the value of creative writing MFAs

Here is a short recollection by writer Junot Diaz, in the New Yorker, about his oppressively non-diverse, anti-racial experience in a creative writing program. It’s worth reading in full, but in a nutshell, his MFA program suffered the same flaw as most MFA programs: it was too white. To elaborate,

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

complete Game of Thrones ebook set for $9.99 #asoiaf

The complete 5-volume set of A Song of Ice and Fire
is on sale right now for $9.99 at Amazon, so grab it quick if you don’t already have it.

The complete series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is probably the authentic heir to Tolkien’s crown of Reference Epic Fantasy. Being American rather than British, it’s heroes are more typified by the tragic Starks than the homely Bagginses. Bilbo and Frodo (and especially Sam!) were the typical WW2-era simple Briton, preferring a simple life but when called upon to great tasks, heroic in their pragmatism and perseverance. Ned Stark’s clan is more violent, impulsive, bred for leadership and heroism and fated for nasty ends. If anything the heroes of ASOIAF are the antithesis of the heroes in LOTR (the closest that LOTR comes to an ASOIAF-style hero is Aragorn, who has the same Starkian bearing but gets to keep the girl and his crown. And head.)

I’ve never read ASOIAF and have no illusions about it being an easy read, but I am looking forward to the journey, especially since by the time I finish it, book 6 will surely come out. I am certain that this series will fill the void left by LOTR that the Wheel of Time series failed to fill.

“genre” vs “serious” fiction

An intriguing essay on the arbitrary distinctions made by the literature community when deciding what books are treated as proper literature and which are relegated to the genre ghetto:

In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound. Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification, distortion and enhancement.

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of Michael Chabon and Philip Roth; the modernist allegories of José Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro; the quasi-sci-fi scenarios of Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace; the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and Audrey Niffenegger; the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and Mark Z. Danielewski; the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and Italo Calvino; the edgy futurism of J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and the works of hosts of other writers.

Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their pulp fiction predecessors. Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even when no legitimate dividing line existed.

Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was amiss.

There does seem to be a loosening of these constraints, however. Look at the mainstream success of Neil Gaiman (whose early work fits right into the lineup of authors mentioned above) or new writers like my friend G. Willow Wilson whose book Alif the Unseen is making serious waves.

True, books like the astonishing The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi aren’t going to get the same literary attention – but then again, maybe that’s a good thing. There’s definitely a perception that “hard” science fiction or “high” fantasy are not digestible by the mainstream (even though Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter are among the most-read books of all time).

Guide to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Mark has posted what must surely be the definitive overview and guide to the Vorkosigan Saga. If you’ve any interest in reading these books, start with Mark’s post.

For myself, I snagged Warrior’s Apprentice and Mountains of Mourning from the Baen Library. I’ll probably get around to the rest eventually – I’m less interested in Cordelia’s story than Miles’ exploits though. At any rate, figuring out where to start and what to skip just got a LOT easier thanks to Mark’s due diligence.

Blogger Shrugged

Atlas Doesn't Care
My friend Dean Esmay is reading Atlas Shrugged, out of a misplaced sense of due diligence. To stay sane, he’s blogging it. I actually read and even enjoyed The Fountainhead, but Atlas is pure literary masochism. I mean, come on:

Her leg, sculptured by the light sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body. The coat collar was raised to the slanting brim of her hat. A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body.

It’s like someone wrote an entire book out of Bulwer-Lytton contest entries.

I’m not interested in debating the merits of any philosophy so pretentious as to label itself objective – to me, Atlas is a work of literature, and should be treated precisely as such, nothing more and nothing less. However, since the Randians roam the internet like the Burning Legion, laying waste to blogs that dare refuse to prostrate at Ayn Kiljaeden Rand’s throne, I can’t resist a little visual defiance, hence the admittedly rude image above for which I humbly beg my regular readers’ forgiveness.

whither science fiction as a genre?

There’s been a lot of intropspection about science fiction by science fiction authors recently. It started with Elizabeth Bear’s essay in Clarkesworld, titled “Dear Speculative Fiction: I’m Glad We Had This Talk“, where she personifies sci-fi as a genre into a goth teenager, accusing it of the attitude that “nothing fun can have value; that only grimdark portentousness and dystopia mean anything.” Abi Sutherland had a follow-up in the same vein, where he advises a now-sobbing adolescent Science Fiction (or, “Fic”) to stop “acting like an outsider hoping to join a high school clique” and to “stop mistaking darkness for value.”

To be honest, I don’t really agree with the critique. Admittedly, I am way behind on the Hugo nominated books, but what I do is religiously follow the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Dozois, and as far as I can tell the range of science fiction (at least in short story form) is as wide as ever. I am something of a short-story zealot however – to me it is the purest form of SF.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross sounds the alarm over the vitality of the genre as a whole, pointing to ebooks as the culprit. I’ll excerpt the main part of his argument:

I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else’s ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.

Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it’s still, to some extent, ghettoised.

Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with “Rule 34”: do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category?

Stross says this problem is unrelated to the issue being discussed by Bear and Sutherland, but it strikes me as quite related indeed – science fiction novelists seems to be chasing after literary validation, in part to escape that genre ghetto and in part to broaden it. Meanwhile, the sub-field of short story sci-fi seems to be weathering the transition to e-formats well – Asimov’s is ridiculously affordable, though there are complaints about formatting. And of course teh aforementioned compilations are great value for cream-of-the-crop – Dozois will release volume 29 this year which is an astounding milestone in and of itself – and the year retrospective he writes about the entire field is worth the price alone. I wonder how many other science fiction authors read it?

free books kindle my interest most

With my new Kindle, I’ve resolved to read a. more science fiction and b. spend as close to zero money on books as as possible (exceptions being books my wife or kids want to read). This does limit the options, of course, but since I have a lot of other things on my plate (including anime, which gets short shrift on this anime blog). In addition to Amazon’s awesome Lending Library program (for which authors are reimbursed), free ebook lending from local libraries (as long as you dont mind a long wait), and Project Gutenberg, I was also pointed to an amazing resource: the Baen Free Library, which offers numerous science fiction classics with no DRM. Of course as far as series are concerned they tend to offer the first few books only, and if you like it then you can and should go out and buy the rest. But it’s a great way to sample a lot of SF with no investment other than time.

And lo and behold, Lois McMaster Bujold is on the list – with the first two books of the Vorkosigan saga. I’ve already torn through Warrior’s Apprentice and will polish off Mountains of Mourning on my elliptical this afternoon. All credit for the tipoff goes to Mark who has been steadily consuming the entire Vor saga. I find the character of Miles to be very evocative of Ender Wiggins in a few ways, and I wonder if Bujold was a direct influence on Card.

It’s worth noting that Baen also sells books, and any ebook you buy from them is DRM-free (unlike Amazon). Tor Books is also following suit. In general, ebooks remain priced too high for casual buying but the trend away from DRM is very encouraging. I personally believe that reading a friend’s copy of a DRM-free ebook is the same as borrowing their physical copy.

If anyone has any other suggestions on worthwhile reading from the Baen list or other free sources, do let me know!

Reaming Reamde

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson

I HATE to be that guy but I just wasn’t expecting Reamde to be so … mass-market. Here’s the review from, which cements the problem I have in general with most reviews of celebrity writers with the very first sentence:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that throwing all expectations overboard whenever Neal Stephenson releases a new novel is a good idea.

Um… no. Expectations are why we have celebrity rock-star writers. Neal and Neil are two of my all-time favorite science fiction writers for a reason, and I read them because I want to read a Neal or a Neil story. I don’t want a Grisham novel or a Steele book. I want more of what I love. In this, Reamde failed spectacularly to deliver, despite starting out with a concept that was almost tailor-made to set alight all my dopamine receptors: gold-farming and MMORPGs. (I don’t intend to rename the blog anytime soon, but it would probably be more apt).

I find reviews of that sort to be empty of any real value. In contrast, Mark writes an honest review in praise of Reamde which makes a far better case for any fan of Neal to pick it up at some point – I don’t have such serious qualms or complaints that I can’t agree with most of Mark’s assessment. But oh my god, Anathem was such a monumental masterpiece! And the Baroque Cycle literally expanded my horizons, historically speaking. (Yes, I’m aware it was fiction. And in an alternate universe, where gold has a stable isotope.)

I guess I expected something similarly mind-blowing with respect to MMORPGs, and i was certainly happy to see what Neal had to teach me about gun lore, liberal biases aside. But (and this is where I nitpick in spoilery fashion) I found the MMORPG part curiously shallow… for example: Continue reading “Reaming Reamde”