillion years gotten a useless degree and actually _paid_ for it. TAs at the U of MN don't have to pay tuition. No -- if it was between _paying_ for an MFA and going it alone, I'm with you.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 06:46 am:   

I think Chris was right-on in describing the "compulsion" to write, and Kristin in her assertion that she would keep writing even if she didn't expect a profession out of it. I share both of these experiences. After I've stomped around the house growling at the dog and snarling at the cat long enough, my husband always demands that I sit down with my notebook _right now_ because he can't stand being around me another minute. I've spent one time period in my life not writing except for freelance trade stuff, and promptly launched myself headfirst into a crippling depression.

I'm not trying to be flip, Nicholas, but just because _you_ haven't experienced something doesn't mean that other people are making it up, and the reasons writing seems to be an organic need (ego, compulsion, oxygen, whatever) have nothing to do with how real the compulsion is.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 06:54 am:   

Kristen: (I'm not sure why I keep doing these posts separately) I think your thoughts about sci fi and fantasy having such a small readership and questioning how large the readership is for memoir, etc. takes us full circle.

Is there any central place we could get reliable statistics about this? My gut is that far more people read scifi and fantasy than memoir and literary fiction, although I have no way of proving this.

I also wonder if it matters how large the audience is? Reaching out to the best readers (however you want to define that; I define the best as dorks, freaks, and hopeless nerds), for instance, seems more important than simply reaching out to the _most_ readers.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to Doug's ideas, too.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 08:35 am:   

Oh yes. I knew a few people with six-figure debts coming out of Columbia. From the vantage point of their mid-20s, it's a little gag. "Oh, I just decided that it is okay to be in debt for the rest of my life ha ha."

Ditto NYU.

Meghan Daum had an interesting essay on the subject, though in her case obvious personality flaws also played a role. It's called "My Misspent Youth," and is a good example of the ha-ha-$100K-in debt-oh-well mentality. What's worse though is that Daum was actually making $70K a year as an essayist at the same time, and still couldn't handle her Columbia debt load.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 11:09 am:   

I think it's a little ridiculous to do the MFA route if you're not getting funded entirely. I'd been accepted to some MFA programs that didn't have any money for me, but I didn't go because there was no assistantship or fellowship offered that would keep me afloat while I wrote there. One of the schools, the University of Pittsburgh, I really wanted to attend. But without the money there, I just couldn't see how racking up two years of debt for a degree that wouldn't be able to pay that debt off for me was feasible. But if you've got two years of funding, and you want time to write in a workshop setting, and to teach maybe, it's an awesome experience, even though you're simpy subsisting, not making any money.
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barth
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 11:14 am:   

i think part of my own bias against the MFA-oriented writing life is rooted in the question of audience and economics. the literary writing world is no more sustainable as a "market" than our artificially constructed, heavily sanctioned "system" of agriculture, where, regardless of buyers, farmers keep producing and will get paid no matter what. as a result, we not only have an economic ag system that NO one likes, we produce toxic factory-farmed food because of a staggering disconnect between grower and consumer. more specifically to our discussion, literary writers usually write for a university hegemony - teachers and colleagues through a college press - rather than for a "diversity" of readers. as a result, i think the average writer's process is focused very inward. the confessional memoir genre that kristin wisely cites is the logical outcome of this disconnected economic system, which shuns the sweaty democracy of magazines' chaotic readership for the cool homogeny of literature by and for academics (rewind to the class discussion here).

this is why i decided not to pursue the MFA life and how i wound up at clarion. though it arguably feeds yet another closed system (ah yes, the rich diversity of the sf/f market!), i think clarion rightly emphasizes the economic reality in creative process - something i NEVER got in college (no discussion of audience, story, or "readerly pleasures," let alone how to prepare a manuscript for submission). i think writing with awareness of market and audience has helped make me a better writer than i ever was while mucking about in college. and i agree with nick. it's quite possible to arrange a life where you can write 30 hours a week with day job. i've been doing it for 13 years.

MFA-world vs market-driven fiction isn't an either/or proposition, i do realize. barzak, deniro, and many other writer-pals of mine have managed to bring a market sensibility to their MFA orientation and it serves them exceedingly well. but personally, that's a mountain i couldn't manage to bring to mohammed.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 11:58 am:   

I would actually say that actually many of those in MFA programs are hyperaware of markets. It's just that the markets themselves may be insular. Although not in all cases. I don't know if placing a story in Esquire, Zoetrope, or Seventeen is part of the "university hegemony". Not all who come out of an MFA environment GET there, of course, but it's the standard that many are striving for.

Funnily, you'd go to an MFA party at Virginia and you'd talk to a cluster of poets who are all talking about aesthetics, or Frank O'Hara, or whatever, and you'd move to a cluster of fiction writers and they'd be comparing notes on agents. Many of these writers aren't living on clouds--they know they can make some money in it. Not all, but some.

An MFA, really, is just a piece of paper and some time, really, both in solitude and with other writers. Fellow graduates my year did, afterwards, anything from doing the Editorial Assistant at Doubleday (or wherever) route, to the moving to a remote cottage in the Blue Ridge mountains and writing in between odd jobs route, to the law school route. Some of them never really wrote again. Some became wild successes. Some like me decided to shift gears completely and muck around in a completely different medium. The point is there wasn't a single "success" story, just like there isn't a magic bullet in attending an MFA program in the first place.

The bigger problem for poetry (although they're related) isn't the MFA per se, but the 1st book contest meat market, which is a ridiculous and obscene way to decide which books by new poets should be published. Talk about going into debt--I know of poets who have spent THOUSANDS of dollars on $20-30 "reading fees" for book contests.

Lots of good stuff about how this relates to class that I'm still sifting through. I really like what CD Wright has to say on the subject in her essay "The Wages of Poetry", which is easily applicable to other modes of writing (apologies to my friends who have heard me go on my Wages-of-Poetry spiel before).

http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/cdwright/wages.htm
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barth
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 12:51 pm:   

-I don't know if placing a story in Esquire, Zoetrope, or Seventeen is part of the "university hegemony".-

i don't think so. those mags have pretty wide editorial pallets, compared to many fiction markets. personally, i'm talking about university presses when i refer to MFA-spawned writing, the "by academics for academics" market - not merely markets where MFA writers might get published.

of course, the same insular effect is at work in any given genre and probably can't be avoided. i'm just talking about the lack of real economic viability of markets bank-rolled by university budgets and aren't really audience/reader driven.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 01:50 pm:   

Esquire and Seventeen do between 10 and 12 stories a year. Zoetrope as many as 60.

That isn't even one slot per MFA program in the US, even if we were to ignore the fact that accomplished writers with agented submissions get many of the slots.

If by Virginia you mean UVA, that's one of the better MFA programs for fiction. But the "average" MFA program is likely less than 15 years old, has a core faculty of maybe four, and a slew of "visiting writers" who may or may not be able to teach. Jimmy Joe Wannawrite in one of these programs isn't being groomed for a debut in Esquire, followed by a debut novel nine months later and a story collection ten months after that. He's hawking to ratapallax if he's lucky and Average MFA Review if he ain't, then teaching his dubious skills to the "downline" -- next year's recruits.

Not only is the MFA system closed and expanding, it is segmented. Top schools feed contemporary American realism (and usually the youngest and preppy-sexiest of the top students make it), the rest feed on themselves.


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douglas lain
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 07:38 pm:   

Nick is right. Nick is absolutely right.

That's all I have time to write for now. I'm busy reading about how Voldemort is chasing Dumbledore in one of the fifteen copies of this new book I just bought.

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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - 09:03 pm:   

Nick, it's definitely a flawed self-perpetuating system, agreed, which doesn't make good writers, although good writers can work in the system and get something out of it.

This isn't even getting into Breadloaf and its ilk.

and i just realized--I should start a poetry thread. :-)

Maybe tomorrow.

A.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 12:48 am:   

just to clear things up, because absolutely everyone thinks I just completed an MFA program, nope, I didn't. I got an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, but that's a joke too. The writing workshops available to me at my university--you have to understand, they aren't really viable as real workshops, with real criticism. This is a regional campus, and so the standards of education are, well, a bit lower. Everything I did in my degree I basically tailored to my own liking, so I got a lot of writing done, and grew both as a person and a writer. But it was not an MFA program, it didn't even slightly resemble one. Which I was sad about sometimes. I mean, I love workshops. We can bitch and moan about how bad a workshop mentality can get, and that's true, at their worst, they're really bad. But if you have enough sense to keep your head about you, you can do good work in a workshop, and get good results. A lot of it is about knowing who you are and what you want (of course, with the qualification that these things are open for discussion as well, and can change if you feel so incline). If you don't know those things when you enter an MFA program, or any writing workshop, you'll get spun in a thousand different directions.
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 04:09 am:   

Haddayr:

>"I'm not trying to be flip, Nicholas, but just because _you_ haven't experienced something doesn't mean that other people are making it up, and the reasons writing seems to be an organic need (ego, compulsion, oxygen, whatever) have nothing to do with how real the compulsion is."

I don't disagree with that at all (and I must say that my original response was a bit misleading). I certainly don't mean to belittle the importance of writing (in the lives of writers and otherwise, though I suppose only the former is relevant here)! All I'm saying is that I don't think the reason/compulsion for writing is irreducible; that's all.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 07:45 am:   

   Nick, it's definitely a flawed self-perpetuating system, agreed, which doesn't make good writers, although good writers can work in the system and get something out of it.

Some people can definitely grift the system, but is it necessarily the good writers that do that? I know a few good writers who got sucked into the MFA thing and came out processed cheese. I know a few horrible writers (Suki Kim! There, I said it!) who played the system like a violin and have had great success.

I don't know that writerly chops and social savvy always go together.
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barth
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 09:13 am:   

>I don't know that writerly chops and social savvy always go together.

this year's understatement award goes to....lil nicky mamatas!
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Kristin Livdahl
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 12:31 pm:   

Haddayr -

I meant only a portion of the spec. fic. world, particularly the 'zine and literary crowd, if you can even divide us that way. Looking at our chapbook sales, the majority of copies that haven't been purchased by family and friends have gone to other writers and a few critical readers.

Kristin
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 12:53 pm:   

Kristin: I see what you mean.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 12:57 pm:   

On MFAdom: although I agree with all of the criticisms levelled here, I am glad I got my MFA (with the reminder that it was FREE). I am a better writer for it, I am making more money in my day job for it, and I met a bunch of interesting, smart, and talented writers there. It sounds as if I may have gotten much the same out of Clarion, though.
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Douglas Potter
Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2003 - 01:43 pm:   

I think Dumbledore is going to win out in the end.

Oh, sorry...nobody asked about that did they?
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 08:44 am:   

Some of you may be interested in this discussion:

http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/806/830.html?1056642037
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Tim Akers
Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 08:46 am:   

MFAs, Clarion and the writing life. First of all, I've never held much value in writing programs in the larger sense. Someone said that they're basically fantasy camps, and I would agree with that. There's a whole freaking industry centered around people who want to be writers, and are willing to spend income taking classes, buying books and attending seminars on the subject. I attended one, when I was in junior high, and thought it was all rather silly and unproductive. But I'm a cynic. To break down the magic of writing into a syllabus...I just don't get that.

Mind you, I have a BA in creative writing. Just happenstance, really, as I started as a Lit major. I was taking writing classes, getting high marks but not really learning anything. I noticed that my classes had already fulfilled the writing major requirements, so I switched over. Thought it might look good on the resume. Stupid me.

Personally, I improve my writing by reading. I've also garnered a fairly large mailing list of readers. These are people I barely know who have expressed a willingness to read any material I send them, and provide feedback. It's nice because they represent a very wide range of tastes, and because I don't know them, they have no emotional attatchment to me, and have no reason to be nice. In all the writing classes I took, I was never able to get decent feedback. I found that when you talk to writers about your writing, they invariably end up talking about their own writing. Subtle.

Anyway...I found my way to this board because one of the ratbastards wrote a piece I liked quite a bit. Appeared in asimov's, and I think it was Alan that wrote it. I'm at bloody work now, and I've forgotten the name of the piece. The two demons thing. Just wanted to say I liked them words.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 09:36 am:   

Tim, that was Barth. "The Apocalypse According to Olaf." Brilliant story, I agree.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 10:05 am:   

Yeah, I just realized that. Was coming to correct my mistake, only to see that Alan had corrected it for me. And now I feel like an idiot. A warm idiot, but still an idiot.
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barth
Posted on Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 11:00 am:   

sokay, tim, alan and i are often confused for each other. no, wait that's me and kristin. no wait that's chris and kris. no wait...

anyway, glad you liked "apocalypse according to olaf," tim. that really makes my day!

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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Monday, June 30, 2003 - 09:04 pm:   

Here, from the AWP site, are the stats for the expansion of creative writing programs, from 1975 to 2002:

1975 2002

AA 0 8
BA 24 283
BFA 3 70
MA 32 151
MFA 15 99
PhD 5 41
DA 1 1

(DA programs had an expansion, then a contraction, over the years)
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Tuesday, July 01, 2003 - 06:43 am:   

Nick: What's a DA?
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Tuesday, July 01, 2003 - 08:32 am:   

Doctor Of Arts. Given the fate of the DA degree generally, I suspect that the several DA programs that emerged in the 1980s just became Ph.D. programs.

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