Literary Privilege, MFAs, and that Marxist chip on my Shoulder

cartoon-me maxist chip

Writing is less and less a thing that people can do as a job, and the price of admission is getting higher. With their spreading proliferation, MFAs in Creative Writing are becoming the postmodern equivilent of an undergraduate diploma -sure, you can succeed without one, but, seriously, you need to get one. And the idea of spending the amount of time and/or money that an MFA demands with (likely as not) nothing of substance to show for it at the end of the program is an idea that only appeals to:

A) the hopelessly naive and/or optimistic.

B) those who are in position of privilege such that they can freely spend that kind of time and money without regard to the consequences.

The problem here is that good writers and clever people with compelling shit to say don’t always come from the uppermost bracket of society. In fact, that bracket seems to have saturated the literary dialog over the last few hundred years (more ranting on this shit when I get around to writing about “The Beautiful and the Damned”). I want to read more literary fiction written by the grown children of the California migrant workers who came into this country in the 80s, and more short stories by Appalachians who made it out of towns spiraling into oblivion, former Oregon tweakers and our very own transplanted Bakersfield Okies. These are people, generally speaking, with little to no support from home, people who don’t want to take the risk of their lives going nowhere after they’ve worked so fucking hard to get out of a shitty situation. They become doctors or high-tech petroleum engineers and they swell the ranks of upper management. In spite of being just as clever and far more interesting than the cookie-cutter East Coast private school kids that seem to dominate the best MFA programs, they aren’t going to take the risk. I’m so much more interested in reading people who were drug addicts because their parents sold meth than people who were art-school drug addicts to get back at Mom for being too distant.

I’m not trying to romanticize poverty or desperate childhood struggles. Those kinds of experiences are born out of legitimate social ills that we, as a country, need urgently address. With that in mind, these kind of narratives are both incredibly powerful and woefully underrepresented. There is a kind of empathy that grows through the shared experience of narrative, and making that experience widely available through good art seems pretty fucking important. I don’t know what changes have to happen to make that a reality. My cynical prediction is that there is absolutely nothing that can be done, no hard changes that can be made to fix this shit. But it isn’t completely hopeless. There seems to be a strong current of disfavor pushing against privileged narratives, demonstrated in everything from television to Reddit memes mocking “first world problems”. If this tide starts pressing into the literary establishment via widespread and deep-seated impatience for pretentious bullshit stories about white American dudes Thinking About Life whilst drinking some local beverage at a super cool place somewhere in Europe that only the locals know about, we might just be OK.


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